Themes in Young Adult Literature: Friendship

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3196

Titles Discussed

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

Thematic Overview

In the United States, the twentieth century saw the development of unique and thriving youth cultures. This development...

(The entire section contains 3196 words.)

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Titles Discussed

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

Thematic Overview

In the United States, the twentieth century saw the development of unique and thriving youth cultures. This development was credited to a number of different forces, including the popularity of the automobile and the introduction of compulsory schooling, which resulted in students spending a large amount of time in peer groups and away from adults. From the 1950s onward, a large number of adolescents spent most of their education and social time in the company of peers. They began to develop unique subcultures—often overlapping with musical genres, such as goth, hip-hop, and rock and roll—entwining personal and peer identities through fashion, politics, and other cultural markers. Youth cultures did not simply indicate fads; they also indicated the rising importance of friendship and social interactions for young adults.

This movement away from adult oversight and into peer social spaces is a major milestone in the establishment of YA identity. Young adults tend to develop friendships based on similarities, a fact that explains why many friendship circles are fairly homogenous in terms of factors such as race, gender, national origin, and economic class. At the same time, however, adolescents typically attempt to distance themselves from their families. In this way, peer groups may also develop around gay and lesbian identities, particular academic and cultural interests and goals, or similar factors that might distinguish the young adult from the home. As young adults enter into, and at times leave, a variety of peer groups, those friendships can have wide-ranging effects. Studies have shown that anything from grade point average to athletic performance and propensity for alcohol abuse may change when an individual enters a new close friendship. At the same time, factors such as bullying and social stratification place stress on many of these friendships, making them seem fraught and adding stress to teenagers who suddenly find themselves and their identities reliant on their friendships.

The importance of friendships is one of the most ubiquitous qualities across YA literature. As YA novels typically take place in social spheres outside the family, such as school or extracurricular activities, friendships and peer groups become the defining context of most interactions. In many classic YA novels, including S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders (1967) and John Knowles's A Separate Peace (1959), almost no action takes place outside the context of close friendships and peer groups, with the home life appearing more as an intruding factor than a defining setting. Even in novels where friendship and peer interactions are not a dominant theme, there is, almost without exception, at least one friend as a major or secondary character, vital to both the plot and the development of the protagonist. As youth culture continues to be a major force both in the lives of young adults and in popular culture as a whole, many of the most widely read YA novels of the early twenty-first century focus on the opportunities and challenges of close friendships and peer groups. Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999) features a young protagonist learning to emerge from his self-protective social withdrawal and enter a dynamic and challenging group of outsider peers, while Ann Brashares's The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2001) follows four longtime friends who maintain their important bond with one another while navigating their independence away from the protection of the peer group. In John Green and David Levithan's collaborative novel Will Grayson, Will Grayson (2010), complicated and sometimes vexed friendships serve as one important mode among many in the personal development of the two title characters.

Works

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky, is told from the point of view of Charlie, a freshman in high school who feels deeply alone after the suicide of his best friend the previous year. Charlie is notably shy and hesitant to participate in any social activities, but he is pulled out of his self-protective shell when he begins to interact with Patrick and his stepsister Sam, two senior students and social outsiders who use drugs and alcohol and love independent music and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). Charlie also makes a connection with his English teacher, who provides Charlie with additional novels and nurtures his writing talent.

While Charlie becomes more deeply engaged in Patrick's and Sam's peer groups, he struggles with his home life, where he sees his sister being physically abused by her boyfriend, and begins to experience flashbacks of his Aunt Helen, who died in a car accident. Charlie revels in his new friendships, supporting Patrick when Patrick's closeted boyfriend, Brad, breaks up with him and nurturing a crush on Sam even as he dates an older girl named Mary Elizabeth. Eventually, despite some tumultuous arguments during which Charlie finds himself again alone and cut off from his peers, the year ends with renewed connections to his older friends. With the support of his friends, Charlie realizes that his Aunt Helen sexually abused him when he was young. As Charlie's friends graduate high school and move on to new lives, Charlie is sad to lose them, yet resolved to build new connections and stay socially engaged.

While Charlie's narrative takes him through a number of issues that are important in YA literature—suicide, drug use, alienation, physical abuse, sexuality—every aspect of his experience is deeply influenced by his burgeoning friendships. As the novel is epistolary, with Charlie writing anonymously to an unnamed person whom he addresses only as “friend”—somebody he has heard “listens and understands and doesn't try to sleep with people even if they could have”—readers experience the influence of these friendships through Charlie's unreliable narration. In large part because of the trauma Charlie endured after his friend's suicide and the sexual abuse he experienced as a child, he actively detaches himself from human connection, often describing events as seeming unreal or dreamlike. This occurs both in joyous moments, such as when he first socializes with Patrick and Sam and they drive through a tunnel while listening to their favorite songs, and in moments of particular stress, such as when he witnesses Patrick getting in a fight with Brad and his friends and jumps in to defend Patrick. In the latter case, Charlie ends the fight with surprising brutality, though he glosses over the specifics, saying only: I don't really want to go into detail except to say that by the end of it, Brad and two of his buddies stopped fighting and just stared at me. His other two friends were lying on the ground. One was clutching the knee I bashed in with one of those metal cafeteria chairs. The other one was holding his face. I kind of swiped at his eyes, but not too bad. I didn't want to be too bad. (151)

