Janice Clark's The Rathbones puts family secrets against the backdrop of the 19th-century New England whaling industry, but at its center is the coming-of-age of fifteen-year-old Mercy Rathbone. Clark discusses the lasting appeal of the coming-of-age story, and also picks a few of her favorites.
Why can’t we get enough of the coming-of-age story?
Why do we willingly, eagerly choose to relive those hideous years in protracted narratives of pain and embarassment? I’m sure there are a handful of blessed individuals out there who weathered their teen years gracefully, just no one I know. We all carry excruciating memories of the leap or stumble or lurch into adulthood: the unsavory coupling seen through the crack in the door; the beloved teacher groping your knee in the car; the unfortunate incident in gym class, right around the time garter belts and nylons were retired in favor of pantyhose but not before your garter belt, worn against instructions and without regard for the laws of motion under your gym uniform, slipped off and down your leg during a vigorous dosey-do while square-dancing with that creep Russell, who picked it up and swung it around his head...anyway, substitute your own story, of pantsing or painful romantic longing or inner turmoil, of coming face to face with the assorted horrors of adult life that childhood hopefully shielded you from.
The Bildungsroman has evolved from 18th century innocent-abroad narratives like Voltaire’s Candide and Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, to dystopian fantasies that add threat to life to the already painful gauntlet of adolescence. The perennial appeal of the form could be the horror-movie relief of catharsis without consequence: we can observe a character confronting the challenging realities of adult life—war, violence, death, racism—or navigating the extremes of emotion that characterize the teen years, remember how awful it used to be, then turn off the light and drift into sleep, grateful for the smoother waters of adulthood, if regretful about the highs never again to be reached.
A more generous perspective would hold that, once past the turbulence of adolescence, we are always coming of age in some way, that personal growth and betterment are lifelong pursuits, that there is always hope of positive transformation in private and pubic spheres, and we enjoy seeing that optimistic spirit embodied in what we read and watch.
But I think the continued appeal of the coming-of-age story is this: No thoroughly iTuned American really wants to grow up, and why should he, if he can enjoy instead a perpetual coming of age; a not coming of age? My father’s depression-era generation scoffed at the idea of finding yourself. “Find yourself? Find a job.” Men longed to grow up quickly to earn the privileges of adulthood—a serious hat, a hot car—that were unavailable to the young until they took on the accompanying burdens of wage-earning and family-supporting, which most did in their early twenties. There was no time for self-discovery. Today’s everything-available-at-all-times culture encourages putting off adulthood and commitment as long as possible—not to allow time to develop mature judgment and self-knowledge, but to keep it light, to jitter from smartphone to tablet and back again, quickly bounce away from any unpleasant experience and cultivate distraction at any cost. We can maintain, if we choose, a safe distance between ourselves and the world, a glowing screen our shield, avoiding ever knowing ourselves or each other.
Here are a few of my favorite coming-of-age novels:
1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte - In the time-honored throwdown of Wuthering Heights vs. Jane Eyre, I bet on Jane every time. Cathy, incomplete and suffering without her Heathcliff (or with him), can’t hope to hold up against fierce Jane, who struggles through a painful, loveless childhood and past a foiled marriage—a madwoman in the attic having long since beat her to the altar—to preserve her independent spirit, only returning to Rochester when she can feel herself an equal partner to him.
2. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens - Pip’s journey from blacksmith’s boy to gentleman comes full circle when he learns to value not the trappings of wealth and class but the quiet strength of Joe at the forge and the nobility of the convict Magwitch, truer than that of any of the ruling class in Dickens’ novel. Pip learns to trust his own conscience and reverts to the kind nature of his boyhood, before Miss Havisham lured him into her spidery realm.
3. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee - Scout’s transition from childhood innocence to a more adult sense of the uneasy coexistence of good and evil in people shows in her changing attitude toward Boo Radley, who evolves in her eyes from shadowy monster to human being.
4. The Secret History by Donna Tartt - When Richard Papen, ashamed of his blue-color origins in a dreary California town, enrolls at an exclusive Vermont college and reinvents himself as a glamorous child of Hollywood, he fails to devise the strong moral core that might have prevented his involvement in the gruesome murder at the story’s center, or that might have steeled him, at least, to deal with the consequences.
5. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - Calliope Stephanides sidesteps coming of age as a girl in 1970s suburban Detroit to emerge instead as an adolescent boy when a rare gene blossoms in her/his body and sets the 14-year-old on the already difficult path to adulthood, with the added confusion of navigating between male and female.
6. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro - Horror mounts as Ishiguro slowly, masterfully reveals that the privileged 1970s East Sussex boarding school in which Kathy and her friends grow up is not a serene retreat but an organ farm populated by clones. Kathy’s struggle to become fully human in a hothouse world with a prescribed and dismal future is deeply moving.
7. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins - Poor Katniss Everdeen. Not only does she pass through the usual physical and emotional trials of adolescence, but she volunteers to take her younger sister’s place in a battle to the death in the Hunger Games, the annual event televised for the amusement of the citizens of the Capital, rulers of the post-apocalyptic world of Panem. The new breed of dystopian hero takes top honors in the coming-of-age suffering stakes.