The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 8, No 3 (2004)

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"Whoever would destroy the freedom of a nation must begin by subduing its freeness of speech."
Benjamin Franklin

The above quote is from the American Library Association's "Banned Books Week" website, a place where one can consistently discover Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War in a prominent place. Widely read, frequently assigned, consistently censored, The Chocolate War is the kind of YA book that keeps book discussions honest. "What is the price," it asks its many readers, "of disturbing the universe," of making one's own individual choice in spite of the dictates and unrelenting pressures of The Established Order? Each new reader stops anew to consider his own answer.
Shirley Jackson's short story, "The Lottery" also met its share of controversy when it first appeared (in The New Yorker, decades ago) but the controversy died down with time, and the story was ultimately tamed into an anthologized college classic. "What does it mean?" the magazine's editors initially asked about the tale that begins so innocently on a summer day in a friendly New England village and ends with a communal stoning of its sacrificial victim. "It's just a story," the author replied. It was "just a story" that incited dozens of irate readers to cancel their New Yorker subscriptions and hundreds of writers to take poison pens in hand. (Furious letters addressed to the magazine directly were answered by its editors; those directed to the author were forwarded to her. Some of the letters she received were classics in their own right.)
What is the nerve that each of these literary works has touched? And what of Canadian writer Beth Goobie's much more recent young adult Lottery, which is clearly inspired by the earlier Shirley Jackson one? Has it touched a nerve, too? There is no evidence that Goobie's work inspired the same degree of horror as its predecessor, but it does appear that a publisher for it might not have been immediately easy to come by.
Same question; Different era. Is it easier or harder for young readers to ask it today, in a Patriot Act kind of world? A lively discussion of these works follows.

-- Maggie Parish


Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?
A Study of Anti-Authoritarian Young Adult Novels

Jen Waters


Jen Waters was completing her Masters in Library and Information Studies at the University of British Columbia when this article was written and published. She has since worked as a Teen Services Librarian, first at Red Deer Public LIbrary and lately at Edmonton Public Library, and is also a regular (and enthusiastic) contributor to the CLASY and YALSA blogs.


In high school, I had a t-shirt that said "Question Authority Before Authority Questions You". When I wore it to school, I was mostly met with blank stares, or the occasional "she's so weird" look. But I firmly believe all young adults should do just that: question authority, even if only for a brief moment. If they do not, they risk being consumed by what's "right" or "popular", and becoming lifelong followers. Robert Cormier's 1974 novel The Chocolate War, and Beth Goobie's 2002 novel The Lottery explore the lives of two protagonists who decide to fight the system. This decision is neither simple nor instantaneous, and they must face many obstacles on their way to freedom. Historically speaking, blindly following a leader is not new, but it is something which remains relevant today. It seems to be the teens of young adult literature who are influenced the most by this cult of authority, and I hope to discover what implications this authority has on teenagers and the world they live in. Just what happens when one dares to disturb the universe?

There are many books written on the questioning of authority (both classic and contemporary, for adults and for children), but I will limit the study to Goobie's The Lottery, and its predecessors, Cormier's The Chocolate War and Shirley Jackson's short story The Lottery. First published in a June 1948 issue of The New Yorker, Jackson's story caused quite an uproar; the stark brutality of a sacrificial lottery winner being stoned to death by the townspeople was not well received. I will not focus on Jackson's story in as great detail, because although it has been read by young adults (in some cases, it is on the high school curriculum), it was intended primarily for an adult audience. However, it is obvious that both Cormier and Goobie were inspired by this story, and for Goobie, not only does she use the same title, but she also keeps the idea of the lottery "winner" as more of a lottery loser, or chosen scapegoat. The pointless violence and general inhumanity are recurring themes in both The Chocolate War and The Lottery, as in Jackson's story, as well as the obsession with tradition. In all three works, the reader sees unchanging traditions which could change if only people realized their implications (Kosenko, 1984, accessed online), which is certainly reflected in the Vigils of The Chocolate War and the Shadow Council of The Lottery. "There's always been a lottery" (Jackson, 1982, 297), Old Man Warner scoffs, when the villagers are discussing the "pack of young fools" in other villages who are thinking about giving up the lottery.