Charlie does not fully understand himself in these moments, and readers are likewise given the task of moving forward with a narrator whose engagement with the outside world only gradually provides him with insight into himself. This is a multivalent process: the more time Charlie spends with friends who aid him in his path of self-discovery and reveal new aspects of the world to him (particularly their countercultural obsessions), the more the world is made real and the process of disassociation dissolved, which in turn reveals new challenges for Charlie and new opportunities to complicate and sometimes damage those friendships. This process reaches its apex when Charlie and Sam begin to engage in sexual activity, only for Charlie to experience a psychotic break and become catatonic, finally remembering his childhood molestation. Despite these challenges, the book's closing affirms Charlie's choice to pursue and develop friendships. As Sam and Patrick visit him and offer renewed support, he realizes that engagement with the world and with others is the best way for him to become the person he truly wants to be.

While Charlie must develop new friendships in order to assume his YA identity, the characters of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, by Ann Brashares, instead must rely on an established peer group while they explore their individuality. The novel tells the story of Carmen, Lena, Tibby, and Bridget, who date their friendship to before they were born, their mothers having met in an aerobics class while pregnant. The girls rely on one another for everything and have learned over time to view themselves in the context of this close peer group. The summer after their sophomore year of high school, however, the girls are apart from one another for the first time; while Tibby stays in their hometown, Carmen visits her father in South Carolina, Bridget goes to soccer camp in Mexico, and Lena goes to visit her grandparents in Greece. Strengthening their bond, the girls agree to send each other a pair of magical pants that fit all four of them perfectly despite their different body sizes. Each girl experiences life-altering changes over the summer: Bridget has sex with her soccer coach; Tibby forms a friendship with a younger girl who dies; Lena falls in love; and Carmen's relationship with her father and his fiancé turns so tumultuous that she runs away from their home. Throughout these events, the girls maintain contact through letters and through the pants, which affirm their connection to one another. When Lena prepares to leave Greece, for instance, it is the arrival of the pants that gives her the courage to confess her love to a boy, while also motivating her to fly to Mexico and support Bridget, who is emotionally damaged after her sexual encounter. Home together at the end of the novel, they share their stories and write them on the pants.

While all of the girls understand the value of their friendships from the start of the novel, their independence over the summer allows them to both deepen their appreciation of those friendships and experiment further with their individuality apart from the group. The narrative emphasizes this by including the letters they write to one another; while chapters typically tell the story of one girl at a time, the letters are featured throughout, acknowledging the importance of those friendships while revealing the distance between them. Carmen, for instance, finds herself without her trusted outlets to express her emotions, which leads to escalating frustration with her father, ultimately resulting in her smashing his front window and running away from home. The extreme nature of this action makes her appreciate the fact that she can share and process her emotions with her friends, causing her to reach out to her father and promise to be more honest with him in the future—in essence, extending that sense of trust to someone outside of the core group of girls. Bridget, in contrast, finds a new freedom in her unfamiliar social setting, as none of her acquaintances know about the trauma of her mother's death. While this at first causes her to assume a new personality as an optimistic and fun-obsessed teenager, it also causes her to engage in actions she regrets and subsequently sink into a deep depression, and she realizes the importance of having people in her life who understand her troubled past. The letters emphasize the importance of the peer group as well as each girl's independence; for example, Bridget, after sleeping with her coach, writes to Carmen but does not reveal what actually happened, instead just stating that she feels confused. When they return home at the novel's end, all of the girls are finally able to share their stories and to understand what happened with the support of well-known friends. They also all find themselves changed by their independence, their sense of self-identity evolved. As in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the concluding message of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is not simply that friendships are important but that friendships and individuality must grow alongside one another. Even as the girls meet to tell their summer stories, they are already planning the next summer of independence, trusting that they will be able to share the pants then just as they do now.

The protagonists of Will Grayson, Will Grayson, by John Green and David Levithan, likewise find themselves influenced and affected by friendships while they assume their adult identities; unlike in the other novels, however, these friendships are fraught and often unreliable. Will Grayson, Will Grayson tells the story of two protagonists with the same name, with chapters alternating between their perspectives. The first Will Grayson is a straight teenage boy with only one close friend, a remarkably large football player named Tiny, who is also the flamboyantly gay, student director of the school musical. While Will prefers to avoid talking or interacting whenever possible, the outgoing Tiny pushes him into dating a girl named Jane. The other “will grayson,” who never capitalizes his name, is a gay teenager at a nearby school who deeply hates everyone, including his few friends and a girl named Maura who has a crush on him. Maura invents a fake Internet profile for a boy named Isaac and, through that persona, begins online dating will grayson, eventually convincing him to meet for a date. With no Isaac to show, will grayson meets Will Grayson by coincidence, and through him begins to date Tiny. As Will Grayson suddenly feels alienated by his only friend, who is now obsessed with will grayson; will grayson finds his misanthropic worldview being shaken. When both Will Graysons manage to hurt Tiny, they conspire to show him an act of love at his musical opening. While the novel leaves the future romantic relationship between Tiny and will grayson, as well as that between Will Grayson and Jane, uncertain, all the characters are prepared to move forward with the risks and possible reward of friendship.

