The Tortoise's Tale

"... we went to school in the sea. The Master was an old turtle-we used to call him Tortoise-"
"Why did you call him Tortoise, if he wasn't one?" Alice asked.
"We called him Tortoise, because he taught us, " said the Mock Turtle

Jill P. May, editor

Breaking the Binary: Using Kohlberg and Lesko to Examine Adolescence in Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why

Chea Parton

Chea Parton taught high school English for three years and is currently a doctoral student at Purdue University. Her research interests include adolescence as a social construct as well as how YAL contributes to and challenges its construction.

It is no secret that the strict separation of binaries is a hindrance to progression in multiple areas of society. One of the pair is privileged above its counterpart, and the lack of reconciliation forces us to construct various aspects of society in certain ways that always come with consequences. When it comes to the concept of adolescence, the binary sits between proponents of the developmental persuasion, like Lawrence Kohlberg, and those who maintain that adolescence is a cultural construct, like Nancy Lesko. Both positions are critical of one another, and the rift existing between the two is detrimental to potential ways of understanding adolescence, adolescents, and the popular culture (e.g., books, movies, television shows, music, etc.) that depicts them and is marketed toward them. This paper will break down that binary, combining the camps in order to foster new understandings of teenagers as well as how they are perceived by the authors who write their stories and the adults and teenagers who read them.

Building on the work of Jean Piaget, Kohlberg maintains that adolescence is a function of biology and age and that as children age they pass through linear stages of physical development that affects the development of other traits such as morality. Kohlberg’s theory of moral development holds that moral reasoning develops through six stages situated in three levels (pre-conventional morality, conventional morality, and post-conventional morality), each subsequent stage responding more adequately to moral dilemmas.  Lesko on the other hand, argues that the concept of adolescence and the teen experience have become a naturalized concept in our society. She maintains:

Adolescents, whether embodied as television’s stars of Beverly Hills 90210, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, or The Wonder Years, as pregnant teenagers on the cover of Time magazine, or as the ubiquitous knots of teenagers at shopping malls and video arcades, are a familiar and seemingly fixed element of the social, cultural, and economic landscape. (140)

Through these avenues of mass consumption, typical teenage characteristics (i.e., driven by hormones, wracked by low self-esteem, focused on friends, and obsessed with identity development) are also naturalized. Creating an overwhelming consensus among society members that these characteristics are only adolescent characteristics, that they control teen behavior, and they incapacitate adolescent decision-making—all of which connect to teen morality and moral development.

Along with these representations, arguably much more ubiquitous since the advent of the internet and social media, scientists contribute to these assumptions and perceptions as well. Outlining and describing this phenomenon, Lesko states, “If a scientist proclaims the potentials and problems of coming of age, then the scientist who is defining the not yet of age is positionally superior. Being in the state of coming of age erases the ability of those in that state to describe or know themselves and places the privilege and responsibility on adult experts to explain adolescents” (149). From this point of view, developmental psychologists like Kohlberg contribute to the overwhelmingly negative perception of adolescence/ts by legitimizing teens’ massification. Kohlberg is a scientist whose privileged position gives him the power to define what adolescence is and where a particular teen sits on a staged spectrum of moral development. But does that mean that his theory is useless or harmful? It does not have to be. If we know that his theory of moral development has contributed to the way adolescence has been constructed, as Lesko argues his position as a scientist allows him to do, we can use it to examine and counteract the ways in which adolescence/ts is continuing to be constructed. Acknowledging the ways (for better or worse) that Kohlberg’s theory affects the representations of teens in popular culture like YAL, we can open new avenues of understanding the representation of youth and how we use those representations as pedagogical material in our classrooms.

Why Kohlberg?

Many educators will remember being introduced to Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory on the stages of moral reasoning development. In his dissertation, “The Development of Modes of Thinking and Choices in Years 10 to 16,” Kohlberg seemingly attempts to wed the two concepts in his theory of moral reasoning development. In many ways, Kohlberg’s theory is connected to biology in that the moral stages of development are connected to age, occur in a linear fashion, and allow for no regression—one cannot go back to age ten after one has reached age sixteen (Kroger 108). Though his work is not recent or without issue, Kohlberg’s work serves as a foundation for other theorists and is still being studied and researched today. Because his theory has been so foundational, it is fair to wonder to what degree aspects of his theory have permeated and affected culture writ large and by extension how it has affected YAL authors and their texts. Despite its age, Kohlberg’s work presents a unique lens through which to examine how adolescent moral reasoning is depicted in YA fiction, how those depictions reflect or intersect with commonly held beliefs about adolescence, and how they might contribute to the attitudes readers have about people experiencing that particular stage in life.

