Saturday, December 1, 2012

Reflections on Teenagers and Their Thirst for Significance in THE CASUAL VACANCY by J. K. Rowling - Part 1


THE CASUAL VACANCY is J. K. Rowling's first novel since her Harry Potter series. It is a novel for adults. The novel 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.

My previous post gave an overview of THE CASUAL VACANCY. This post will begin to offer reflections about 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.

This post will discuss dis-empowerment, autonomous thoughts, and authenticity.

DIS-EMPOWERING TREATMENT. Teenagers in Pagford are dis-empowered, but no more so than are teenagers anywhere else. To my mind, teens need graduated opportunities to shoulder more and more responsibility under the guidance of mentoring adults, who extend more and more autonomy to the teens as they show themselves capable and mature. With appropriate guidance, teens can take responsible positions in the work place, author books, report for newspapers, undertake scientific research, excel as athletes, initiate projects that address community needs, produce plays and films, and so much more. This doesn't happen in Pagford, nor does it happen in many communities. Teens are forced through a school curriculum that appears meaningless to them, and they find no meaningful outlets for their energy and creativity. Feelings of anger and alienation build up and eventually burst forth in ways that can be quite destructive.

ATTENTION TO AUTONOMOUS THOUGHTS. Andrew Price is a teen who uses his own hidden thought-life to counter the dis-empowerment he faces in the larger world. Andrew's father, Simon, is very abusive to his two sons, Andrew (about age 16) and Paul (about age 12). Simon belittles his sons, calls them names, and beats them at will. Their mother, Ruth, also suffers abuse at Simon's hands; unfortunately, she refuses to acknowledge the seriousness of the abuse, makes excuses for Simon, and tries ineffectually to placate her husband when he rages. The family lives in constant fear of Simon, never knowing when he will strike. As is the case in most dysfunctional families, Simon's wife and sons never speak of the terror that reigns in their home or of Simon's rageful behavior. Andrew is silent about all this even with his best friend, Stuart "Fats" Wall.

Andrew correctly deems it unsafe to confront his father outwardly, so he endures Simon's abuse in silence. But inwardly, he constantly tells Simon what he thinks of him. No one can read or censure Andrew's thoughts; he is completely free to think at Simon with impunity. And this is what Andrew does.

We see this in our first encounter with the Price family, when Simon learns about Barry Fairbrother's death due to an aneurysm and about the resultant casual vacancy on the Pagford Parish Council. Here is part of the scene, with Andrew's unspoken thoughts, on page 13.

     "He'd had a bad headache for a couple of days, apparently," [said Ruth].
     "Ah," said Simon, chewing toast. "And he ignored it?"
     "Oh, yes, he didn't think anything of it."
     Simon swallowed.
     "Goes to show, doesn't it?" he said portentously. "Got to watch yourself."
     That's wise, thought Andrew, with furious contempt; that's profound. So it was Barry Fairbrother's own fault his brain had burst open. You self-satisfied fucker, Andrew told his father, loudly, inside his own head.

I remember engaging, myself, in these sorts of autonomous thoughts with my own father, who was given to rages and abusiveness similar to that of Simon Price. I remember standing silently before my rageful father while thinking my anger at him, and I remember the power of realizing that I was in some way more powerful than he was. My father, in his visible rage, was revealing his emotions for all to see, while I was expressing my emotions covertly in my mind, where no one could see. My father wasn't fooling me at all, but I had the power of fooling him with my outward submissiveness, hiding the inward angry thoughts I was sending at him, thoughts of which I kept him ignorant. I understand Andrew Price and the power and autonomy he surely felt in sending angry thoughts toward his father, who remained ignorant of those thoughts.

STRIVING FOR AUTHENTICITY. Andrew's best friend, Stuart "Fats" Wall, finds a different sort of self-expression. Both Fats' parents work at the school Fats attends - his father, Colin or "Cubby," as deputy headmaster, and his mother, Tessa, as guidance counselor. For Fats, authenticity is very important. Fats absorbs himself in efforts to distinguish his own authentic feelings from his conditioning and to act on his authentic feelings. Here is how Rowling explains Fats' devotion to authenticity on page 74.

The difficult thing, the glorious thing, was to be who you really were, even if that person was cruel or dangerous, particularly if cruel and dangerous. There was courage in not disguising the animal you happened to be. . . . Lately, [Fats] had been experimenting with acting on what he thought were his authentic impulses, and ignoring or suppressing the guilt and fear (inauthentic) that such actions seemed to engender. Undoubtedly, this was becoming easier with practice. He wanted to toughen up inside, to become invulnerable, to be free of the fear of consequences: to rid himself of spurious notions of goodness and badness.

To me, this sounds like a fine way to turn oneself into a sociopath. Actually, I wonder if Fats doesn't have some sociopathic tendencies. As a child in kindergarten, upon hearing that his friend Andrew has a serious peanut allergy, Fats had slipped Andrew a peanut hidden inside a marshmallow just to observe dispassionately what would happen. Fats also seems to enjoy bullying certain other students in his high school class, and even his good friend Andrew becomes uncomfortable with Fats' lack of empathy for fellow teens whom he is hurting. In addition, Fats has sex with a girl his age, having no feelings for her but simply wanting a certain kind of experience. Fats' attitude seems to be that he will act on his "authentic" feelings, no matter what the consequences for himself or others.

Fats also seems to have the idea that authenticity contradicts traditional morality. On page 76, Rowling explains:

What Fats wanted to recover was a kind of innocence, and the route he had chosen back to it was through all the things that were supposed to be bad for you, but which, paradoxically, seemed to Fats to be the one true way to authenticity; to a kind of purity. It was curious how often everything was back to front, the inverse of what they told you; Fats was starting to think that if you flipped every bit of received wisdom on its head you would have the truth. He wanted to journey through dark labyrinths and wrestle with the strangeness that  lurked within; he wanted to crack open piety and expose bloody hearts; he wanted to achieve a state of amoral grace, and be baptized backwards into ignorance and simplicity.

Although Fats' lack of empathy for others is disturbing, his idea that "if you flipped every bit of received wisdom on its head you would have the truth" (page 76) has some merit. This is the way my sister Maria has proceeded - though, unlike Fats, she has allowed empathy to inform her behavior choices. Maria has often chosen to do the opposite of what our parents, the Catholic Church in which we were raised, and conventional society admonish her to do. She is very much her own person, with unconventional attitudes toward sexuality, money, work, living space, spirituality, and other life matters. As a small example, Maria was raised with the maxim, "Don't talk to strangers"; she has tossed that idea away, makes it a special point to speak to strangers, has a much wider than usual circle of friends and acquaintances, and has befriended a number of homeless people.

Tempered with empathy, the idea that "if you flipped every bit of received wisdom on its head you would have the truth" (page 76) may work. Fats does not temper this idea with empathy; Maria does. In the end, though, when Fats understands that his "authentic" actions are in some way responsible for the death of a small child and the suicide of a teenager, he is overcome with a guilt that he cannot shake.

I would say that this striving with authenticity, tempered with empathy and including the questioning of previously unquestioned received wisdom, is a good thing at any time in life. I would further say that authenticity takes account of what one feels like doing in the moment and of what one deeply desires to accomplish with one's life. Sometimes these are at odds. One may feel like lashing out in the moment at an irritating person, but one may choose to act from compassion instead because of one's deeper desire to bring more compassion into the world. 

My next post will continue with reflections on the thirst for significance among teenagers in THE CASUAL VACANCY.

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