A Prose Fiction: The ‘Coming of Age’ and the Problems of Youth

By Kagusthan Ariaratnam

This article was originally published on “The Modern Diplomacy” on March 3, 2019.

The influence of family, school, church, and peers mold us into who we are for a life time. This essay will discuss the coming of age (problems of youth) as depicted in Willa Cather’s (1905) Paul’s Case and J.K. Rowling’s (1998) Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets. Paul’s and Harry Potter’s transition from childhood into adolescence will be examined. The influence that social forces have on the coming of age, including family, school, church, and peers, will become evident as Paul and Potter transition into very different adolescents.

Set in the early years of the 20th Century in Pittsburgh, Willa Cather portrays Paul as an introvert, homosexual school boy. As such, Cather illustrates the social forces that fail to support and protect Paul’s vulnerability, including his single-parent household, his educational system, his church, and his peers. These pillars of society express no empathy or sympathy for Paul’s unrest. Paul’s loss of his mother, a primary caregiver, leads to his absence of attachment to his motherly figure. Paul’s school teachers and principal refuse to accommodate his differences, and instead, suspend him for his misdemeanors. Paul’s religious institution refuses to accept homosexuals. Paul’s religious institution also fails to approach and support Paul as a vulnerable individual. Paul’s acquaintances, who are narrow minded, cannot accept Paul for who he is and ultimately mistreat him. Because of this unacceptance by society, Paul did not experience a sense of belonging; rather, he felt excluded. Paul is thus confused about his identity which contributes to his eventual suicide.

In contrast, Harry Potter leads a much better and flourishing life. J.K. Rowling draws on the successful story of a wizard as influenced by positive role models, his skills in witchcraft and wizardry from Hogwarts, and his peers. Harry Potter loses both of his parents and spends his childhood in his aunt’s household. Like Paul, Potter went through similar childhood experiences, as he did not have a primary caregiver whom he could attach to. However, Potter had the opportunity to go to Hogwarts wherein he had great role models and peers, including Headmaster Dumbledore, Professor McGonagall and Hagrid. Thus, school was a positive experience for Potter, and it symbolizes hope compared to Paul. Potter was born a gifted wizard and spent his life believing in magic. Unlike Paul, Potter had a sense of belonging within the wizardry world. Potter also had supporting peers whereas Paul did not have peers to look up to. Although Potter did not have a family to care for him, his social forces had a positive influence on his life.

According to psychologist Erik Erikson, a lifespan model of development from infancy to adulthood consists of eight stages. Erikson suggests that the first five stages, between birth and twelve years of age, are critical for a child’s attachment, trust, autonomy, and initiative to properly develop towards his/her caregiver (Erikson, 1986).Erikson puts a great deal of emphasis on the adolescent period, between twelve and eighteen years of age, concluding that it is a crucial stage for developing personality, identity, and role confusion in society (Erikson, 1986). Erikson’s theory applies to Paul’s early childhood since he lost his mother when he was a few months old and thus lost a primary caregiver. Consequently, in not experiencing the love or care from a motherly figure, he becomes detached from the world around him. To make matters worse, Cather portrays an unhealthy relationship between Paul and his father wherein Paul was never close to his father nor showed any respect for him. Due to a lack of communication between the two, Paul’s father had very little understanding of or sympathy for Paul’s anxiety. Cather also implies this lack of understanding as the result of a generational gap between the two. Overall, Paul did not develop a sense of belonging, thus becoming confused of his role in society. He did not develop a positive sense of identity because his school did not support him, his father scolded him, his friends teased him, and the church did not condone his different beliefs.

Potter also grew up without primary caregivers and thus did not have the motherly or fatherly figures necessary for attachment. Potter’s aunt and uncle did not care for him like a son, and so, Potter does not properly develop attachment or trust. That being said, Potter grows into adolescence differently due to his role models and peers. At Hogwarts, Potter meets his life-long mentors including Headmaster Dumbledore, Professor McGonagall and Hagrid whom he looks up to as role models providing him with positive guidance and care. In essence, for Potter, Hogwarts is much more than a school as it symbolizes a sense of belonging in his quest to fit in. Therefore, it is clearly evident how important the school and education system is for Potter’s transition into adolescence.