In this article, I use Kohlberg’s cognitive-developmental model of adolescent stages of moral growth (developmental) to examine Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why and how character development might affect adolescent and adult readers’ understandings of adolescence (social construction). I argue that young adult books like Asher’s reduce the adolescent experience to a series of decisions made by overly exuberant and hormone-ridden brains, and that, therefore, they are ineffective, and even irresponsible, in portraying adolescent life. YA novels make incredible contributions to the cultural construction of adolescent, and examining those contributions is a crucial part of understanding why adolescents hold their current position in society and how that position is constructed.

Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development—A Refresher

In the beginning of The Primal Teen, a largely biological/physiological focused text on adolescent development and behavior, Strauch uses some anecdotes of teenage decision making in order to illustrate some of the problems teenagers have when making decisions. One such story is of a thirteen-year-old young man who, feeling imprisoned at a school dance, broke the rules and left the gymnasium to run a circle around it. After being caught, his parents scolded him and told him that he must apologize to everyone inconvenienced by his antics. They state, “he couldn’t get outside of himself to understand things from someone else’s point of view” (4). But they, as far as readers are aware, never ask him about his reasoning. Besides feeling imprisoned, they never attempt to get to the bottom of why he broke the rules and left the gym. The reasoning behind his decision would have been of interest to Kohlberg; after all, it is what his whole theory revolves around.

Jane Kroger’s  Identity in Adolescence: The Balance between Self and Other is a compiled outline of seminal theories surrounding adolescent identity development and the work founded on those theories that continues to be done. In it, she outlines and summarizes Kohlberg’s theory and how it has evolved and lives on in modern work on adolescent identity formation. Because of this, I have heavily relied on that work in this section. Studying adolescent boys ages 10, 13, and 16 years old, Kohlberg presented each with a series of nine hypothetical dilemmas in order to determine what types of moral reasoning were being used by each boy. Using the results of this work, Kohlberg proposed three levels, each level comprised of two stages, and six hierarchical stages of moral reasoning development. For an outline of Kohlberg’s stages, see the table I configured in Figure 1. After proposing the stages, further research was performed, ultimately supporting his work (Kroger 94-116).
Figure 1: Kohlberg’s stages

Level 1:

The self is the main concern. Right and wrong, good and bad, are culturally defined, but one interprets them according his/her own interests.

Stage 1:
Heteronomous morality

Obedience to authority and the avoidance of punishment are emphasized.

Stage 2:
Individualism, instrumental purpose and exchange

Reciprocity is a main concern. People are only valuable when they can meet the other person’s needs.

Level 2:

Groups like family, society, and/or nation become valuable for their own sake.

Stage 3:
Interpersonal conformity

Concern for the opinions of others and conformity to group norms. Doing what is considered ‘natural’ by society is valued.

Stage 4:
Social system and conscience

Uphold the laws and rules of the social system to be ‘right’. Performing one’s duty to society in order to maintain social order is emphasized.

Level 3:
Post-conventional or principled

Able to define moral values in a way not governed by social convention or the prevailing legal system.

Stage 5:
Social Contract

Group values are relative and social and community norms are considered malleable/changeable if change is needed or warranted. Social order is emphasized but not for its own sake.

Stage 6:
Universal ethical principles

What is ‘good’ and/or ‘right’ is determined by one’s own conscience and moral principles developed by the self. Human rights and dignity outweigh written law.

Kohlberg found little variation among respondents across all nine dilemmas, leading him to believe that movement throughout the stages is linear and once one has achieved a certain stage, he/she will not regress to a previous stage, ultimately rendering the theory rigid with no room for fluidity among the stages. Also problematic is the fact that all of the participants in his study were boys, leaving other theorists to question the generalizability of the study (106).