Although early works such as Jackson's The Lottery and George Orwell's Animal Farm are good examples of authoritative societies in adult fiction, one of the first examples for young adults was Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War. In Presenting Robert Cormier, Patricia J. Campbell describes Cormier's worldview, in a statement that Cormier himself has used, as "The plight of the individual versus the system" (Campbell, 1989, 36). Just what is it about Jerry Renault, freshman at Trinity School in Monument, Massachusetts who refuses to sell chocolates, that still hooks young adult readers today? Published in 1974, The Chocolate War does not yet feel dated. Readers still feel the relevancy of a young man struggling "To do something, be somebody. But what? But what?" (Cormier, 1974, 66). What begins as an assignment from the Vigils, the dark force (headed by Archie Costello) who run the school, becomes Jerry Renault's daring exercise in independent thinking. It could be the torment he still feels from the death of his mother, or it could be the poster in his locker with the Prufrockian "Do I dare disturb the universe?", but Jerry's decision to not sell chocolates turns him into a scapegoat. He is pestered with harassing phone calls, the contents of his locker are vandalized, his final art project is stolen, and he is assaulted by Emile Janza and his bully friends. The violent wrestling match at the end between Jerry and Emile leaves Jerry seriously injured, punished for his audacious actions. But as one reviewer stated, "Jerry's defeat is unimportant. What is important is that he made the choice and that he stood firm for his convictions" (Campbell, 50).

Elements of both Jackson's short story and Cormier's novel can be seen in Beth Goobie's The Lottery. Goobie even gives credit to Cormier on the first page, along with Pink Floyd's Roger Waters, for his song "The Wall". From Jackson's story, there is a yearly victimized winner, and the Shadow Council of The Lottery (headed by Willis Cass) closely resembles the Vigils (headed by Archie Costello) of The Chocolate War. Sally Hanson, as Saskatoon Collegiate's lottery winner, becomes the untouchable for the year who must carry out menial and insulting tasks for the Shadow Council. No one will talk to her or acknowledge her existence, even her supposed friends. A complex character who, like Jerry, has also been traumatized by the death of a parent, Sal turns inward and makes little attempt to speak out until near the end of the story.

A unifying theme within these two novels is the high school setting, and the power structure that exists behind its walls. Whether it is a teacher or student, it seems they only have absolute power while in the school. One wonders if the incidents in The Chocolate War and The Lottery could only happen in a high school setting. An ideal focus group of students, a high school is the ultimate location for experimentation and control. As Archie points out one day at a Vigils meeting, one has to come to school every day whether one wants to or not. This seems simple enough, but it also provides the opportunity, to those in control, to constantly have human test subjects to work with. And what better test subjects than teenagers? For some teenagers, the years between 12 and 19 are the most rebellious, but for others, they are simply the most uncomfortable years - physically and socially -- so they do their best to fade into the woodwork and become invisible. These passive participants are unlikely to object, even if something makes them uncomfortable or they feel it is morally wrong, and therefore the teens are at the hands of those who control them.

In The Chocolate War and The Lottery , the shadowy forces that govern the high school certainly are a problem, but not as big of a problem as those students who don't object. The Chocolate War's Brother Leon, who is fond of mind games, first accuses his student Gregory Bailey of cheating, then turns the tables and says to the class:

You idiots. Do you know who's the best one here? The bravest of all? Gregory Bailey, that's who. He denied cheating. He stood up to my accusations. He stood his ground! But you, gentlemen, you sat there and enjoyed yourselves. And those of you who didn't enjoy yourselves allowed it to happen, allowed me to proceed. You turned this classroom into Nazi Germany for a few moments.

(Cormier, 46)

This sentiment is mirrored in The Lottery, when Willis Cass puts Sal in her place, as lottery winner: "So, you know how it works. Everyone cooperates. Everyone wants a victim, Sally -- even you. So how can you complain? Did you protest when it was someone else? No, you watched, you enjoyed, and now it's your turn." (Goobie, 2002, 45). Tessie Hutchinson's reaction in Jackson's "The Lottery" is very similar: "It isn't fair. It isn't right" (Jackson, 302), she screams. Tessie doesn't object to the lottery, but more to her own selection as the lottery's scapegoat. It would, most likely, have been fine with her if someone else was selected for the stoning. (Kosenko, accessed online). This passivity to tyranny is seen not only in the general student population of both schools, but it is also seen within those teens who are closer to the sources of evil: both Willis Cass and Archie Costello have willing assistants who carry out orders. The Chocolate War's Carter and Obie detest Archie for some of his actions, but have little effect when it comes to stopping him. "Maybe the black box will work next time, Archie", Obie says at the end of The Chocolate War, " 'Or maybe another kid like Renault will come along.' Archie didn't bother to answer. Wishful thinking wasn't worth answering." (Cormier, 263). If students of both high schools were to do a little investigation, they would discover the secret to Archie's and Willis's weakness: they have no true friends, only people who pretend to be friends out of fear. Or as Sal discovers of Willis, "You believe in the Shadow because you need it to keep you in your place ... You're afraid of the possibility of yourself" (Goobie, 259). If someone was to use this against the villains, it could possibly disrupt the existing structure of power and authority in the school.

