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Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature

Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature

by Roberta S. Trites

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 The Young Adult novel is ordinarily characterized as a coming-of-age story, in which the narrative revolves around the individual growth and maturation of a character, but Roberta Trites expands this notion by chronicling the dynamics of power and repression that weave their way through YA books. Characters in these novels must learn to negotiate the levels


 The Young Adult novel is ordinarily characterized as a coming-of-age story, in which the narrative revolves around the individual growth and maturation of a character, but Roberta Trites expands this notion by chronicling the dynamics of power and repression that weave their way through YA books. Characters in these novels must learn to negotiate the levels of power that exist in the myriad social institutions within which they function, including family, church, government, and school.

Trites argues that the development of the genre over the past thirty years is an outgrowth of postmodernism, since YA novels are, by definition, texts that interrogate the social construction of individuals. Drawing on such nineteenth-century precursors as Little Women and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Disturbing the Universe demonstrates how important it is to employ poststructuralist methodologies in analyzing adolescent literature, both in critical studies and in the classroom. Among the twentieth-century authors discussed are Blume, Hamilton, Hinton, Le Guin, L'Engle, and Zindel.

Trites' work has applications for a broad range of readers, including scholars of children's literature and theorists of post-modernity as well as librarians and secondary-school teachers.

Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature by Roberta Seelinger Trites is the winner of the 2002 Children's Literature Association's Book Award. The award is given annually in order to promote and recognize outstanding contributions to children's literature, history, scholarship, and criticisim; it is one of the highest academic honors that can accrue to an author of children's literary criticism.


Editorial Reviews

Adolescent literature is a relatively recent phenomenon in the literary world. Trites's scholarly monograph demonstrates that this genre, sometimes considered unworthy of serious academic attention, deserves innovative critical examination. Drawing heavily on the theories of poststructuralists Jacque Lacan and Michel Foucault, she uses a wide selection of well-known young adult novels to demonstrate that this genre is an outgrowth of postmodernism. In this author's view, young adult literature is about power. Younger children read books such as Charlotte's Web or Where the Wild Things Are, stories in which characters learn, however painfully, to feel secure within the confines of their environment or social structure, usually home and family. Adolescents, on the other hand, have novels in which characters "learn to negotiate the levels of power that exist in the myriad social institutions within which they must function." Using mainstream writers for young adults, such as Francesca Lia Block, Robert Cormier, M. E. Kerr, Virginia Hamilton, and Judy Blume, Trites makes a useful case for the need to look at YA literature in new ways. Occasionally pretentious and overly Freudian in interpretation, this work will be more useful and thought-provoking for scholars of children's literature. Although the author clearly demonstrates that YA literature offers as much depth and significance as so-called adult literature, it would be of little use to classroom teachers pressing for more use of YA literature along with the classics. Dense and full of jargon, the books requires a specialized understanding of postmodernism and poststructuralism, making it inaccessible to most administrators or teachersin curriculum development. Index. Biblio. Source Notes. 2000, University of Iowa Press, 189p, . Ages Adult. Reviewer: Jamie S. Hansen SOURCE: VOYA, April 2001 (Vol. 24, No.1)
School Library Journal
The author deconstructs a number of YA novels by writers such as Francesca Lia Block, Chris Crutcher, Virginia Hamilton, S. E. Hinton, Madeleine L'Engle, and Paul Zindel, analyzing how adolescents negotiate their place in the power structures in their lives (school, family, religion, identity, government). The author also discusses how sex, death, and money both empower and repress teen protagonists. She believes that adolescent characters understand their own power (or lack thereof) by struggling with these institutions. A plethora of philosophies and theories (Freud, Foucault, Lacan, etc.) is cited as Trites looks intently at elements of narrative structure, metaphorical constructs, ideologies, and more. This is a complicated, detailed, and intellectual analysis, not for the faint of brain or casual aficionado; however, it is an interesting treatise about an important body of literature.-Bette Ammon, Missoula Public Library, MT Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

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By Roberta Seelinger Trites
UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS Copyright © 2000 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87745-857-9

Chapter One "Do I dare disturb the universe?"