Despite its issues, Kohlberg’s theory of moral reasoning development is extremely useful in examining YA literature and characters largely because he believed movement beyond each stage was teachable. Rising in part from the injustice of the Holocaust, Kohlberg desired for his theory to have an impact on society. Kroger argues that “the field of education has been the greatest beneficiary of Kohlberg’s efforts at application” (116) in that the principles involved in his approach are included in moral education programs used by many secondary schools today.

Kohlberg’s model of moral education strove to avoid educating via the hidden and ‘bag of virtues’ curricula by presenting students with moral dilemmas one stage higher than their current level. He argued that this was the only way to maintain a student’s moral freedom, respect his/her individual autonomy, and reject indoctrination, ultimately encouraging and supporting the student’s self-determined identity. He values the respect for student autonomy over that of parental rights and rejects the idea that teenagers must be indoctrinated in order to develop astute moral reasoning skills (118). Educational programs, teachers in their own classrooms, and service organizations have continued to employ aspects of Kohlberg’s approach to moral reasoning development. Even Young Adult literature, whether expressed explicitly by the authors or not, possesses this type of pedagogical function often offering stories of teenagers in the midst of moral dilemmas to teen and adult readers alike.  In examining Asher’s text, I explore the developmental stages of the characters as well as whether or not the type of moral education undertaken by each text is, in a Kohlbergian sense, responsible and/or effective in the pursuit of educating adolescents to improve their moral reasoning skills.

Applying Kohlberg’s Theory

Whether intentional or not, YA books and stories provide a pedagogical function—especially in the way Kohlberg viewed moral education. The novels present teen readers with stories of conflict and often turmoil in teenage characters’ lives, ultimately giving these young readers the opportunity to wrestle (at a safe distance) with some of the most difficult situations and decisions that can exist in a person’s life. Some authors, like Asher, set out with the intent to create a pedagogical text. After he was asked whether he felt he was trying to put across a certain message with Thirteen Reasons Why he answered:

A lot of authors answer “no” to that question, or at least say the book should speak for itself. And I can understand that, but I did have something I wanted to say; and because so many readers seem to understand it, I feel no reason to shy away from that question…it’s impossible to know everything else going on in that person’s life and how we might be adding to his/her pain. People do have an impact on the lives of others; that’s undeniable. My favorite quote came from a girl who said Thirteen Reasons Why made her want to “be wonderful.” How awesome is that! (Asher 297-298)

Clearly he set to writing this story so that it would teach its readers something and shape them in some way. Though a pedagogical purpose is not nearly as explicit in other texts as it is in Asher’s, it is still there teaching teens how the world sees them or how they should be in the world and ultimately adding to the social/cultural construction of adolescence/ts

Although some authors maintain they only set out to write a story, this does not make them any less pedagogical than those stories that were penned for that explicit purpose. Alsup  explains that despite whether authors intend to be pedagogical or not “story surrounds us, forms us, and changes us. Stories make us human” (182). Whether we want them to or not, these stories provide teen readers with a moral education and adult readers with a certain rendering of adolescence and adolescents. It is important to think critically about what that education is and how it is achieved in each text. Lesko’s and Kohlberg’s theories both work nicely to that end.

Thirteen Reasons Why

Asher’s story revolves around a teenage girl named Hannah Baker. After moving into a new district, she tries to make friends and live a “normal” teenage life, but thanks to rumors and a reputation that snowballed out of her first kiss’s brag-session with his friends, her life enters a spiral that ultimately leads to her death. This is not the end of Hannah’s story, but rather the beginning. She narrates her experiences and the dominoes that fell into place leading up to her suicide to a list of thirteen pre-designated people under threat of public exposure. Along with Clay Jensen, a guy who firmly believes he does not deserve to be on the list, we follow Hannah around town, listening to her accusations and the blame she places on others for what was ultimately her decision to take her own life.

Largely, the novel’s movement is driven by the characters’ successes and failures in moral reasoning. It seems that Asher was attempting to help readers understand how their actions impact others and that even the smallest snicker and sideways glance can have a significant (read here negative) effect on that person’s life. If most teenagers inhabit Kohlberg’s second level of reasoning, most especially stage three, that laughter and glance mean more to the affected party than the laughers and glancers might realize. It stands to reason that occupying that stage would make occupants aware of and understanding of how these actions as well as more explicitly hurtful ones could wound their peers. However, it seems through the actions of the majority of Asher’s characters that teens would rather wound each other than show support for one another.