There may not be any hope for completely ridding schools of bullies and authority figures, but what about those students who silently follow? In some cases, this could be hundreds, or even thousands, of students. In The Lottery's Saskatoon Collegiate, a high school of 1,500 students, the only person to immediately turn down the Shadow Council is Chris Busatto, the boy who is reading Cormier's The Chocolate War when Sal brings him his envelope, for his call to duty. He refuses to open the envelope, defiantly stating "My psychiatrist says I don't have to listen to other kids bugging me" (Cormier, 171). The character of Chris Busatto is more of a direct descendent from Jerry Renault than Sal is. Although Sal is the lottery winner and protagonist of The Lottery, it takes her much longer to oppose authority that it does for Chris. Chris is the one, like Jerry, to refuse an "assignment" or challenge, and to then get punished for his decision. In Jerry's case, the ultimate punishment almost kills him. For Chris, he is bullied and assaulted, which prompts him to attempt suicide. Chris's opposition is somewhat different from Jerry's, as Chris's actions may have been motivated by the psychiatrist he's visiting. However, strength is strength, whether it comes from a poster, a book or a psychiatrist, it still takes bravery to use it to stand up and fight. After hearing of his suicide attempt, Sal writes Chris an apologetic letter, in which she identifies Chris as "The only kid who said no" (Goobie, 251).

In both The Lottery and The Chocolate War, a crucial part of the plot and character development is the point of realization, when the protagonist realizes they have to speak out against the authoritative forces in their schools. For Sal, it is a sudden realization that comes close to the end of the novel, after she gains the needed closure for her father's death. She realizes "She needed to be more than what happened to her. She wanted to be made up of her own choosing" (Goobie, 230). This leads to Sal's confrontation with the Shadow Council:

You're so fake, with your shadows, codes, and stupid games. You couldn't come up with anything real, you don't know what real is. I saw my father die, I saw his brains smeared across the car windshield, and you know what? I survived it. You think you can shut me up now with a dummy? You're the dummies. You're nothing but shadows, the biggest cowards this school has going. None of you are real. You are all just so full of bullshit.

(Goobie, 247)

Jerry's transformation is much more gradual. His choice not to sell chocolates comes from a hippie at the bus stop calling him "square boy", the wish to not become his father, the poster in his locker, and the urge to not become another pawn of the Vigils. It's ambiguous, when Jerry agrees to the final wrestling match with Emile, whether he is taking a stand once again, or scared of being called "chicken". Either way, this fight is Jerry's downfall, as not only is he seriously physically injured, but he also has his psychological strength taken away as well. Broken and bloody, held by Goober and waiting for the ambulance, Jerry wants to say, "They tell you to do your thing but they don't mean it. They don't want you to do your thing, not unless it happens to be their thing, too. It's a laugh, Goober, a fake. Don't disturb the universe, Goober, no matter what the posters say" (Cormier, 259). In her criticism of The Chocolate War's ending, Patricia Campbell quotes Richard Peck saying, "The young will understand the outcome. They won't like it, but they'll understand" (Campbell, 53). Campbell also quotes Betty Carter and Karen Harris, who say "Cormier does not leave his readers without hope, but he does deliver a warning: they may not plead innocence, ignorance, or prior commitments when the threat of tyranny confronts them. He does not imply that resistance is easy, but insists that it is mandatory" (Campbell, 60).

The severity and ambiguity of The Chocolate War's ending is a cause for concern: how would a young adult react to a book in which a character is punished so violently for his actions? Granted, Beyond The Chocolate War showed that Jerry survived, but the book was not published until 1985, 11 years after The Chocolate War. The positive side of having such a negative ending is that it might prompt young adults to draw their own conclusions about what is morally right or wrong, thereby encouraging independent thought. An addendum to an ALA Banned Resource Guide included this as one of the additional top ten silliest reasons to ban a book: "It encourages children to think independently. Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War was removed from the Grosse Point (Michigan) School District Library shelves in 1995 because it deals with 'gangs, peer pressure, and learning to make your own decisions' " (Eberhart, 1998, 26). It is fitting that one of the most influential young adult novels ever written is also one of the most challenged books.