And indeed there will be time To wonder, "Do I dare?" and, "Do I dare?" Time to turn back and descend the stair, With a bald spot in the middle of my hair- (They will say: "How his hair is growing thin!") My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin, My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin- (They will say: "But how his arms and legs are thin!") Do I dare Disturb the universe? (excerpt from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," by T. S. Eliot)

T. S. Eliot was in his early twenties and undoubtedly still feeling the diverse effects of adolescence when he published "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," his poem about a Hamlet-like middle-aged man who is immobilized by indecision. At its core, the poem asks a question as germane to adolescents as it is to the middle-aged: "Do I dare disturb the universe?" Given that many teenagers wonder if they should or even can affect the world in which they live, Eliot has captured the essence of adolescence when he has his narrator pose the question. In the context of adolescence, Prufrock's question reflects the desire that many teenagers have to test the degree of power they hold. Because at its heart this question "Do I dare disturb the universe?" is about power, it serves as an apt metaphor for what adolescents often seek to know about themselves.

Jerry Renault takes up this question in Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War (1974). Jerry hangs in his school locker a poster of a man walking alone on a beach that bears the caption "Do I dare disturb the universe?": "Jerry wasn't sure of the poster's meaning. But it had moved him mysteriously" (97). The Chocolate War explores the question of whether Jerry can disturb the universe -of what will happen to him if he dares to assert his personal power. Jerry is a student at Trinity High School, a Catholic boys' school that is involved in a fund-raising candy sale. The acting principal, Brother Leon, invites the school's unrecognized but powerful vigilante fraternity, The Vigils, to participate in the sale, which they agree to do in an effort to increase their power over other students. The Vigils have a tradition of meting out "assignments" to haze students: Jerry Renault's first assignment is to resist Brother Leon's efforts to make him sell the chocolates for ten days. Jerry accepts the assignment but then disturbs the universe of Trinity High School when he continues refusing to sell the chocolates past the ten days of his assignment, even after The Vigils have ordered him to begin selling the candies again. He is the first student ever to resist The Vigils. In a final showdown, Archie, the leader of The Vigils, and his sidekick Obie manipulate a boxing match in which Jerry is ritualistically slaughtered.

Jerry's final words in the novel echo the novel's opening statement, "They murdered him." His final lines are unspoken thoughts that he directs to his friend Goober: "Do whatever they wanted you to do.... They tell you to do your own thing but they don't mean it. They don't want you to do your thing, not unless it happens to be their thing, too.... Don't disturb the universe, Goober, no matter what the posters say.... Otherwise, they murder you" (187). Although Jerry appears defeated and is even possibly dead by novel's end, the book still answers the question affirmatively: yes, he can disturb the universe. In fact, he should disturb the universe. Doing so may be painful, but Jerry has affected other people with the choices he has made.

This intertextual question that lies at the heart of The Chocolate War-"Do I dare disturb the universe?"-is representative of an ethos that informs many adolescent novels. The chief characteristic that distinguishes adolescent literature from children's literature is the issue of how social power is deployed during the course of the narrative. In books that younger children read, such as Peter Rabbit, Where the Wild Things Are, Alice in Wonderland, Winnie-the-Pooh, Charlotte's Web, Zeely, or Sarah, Plain and Tall, much of the action focuses on one child who learns to feel more secure in the confines of her or his immediate environment, usually represented by family and home. Children's literature often affirms the child's sense of Self and her or his personal power.

But in the adolescent novel, protagonists must learn about the social forces that have made them what they are. They learn to negotiate the levels of power that exist in the myriad social institutions within which they must function, including family; school; the church; government; social constructions of sexuality, gender, race, class; and cultural mores surrounding death. One critic of adolescent literature, Perry Nodelman, dismissively describes characters in adolescent fiction as people who "live ordinary lives, but see them in terms of melodrama" ("Robert Cormier" 102). Nodelman is undoubtedly reacting to the profound seriousness that many of these characters express in their first confusion about social institutions. In The Chocolate War, for example, Jerry Renault must negotiate his place within a family, in terms of a religion, and in his school. Jerry's epiphany is a recognition that social institutions are bigger and more powerful than individuals. The lesson he learns is a primary one in Young Adult literature.

Young Adult novels are about power. But they have not developed this tendency from within a vacuum. Thus, in this chapter I will explore four topics: power as it is defined in ways germane to adolescence; definitions of adolescent literature and the YA novel in the context of their historical evolutions; an investigation into the genres that have influenced the development of the YA novel, notably the novel of development and the coming-of-age novel; and the influence of such literary movements as romanticism and postmodernism on the depiction of adolescence in Young Adult novels. It is my contention that we can better understand the dynamic relationship in literature between characters and the institutions that define them if we also understand the history of ideas that affected the unique development of the Young Adult novel.