It is no secret that the ability or even propensity to be cruel to one another is part of what makes up the human experience. And Asher’s book is not the first novel to ever undertake the be-good-to-one-another theme, but when looking at its pedagogical agenda via Kohlberg’s stages of development, the novel starts to look a bit irresponsible. Its depiction of teenagers is incredibly one-sided, and the emotional and empathic manipulation that it enacts is on the same level as Hannah’s manipulation of her listeners. We are to blame for the characters’ subpar moral reasoning skills and must learn to be kinder to our peers to save them from suicide, which seems to be a foregone conclusion. This is not to say that books about the complicated nature of suicide all suffer this fate, but that the way Asher situates his characters in their stages of moral reasoning creates an over-simplified and reductionist rendering of teenage suicide, the actions/inactions that might ‘cause’ it, and the teenagers who decide to take that particular route.

The Characters

Though Hannah only names thirteen characters as part of her posthumous blame game, fifteen characters in total are featured making decisions through stages of moral reasoning. Through Hannah’s descriptions of their actions, it is possible to place each character in a level and stage of development. As previously mentioned, it is easy to assume that each of the characters would fit into level two, stage three, (exhibiting concern for the opinions of others and conformity to group norms and valuing what is considered ‘natural’ by society) but in many instances that is not the case.

Hannah Baker

Being the narrator and driving force of the novel, Hannah makes several decisions that showcase her moral development and reasoning skills as well as affect the trajectory and tone of the novel. The most obvious of which is creating the tapes (and the copies for blackmail) as well as her suicide, but more of her actions are up for analysis as well. Though it could be argued that distributing the tapes is her attempt to show the people who made her miserable the evil of their ways and become better people, her words reveal more unbridled revenge than altruism.

On the first cassette, Hannah introduces her listeners (as well as Asher’s readers) to the purpose of the tapes. “I’m about to tell you the story of my life. More specifically, why my life ended. And if you’re listening to these tapes, you’re one of the reasons why” (7, emphasis mine). This is a heavy indictment of all of her listeners and makes clear that in this situation she is judge and jury and has pronounced all of the listeners guilty. Later on the tape she lays out the rules, “There are only two. Rule number one: You listen. Number two: You pass it on. Hopefully, neither one will be easy for you” (8, emphasis mine). Again, her hope that listening to the tapes, learning about their role in her suicide, as well as the sins of the other contributors will be difficult for each listener betrays an anger that erases any thoughts that her purpose is to show readers the error of their ways and eventually make them better people. She warns her audience about the second copy of the tapes and the very public release if not all of them follow her directions. “Do not take me for granted…again,” (10) she warns.

These tapes and forcing those she feels are guilty of her suicide to listen to her story and play her game places Hannah in the pre-conventional level and stage two of Kohlberg’s stages of moral reasoning where reciprocity is a main concern and people are only valuable when they can meet the other person’s needs. The value and worth of her listeners is completely determined by their compliance in meeting Hannah’s needs. She will keep their secrets (and so, assumedly, will all of the other listeners lest their own sins be revealed) if and only if they follow her directions and let her affect their lives in the same way she feels they affected hers. Instead of presenting readers with an adolescent protagonist/narrator who functions at a level and stage higher than that of most readers, Asher created a character who is functioning at a level lower.

Even if readers refuse to pass judgment on Hannah at this particular point in the book thinking that perhaps some of her other decisions might challenge readers’ morality into further development, the rest of Hannah’s decisions exist in this same stage of development or at even lower levels. Her complicated final interactions with Bryce, in which she essentially seems to give him permission to sexually assault her, and her final conversation with Mr. Porter in which she looks to him to give her hope or concretize her decision to commit suicide both reside in level one, stage two, again where reciprocity is valued and people are only valuable insofar as they meet the other person’s needs.

