Undergraduate essay Narratological Examination of Protagonist in YA fiction

Aaron Livingstone
Dawn Thompson
ENGL – 329
Mar 22 2015
A Hero in the Making:
Constructing Readable Role Models
Readers will seek out lessons in stories. Whether the narrative that holds
them is nested deeply within other stories, or held up, in the cold light of day, for the
fabrication that it is, didactism is impossible to avoid. Heroes, then, as role models
are worthy of our attention because of what they teach children to expect about the
world they’re born into. How the hero interacts with her surroundings, and even
with her author, says a lot about the existential conditions of the readers’
relationship with their world. At the same time, how the author goes about creating
a child hero will have an impact on how that character is received, and internalized,
by child readers.
The difference between a protagonist and a hero can be viewed in terms of a
reversal of the relationship between a given character and their world. In a
traditional bildungsroman, for instance, the protagonist is born into or set within a
world that shapes her personality and path through the convalescence of events,
which we deem the action, occurring around her. The central character is key to
organizing this action into the form of plot through his or her re-action to this world.
As Katarina Rout succinctly put it: “action: the queen dies, and then the king dies.
Plot: the Queen dies, and then the king dies of a broken heart.” Our understanding
has submerged from one of surface facts to one of deeper understanding about
human nature. The protagonist is therefore provided as a sort of schematic for
understanding the world created by the author.
The hero reacts differently to the world around her than does the
protagonist. Heroes exist within their world to be an agent of change. They are
unsatisfied with the way things are and unwilling to be simply a cog in the
machinations of the universe, or the butt of its practical jokes. They demonstrate not
only a need to improve their own station in life, but to improve the state of affairs
within the wider context embraced within the pages of the book. This could be the
social dynamic within a school, the justice system within a society, or the
environmental state of the entire planet. Whatever is falls within the bounds of the
narrative is seen to be within the sphere of influence of the hero.
This is the reversal of causation that sets the hero, and our analysis of her,
apart. While we look to the character of the protagonist to discern truths about her
world, we may instead look to the dynamic world around the hero to better
understand the circumstances that create a hero and the inner motivations that
sustain her. Instead of a character holding the mirror up to nature around her, the
contextual events that unfold within the fairy/folk tale or the Hero’s Journey,
including other characters both central and peripheral, illuminate personal aspects
of the hero, as well as what it takes to be a hero. The relationship between the hero
and the surrounding world is a system that defines the hero as such, and is the basis
of the cache intrinsic to that type of character.
This aspect of scholarship in children’s literature is crucial because a large
part of why we read, and especially why children read, is to understand their world
and their place in it. Sharon Black paraphrases Bruno Bettelheim’s assessment: “as
the child brings imagination, intellect, and emotions together in identifying with the
characters, ‘inner resources’ develop that enable the child to eventually cope with
‘the vagaries of life’ (241).1 Children’s literature can explicate complex social and
cultural situations, but it can also provide role models: a category to which the Hero
surely belongs.
How do novels such as Susan Fletcher’s Shadow Spinner, Louis Sachar’s
Holes, and China Mieville’s Un Lun Dun depict interactions between heroes and their
surroundings, and does this depiction pass the test of verisimilitude whereby the
lessons gleaned can be applied to real life? Sharon Black says of J.K. Rowling’s
incredibly successful Harry Potter Series, “the ever-changing magic of Harry Potter
is in the magic of the child’s own experiences, feelings, and imagination” (239). Here
Black is drawing a parallel between the fluidity of magic within the Potter ’verse,
where things are often not what they seem, to the ever-changing world of a child,
fraught with confusion, opposing advice, and dynamic social environments.
Rowling’s series was so successful that the ability of young children to identify with
Potter as a hero is almost beyond question. Here is an example, then, of a strong
parallel that allows the heroic quality of a character of a novel to be at least partly
internalized by that novel’s readership.
