Themes in Literature

Literary Themes Coming Of Age

Coming Of Age

Most scholars agree on a standard definition of the coming-of-age narrative: the coming-of-age narrative: Simply put, it follows the development of a child or adolescent into adulthood. The roots of this narrative theme can be traced back to the bildungsroman, or “formation novel.” Late 18th-century German novels, such as Johann Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795), established a narrative pattern that would be followed by several other authors in the forthcoming centuries. This pattern typically features a young protagonist—either male or female—who undergoes a troubled search for an adult identity by process of trials, experiences, and revelations. This theme is prominent in several well-known European and American novels of the 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield (1849–50) and Great Expectations (1860–61); Horatio Alger, Jr.’s Ragged Dick; or, Street Life in New York with the Bootblacks (1868); Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1869); Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884); James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916); and J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). The popularity of this narrative has continued into the late 20th and early 21st centuries, as shown in critically acclaimed books such as Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina (1993) and Jon Krakauer’s 1996 account of the life and death of Chris McCandless in Into the Wild, and through popular culture texts, such as J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

While there is agreement on a standard working definition of a coming-of-age narrative, there is little agreement among scholars on the constituent elements of these narratives. James Hardin, a theorist of genre studies, argues that there can be no agreement about the elements of a coming-ofage narrative because of the various meanings of the word Bildung in German. While most scholars interpret the word’s meaning as “formation,” Hardin contends that this interpretation is unique to a series of 18th- and 19th-century novels, and to use that term and its meaning for an examination of 20thand 21st-century novels is to take it out of its proper context. Other interpretations of the German word Bildung, such as initiation, education, and building, have served to further complicate understanding of the coming-of-age narrative. In addition to a debate over the origin of the term, other scholars argue over the age group of protagonists coming of age in these texts. Most 18th- and 19th-century protagonists featured in these novels came of age in their midto- late teenage years.

Throughout the 20th century, however, the range in years for a coming-of-age narrative widened from this age group to include protagonists in their early to mid-20s. It is for this reason that the genre studies scholar Barbara White limits the definition of a coming-of-age narrative to focus on protagonists between the ages of 12 and 19. Additionally, in the latter part of the 20th century, the works of anthropologists, such as Arnold van Gennup and Margaret Mead, have added to the debate over the elements of a coming-of-age narrative. Through their research in rites of passage and social development and structure, the works of anthropologists such as van Gennup and Mead allow scholars to examine the sociocultural implications of these narratives. It is the sociocultural implications that cause the most debate among scholars. Indeed, since a coming-of-age narrative is dependent on a quest for an adult identity, this narrative is closely linked to other areas of identity development, such as gender, race, social class, and national identity (see nationalism).

As Kenneth Millard argues, a recurring element of the coming-of-age narrative is the way in which a protagonist’s adult identity is framed by historical events and points of origin and conditioned by social obligations and expectations. Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn serves as an example of this theory. In the novel, a young Huck accompanies Jim, a runaway slave, on a trip down the Mississippi River to reach the free North. The novel’s climax occurs when Jim is caught by slave catchers, and Huck must make a decision between informing Miss Watson, Jim’s owner, about Jim’s location or attempting to free Jim from his bondage. In his decision, Huck must balance the social obligation of returning “property” to its rightful owner and his own conscience—during his trip, Huck has come to see Jim not as a piece of property but as a human. Ironically, Huck makes the decision to “go to hell” by following his conscience, attempting to free Jim from his captivity.

Twain’s novel, of course, was published after the institution of slavery was abolished, but it serves as a historical point of reference, as Finn would have grown up in pre-Civil War America. Huck Finn’s adult identity is framed within these racist confines; although African Americans were free, they still were considered as inferior to whites. Thus, the socially acceptable and expected thing for Huck to do would be to turn Jim in to Miss Watson, and it is the deviation from this expectation that Huck believes will condemn his soul. The Huck Finn example also serves as a way to highlight three additional features of the comingof- age narrative. One of these features is the loss of childhood innocence. In Twain’s novel, although Huck naïvely misunderstands the consequences of his decision, his naïveté speaks volumes to readers. The consequence of his decision marks his transition from childhood to adulthood. Prior to the novel’s climax, Huck has been witness to the darker side of the adult world—from his father’s racist diatribe about the voting rights of recently freed slaves to a long and bloody family feud to the con artistry of the Duke and Dauphin. Unbeknownst to Huck—but abundantly clear to the novel’s readers— is the influence that these events have on his decision to attempt to free Jim—the first adult decision of his life. Because of his experiences and this decision, Huck realizes that he may be outcast from his society, as he has deviated from its expected adult norms, and he will no longer be able to go back to live his previous lifestyle of barefooted, pipesmoking truancy.