In different ways, she uses both of them to meet her needs. Clay responds to Hannah’s reasoning about joining Bryce and Courtney in the hot tub with his own understanding about why she did what she did that night. “You wanted your world to collapse around you. You wanted everything to get as dark as possible. And Bryce, you knew, could help you do that” (261). Clay believes that Hannah approached Bryce that night because she knew he could make her world dark, dark enough to reinforce her reasons to kill herself. Her interactions with Mr. Porter were just as self-serving but at the opposite end of the spectrum. Bryce she needed to darken the world and Mr. Porter, she needed to brighten it—to give her a reason not to commit suicide. Bryce succeeds whereas Mr. Porter fails (despite the fact that he does every reasonable thing he can with the little amount of information he was given), and thus can “take the tapes straight to hell” (9). Despite the difference of expected or needed outcomes from these interactions, both situations are used for Hannah’s own self-interested purposes.

Her decision to commit suicide in and of itself could arguably be classified as level one, stage one. Although this stage is representative of children four to ten and Hannah is in mid-to-late adolescence, her decision to take her own life is an action in her own self-interest—the physical consequences of which are determined to be right because it is what she wants. So in no part of the plot of the novel does Hannah’s character and decision making skills exist in the latter levels and stages of Kohlberg’s theory which is problematic in terms of his take on moral education as well as what it says about how we construct adolescents. The fact that Asher creates her in this stage reinforces the idea that adolescents should not be trusted with major decisions because their hormones, low self-esteem, and impaired moral reasoning skills cripple them.

Clay Jensen

Clay is the second narrator of this dual narrative and, unlike Hannah, demonstrates more than one level and stage of reasoning in different decision-making situations. While Hannah narrates her story through the tapes, Clay narrates his through his reactions to them.  Clay is part of the thirteen names, does not believe he should be part of them, and is exonerated of any wrong doing by Hannah on his tape. She agrees that he does not belong, but that she included him because in order to tell her story “completely” (200), he needed to be there. Despite the fact that she pronounces his innocence, Clay still ends up feeling guilty. “Why did I listen? Why did I leave her there? She needed me and I knew that. But I was scared. Once again, I let myself get scared” (216). Clay clearly blames himself for the decision to leave even though Hannah does not. In that his decision to leave is based not on his concern for Hannah but his concern for himself, this places Clay in level one and stage two. She cannot save him from his discomfort in the moment which corresponds to both traits of this stage in Kohlberg’s theory (i.e., reciprocity and people are only valuable when they can meet the other person’s needs).

The second plot-driving decision that Clay makes is to listen to the tapes and follow Hannah’s story and map rather than reporting any of the illegal activity that took place to the cops. According to his perfect reputation, readers might think that if anyone were to turn in the tapes it would be Clay. Or perhaps Tony who also seems to have cared about Hannah, has a moral compass, and yet still chooses to follow the names listed counseling them as they listen rather than take the tapes to the authorities. This decision is characteristic of level two and stage three where the concern for the opinions of others and conformity to group norms trumps concern for the law. Pleasing their peer group, the other names on the list, and Hannah is more important to them than upholding the laws of the larger social structure. This seems to be a fairly stereotypically adolescent thing to do. Rather than do the ‘right’ thing by going to the authorities, Tony and Clay both protect the other members of the list (the smaller social group) rather than adhere to the laws of larger society.

Despite being situated in these lower two levels, Clay is the only character who makes it past level two. When he first begins to listen to the tapes, Clay realizes that he is going to need another means of listening to the tapes. The stereo in his parents’ garage is not going to give him the kind of privacy or mobility that he needs. Remembering that Tony has a Walkman, Clay heads to Tony’s house to ask to borrow it. When he arrives, Tony and his father are working on his Mustang, and serendipitously ask Clay to hop in and turn the key. Clay sees the Walkman laying in the backseat and decides to take it without asking. He did not want to invite Tony to ask questions and decided that it was not wrong to steal it because he needed it for something so important that breaking the law was in this case justified, placing him in level three because he is able to define moral values in a way not governed by social convention or the prevailing legal system.

