A ‘coming of age’ for all ages

Sept. 23, 2019, 7:59 p.m.

Dear reader,

Now that you’ve made it into Stanford’s exalted sandstone walls, perhaps you’ve sworn off reading books, no longer faced with the pressures of being a “well-rounded applicant” that college admissions and the SAT Reading section demanded. Perhaps your main goal now is to pursue a STEM degree without the fatal distractions that literature can provide. As your first step, you may have only skimmed the back summaries of the Three Books you received months ago, and only then at the urging of your parents.

It certainly is possible (difficult, but possible) to go four years here without reading a single book. If that is what you desire, then I wish you well.

But, perhaps there was a book you read in high school that altered your worldview so significantly, it shifted the angle of your future trajectory by several degrees. It might’ve been a Shakespearean play or an illustrated novel, but even then, you probably were most affected by the coming-of-age story, which composes a significant proportion of most high school curriculums. 

A coming-of-age story focuses on the development of the protagonist(s) from youth to adulthood, with an emphasis on personal growth and mental cultivation. (So yes, arguably “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” counts.) The prolificacy of blockbuster hits like “The Hunger Games” and the “Maze Runner” series shows how the genre can encompass topics like defiance of authority, the power of youth for change, love stories, and of course, saving the world. However, it can also be as subtle and poignant as a story of a girl who lives in a rundown red house in an impoverished Chicano neighborhood, dreaming of another life (“The House on Mango Street”). 

Whatever your relationship to literature, I hope we can at least agree on this: the coming-of-age story draws much of its appeal for how relatable its protagonists are to a young audience. It can reach the point where you come along for their journeys of self-discovery and survival. As Wordsworth writes, “The world is too much with us,” and curling up with a good story and experiencing the trials and tribulations of others can both be a relaxing and practical way to cultivate (and entertain) yourself. You might not be an exact clone of Holden Caulfield (“The Catcher in the Rye”) or Fanny Price (“Mansfield Park”), but there is enough in their complexities and personal dilemmas for you to perceive your similarities and idiosyncrasies through the pages.

Perhaps this helps explain the larger fascination with young adult literature: according to a study in Publishers Weekly, approximately 55% of all readers in this genre are above the age of eighteen, and the largest block of sales, 28%, is from adults aged 30-44. With the attention to the themes of self-development and “coming of age” in such stories, these works also offer another form of symbolism. Amplified by the intensity of the “blossom of youth,” these works also remind you of your capacity for change, no matter your age.

The formal, academic term of the bildungsroman (“education” combined with “novel”) — most used in reference to Western literature, and considered a subgenre of the coming-of-age story — was first used in the 1820s when philologist Karl Morgenstern coined the term. It spread to new spheres in 1870 through Wilhelm Dilthey’s literary criticism on Goethe’s “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprentice” (1796), which features a protagonist’s desire to integrate himself into society and nurture his sense of self. With such context, this also seems linked to the rise of the novel, which literary critics like Ian Watt credit to the Industrial Revolution in the mid-19th century (which allowed for unprecedented levels of mass-production and proliferation of reading material). 

Nevertheless, the construct of a coming-of-age story has existed throughout the ages, another reminder of how much we really have to learn from the inherited stories of our predecessors. Similar to how the coming-of-age story manifests into many versions and inversions, your sense of self is similarly malleable, rather than something that is discovered once and static forever.

For one example, we can go as early as the great epic poetry of Ancient Greece, with Homer’s “Odyssey” (c. 8th century B.C.E). A particularly important section is the “Telemachy,” a term applied to the first four books that focus on Odysseus’s son Telemachus, who grows up in the shadow of his father’s ten-year absence and witnesses firsthand the chaos imparted on their rocky kingdom of Ithaca and his devoted mother Penelope. 

Though a self-described “weakling,” Telemachus sets sail for Sparta and Pylos for news of his father, physically and metaphorically undergoing an odyssey that marks his transition from boy to man. He returns home with renewed confidence, ready to reclaim his family’s kingdom with the mentorship of Athena and the sudden arrival of his father. By the end of the epic, it becomes clear that while Odysseus occupies the majority of the story, Telemachus has procured the necessary skills to one day supplant his father, reflective of the natural order of succession.   And in turn, “The Odyssey” has served as a popular model for many later works. It’s themes and symbols rippling through the Western psyche as they endlessly influence and affect works through the centuries.

We also see this pattern reimagined in other classics. I would venture that Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” (c. 1600) could be read as a coming-of-age story, with how Hamlet forsakes his university studies to avenge his father’s untimely death. While recoiling from several betrayals and stricken with grief, Hamlet must rely on his wit and cunning to survive, even as he navigates his uncle’s political schemes and his own existential dilemma of “to be or not to be.” Nevertheless, this play is a tragic inversion, with how Hamlet spirals not into the throne for his eventual triumph, but heavily implied insanity from his losses. 

And despite Rousseau’s own failures as a parent, his formidable treatise-novel “Emile, or On Education” (1762), revolutionized social dialogue concerning child-rearing practices and was influential enough to both be publicly burned and inspire the national French system of education. Rousseau illustrated his ideal system of education through Emile’s allegorical maturation from child to adult, with a brief chapter dedicated to the education of Sophie, his bride-to-be groomed to be his ideal partner. 

“Emile” in turn influenced Goethe, linked above to the start of the bildungsroman and related literary criticism. However, note that Rousseau’s treatise also sparked Mary Wollstonecraft’s ardent “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” partially a response to his dismissive attitude towards educating women, unless for the pleasure of men. Such a dichotomy reflects the inherent limitations of the Western canon, and more specifically for this discussion, the fraught designation of what a “coming-of-age” entails depending on the protagonist and intended readership. 

