Saturday, December 1, 2012

Reflections on Teenagers and Their Thirst for Significance in THE CASUAL VACANCY by J. K. Rowling - Part 4


This is my fourth and final post with 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 continues and concludes 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 sports, in family aspirations, in possessing valuable objects, and in suicide.

My previous three posts reflect on dis-empowerment, autonomous thoughts, authenticity, secret places, smoking, sexual behavior, bullying, cutting, and Internet anonymity. This post will reflect on sports, family aspirations, valuable objects, and suicide.

KRYSTAL WEEDON. In this post, we turn our attention to a teenager in THE CASUAL VACANCY whom I haven't yet mentioned in my posts on teens' thirst for significance in Rowling's novel. This is sixteen-year-old Krystal Weedon, a classmate of Andrew Price, Fats Wall, and Sukhvinder Jawanda, a resident of the Fields, and one of the "undeserving" poor. Krystal certainly has a troubled background. She is the third child of Terri Weedon, who is a drug addict and a prostitute. Krystal doesn't know her elder brother and sister, both of whom were removed from the home by social workers and were raised by others. Krystal lives with her mother, Terri, and her four-year-old brother, Robbie. I would characterize Krystal as a young girl with a good heart, an abrasive manner, and a tendency to act on impulse. She is struggling against great odds to keep her mother off drugs and their family of three intact. She also has a rough and sassy attitude, street smarts, and heightened sexual energy.

SPORTS. One way that Krystal reaches for significance is through sports. Krystal is a member of her school's rowing team. The team was formed by Barry Fairbrother, the recently deceased Pagford Parish Council member. Barry grew up in the poor Fields area and succeeded in moving into the solid middle class of Pagford. He has a heart for residents of the Fields and a desire to encourage Krystal Weedon. He took it upon himself to volunteer to form and coach a girl's rowing team at the high school, and he quickly singled out Krystal as a girl with natural strength, coordination, and rowing ability. Krystal became a valuable member of the rowing team, a positive and productive way of being significant. Her team members were inspired by her skill and her confidence in competition.

FAMILY ASPIRATIONS. Here is a beautiful thing about Krystal. She dreams of emulating her great grand-mother, Nana Cath (Catherine Weedon), who, until her death, provides a safe place where Krystal can retreat when she needs to. Nana Cath is protective and loving, yet also stern and forbidding at times. Krystal dreams of having a child - in fact, she has sex with Fats Wall in the hope of becoming pregnant, knowing that Fats' parents would help her out if she were having their grand-child. She imagines herself in a home that Fats' parents would help to provide for her, a home that would also be a haven for her four-year-old brother, Robbie. Here is what J. K. Rowling says about Krystal Weedon's family aspirations on page 328.

[In having sex with Fats, what Krystal] wanted was the baby: the baby was more than a means to an end. She liked babies; she had always loved Robbie. She would keep the two of them safe, together; she would be like a better, kinder, younger Nana Cath to her family.

This dream is never fulfilled, but it shows a very generous side of a young girl who is often looked down upon because of her "unsavory" family background. The one bright spot in Krystal's family, along with her brother Robbie, is Nana Cath, and this is how Krystal dreams of being significant - by loving and protecting her family as she has seen Nana Cath do, and even by improving upon what she has seen in Nana Cath's methods: "she would be a better, kinder, younger Nana Cath to her family" (page 328).

Krystal aspires to take the few positive elements of her family life and build her own life upon them. We can question her method of getting pregnant by Fats Wall so as to have Colin and Tessa Wall's grand-child and hence their help, but for a teenager with very few life options, it is a generous plan, one in which Krystal seeks significance through what she can give to her family.

POSSESSING SPECIAL OBJECTS. This way of feeling significant is not surprising for Krystal Weedon, who has had so little of her own in life. Krystal likes to take things that don't belong to her, preferably things that belong to people who are significant in Krystal's life. One interesting instance of this is the wrist-watch belonging to Tessa Wall, who is Krystal's guidance counselor at school and whose grand-child Krystal would like to have. It is interesting to trace the path of Tessa's watch through the novel after Krystal takes it.

I confess that I have felt contemptuous of kleptomaniacs. I can sort of understand shop-lifting, since one doesn't have a personal relationship with the store owner, and indeed, the store may be a large chain store. I can see that a person might shop-lift without feeling that they were harming anyone in any way. But to take something that belongs to a friend or an acquaintance - surely anyone would know that this is wrong.

J. K. Rowling's character Krystal Weedon, however, gives me a different perspective on this. Krystal takes things from people she admires without really understanding why she does it. But given the harsh realities of Krystal's life, I think I can see the reason. Perhaps having something from an admired person means a deeper connection with that person and with that person's significance. In having Tessa Wall's wrist-watch, Krystal may feel a closer connection with Tessa. Perhaps, also, in Krystal's sub-conscious mind, some of Tessa's significance is transferred to Krystal through this object. I think that there is a way to understand what looks like theft as a yearning for a deeper connection with an admired person and as a yearning for one's own significance.

SUICIDE. At the end of the novel, Krystal Weedon commits suicide. She does this right after learning of her four-year-old brother Robbie's death, for which she blames herself. While Krystal was having sex by the river with Fats Wall in an attempt to become pregnant and thus receive the Walls' help in obtaining a home for herself, her baby-to-be, and Robbie -- Robbie, who was supposed to be in Krystal's care, fell into the river and drowned. On learning this, Krystal rushes home, barricades herself in the bathroom, and injects herself with enough of her mother's heroin to kill herself. On page 480, Rowling explains, "Robbie was dead, and it was her fault. In trying to save him, she had killed him." Then on page 481, Rowling says, "Krystal Weedon had achieved her only ambition: she had joined her brother where nobody could part them."

Krystal Weedon was a generous and capable girl who could have grown into a strong and kind-hearted woman with much to give to the world. Because Krystal's home life was so abysmal, she needed a mentor, such as she had in Barry Fairbrother, until he died.

So much was stacked against Krystal, and in the end, she didn't make it. Here was one more loss - the loss of her precious little brother, Robbie - piled upon the very recent loss of her mentor, Barry Fairbrother, and of her protective great grand-mother, Nana Cath. Krystal's impulsiveness took over, probably coupled with overwhelming grief piled upon grief, and the resultant despair.

This world had become impossible for Krystal - or at least, it seemed that way to her. The people who had given significance to Krystal's life were no longer in this world. So Krystal reached out into the spirit world, where she could join Robbie - and Nana Cath and Mr. Fairbrother - the people who had given her life its meaning.

My next post will turn from the teenagers in THE CASUAL VACANCY to reflections upon the adults.

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