Not all attempts at creating an empathic link between the child reader and
the child hero are successful. Leonard Manheim’s survey of the children of Charles
Dickens’ novels such as David Copperfield or Great Expectations is sometimes
juvenile, sometimes vitriolic, but consistently unimpressed. “Children” he writes, a
tad presumptuously, “do not recognize in [Dickens’ child characters] the means of
escape from childhood's impotence, and they do recognize all too well that Dickens'
children are too much like… miniature adults” (190). Manheim assumes the
principle aim of child readers is escape, and that the new heroes (of his time)
“Batman and Barbarella” provide this much more effectively than “Paul Dombey and
Little Nell” (190).
Marjan the shadow spinner has the initial appearance of a Dickensian child
hero, with a crippled foot and a penchant for daydreaming. On the first page of the
novel, the reader is asked, indirectly, what is to become of Marjan? In the case of
Shadow Spinner, the fantastical narratives it invokes presuppose a charged destiny,
and Marjan is set against the great evil represented by the Sultan’s murderous
rampage (2). And even though she is entering the harem simply to do business, we
suspect that her arrival will herald imminent and permanent change to the status
quo, because this is what happens in fairy tales. Black notes this in reference to
Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces, which describes the Hero’s Journey:
“The child-hero is taken to a school or other special environment where he learns
that he has extraordinary talents, 2 and recognizes what he has the capacity to
become” (241). The transportation of the Little Hero from one world to another
(Marjan comments that “there are many different worlds inside a city”) is an
integral part of the hero’s quest to change that world (Shadow Spinner 134). The
Little Hero arrives in this new world, in Marjan’s case, the harem, like a foil to upset
or undermine the prevailing power dynamics.
There is always adversity in the new environment. Aside from the endemic
challenges that represent the overall struggle within the narrative, such as the
Khatun’s enmity toward Marjan, there are lesser obstacles and evils that test the
resources and resolve of the Little Hero. Before Stanley walks for miles through the
desert to find his friend, he must dig a hole per day, a job that has come to represent
menial and fruitless labour even before its noteworthy representation in the movie
Cool Hand Luke. Although Stanley is made to dig the same amount as any of the
other children, his rewards, proffered by the parched soil of Green Lake, are much
greater than those received by the other children. In a way, Stanley digs more
effectively, because his digging is not fruitless but productive. Stanley’s discovery of
the fossilized fish followed by the engraved lipstick case are evidence that
perseverance, within the bounds of the Fairy Tale, always leads to meaningful
results (Holes 50, 63). Stanley gains the status of the Little Hero in this case not by
any extraordinary effort he might make, but through a sort of original sin he is born
into, represented by the curse. The curse, along with Marjan’s predilection for
daydreaming and story telling, is a liability in their old world, but a boon in their
new one, where it, and they, are positioned to show their full potential.
The need for children to reach their full potential was a pressing one during
“post-Sputnik” years, writes Christine Doyle, when “a comprehensive study of the
current status of education for the gifted and talented called the Marland Report
(1972)” was released “that established criteria for giftedness that have essentially
remained part of state and federal guidelines since that time” (302). In effect, the
Marland Report created the gifted child. While the criteria for what constitutes
giftedness has widened considerably during the past four decades, especially in
response to Howard Gardener’s Frames of Mind, we as a society are still enamored
with the idea of an intrinsically superior child. The course readings support this
assumption by depicting children who are set apart from others by unbelievable
quirks of probability (Stanley digs up his great Grandfather’s lost fortune) posited in
the Fairy Tale as fate (Holes 214). But they also supplant the idea of the innately
gifted child through the contingency of the Little Hero’s potency upon the worldshift that allows them to fully mature.
