Saturday, December 1, 2012

Reflections on Teenagers and Their Thirst for Significance in THE CASUAL VACANCY by J. K. Rowling - Part 2


This post continues my reflections on teenagers and their thirst for signficance in THE CASUAL VACANCY, J. K. Rowling's first novel since her Harry Potter series. This novel for adults is set in the fictional rural English town of Pagford. A "casual vacancy" on the Pagford Parish Council has resulted from the sudden death of council member Barry Fairbrother, due to an aneurysm. The process of filling the vacant council seat reveals the dark underbelly of the seemingly idyllic town of Pagford.

This post will continue my reflections on a prominent theme in the novel: teenagers and their thirst for significance during that in-between time when one is no longer a child but not yet an adult. This theme shows up in the dis-empowering treatment of teenagers in Pagford, in teens' attention to autonomous thoughts, in their striving for authenticity, in the importance they accord to secret places, in smoking behavior, in sexual behavior, in bullying behavior, in the practice of self-cutting, in the ability to act significantly but anonymously afforded by the Internet, in possessing valuable objects, in sports, in family aspirations, and in suicide.

My previous post reflects on dis-empowerment, autonomous thoughts, and authenticity. This post will reflect on secret places, smoking, sexual behavior, bullying, and self-cutting.

SECRET PLACES. Children and teenagers seem to love secret places. Maybe adults do, too. A secret place gives a sense of power. No one else knows where it is. One can be autonomous in one's secret place.

Andrew Price and Fats Wall have a secret place: a cave along the river bank, dangerous to reach. The river bank ends at a hillside, where a very narrow ledge above the rushing river at the bottom of the hill constitutes the only path along the steep hill-face to the cave. One must inch carefully along the ledge, using hand-holds of rocks and crannies in the hill-face until one arrives at the cave's opening. Andrew and Fats are adept at this. They discovered this secret place when they were eleven years old; they are now sixteen. The place is both forbidden and dangerous, increasing its appeal.

A cave that no one else knows about. A secret place of power.

SMOKING. This seems to appeal to many teens, including many Pagford teenagers. This is most unfortunate because smoking is so disastrous for one's health.

SEXUAL BEHAVIOR. Naturally, Pagford teens want to experiment with sex, and do. It's hard to know what a healthy approach to sexual behavior for teens might be. I certainly don't claim to know.

BULLYING BEHAVIOR. Bullying is, most unfortunately, alive and well in Pagford. One target is Sukhvinder Jawanda. Sukhvinder is a middle child with a gorgeous brainy elder sister, Jaswant, and a handsome clever younger brother, Rajpal. Both Jaswant and Rajpal are the pride of their Indian parents, Parminder (the mother) and Vikram (the father), and both are popular among their school mates. Sukhvinder feels awkward and dumb as she endures the scolding of her mother and the bullying of Fats Wall. Fats whispers remarks in Sukhvinder's presence and posts remarks on her Facebook page that question Sukhvinder's sexuality. The remarks liken Sukhvinder to a hermaphrodite, a lesbian, a girl-child covered with hair.

This is a terrible way to feel powerful and "significant" at another's expense. "Here is something significant I can do. I can cause another to feel deep pain. See how significant I am - I can hurt someone else." Terrible as this is, people choose this way to feel significant.

Even more, I believe that people choose this way to feel powerful when they already have power. Sometimes the most popular kids in the school are the ones who do the bullying. These kids are popular, they have power - and they love it. They want more. Bullying gives them more. To hurt someone else, to cause deep pain, to be powerful enough to hurt someone significantly - this can produce quite a rush. And there are people who choose that rush of power they feel when bullying.

SELF-CUTTING. Sukhvinder, the target of Fats Wall's bullying, cuts herself. This is a way of replacing deep emotional pain with physical pain. The physical pain overwhelms the self-cutter so that the emotional pain is blocked out. I can understand this intellectually, but it is not something I can imagine myself doing. I certainly don't enjoy emotional pain, but neither do I wish to experience physical pain. My solution is generally to engage in an activity I enjoy so that the enjoyment takes over. Since childhood, I have done this with reading - losing myself in the world of story.

For Sukhvinder, though, self-cutting is a life-line. On page 147, J. K. Rowling says, "[Sukhvinder] clung to the prospect of her only consolation, as she would have hugged a life belt, waiting, waiting, for them all to go to bed." What this young girl was anticipating so eagerly was the opportunity to cut herself with a razor blade. On page 149, Rowling describes the cutting: "With a slight shiver of fear that was a blessed relief in its narrow, immediate focus, [Sukhvinder] placed the blade halfway up her forearm and sliced into her own flesh." Later on page 149, Rowling explains, "The blade drew the pain away from her screaming thoughts and transmuted it into animal burning of nerves and skin: relief and release in every cut."

How much emotional pain one must be in to feel such immense relief when the emotional pain is overwhelmed by the physical pain. To think that one would actually welcome physical pain, actually inflict it on oneself by cutting one's flesh, so as to be briefly free of emotional pain.

The amount of pain in the world, even within one human being, is vast. Just the possibility that a child of mine might experience such intense emotional pain as to want to relieve it by self-cutting makes me so grateful that I have never brought a child into this world, where such pain is possible.

My next post will continue with reflections on the anonymity afforded by the Internet and how this is used by teens in THE CASUAL VACANCY.

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