Before I go any further, I want to explore the concept of "power," both as I am using it and as others have used it, in ways that are pertinent to the study of adolescent literature. Max Weber defines power as "the possibility of imposing one's will upon the behavior of other persons [which] can emerge in the most diverse forms" (323). Weber focuses on economic power as the institutional power that dominates most people (323-324). Althusser broadens the definition of economic power, demonstrating how as Ideological State Apparatuses, institutions have a self-perpetuating interest in instilling their ideologies into the masses in order to retain their hegemony (155-157). Michel Foucault defines power as "that which represses" (Power 90), and he identifies power as ubiquitous: "Power is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere" (History 93). Foucault contrasts two political definitions of institutional power. One he calls the "contract-oppression schema" (Power 92). It is based on the belief that all individuals hold a certain amount of power that they voluntarily relinquish to exist under the rule of a governing body (88). The other he calls the "domination-repression" model, in which the individual exists in "a perpetual relationship of force" (92). The latter of these views, and the one Foucault considers a more plausible explanation of social dynamics, defines power as a political force that is a function of the economy - of the forces of production - and so is in perpetual motion. Individuals do not possess power so much as they apply it in the process of trading market goods (98), so power "only exists in action" (89). Power is more a process than a commodity, according to him. As a result, market forces repress the individual's power rather than individuals' power being oppressed by a sovereign.

If we believed the contract-oppression definition of power that Foucault rejects, we might say that in The Chocolate War Jerry Renault has power in agreeing to exist in harmony with the forces of oppression at Trinity High School, The Vigils and the teachers. He is defeated by novel's end because he has chosen to break the contract and so must be oppressed by the power structure. Foucault would say instead that rather than possessing a certain amount of power to begin with, Jerry actually exists in a chain of power, a chain that involves the selling of education as a commodity and that results in the commodification of the chocolates. Their sale is a means of production for the students. Jerry's power in the situation is fluid: he both has and does not have power, depending on his relationship to the market forces at specific points in the novel's time. When he overwhelms the market by providing a model for the other boys' nonparticipation in the means of production, the market retaliates by attempting to obliterate him in a "war." Foucault even supplies the term "war-repression schema" as a synonym for the "domination-repression" model of power; he makes much of the notion that "power is war, a war continued by other means" (Power 90). I think Foucault would enjoy Cormier's bellicose choice for a title, The Chocolate War.

Problems exist, however, with both Foucault's model of power and the one he rejects, in that neither allows for the individual's potentially positive power. Whether we think of people as oppressed by the state or by dynamic economic forces, we are focusing on power as something that conspires against them. An alternate way of thinking of power is in terms of subjectivity, in terms of the individual's occupation of the linguistic subject position. In The Psychic Life of Power Judith Butler promulgates such a definition of power in acknowledging that the individual "is at once formed and subordinated" (6) by power because "power not only acts on a subject but, in a transitive sense, enacts the subject into being" (13). As such, power is the force that allows for subjectivity and consequently, agency. Moreover, power exists both externally and as the very source that constitutes the subject (15). Butler thus concurs with Foucault's analysis that power is a process, but her definition allows for an internally motivated subject who can act proactively rather than solely in terms of taking action to prevent oppression or repression. Butler might focus on the decision Jerry Renault makes when he utters the word "no," refusing to sell the chocolates (Cormier, Chocolate War 89). His action is a linguistic utterance and a conscious choice, and the textual commentary on his action is telling: "Cities fell. Earth opened. Planets tilted. Stars plummeted. And the awful silence" (89). Language here is a marker of power, especially because Jerry's loss of language represents a dramatic shift in the power structure at his school.

Lacan supplies another pertinent definition of power. Focusing like Butler on the interior formation of the subject and like Foucault on the exterior forces that repress the subject, Lacan describes individual power in terms of assomption: the individual's active assumption of responsibility for the role into which society casts her or him (Fink 46-48). As Lacan puts it, "one is always responsible for one's position as subject" ("Science and Truth" 7; quoted in Fink 47). Such a definition of power acknowledges both the external and internal forces that compete to empower and repress individual power, but it also allows for the individual's acknowledgment of one's power as a necessary function of subjectivity. When adolescents grapple with such questions as, "Do I dare disturb the universe?" they must reckon with both their sense of individual power and their recognition of the social forces that require them to modify their behaviors.

