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A coming of age (Growth and a Loss of innocence in Literature)


The idea of a coming of age or a Bildungsroman stems from the effect that growth has on individuals, someone's growth from childhood to maturity or from a boy to a man is a journey that is pivotal and more times than not is reflected in any piece of literary work. Growth implies a change from one position to another; it could be in size, from small to big, it could be in experiences or in more complex situations from innocence to a state associated with guilt. My aim here is to examine the effect of that change in characters, a loss in innocence and how important it is to the plot or direction of events.

A coming of age usually involves a rite of passage of some sort to mark the transition or change; it is usually triggered by a significant event and thus gives motive to a character or sets the stage for an epiphany to occur. Take for instance Hamlet, the prince of Denmark has the weight of revenging his father’s death placed on his shoulders and goes on a journey to find truth in a world that is seemingly filled with religious ambiguity. When the ghost of his father appears to Hamlet it sets off a chain of events that led to his transition, it created an inner struggle within him and once he was able to recognize his responsibility he in a sense experienced growth. Initially, from his outer appearance he is described as brash and on the brink of madness but later on from a better understanding of his character and conversations with Horatio, one gets a window into his mind and can tell how sincere his intentions are. “To be, or not to be: that is the question,” this line can be used to describe the dilemma he has now become a part of. He can choose to be innocent and let the gods dish out revenge if they see fit or he can take a stand and revenge his father’s death as the ghost had requested of him. After staging the mouse trap he is convinced of Claudius’s hand in the murder and is ready to exact justice on him, this decision coincides with a loss of innocence and him concluding “We defy augury” shows his new willingness to think for himself as he recognizes what he must do . This growth can be linked directly to the deaths of Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Laertes, and Claudius. His mission to revenge his father’s death reflects his loss of innocence and his coming of age. Other examples can be drawn from the play, Ophelia can be said to have lost her innocence when Polonius is murdered and she takes her own life. Same can be said about Laertes who connives with Claudius to kill Hamlet after hearing about his father’s death, he corrupts himself thus marking a loss of innocence.

In ‘Barn Burning’, there is a moral conflict in that Sartoris has to choose between blood (his father) and justice. He is in a position where any outcome would weigh heavy on his conscience and Abner, his father does not appear to have control over his hatred for society. This tension continues until Sartoris decides to warn the Major of his father’s plans to burn his barn, having done what was morally right at least in the eyes of the society, his father is seemingly gunned down as a result. At first Sartoris is described as an adolescent boy having to testify in the case against his father, he knows his father is guilty but is torn between his responsibility to his family and that which he owes to society. He says, “Maybe it will all add up and balance and vanish; the terror and grief, the being pulled two ways like between two teams of horses,” this shows the conflict he faces when he has to deal with an ethical issue, to choose between family and social justice . Sartoris’s coming of age takes place when he changes from the innocent boy being loyal to his family, to knowing the difference between right and wrong and then consciously deciding to do something about it.

In Sophocles’ Antigone, Antigone’s brothers have been killed in a duel, and Creon has been made king. She is then forced to take on responsibility when Creon decrees that Eteocles be buried in honour and leaves Polynices to rot as a form of disrespect. She is willing to defy Creon’s orders and bury her brother, a feat which no one dares to do even her sister Ismene. This order by Creon becomes a source of motivation for her to rebel against authority; she says, “if he too has to learn to say yes to everything. Why, no, then, no! I do not love Haemon!,” this quote gives insight in to her rationale and one begins to understand that Antigone will not be made to succumb to the will of others if it means she will disobey her own moral code. When faced with a conversation with Creon she makes an attempt to show him the flaw in his imminent decision and possibly dictatorial approach when she replies that she is not here to understand, only to say no and die. You can begin to sense her loss of innocence as she puts herself in a position to stand up against an order that was widely accepted albeit wrong and unjust. She ultimately dies and the fact that she commits suicide does not take from the reality that she is the young girl who rose up alone against the powers of the state.

Another form of Bildungsroman could come in the sense of a sexual awakening; such is the case in Araby. In this story, James Joyce uses the young boy’s infatuation with Mangan’s sister as the stage for a loss of innocence, as the boy becomes a man, the bazaar becomes a symbol for the reality of the adult world he has to become a part of, “The Christian brothers set the boys free,” reflects the conflict Christianity might pose and there is perhaps a freedom that exists from the boundaries of the church. His boyish fantasies are dashed and turn to frustrations on the night when he awaits his uncle's return so that he can go to the bazaar. He finally gets to the bazaar but is too late, the shops are closing but he has little time to overhear a conversation and somewhere along these lines he decides not to purchase that gift he so longed to give to Mangan’s sister. “I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity,” these are the closing remarks from the boy and one can tell he is no longer a mere boy and he has begun to look at himself in a whole new light.

A coming of age is a theme that can also be applied to poetry; take for instance poems written during the era of romanticism where the focus was depicting enlightenment. In Woodsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”, the poet has gone to a childhood place and in a sense revisits himself. Time has passed and he is ‘living in a fallen present’, he recalls how he had felt as a youth while walking through the banks of Wye and how the emotions and memories that defined him were all a part of the natural serenity that came with the abbey. He says, “For I have learned to look on nature, not in the hour of thoughtless youth”, as he reminisces about the past and how he has since come to terms with his maturity. He is able to rediscover himself and in that period he relives those wonderful days of his youth that he enjoyed with his beloved sister. How he relates to it all is ‘abundant recompense’ for him having become an adult. In “Daddy”, Sylvia Plath gives a window to her experience with her father and how dealing with that bond may have caused her unhappiness. Her allusions to the holocaust imply that there was a feeling of oppression, he’s like a black shoe that she has had to live in; like a statue; like God; like a Nazi” and she takes on the role of the victim. Her position in this poem shows her struggle and eventually how she defeats his memory that despite how terrible her father was or how much she thinks of him, she is now through with him. I would describe the poem as a coming of age because there is a personal victory for her as she overcomes that oppression and also because the poem was written in the 1960s, a time when feminism had taken form.

By using these examples I have been able to express the importance of growth and how a character going through a coming of age and a loss of innocence enhances a body of literary work. Being able to relate to growth enhances the maximum experience a reader gets from reading literature be it poetry or prose.

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AP English teacher on April 29, 2014:

A few things: coming of age is not interchangeable with bildungsroman.

Also, Loss of innocence is NOT a theme, it is a thematic topic. The theme would need to say something ABOUT loss of innocence.

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