Hannah, Tony, and Clay are clearly the characters with whom readers are most encouraged to identify. Though Tony and Clay refuse to do the ‘right’ thing and go to the authorities, they are the only two characters who ever seem to genuinely care about what happened to Hannah. Other characters are depicted having adverse reactions to the news of Hannah’s death, namely Jenny Kurtz and Mr. Porter, but Asher allows only Clay and Tony to voice how they feel about or how they feel they possibly contributed to Hannah’s decision to commit suicide. Hannah, on the other hand, despite her distasteful motives behind leaving the tapes and casting blame for her actions on to others, is held up as a martyr and an example of why readers should be kind to others. The other members of Hannah’s list of names may contribute to Hannah’s story in major ways but are relatively minor in terms of driving Asher’s plot.

The Rest of Hannah's List

he majority of the other characters who found their way onto Hannah’s list did so by occupying Kohlberg’s level one, stage two where reciprocity is a main concern and people are only valuable when they can meet the other person’s needs. Alex Standall, Marcus Cooley, Jessica Davis, Courtney Crimsen, Zach Dempsey, and Ryan Shaver all make moral decisions that Hannah claims affected her decision to take her life and occupy stage two in Kohlberg’s model. Tyler Down and Jenny Kurtz do not make it past level one, stage one (obedience to authority and the avoidance of punishment are emphasized), Justin Foley resides in the stereotypical level two, stage three (concern for the opinions of others and conformity to group norms and doing what is considered ‘natural’ by society is valued), and Mr. Porter, the final name and outlier, occupies level two, stage four (consider upholding the laws and rules of the social system to be ‘right’ and performing one’s duty to society in order to maintain social order is emphasized).

Occupying the individualism, instrumental purpose and exchange stage (level one, stage two) of Kohlberg’s theory, Alex, Marcus, Jessica, Courtney, Zach, and Ryan interact with Hannah in ways that will yield them something. The decisions they make concern her, but are totally driven by self-interest and self-satisfaction. Alex Standall creates his best/worst list, naming Hannah “best ass in the freshman class” (37) opposite of Jessica Davis, his ex-girlfriend, in order to enact some revenge. His target was not Hannah, but Jessica; he simply used Hannah to get what he wanted. Similarly, Zach Dempsey, in act of vengeance, steals the encouraging notes from Hannah’s paper bag in Mrs. Bradley’s Peer Communications class in order to have revenge. Hannah did not acquiesce to his rescue, embarrassing him in front of his friends (i.e., she did not meet his needs) and thus he took the notes that she maintains she needed at that time in her life.

Marcus Cooley and Bryce Walker demand that she meet their needs in a much more sinister and carnal fashion. On their Valentine’s date at Rosie’s, Marcus assaults Hannah behind the pinball machine until she forces him out of the booth. The other patrons, occupying level two, stage three (concern for the opinions of others, conformity to group norms are valued), refuse to rock the boat by not stepping in to help her. “So they knew something was going on in that booth, they just didn’t feel like helping. Thanks” (143). Bryce Walker has a long track record of occupying this stage of Kohlberg’s theory, in all instances in this same carnal way. After the publication of Alex’s list, Bryce gropes Hannah at a convenience store. (48). He rapes Jessica Davis after she had passed out due to excessive drinking at a party. And he rapes (though Hannah refuses to call it this) Hannah in Courtney Crimsen’s hot tub. Clearly, when it came to Hannah (or seemingly women in general) his only concern for them only went as far as how they could meet his carnal needs.

Jessica Davis, Courtney Crimsen, and Ryan Shaver all befriend Hannah in order to get what they need from her (level one, stage two: reciprocity and others are valuable only if the meet the other person’s needs), but do not hesitate to betray her friendship when it serves their interests. Jessica befriends Hannah at the beginning of the school year with a little encouragement from the counselor because they are both new to the district. She, Alex, and Hannah serve as a good support system for each other. That is, until Jessica and Alex begin dating. Then, the trips to the coffee shop to support each other stop, and eventually when things go sour in Jessica and Alex’s relationship, he situates them opposite each other in the best/worst list. Jessica then officially, not to mention very publicly and violently, ends their friendship at the same coffee shop with a slap because their friendship was no longer serving Jessica’s self-interest (stage one, level two: reciprocity and value in meeting the other person’s needs).

