The cruelty of adolescence: neither new nor surprising

On Books

March 24, 2002|By Michael Pakenham

There's a bit of a fad these days for pointing out how cruel girls can be. Articles like a recent cover story in The New York Times Sunday magazine explore ritual social savagery by females as young as 10 or 11. A couple of weeks ago, I read Ian McEwan's new novel, Atonement, an intricate, powerful, superb tale built around a hideous lie by a 13-year-old girl that blights lives all around her.

The idea of the evil child -- or, more specifically, evil in childhood -- has a long lineage. Popular horror fiction is littered with it. In a more contemporary and serious frame, William Golding's Lord of the Flies rose from cult status on publication in 1954 to classic within a few years. When, several years ago, I reread a book that was one of my childhood favorites -- Richard Hughes' A High Wind in Jamaica (1929), I was horrified: About a half century had intervened, and I found myself writing, "today when I think of the person who read this book for the purest joy of it at 10, 11, 12 or 14, I find a monster. He -- it -- was, of course, me."

These thoughts and McEwan sent me to rereading another, A Separate Peace, by John Knowles. First published in 1959, when Knowles was 33 years old, it was an almost immediate best seller. Since then it has sold well more than 8 million copies. A movie was made in 1972.

The book's central device is an enigma: Did Gene, the narrator, intentionally cause Phineas, his best friend and roommate, to fall from a tree -- thus becoming responsible for his crippling and then death? That is a brilliant metaphor for the muddling, tortuous confusion that permeates adolescence. One can make a textual case for either yes or no. Knowles, who died on Nov. 29, 2001, at 75, always refused to respond to that question.

The story is narrated by Gene, who at age 17 in 1943 left the Devon School, a 160-year-old New Hampshire boarding school for boys. He and Phineas -- Finny -- were the closest of friends, roommates and "best pals."

A poor student, Phineas was the school's star athlete, capable of breaking a swimming record -- not his sport -- for the simple fun of excelling, insisting no one else ever would know. Gene was hopeless at sports but the head of their class academically. Phineas had a rare capacity to enchant the old and young alike with dauntless, cheerful chatter. Gene was very much the second player, but only with his help could Phineas hope to pass courses and graduate.

They developed a dare-me ritual of climbing a huge old tree, walking perilously out on a limb far enough to allow them, with a mighty jump, to land in the water of a river, rather than falling to hard ground.

The two boys' personalities and talents are totally complementary. Gene's intelligence and capacity for work is the mirror image of Finny's athletic grace and natural, insouciant leadership. But at times there is intense, unspoken, underlying resentment. At one point, Gene speaks of it, addressing himself: "You and Phineas are even already. You are even in enmity. You are both coldly driving ahead for yourselves alone. You did hate him for breaking that school swimming record, but so what? He hated you for getting an A in every course but one that term."

But shortly after that, Gene's perceptions changed dramatically -- at least for the moment. Phineas, he tells himself, "had never been jealous of me for a second. Now I know that there never was and never could have been any rivalry between us."

They decided to jump from the tree together. Phineas fell, breaking his leg very badly. Gene was on the limb with him. And the question of whether he wobbled the branch intentionally is the one the reader is left to ponder.

Phineas, immobilized in a cast, was told he would never be an athlete again. He began to train Gene to be something of an athlete. The two were challenged by other students to reveal the truth. Phineas flees that scene, falls down stairs, rebreaking his leg. Within two days, he is dead, from an embolism. Gene, of course, holds himself responsible.

The book is about the aloneness and ambiguities of adolescence. What is perceived as reality can be illusion. Innocence, the absence of experience, is dangerous. The child has no soundly grounded sense of self or of the meaning of others' lives.

The essential point is that civility, civilization -- humane values -- are learned, not genetic, spontaneous or autonomic. Sometimes, values are imposed -- when a young person strays too close to the bright lines that divide ethical conduct from unethical and lawful activity from crime. One may love the enchanting savage that is -- or lurks inside -- a child. But there is nothing but folly in expecting that latent savagery will be conquered simply by the passage of time. Codes of values and the instruction that comes from experience must intervene.

That raw declaration is way too preachy for literature, for serious art. But art's chief job is to shake up consciousness roughly enough to make the reader perceive -- see, feel, think -- in fresh, different ways.

Think of 10-year-old girls who plot with and against classmates with a cruelty that in a grownup would be pathological. Think of the Islamicist schools that take boys not yet in their teens, with no other educational context, and drill into them fantasies of the ecstatic, eternal rewards of murderous and suicidal death.

The essence of youth, of course, is not rooted in benevolence. It is defined, rather, by a relentless process of trial and error, learning -- often from missteps and mistakes -- how best to lead one's life. The young in a civilized society must be protected against their own innocence. Parents, teachers, older friends are vital to that process. But reading is not a bad way to get along with the job.

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