Paul’s sisters’ dull and boring personalities further alienated him from his immediate family. A family is a social and/or biological system made up of a set of people related by blood or intention (Bloch, 1984). In other words, a family is a whole made up of interacting parts. You cannot add these parts together and get a total system – the system is more than the sum of its parts (Bloch, 1984). Therefore, when one member of a family is missing, as is Paul’s mother, the system becomes dysfunctional. If Paul had caregivers that loved him as a child, he would have become a different person. Potter experiences tragedy with the death of both his parents; therefore, his family system becomes dysfunctional in a similar way that Paul’s had. Potter’s uncle Dursley, who is a father figure, also mistreated him and continuously scolded him. As such, Potter’s childhood home was not characteristic of positive interaction thereby affecting the family system as a whole.

The ancient Roman poet Virgil reminds us, “As the twig is bent the tree inclines” (Evans, 1947, p.321).This quote is about children and how they are raised. The significance of this quote is that if children are raised correctly, they will do well in their society as they grow into adolescence. If they are allowed to misbehave from the beginning, it will become much harder to correct their behavior later in life. Paul’s life fits right into this notion because as a boy Paul internalized his obsessions for Opera music and art, and as a result, Paul longed for a luxurious life. Paul did not have any interest in his school; moreover, the education system failed to accommodate Paul’s artistic and vulnerable personality, responding with punishment. Paul also did not like his middle-class life and went to symphony halls and art galleries on a regular basis to escape the reality of his “mundane” life (Cather, 1905). Paul’s early misbehavior at school leads to a series of misbehavior later in life which could not be corrected. On the other hand, Potter’s opportunity to attend Hogwarts and his innate and masterful wizardry skills nurtured him into a completely different adolescent. He was guided and instructed by his school and mentors, and although he was scolded by his uncle, he was always obedient. Therefore, Potter did not misbehave and grew into a model citizen.

As Cather (1905) portrays, the red carnation that Paul wears is a symbol of homosexuality. The church that Paul attends, however, does not condone homosexuality. Paul is not able to tell his father or friends of his homosexuality, instead he buries it inside. Paul secretly spends his time with Charley Edwards, who is also gay as indicated through his attire and acting career (Cather, 1905).On the other hand, for Potter, Hogwarts replaces and symbolizes the church. Potter cannot live without Hogwarts because that is where he feels a sense of belonging. Although Dobby warns Potter that his life is in danger at Hogwarts, Potter still returns to his place of hope.

Conclusion

Paul took his own life because he did not want to return to his mundane and boring lifestyle. Paul did not want to face his father whom he did not feel attached to. Paul’s inner circle of family, church and school have a discontentment toward his sensitive, artistic, and vulnerable personality, and as such, they would alienate him more if he had returned. Lastly, Paul failed to accomplish the American dream. Alternatively, in defeating the evil at Hogwarts, Potter became a hero. Potter was very brave in this venture, and more importantly, it was his choice to do so. With nurturing role models, Potter had morals and a sense of belonging wherein he internalized these positive influences which ultimately molded him into a successful wizard. Overall, the coming of age is crucial for one’s development into successful adolescence.

References

Bloch, Donald A. “The family as a psychosocial system.” Family Systems Medicine 2.4 (1984): 387-396. Web. 28 Mar. 2016. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0091676

Cather, Willa. “Paul’s Case – A study in Temperament.” Fiction 100- An Anthology of Short Fiction. Ed. James H. Pickering. Boston: Pearson Education Inc, 2012. 195-209. Print.

Erikson, E. H. Identity: Youth and crisis. New York: Norton. (1986). Print.

Evans, William Arthur. Basic principles of child “conditioning”: “as the twig is bent the tree’s inclined”. Dallas, Texas. Institute of Human Technology, Inc. (1947). Print

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. London: Bloomsbury. (1998). Print.

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