Likewise, Courtney befriends Hannah when it is convenient or interesting to her. She helps Hannah catch the peeping Tom outside her window and then virtually ignores Hannah until she needs a ride to a party. Once Hannah fulfills Courtney’s need for the ride, Courtney adds to the rumors about Hannah by telling some guys at the party about the kinds of “secrets” (114) Hannah has in her bedroom drawers in order to maintain her cool image. Ryan Shaver is also guilty of this kind of selfish behavior. He befriends Hannah in their poetry class because there is really no one else their age in the writing group. Eventually she comes to trust him enough to share with him her poetry, her private thoughts. In this act of trust, he did not see friendship but rather opportunity. Publishing one of Hannah’s poems, labeled as “scary” (189) in the Lost-N-Found. This action increased the popularity of the journal meeting his need, but also opened up Hannah’s private thoughts for study, ridicule, and parody.

Outside of this majority of level one, stage two occupants, Jenny Kurtz and Tyler Down sit squarely within level one, stage one where obedience to authority and the avoidance of punishment are emphasized. The decisions they both make are purely hedonistic and completely self-centered. Tyler peeps into Hannah’s bedroom at night taking photos, hoping to catch something lurid and then lies (poorly) about being the one who was doing it. The peeping was for pure self-gratification and the subsequent lying was to avoid punishment. Similarly when Jenny Kurtz knocks over the stop sign and tells an insistent Hannah that she had already called the cops, she lied. Both the lie so that Hannah would not call the police and refusing to call the cops herself were self-interested decisions made so that Jenny could avoid punishment.

Justin Foley, like Clay and Tony, situates himself in level two, stage three, the stereotypical adolescent stage where concern for the opinions of others and conformity to group norms dominates a teen’s will to do what is ‘right’ whether in accordance with the law or their own personal moral code. Justin cares more about what his peer group (especially the males) think about him than what is considered good and right by society at large. He tells an exaggerated version of his kiss with Hannah in the park. Clay remembers it like this: “I can still see Justin huddled among his friends at school. I remember Hannah walking by, and the whole group stopped talking. They averted their eyes. And when she passed, they started laughing” (30). Obviously, Justin’s desire to fit in with his group of friends and to do what is natural for teenage boys (brag about their sexual conquests) outweighed society’s disapproval of lying. Readers also witness this same desire as he maintains his level two, stage three status when he allows Bryce into the room to rape Jessica and then fails to report it to the authorities. He chooses to protect his friend, despite Bryce’s deplorable actions, over the code of greater moral decency.

Last on Hannah’s list is Mr. Porter, the only adult named on the list and the person she charged with showing her the hope in living, in humanity, and ultimately with giving her a reason not to kill herself.

One. . .last. . . . try. . . . I’m giving life one more chance. And this time, I’m getting help. . . . Of course, if you’re listening to this, I failed. Or he failed. And if he fails, the deal is sealed. . . . Only one person stands between you and this collection of audiotapes: Mr. Porter (269).

This is a hefty job to give to any single individual, let alone a new counselor. He tries to get at Hannah’s problem, to figure out what is bothering her and how to help her. The trouble is that he sits in level two, stage four where upholding the laws and rules of the social system are considered to be ‘right’ and performing one’s duty to society to maintain social order is emphasized, and she does not. From the beginning of their conversation, Hannah holds back and refuses to be open with Mr. Porter. Perhaps she is wary that he will or will have to report some of what she says. When he suggests that she press charges, Hannah sighs like she is frustrated with the way the conversation is going. If the law cannot help her, which a resident of stage four would believe, then he suggests that the best option might be to move past it. In this suggestion, Mr. Porter seems to side with all of the other thirteen people (minus Clay) that she implicates in her death and thus seals her fate. With the overwhelming presence of failed moral reasoning or low level moral development, it seems that Jay Asher meant to show teenagers what not to do or who not to be rather than, as Kohlberg suggests, present them with moral reasoning beyond their current stage to help them develop their moral reasoning skills and bring them into the next stage. Again, contributing to overall negative stereotypes and perceptions of teens.