Lacan's thinking about power influences Karen Coats when she interprets The Chocolate War. She does so in terms of assomption, pointing out that Jerry Renault is an example of a person who assumes the position of Other into which he has been forced. He starts out forced into a position that is painful, but then finds the pleasure in the situation by willfully accepting the enforced position. He has taken responsibility for the pain but also for the pleasure that he gets from the pain in being subjugated. Even as he is being annihilated by those who oppose him, he is victorious because he has done what he set out to do. He has assumed responsibility for the role of rebel into which the society of Trinity High School has cast him.

Feminist theorists such as Marilyn French also talk about power in terms of being enabled. French prefers a model in which people have "power to" do good rather than having "power over" other people to dominate them. She writes, "There is power-to, which refers to ability, capacity, and connotes a kind of freedom, and there is power-over, which refers to domination" (505). To a certain extent, I am interested in how adolescents are empowered (and disempowered) in terms that French uses: when are teenagers in Young Adult literature allowed to assume responsibility for their own actions and when do dominating adults refuse to acknowledge their capabilities? But the larger question for me is an investigation of the fluid ways that the individual negotiates with her or his society, with the ways adolescents' power is simultaneously acknowledged and denied, engaged and disengaged. As John Knowles writes in A Separate Peace (1959), "When you are sixteen, adults are slightly impressed and almost intimidated by you" (31). What, then, do adolescents do with that intimidating power?

The various definitions of power I have described work together to form a definition of power in adolescent literature. Adolescent characters exist in a "perpetual relationship of force" (Foucault, Power 92) created by the institutions that constitute the social fabric constructing them. Because they are defined within perpetual forces of power, power "enacts [them] into being" (Butler, Psychic 13). That is, the social power that constructs them bestows upon them a power from which they generate their own sense of subjectivity. As acting subjects, they assume responsibility for their position in society (Lacan, "Science and Truth" 7), whether they engage their power to enable themselves or to repress others (French 505). Power is a force that operates within the subject and upon the subject in adolescent literature; teenagers are repressed as well as liberated by their own power and by the power of the social forces that surround them in these books. Much of the genre is thus dedicated to depicting how potentially out-of-control adolescents can learn to exist within institutional structures.

Defining and Historicizing the Genre

In trying to define adolescent literature, Sheila Schwartz notes that the American Library Association classifies adolescent literature into three categories: "Books Written Specifically for Adolescents," "Books Written for General Trade Market Which Have Adolescent Heroes and Heroines," and "General Books of Interest to Young Adults" (3). Elsewhere, I have referred to the first of these three categories as Young Adult novels, whereas I consider the three lists combined to constitute the whole of adolescent literature ("Theories" 2-3). Maria Nikolajeva observes that in many European countries, Young Adult novels are referred to as "jeans prose" because of their emphasis on such artifacts of material culture as "clothes, food, music, language" (62). YA novels are certainly a marketplace phenomenon of the twentieth century. Adults create these books as a cultural site in which adolescents can be depicted engaging with the fluid, market-driven forces that characterize the power relationships that define adolescence. After all, publishers rather than teenagers bestow the designation "YA" on these books. Even when authors have not intentionally written for adolescents, they invariably portray adolescents engaged in a domination-repression model, so authors, too, are complicitous in the process. Cormier, for example, maintains that he did not write The Chocolate War for an adolescent audience (Cormier quoted in DeLuca and Natov 110-111). But a trend has emerged in the way YA novels rely on adolescent protagonists who strive to understand their own power by struggling with the various institutions in their lives. This trend seems to be one of the defining factors of the YA novel.


Excerpted from Disturbing the Universe by Roberta Seelinger Trites Copyright © 2000 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

 Roberta Seelinger Trites is a professor of English at Illinois State University. The author of Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature (Iowa, 2000), which won the 2002 Children’s Literature Association Book Award, and Waking Sleeping Beauty: Feminist Voices in Children’s Novels (Iowa, 1997), which won an American Library Association Choice Award in 1997, she is currently president of the Children’s Literature Association.

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