Neither of the title characters of Will Grayson, Will Grayson enter the novel with particularly good experiences of friendship to guide them, and as a result their journey is less about developing idealized friendships than about learning to navigate and nourish friendships despite significant interpersonal challenges. The first Will Grayson opens the novel by stating, “You cannot possibly pick your friends, or else I never would have ended up with Tiny Cooper.” While Tiny has deep respect and love for Will, the major differences in their personalities, such as Tiny sharing his emotions and reaching out to others while Will follows his core rules of “Don't care too much” and “Shut up” at every moment, cause constant rifts between them. The second will grayson, likewise, has only Maura as a consistent friend in his life, yet describes their relationship early on by stating, “it's like those people who become friends in prison even thought they would never really talk to each other if they weren't in prison” (24). Neither character particularly desires friends, largely because being alone prevents them from being hurt, and will grayson's own struggles with mental illness make him distrustful of his ability to care for others. Yet as readers alternate between chapters and experience this distrust articulated again and again, both Will Graysons also stumble into genuine connections with the gregarious, if self-obsessed, Tiny. In the malaise of teenage moodiness and the poor decisions made in early romance, these friendships never become perfect. At the same time, however, both boys find themselves in a social space, connecting with others and surrounded by burgeoning friendships, newly aware that the imperfections of individuals make friendship necessary, not impossible.

Conclusions

In the twenty-first century, social media and digital communication have radically altered the possibilities of friendship for young adults. While novels in the 1970s and 1980s featured teenagers engaging in social activity through spaces such as school, the mall, or parks, the prevalence of digital communication technologies in the twenty-first century means that many teenagers are able to be in contact with their friends at every moment of the day. As these technologies offer one-to-one communication, such as texting and video chats, as well as more public forums, including social media applications, many twenty-first-century teenagers are able to conceive of their sociality and the availability of peer groups in a radically new way, with previous boundaries disintegrating. Even the home, which might in the past have been construed as a location away from peers and friends, is now a place from which teenagers can communicate and develop relationships.For YA novels, friendship remains one of the most recurrent and significant themes, regardless of subgenre or target audience. Instead of portraying digital communication as posing entirely new or unprecedented challenges to the friendships of twenty-first-century young adults, the best novels instead understand how familiar themes from the past—the dependence on close friends to develop an individual identity, the challenges of exclusion from peer groups, the evolving nature of friendship over time—present themselves in these new contexts. Particularly as some teenagers develop close friendships with strangers through their online personas, as is seen in the case of will grayson, the specifics of how friendships form have shifted. What has not shifted, however, is the importance of peer groups during these years. The oddly transitory space in which teenagers find themselves—living at home while developing independence at school and navigating new challenges with the support of established allies such as family members—means that friendship, or its lack, will remain a vital part of any YA experience, thus providing a perennially important theme for YA novels of all types.

Further Reading

  • Ojanen, Tiina, Jelle J. Sijtsema, and Ashwin J. Rambaran. “Social Goals and Adolescent Friendships: Social Selection, Deselection, and Influence.” Journal of Research on Adolescence 23.3 (2013): 550–62. Academic Search Premier. Web. 8 June 2015. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=89768895&site=ehost-live>.
  • Shuman, R. Baird. “Stephen Chbosky.” Guide to Literary Masters and Their Works. Pasadena: Salem, 2007. Literary Reference Center. Web. 8 June 2015. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=103331LM90129790309103&site=ehost-live>.

Bibliography

  • Chbosky, Stephen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. New York: MTV, 1999. Print.
  • Green, John, and David Levithan. Will Grayson, Will Grayson. New York: Dutton, 2010. Print.
  • Madden, Mary, et al. Teens, Social Media, and Privacy. Washington: Pew Research Center, 2013. Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Technology. Web. 22 June 2015. <http://www.pewinternet.org/2013/05/21/teens-social-media-and-privacy/>.
  • McInally, Kate. “Who Wears the Pants? The (Multi)Cultural Politics of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.” Children's Literature in Education 39.3 (2008): 187–200. Literary Reference Center. Web. 8 June 2015. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=32679773&site=ehost-live>.
  • Rubin, Kenneth, Bridget Fredstrom, and Julie Bowker. “Future Directions in … Friendship in Childhood and Early Adolescence.” Social Development 17.4 (2008): 1085–96. Academic Search Premier. Web. 8 June 2015. <<http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=34728293&site=ehost-live>.
  • Way, Niobe. “Boys' Friendships during Adolescence: Intimacy, Desire, and Loss.” Journal of Research on Adolescence 23.2 (2013): 201–13. Academic Search Premier. Web. 8 June 2015. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=87622526&site=ehost-live>.
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