This deviation from expected norms highlights another feature of the coming-of-age narrative: the realization of social expectations and norms. To once again use the Huck Finn example, Huck fully realizes the implications of his decision: He considers himself damned and acknowledges that he will be unable to fully participate in the adult world because of this violation. As such, he is able to recognize the social, adult world now laid out before him. While this realization further distances Huck from his childhood innocence, it also presents him with a choice: Either accept this adult world and conform to its norms and standards or decide on self-exile. Huckleberry Finn, of course, chooses the latter, as he decides to light out for the territories of the American West rather than conform to the rigid social obligations demanded by pre–Civil War rural Missouri. Huck’s choice to light out for the territories highlights a third feature of the coming-of-age narrative. His decision to leave is rooted in another choice: to accept a socially constructed identity, or to construct a personal sense of identity for oneself. While this idea is one of the oldest and most common themes of literature, when examined through the lens of a coming-of-age narrative, it takes on additional weight. Not all coming-of-age protagonists are as fortunate as Huck Finn, though.

For some, their gender, race, and class serve as impediments to a sense of freedom. As the feminist scholar Rachel Blau DuPlessis observes, most 19th-century female protagonists have two options presented before them when coming of age: marriage, the socially acceptable option for young women; or death, the end result for those young women who deviate from socially expected norms. Indeed, constraining one’s identity to social norms and expectations is the choice for one of 19th-century America’s most wellknown female protagonists, Jo March. In Alcott’s Little Women, the creative and headstrong Jo winds up married by the novel’s end. Race and class also serve as factors in these narratives. The unnamed narrator of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) comes to realize his situation very early on in the novel. After the narrator, a promising young African-American student, agrees to show a white benefactor the poor living conditions of sharecroppers living around the narrator’s college, he is expelled from school and is forced to decide between accepting society’s roles for an African-American man or developing his own identity. Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild features the real-life story of Chris McCandless, a college graduate from a well-to-do East Coast family. When McCandless realizes the limitations of the options set before him—continued graduate studies, a position in a well-paying job in the business world—he renounces his previous materialistic life and sets off on the roads of America in an attempt to discover who he truly is. National character is also an important factor in coming-of-age narratives. Some preeminent American literature scholars, such as Leslie Fiedler, Ihab Hassan, and R. W. B Lewis, have argued that the coming-of-age narrative is one of the most dominant narratives in American literature. For these scholars, a sense of history, or lack thereof, is key to their view of the importance of the coming-of-age narrative in American literature. At the heart of this contention is the argument that the American national identity shares several key characteristics with the coming-of-age narrative. The first of these characteristics is Lewis’s argument that the American national character is primarily based on renewal and innocence. His theory of the American Adam states that American culture is constantly going back to beginnings and new starts, an attempt to revert to a lost childhood or return to a forgotten Eden. This theory, according to Lewis, is at the center of most American literature—a constant return to youth, with an emphasis on the experiences, revelations, and trials inherent in a coming-of-age narrative.

Thus, in a sense, the focus on coming of age in American literature and in the national character can be argued as an unwillingness to acknowledge history: All events are subject to change and to reinterpretation, a kind of automatic “redo” where each generation must begin its task of the coming of age process. Like Lewis, Ihab Hassan sees the idea of innocence as a conscious denial of American history, but he contends that the denial is also firmly rooted in political ideology. The focus on a wide-eyed, naive innocence of each generation defining itself is not just a literary trope for Hassan; rather, it is deeply enmeshed in an ideology that offers no roots, no genealogies, and no sense of a permanent and static identity. For Leslie Fiedler, this focus on coming-ofage narratives underscores the preoccupation with youth found in American culture. Fiedler argues that this desire to return to a childlike, Edenic state is predicated on the idea that the American national character is constantly fluid and dynamic, youthful and energetic. To allow the national character to grow static and permanent would force American culture to grow old, and perhaps grow up. The coming-of-age narrative is quite simple to define; however, the implications of that definition are numerous and wide-ranging. What began as a way to fictionalize how a child became an adult became complicated throughout the centuries by other issues. Race, class, and gender all play a pivotal role in how a youth is expected to grow into an adult in various societies. Furthermore, the acceptance or rejection of social obligations and duties is another factor in how teens grow into adults. All of these factors expand a relatively benign textbook definition into a wide-ranging, thoroughly complex theme.

See also Anaya, Rudolfo: Bless Me, Ultima; Anderson, Sherwood: Winesburg, Ohio; Austen, Jane: Emm a; Chopin, Kate: Awakening, The; Crane, Stephen: Red Badge of Courage, The; Kincaid, Jamaica: Annie John; Knowles, John: Separate Peace, A; Marshall, Paul Brown Girl, Brownstone; McCarthy, Cormac: All the Pretty Horses; McCullers, Carson: Member of the Wedding, The; Shakespeare, William: Henry IV, Part I; Steinbeck, John: Red Pony, The; Stevenson, Robert Louis: Treasure Island; Tolkien, J. R. R.: Hobbit, The; Updike, John: “A & P.”

5 thoughts on “Literary Themes Coming Of Age

  1. This is your brain on Jane Austen. Literary reading provides “a truly valuable exercise of people’s brains.” …

  2. to the author of this article, thank you very much for your insights! I am very appreciative of some of the ides that this piece has enlightened me about, cheers xxx

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