Religion and symbolism also play a role in both The Chocolate War and The Lottery. Although The Chocolate War takes place in a boy's private Catholic school, with some corrupt priests as teachers, religion does not factor in as largely to the book as one might think. Even though Cormier was Catholic, and Jerry, possibly a brutalized Christ figure, could be a part of the book's theologically Christian worldview, I do not think that this novel was intended to be seen as an overly religious book. In fact, one of the only remarks made regarding religious symbolism is one that has a throwaway nature to it: "The shadows of the goal posts definitely resembled a network of crosses, empty crucifixes. 'That's enough symbolism for one day', Obie told himself. If he hurried he could make the four o'clock bus to work" (Cormier, 16).

As a novel, The Lottery has more religious symbolism, even though it does not occur in a religious setting. Religion, as portrayed by Goobie, is not seen in the traditional sense, but instead through music and cults. Sal finds solace in her music, and the symbolism seen through Pink Floyd's "The Wall" (her favorite song) has a blunt, hit you over the head, significance. "We don't need no education, we don't need no thought control/ No dark sarcasm in the classroom/ Teacher leave those kids alone ... All in all, you're just another brick in the wall" (Waters, 1979). This song has clearly inspired Sal (and Goobie herself). The anti-authoritarian statement of the song can be found within the novel, most symbolically in the actual brick wall of Saskatoon Collegiate. Sal wants to break down the literal wall, but also must destroy the figurative wall inside herself that has surrounded her since her father's suicide, for which Sal feels responsible. First, we see the destruction of "The wall inside me [Sal]. I feel a huge open space where it used to be" (Goobie, 231). After breaking down that inner wall, Sal ultimately comes to the realization that "The wall was alive. It could think, breathe, learn. Brick by brick it could change and choose, just as she'd changed and chosen. Dusty was right. Anything could happen, it had just happened, and it would continue happening for the rest of her life" (Goobie, 264). This is certainly a more optimistic ending than found in The Chocolate War, but somehow it feels much less realistic.

In both novels, the general cruelty of adolescents is apparent. Cormier is an undisputed master of situations so cruel, one cringes at the reading of them. In The Chocolate War, the students are not just followers, they are bloodthirsty ones:

You see, Carter, people are two things: greedy and cruel. So we have a perfect setup here. The greed part -- a kid pays a buck for a chance to win a hundred. Plus fifty boxes of chocolates. The cruel part -- watching two guys hitting each other, maybe hurting each other, while they're safe in the bleachers. That's why it works, Carter, because we're all bastards.

(Cormier, 241)

In The Lottery, Goobie takes this cruelty to a new extreme, which points to the Shadow Council members as belonging to a type of high school cult. At the end of one meeting, Willis tells them, " 'Our duty for the day is done. You are now free to go and bless the masses of S.C. with your undeniable presence.' Carelessly, he rippled his right hand. 'Remember who you are.' 'Shadow', the others whispered simultaneously, the sound creeping up the back of Sal's neck" (Goobie, 169). The Shadow Council does have an undeniable presence at S.C., and the students, for the most part, blindly follow their orders in part from fear, but also because obeying is easier and less risky than disobeying. Or there could be a further meaning: "If they [the Shadow Council] didn't exist, who would we be without them?" (Goobie, 209), Sal's friend Brydan asks. To think that a controlling force is a necessary component of the student's identities, well that is very scary indeed. Perhaps, in the 21stCentury, family, religion and community are not as strong influences as they once were, so children and teenagers turn to whatever they can. These teens, who are already at an unstable period in their lives, don't have the desired sense of belonging, so even if a malign force is controlling them, they may not speak out against it for fear of being alienated even further.