Breaking sharply and consciously with the narrative of the Chosen one, China
Mieville’s Un Lun Dun tells the story of the other girl. Zanna is afforded every
privilege UnLondon can give her, yet her failure to make a difference is depicted as a
matter of course when a young girl tries to engage in straight physical combat with a
superior enemy. “A Wave of wind [sweeping] through the fight” is all the help Zanna
gets from fate as she launches into battle, and it might as well be the wind coming
out from the propheseers’ sails (Un Lun Dun 114). In this frank moment, the reader
can’t help but have their faith in the entire concept of the Fairy Tale narrative
shaken. Perhaps it was simply irresponsible and selfish for an abcity to let a young
child fight its battles, and this is the obvious result. With their faith undermined, the
reader is forced to reevaluate what they know about what’s going to take place in
The readers of Holes, on the other hand, have access to a wealth of historical
context that is unavailable to Stanley. They can see that the injustices of Camp Green
Lake are really the echoes of past prejudices that have not yet been silenced. “Holes
practices a type of authorial privileging of the reader through the embedded and
layered use of fairy and folk tales…. as a result of encountering these embedded oral
stories, the reader grows to know more than the characters” (Laura Nicosia 26). Had
Sachar seen fit to inform Stanley somehow that his curse set him apart and above
the other children in the camp, his actions might have been different. But Stanley’s
fractional understanding of the part he plays in the rejuvenation of Green Lake is
representative of the reader’s situation in his or her own life. None of us can peek
behind the curtain to know what the author of our life has in store for us.
The biblical story of Job is confusing to many contemporary readers who are
used to seeing God in the role of benevolent savior instead of punisher. Gregory
Maguire reads the book of Job (specifically, a recent poetic adaptation of it by
Stephen Mitchell) as a negotiation, not between God and the Devil, wagering Job’s
soul, but between the ignorant inhabitants of earth and a fickle master of fate.
What’s at stake is the question “[w]hat can be known by humans, by children, by
mice? What can be understood by the powerless?” (113). Job’s tragedy is not his
enormous loss, but that it is meaningless. His unquestioning faith in God is a
substitute for knowledge of the bigger picture, and we readers are forced to make
similar substitutions in order to get through life. Even the word “fate,” as a term for
the unknowable side of the human condition, is a construct that has garnered more
connotations than are born out by the vagaries of reality. Part of the enjoyment of
reading must surely be attributed to the reader’s comfort in knowing that the hand
of the author is at all times guiding and overseeing the path of the Little Hero. But
this also drives a wedge between our hero and ourselves, because we cannot
confirm with the same certainty the existence of our own author.
The ontology of the hero is dependent on the author—who works through
the world he commands—for the providential mechanisms that create space for a
hero to flourish. The hero is made through an impossible string of coincidences, all
directed by the author. Stanley finds his treasure, Shaharazad finds her Marjan,
Deeba fully loads her Ungun with just what is needed for the task ahead (Holes 214;
Shadow Spinner 14; Un Lun Dun 345). These are all instances of coincidence that
exist independently of the social rules and power structures that determine what is
and is not possible (or reasonable, or advisable) within a diegetic world. This
independence is necessary because the hero is going to subvert those power
structures, and also their role as determining factors of the narrative, through the
course of her journey. They must subvert these systems because they do not agree
with the ethics on which they are based.
Marjan looks up to Shaharazad immensely, but she also questions her
wisdom in simply stalling the Sultan. Shaharazad appeases the Sultan but still
accedes to his rule. Love is her excuse, but there is also a pervasive sense from
Marjan’s society that the way things are is terrible, but it is the way things are. The
Little-Hero’s naiveté is just what a stagnant situation such as this, such as any in the
course readings, calls for. The Little-Hero comes from outside the ethical and social
systems that harbor evil, so she hasn’t grown accustomed to their existence, and will
not compromise her values for the sake of stability. Instead, her morality gives her a
mobility that takes her beyond the grasp of those in power. Marjan leaves the
harem; Stanley walks into the desert; Deeba goes into the forest-in-a-house,
Webminster Alley, and pretty much anywhere else she needs to in order to help her
friends (Shadow Spinner 77; Holes 147; Un Lun Dun 277, 331).
These actions may have the whiff of Morality Tale about them, advising
children on the merits of loyalty and perseverance. While modern scholarship has
seen didactisism as being the bugbear of children’s literature since its inception,
these novels avoid the allegations through transparent depiction of the narrative
process, especially as it works to impart lessons, and especially as it exists to be
critiqued and read against. “In the field’s ongoing effort to distance itself from
didacticism,” Sanders write’s, “children’s literature scholarship embraces the
subversive potential of meta- fiction enthusiastically” (350). If there is any teaching
going on in these novels, it is by example of the hero only, and not persuasion.
