Coming-of-Age Books Destined to Seem Irrelevant

In the movie The Polar Express—in which Tom Hanks lends his voice to every major role—a group of children become friends while touring the North Pole on Christmas Eve while all the other kids sleep restlessly in their beds and dream of sugar-plum fairies. They discover that Santa does exist and even get to meet him. By the end of the night, Santa gives the kids sleigh bells which ring only for his true believers—a private league from which grownups are excluded. As the children age into dull adults, and the memory of that long-ago Christmas inevitably fades, and seasoned logic trumps child-like fancy, the jingle of the bells falls forever silent.

Of course, the kids’ loss of faith is not altogether shocking. It is, in fact, expected. As our minds expand and our bodies grow, our perspective trails along with them. It is often said that adolescents operate in a universe that is entirely foreign from the ignorant innocence of childhood or the refined equilibrium of adulthood. It is an awkward stage of trial-and-error (mostly error), and self-discovery. There are certain things we must all do as teenagers which we know might seem completely absurd as adults. Sitting in one’s room all day while listening to Metallica and smoking pot may seem completely necessary as a teenager, but is passé and, quite honestly, rather pathetic as a thirty-something.

There is a certain biological alarm clock which is supposed to kick in around thirty and wake us all up from the fog of young-adulthood. Are those particular films, songs, poems, and works of literature which now seem so painful and genuine in their honesty bound to feel trite in the next fifteen years?

In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield is self-indulgent, irreverent and rebellious without reasonable cause. He shows little regard for authority and is unperturbed by the idea of dropping out of school to bar-hop around New York City at night to order scotch and soda underage and scout out phonies. For generations, Caulfield has served as literature’s answer to the privileged but troubled teenager, and his apparent sense of alienation has resonated with many of his readers, especially for those still in high school.

For Christopher Szabo, junior, The Catcher in the Rye is an essential read. “[Caulfield] is an archetypal representation of any teen,” said Szabo. “His trials and errors are relatable.”

Monica Axelrod, junior, thinks Caulfield’s indifference is inspiring. “He doesn’t try to fit in with society. He wants to be free and independent, which is all I’ve ever wanted for myself,” said Axelrod. “I like that he rejects convention.”

However important Caulfield may seem now, it’s quite plausible that the indifference he offers up as salvation is only temporary. It seems as though only readers of a certain age can relate to him. Is The Catcher in the Rye like the bells from The Polar Express? Does its magic fade as the years wear on? Is Holden Caulfield literature’s own Sid Vicious rather than its John Lennon?

In the beginning of The Bell Jar—the manically depressed poet Sylvia Plath’s only novel—the character Esther Greenwood finds herself alone in New York City, full of self-contempt, and in the throes of dismay for no legitimate reason.

Although Greenwood’s chilly, collected emptiness differs from Caulfield’s biting sarcasm, her world-weariness is just as apparent. Since The Bell Jar’s publication in the United States in 1971, no work of fiction has assumed its literary role as the definitive narrative of an adolescent girl’s progression from girlishness to womanhood, as well as an account of one’s descent into involuntary madness.

“The reason I hadn’t washed my clothes or my hair was because it seemed so silly…It seemed silly to wash one day when I would only have to wash again the next,” Plath writes in The Bell Jar. Greenwood is a victim of wanting too much in a pre-feminist America that prohibits women from wanting anything at all; her refusal to lie down as another female casualty of male supremacy is palpable.

“It’s like with active listening, where you restate what someone tells you to make it seem like you relate to them—The Bell Jar did that,” said Linda Cui, senior. “I could relate to her metaphors and general feelings of anomie and ennui.”

While many novels detail the plight of disillusioned youth, what separates The Bell Jar and The Catcher in the Rye from the whole adolescent, acne-prone angst canon is that both their protagonists are entirely unapologetic. The novels do not attempt to employ any kind of moral message or redemption conversion. Neither Caulfield nor Greenwood is the victim of some crazy childhood trauma, but both seem to wear their discontent with a sense of entitlement. To call them self-indulgent is to grasp the point entirely. Caulfield and Greenwood are too caught up in their own troubles to give much consideration for the outside world—after all, the malaise of adolescence, both mental and physical, is engrossing enough for anyone who is trudging through it.

It is not doubtful that Caulfield and Greenwood provide some solace for the young and going-nowhere-fast, but it seems as though the characters are reserved for a select stage in everyone’s life—that awkward in-between stage in which one is old enough to understand the difficulty of being a teenager but still too young to fathom the complexity of adulthood.

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