Challenging authority is a recurring theme in literature. Consider when the three works being discussed were published: Jackson's "The Lottery" in 1948, Cormier's The Chocolate War in 1974, and Goobie's The Lottery in 2002. This implies that this type of literature will continue to be written for at least another 50 years, and hopefully longer than that. Of course, there have been other novels (for children, teens, and adults) written in the last 50 years which have a similar theme, such as George Orwell's Nineteen eighty-four, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Todd Strasser's The Wave, Lois Lowry's The Giver, and Mark Dunn's Ella Minnow Pea. Whether they are set in a dystopic futuristic society, or just one with harsh rules, each of these books has a character which, like Jerry Renault or Sal Hansen, said "No. I won't do it." They challenged the status quo. As The Lottery's Sal realizes, a high school ruled by authoritative forces becomes "A system in which everyone played a part. And that part was defined by the people around you. In a system, you didn't think or choose, you just tried to fit in" (Goobie, 253). All it takes is one person to disturb that system. Sal's brother Dusty says, "What's the point if you're the only one? Can't be a revolution on your own" (Goobie, 183), and this is true, one person cannot be a revolution. But one person can start a revolution.

Challenging authority is not just seen in fiction: it is something that teenagers have had to deal with throughout history. But one thing is certain: it is much harder being a teenager today than it ever was. The bullying and general abuse (whether physical or psychological) in schools has reached a dangerous level, and also seems to be starting at a much earlier age. Every so often, an extreme act of violence (such as the murder of Reena Virk, or the Columbine shootings) will occur, and it is only at that point that someone will say "Stop the violence!". The boys at Columbine were, in a sense, challenging authority. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were social outcasts, and wanted to have themselves heard. Unfortunately, they made their statement in such a violent manner that any mission they had was lost in the midst of the bloodshed. An incident such as that shows how important it is for teenagers to have an outlet to speak their minds. Whether it is a discussion group, magazine, or Weblog, it is necessary for teenagers to be able to express their views, so that it does not get to the point that a teenager must use violence to express himself.

Another issue faced by teenagers is the struggle for individuality. It is difficult to be an individual when popular clothing stores and corporations breed conformity. "Everybody in denim", advertised The Gap last year, and if one does not dress in denim, is one doing the wrong thing? One only has to look at teenage girls in any part of the city, and see the similarity between them: a pair of low riding jeans or a short ruffled skirt, an off the shoulder shirt, some flip flops, a little purse, and a cell phone -- at what point does fashion become obsession? Many of these teens of today, who will be the adults of tomorrow, are nearly identical in dress, personality, and attitude. But why speak out when one is doing such a good job of fitting in? It is the dilemma that all teenagers go through: either be the same as your peers, and blend into the crowd, or express your individuality, and face the possibility of being labeled "different". If only different was a good thing in a teenager's eyes. However, the line between "follower" and "leader" is not always clear, which is well demonstrated by both Cormier and Goobie. Neither Jerry nor Sal quickly make the transformation from shy and passive to bold and active: it is a difficult journey, and quite frankly, not a very tempting one. What teenager would want to stand up and speak out if they knew it meant they would have to badly beaten or taken advantage of? There are precious few people that would want to experience that. Perhaps these authors do not intend for all those who read their novels to become a Jerry or a Sal, but rather to further develop their skills of independent thinking, a skill which will last them a lifetime. If a teenager is intelligent and independent, then maybe he or she does not need to disturb the universe every day, just consider what is wrong with it, and think about working towards change.

Works Cited

Campbell, Patricia J. Presenting Robert Cormier. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989.

Campbell, Patty. "A Loving Farewell to Robert Cormier". Horn Book Magazine, Volume 77 (March/ April 2001), 245-249.

Chan, Gillian. "The Lottery" (Review), Books in Canada, Volume 31 (Winter 2002), 45-46.

Eberhart, George M. "New Silly Reasons to Ban Books". American Libraries, Volume 29 (November 1998), 26.

Goobie, Beth. The Lottery. Victoria: Orca Book Publishers, 2002.

Jackson, Shirley. The Lottery and Other Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982.

Kirman, Paula E. "Beth Goobie: Power and Survival". Published online March 17, 2000, at http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/canadian_literature/35311; Accessed March 18, 2004.

Kosenko, Peter. "A Reading of Shirley Jackson's The Lottery", accessed online at http://www.netwood.net/~kosenko/jackson.html; Accessed March 18, 2004.

Waters, Roger. "The Wall", Pink Floyd, Capitol Records, 1979.

 

Jen Waters


Volume 8, Issue 3 The Looking Glass, September, 2004

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Do I Dare Disturb the Universe? A Study of Anti-Authoritarian Young Adult Novels" © Jen Waters 2004
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

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