By the nature of what “Western literature” typically denotes, many 18th and 19th century (and continuing well into the 20th century) coming-of-age stories advocate for social conformity, particularly conformity to the higher echelons of society. For women, this often involved marriage to an ideal man who would respect and provide for them; for men, the options broadened to career goals and honoring a legacy, along with finding a suitable romantic partner. It was the well-educated middle and upper classes that could afford printed books during this era; it follows that this population of readers favored books that depicted themselves. This includes struggles to which they could relate — of thwarted love and love regained, learning and education, adventures of a lifetime, and an eventual outcome of socially-dictated notions of “success.”

The protagonist might not have begun wealthy, married, or well-liked — the arc of “rags to riches” becomes more potent if this is the case — but aided by their virtue and talents, they often end this way (or are set-up to end this way, only to be dramatically reverted). We have Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” (1847), which features conscientious Jane, raised as a mistreated orphan at Gateshead. Despite various challenges, she maintains her self-respect and ends her story as a wealthy heiress married to the man she loves. In Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” (1869), sisters from a family who lost their fortune, but not their morality, eventually find peace in their social spheres and marry their way into the respectable middle class, the elite, and the highly-educated respectively. 

If growing up means entering “society” after the transition from child to adult, then those of historically marginalized backgrounds face largely different concerns than those of the majority. Contestably, the massive notoriety of the works by Charles Dickens’s “Oliver Twist” (1838) and Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1884) partially stem from their unflinching, unromantic portrayal of the living conditions of the working class. While their protagonists still receive largely positive endings, their struggles are those of the lowest levels of poverty and human cruelty, divorced from the rarified dilemmas of the upper classes, limited to choosing a spouse and other more delicate pursuits. What counts as a “successful” outcome for a protagonist does not matter so much as what they learned; the old adage of “the journey is what matters, not the end result” rings clearly. 

With the genre’s focus on the protagonist’s personal development, by extent their contextual background proportionately shapes the novel and the reader’s experience, hence the proliferation of options by the 20th century linked to increasing globalization and movements for rights. We still have more traditional plots, like James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” (1916), Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio” (1919) and J. D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” (1951), but there seems to be more unfettered freedom to experiment with stylistic effects. There are other significant inversions of the “rags to riches” plot (which do not necessarily possess happy endings) that manage to still delve into the psychological states of the protagonists, like Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” (1952), narrated by a man who tells his life story from a coal cellar illuminated with stolen electricity.

Such works shape legislative agendas that directly impact us today. Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960), released at the peak of the Civil Rights movement and told through the innocent eyes of a child, changed the divided regions of the country on how they saw themselves and each other. Other stories have ignited conversations and (necessary) controversy with their depictions of violence and sexual and profane language, such as Richard Wright’s “Native Son” (1940) and S. E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders” (1967). Their trust in the reader’s maturity, while at the same time fostering their readers’ further growth, allows for a powerful relationship to form between reader and book. 

We also see new worlds of speculative proportions: Frank Herbert’s “Dune” (1965), Ursula K. Le Guin’s “A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), and of course, J. K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series (1997) all invite self-discovery by ensnaring the imagination. With Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game” (1985) and Lois Lowry’s “The Giver” (1993), we witness how the protagonists’ untraditional manifestations of power — whether through spice, magic or genetic engineering —nevertheless do not allow their bearers a way to escape their circumstances. Rather, these abilities only raise the stakes for them to “find themselves” and their place in their societies, lest they destroy their worlds.  

And what does the 21st century have in store for us? With the rise of dystopian young adult fiction, novels like Suzanne Collins’s “The Hunger Games” trilogy (2008) and Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” trilogy (2011) stress the importance of freedom despite the outward pressure for conformity. In this era when social media and test scores reduce us to the highlight reel of our best pictures and quips, or a number on a predetermined scale, these works ask us to question the ramifications of destroying the arena and shredding the rubric entirely. Meanwhile, Angie Thomas’s “The Hate U Give” (2017) pushes us towards a critical examination of police brutality in America and its effects on local communities, a more direct reflection than Collins’s and Roth’s reimagined, alternate American settings. As the protagonists are in the peak of teenhood, they experience the brutalities of child violence in a wholly stark light, and their tragedies become intertwined with the necessity for activism and overthrowing the established order.

There are also other classics, like Stephen Chbosky’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (1999), Ann Brashares’s “The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants” (2001), and John Green’s “Looking for Alaska” (2005), which highlight modern-day high schoolers and their accompanying dramas. From interpreting our views on love through family exemplars or tightening bonds of sisterhood through magical jeans, to coming to terms with grief and letting go, these works thoughtfully reflect on the difficulties of navigating the transition between child and adult.

Though of course, you are now college students, all these stories — from Ancient Greece to the speculative realm — still hold great significance in spite of, and due to, their varied sociocultural settings. Some stories may seem far removed from your current experiences, but the variety of protagonists with their firsthand accounts of their rites of passage suggest the universality of coming-of-age. No matter the tale, there is something in each that you can learn and take with you as part of your own journey through life. 

Perhaps the most formative time to read a coming-of-age story is when you, yourself, are coming of age. But considering the timeless quality of such beloved works, no matter what age bracket you inhabit, these stories will continue to shape the minds of readers and the larger cultural consciousness, staying forever young.

Contact Shana Hadi at shanaeh “at” stanford.edu.

Shana '21 is a former Managing Editor for Arts&Life (Vol 256) who is studying computer science, English, and their many intersections. She is also an active night owl who enjoys green tea and flights of imagination (spurred from works like Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation"). When she’s not reading speculative fiction or attempting to write it well, she wonders if books are word sandwiches and their themes are different flavors of idea jam, and if that’s why they're so nourishing to the soul.

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