Implications and Conclusions

Whether or not Kohlberg’s theory is considered to be the most contemporary model of adolescent development, using it to examine the characters, levels of moral reasoning, and stages of moral development authors are presenting (purposefully or not) to adolescent and adult readers presents a unique opportunity for analysis. Each of the arguments I propose for the placement of certain characters in certain stages is just that, an argument. Though the stages are clearly delineated, not every reader will interpret Kohlberg’s stages or their application to fictional characters in the same way. The nebulous nature of the categories is somewhat problematic; however, it demonstrates that as much as we would like to reduce adolescent moral reasoning and development down to clearly defined, linear, and hierarchical stages controlled by hormones in a teen’s developing brain, it is impossible to get it exactly right.

Though the characters of this novel are not all situated in a single stage of Kohlberg’s theory, using his theory in the context of Lesko’s theory of adolescence as a cultural construct to analyze texts (whether YAL, television shows, movies, etc.) can give us a better understanding of the constructions of adolescence and adolescents that writers are presenting to young and old readers alike. Asher’s text paints an incredibly bleak picture of what it looks like and means to be a teenager. When Hannah asks Tyler to take her picture with Courtney for the yearbook, he tells her that they will never print it because of the underage drinking. To which she replies, “Right. Why would they want a yearbook that showed actual student life?” (115). This is a problematic perception and construction of teenage life in that it presents adolescence as comprised of lower level moral development and it presents adults with precisely the life that they fear and believe most if not all teenagers live.

sher’s text reduces adolescence down to a series of bad decisions made in stunted moral growth involving drinking, drugs, sex, and suicide. Though there is most likely a spectrum of adolescent moral development depicted in YA literature, this text is an incredibly inaccurate depiction of what it means to be a single adolescent in a single context, but instead works to contribute to the overwhelming cumulative and massified cultural text of adolescence and adolescents that YA, television shows, and movies compile—largely that they are irresponsible, rebellious, and incapable of making wise decisions. Without combining the two theories and using them to analyze the text in this way, how Thirteen Reasons Why (and any other YA text) contributes to that cumulative cultural text of adolescent is not readily apparent.

Obviously, this article only examines one text out of a multitude of YA literature. Using Kohlberg’s theory as a lens to examine more texts would be helpful in answering questions about the possible impact of YAL we consider teaching in our classrooms. It is easy for us to get excited about teaching YAL to students because of its popularity, and because of the way it engages our students. No text is particularly good or bad for students, but the way we teach it could be. Using these two theories in concert with one another could help us formulate questions concerning how adolescence/ts is depicted in any novel and foster important discussions with teenagers concerning how they are represented and understood by society.

Breaking the binary and combining Kohlberg’s theory of moral reasoning development with the concept of adolescence as a cultural construct provides an interesting framework by which to analyze the characters in YAL as well as their moral reasoning skills, provides a new opportunity and platform by which to discuss moral education in schools as it exists, how it could be improved, and ultimately illustrates that reductionist depictions of adolescents, whether biological, psychological, or sociological, positive or negative, do not accurately represent adolescent culture and could potentially create issues for adolescent and adult readers. If we believe that literature has the power to affect readers, then we should consider how depictions of adolescents in YA books contribute to the cultural construction of teenager.


Works Cited

Alsup, Janet. “More than a 'Time of Storm and Stress': The Complex Depiction of Adolescent Identity in Contemporary Young Adult Novels.”  The Critical Merits of Young Adult Literature: Coming of Age. London and New York: Routledge, 2014. Print.

- - - . “Teaching Literature in an Age of Text Complexity.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 57.3 (2013): 181-184. Print.

Asher, Jay. Thirteen Reasons Why. New York: Penguin Group, 2007. Print.

Kohlberg, Lawrence. The Development of Modes of Thinking and Choices in Years 10 to 16. Diss. University of Chicago. 1958. Print.

Kroger, Jane. Identity in Adolescence: The Balance between Self and Other.  3rd ed. London: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Lesko, Nancy. “Denaturalizing Adolescence: The Politics of Contemporary Representations.” Youth & Society 28. 2 (1996): 139-161. Print.

Strauch, Barbara. The Primal Teen. New York: Anchor Books, 2003. Print.



Chea Parton

Volume 18, Issue 1, The Looking Glass, August 2015

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"Breaking the Binary: Using Kohlberg and Lesko to Examine Adolescence in Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why" © Chea Parton, 2015.
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