There is a sort of regression of heroic depiction exhibited by Shadow Spinner,
Holes, and Un Lun Dun. The question of what will happen to Marjan is rhetorical. The
reader knows that she will be part of a grand tale. There is no alternative. Holes
presents a more level playing field, so to speak, where all the boys are “the same
reddish brown color—the color of dirt” (84). Here the hero is not the gifted child:
that title goes to the quick study, and the true underdog, Hector Zeroni. Based on his
unknown origins, his back-of-the-line status, and his unwillingness to embrace
institutionalized order, the reader would be forgiven for pegging him as the hero.
But then, Hector does not have the double-edged sword of the curse hanging over
him—his fate lies elsewhere. Finally, in the most subversive and open interpretation
of what or who the hero is, Un Lun Dun presents us with a charismatic and
canonically accepted hero and then lays her low a good way into the story. The true
hero of that story is clever, persuasive, and resourceful, but from the perspective of
the world around her, she just happened to be there. Deeba’s heroism is that of the
everyday, existing, as Maguire describes it “in those moments that are not
numinous, those long stretches when canny insight and the fires of confidence
flicker to nothing but shadows and embers” (113). She is Heroic in decidedly
unliterary, unimaginative moments, and for that, I find her most accessible and most
Manheim is wrong. We don’t simply read to escape. We read to experience
the pleasures and dangers of alien worlds because we see an inkling of those worlds
in our own, and we are hungry to understand our own world. Children are the most
voracious learners of all, and they will take some lesson away from what they read
no matter how judiciously we write. The Chosen Hero is a popular trope in
Children’s literature, but since that’s not how things work in the real world, perhaps
its time to retire Fate’s Champion and replace her with the mundane, the fastidious,
the loyal, the idealistic. Instead of assuming that every child wants to be chosen,
unique, gifted and separate, perhaps its best to start from a known fact: that
whoever these children turn out to be, they will inherit the earth, and we will
inevitably be cast in the role of the patriarch to be overthrown. Then let our stories
be equivocal, satirical and magical, so that kids are able take what they need and
leave the rest. As Marjan reminds us, “the tale is often wiser than the teller” (Shadow
Spinner 125).
Works Cited
Cool Hand Luke. perf. Paul Newman. Dir. Stuart Rosenberg. Jalem, 1967. Film.
Fletcher, Susan. Shadow Spinner. New York: Aladdin, 1998. Print.
Mieville, China. Un Lun Dun. New York: Del Rey, 2007. Print.
Nicosia, Laura. “Louis Sachar's Holes: Palimpsestic Use of the Fairy Tale to Privilege the
Reader.” The ALAN review. 35.3 (2008): 24. Virginia Tech. Web. Mar 17 2015.
Sachar, Louis. Holes. New York: Laural-Leaf, 1998. Print.
Sanders, Joe Sutliff. "The Critical Reader in Children’s Metafiction." The Lion and the
Unicorn 33.3 (2009): 349-361. Project MUSE. Web. 17 Mar. 2015.
Manheim, Leonard. “The Dicken’s Child as Hero.” Studies in the Novel 1.2 (1969): 189–
195. Jstor. Web. 17 Mar. 2015.
Maguire, Gregory. “Belling the Cat: Heroism and the Little Hero.” The Lion and the Unicorn
13.1 (1989): 102–119. Project MUSE. Web 17 Mar. 2015.
Doyle, Christine. “Orson Scott Card’s Ender and Bean: The Exceptional Child as Hero.”
Children’s Literature in Education 35.4 (2004): 301–318. Springer Link. Web. 17 Mar.
Black, Sharon. “The Magic of Harry Potter: Symbols and Heroes of Fantasy.” Children’s
Literature in Education 34.3 (2003): 237–247. Springer Link. Web. 17 Mar. 2015.
1. Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment. Toronto: Random House of Canada Ltd.,
1976. New York: Alfred
2. Campbell, Joseph, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (2nd ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press, 1968. London: Paladin Grafton, 1988. A. Knopf, 1976.
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