The Harry Potter novels as a test case for adolescent literature

The Harry Potter novels as a test case for adolescent literature

Roberta Seelinger Trites

When I first read J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (1997), I did not understand its mass appeal. It is clever and charming, but it is also episodically plotted, relatively predictable, derivative of Baum, Lewis, and Dahl, and it is altogether more sexist than it needs to be. But as I read the final chapter, I discovered Rowling’s secret ingredients: the book portrays parents’ love as omnipotent, and it provides a reassuring message about death. These represent two of the most essential ingredients of children’s literature. (1) As a whole, the series also participates in the traditions of adolescent literature. As the characters in the series grow older, the books shift solidly onto the terrain of adolescent literature. The characters learn to recognize their autonomy from their parents, but death becomes more threatening, more of a menace, than it is in the first Harry Potter book. Moreover, the Potter books demonstrate another defining characteristic of adolescent literature: the charac ters begin to explore their sexuality. Throughout the series, the books also rely on social institutions to proscribe adolescents’ place in society. Thus, as a series, the Harry Potter books provide us with the opportunity to interrogate what constitutes adolescent literature.

Although the task of defining adolescent literature has engaged numerous scholars, many do so by comparing the genre to adult rather than children’s literature. Certainly, both children’s and adolescent literature were greatly influenced by Romanticism. Indeed, the first novels to focus on the transition between childhood and adolescence were written during the Romantic era; Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795-96) is often cited as the first such novel. Labeled “Bildungsromane” by such literary critics as Susanne Howe, G. B. Tennyson, and Jerome Buckley, the coming-of-age novel focuses on the development of the adolescent into an adult. Buckley, for example, defines an adult as one who has achieved the capacity to work and love, but his model is relatively androcentric (22-23). Feminist critics including Annis Pratt; Eve Kornfield and Susan Jackson; Barbara White; and Elizabeth Abel, Elizabeth Langland, and Marianne Hirsch point out that the pattern of development differs for the male and female p rotagonist. Female protagonists are more likely to define maturity in terms of inner growth and familial relations than they are in terms of achieving independence from their parents (Abel, et al., 8-11). Regardless of the protagonist’s gender, however, critics of the Bildungsroman seek to understand narrative structure in terms of character development.

But scholars of literature written specifically for adolescents–to which I refer as “young adult literature”–are more likely to focus on issues of audience and need than on paradigmatic stages of character development. Such critics as Ben F. Nelms, Sheila Schwartz, Kenneth Donelson and Alleen Pace Nilsen, Geraldine DeLuca, Robert C. Small, Marilynn Olson, Michael Steig, Marc Aronson, and Michael Cart tend to ask the implied questions “for whom is the novel written and what is its purpose?” Peter Hollindale, for instance, singles out the epiphany as the defining characteristic that provides adolescent novels with a cathartic function; he firmly believes adolescents need the emotional outlet that books provide (116-32). Maria Nikolajeva and Caroline Hunt also employ poststructural methodologies to investigate how material culture infiltrates the genre to help define it. Most of these critics still assume that depicting characters who grow is still an essential component of the genre.

From my vantage point, however, the crux of defining adolescent literature as distinct from children’s literature resides in the issue of power. While in children’s literature, growth is depicted as a function of what the character has learned about self, growth in adolescent literature is inevitably depicted as a function of what the adolescent has learned about how society curtails the individual’s power. The adolescent cannot grow without experiencing gradations between power and powerlessness. Consequently, power is even more fundamental to the genre than growth is. During adolescence, adolescents must learn their place in the power structure by experiencing each of three interrelated issues: They must learn to negotiate the many institutions that shape them, they must also learn to balance their power with their parents’ power and with the power of authority figures in general, and, finally, they must learn what portion of power they wield because of and despite such biological imperatives as sex and de ath. Adolescents are empowered by institutions and their parents and by their knowledge of their bodies, but by offering up rules and holding repercussions over their heads that limit their newfound freedoms, these things also restrict them. Foucault tells us it is in the very nature of power to be both enabling and repressive because it is omnipresent: “power is everywhere; not because it embraces everything but because it comes from everywhere” (History of Sexuality 93).

Institutional Repression

Harry Potter, the disempowered orphan we meet at the beginning of the Harry Potter books, is a classic example of adolescent growth being constructed in terms of power that comes from everywhere. When we first meet Harry, he is pitiful in a comic sort of way. He lives under the stairs at his aunt and uncle’s house. They are his guardians because his parents are dead. On Harry’s eleventh birthday, he magically receives a letter that tells him he is a wizard eligible to attend Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. Receiving the riches that his parents have deposited at the wizards’ bank is only one part of the patrimony that subsequently enables him. Suddenly the boy who has nothing has everything, including more power than the family he is living with, those no-account, non-magical Muggles (as those of us who are magic-deprived are called). Virtually all of the characters in the book are obsessed with power, especially with increasing their magical powers. In the initial story, these powers are defined as either “good” or “bad”: a character in the first book reduces everything in Harry Potter’s world to a reductive power binary when he comments. “There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it” (Sorcerer’s Stone 291). But as the series progresses, so does the depiction of the moral complexity of power, and some characters’ powers are portrayed ambiguously. In the third and fourth novels, for example, one of the teachers in Harry’s school, Severus Snape, is portrayed as having an ambivalent relationship with the leader of evil in the wizarding world. The dark forces–currently disempowered by Harry Potter and his parents–spend the entire series trying to rebuild their power base. In each of the first four books Harry has enough power to save the world from complete destruction. But his first and most important empowerment comes from the sense of identity he has as a member of his school.

In the case of the Harry Potter books, school serves as the institutional setting of socialization that teaches the protagonist both his abilities and his limitations. As Gregory Maguire points out in the New York Times, that Rowling has coupled the hero’s tale of apprenticeship with the school story accounts for much of the series’ success. The books all partake of the formula familiar to readers of School Stories: addressed to children from the point of view of a child, the texts are middle-class in their perspective, and they follow a boy through several years at school focusing on two types of adventures, competition at sports and moral adventures (Clark 3-4). If the purpose of the School Story is to indoctrinate school-aged children into their place in the market economy (Clark 4-5), then the Harry Potter books certainly succeed. While at Hogwarts, Harry learns the uses of money and the problems with a social class system based on identity politics (including learning to distinguish “pureblood” wizards, “mudblood wizards,” in whose veins flows some rather unfortunate Muggle blood, and, worst of all, the subalterns of the wizard world, Muggles). He learns the case system of the supernatural world (ghosts are superior to poltergeists, for example, and most wizards despise giants); and he learns that those with the most honor ultimately have the most power. After all, Dumbledore, the school’s headmaster, is the world’s most powerful wizard because he is the most noble.

As class-conscious as most schools are, Hogwarts displays a dynamic traced by Yoshida Junko that is present at the heart of many school stories. Borrowing from Jeremy Bentham’s model for the ideal prison, Foucault depicts a “panopticon” as a circular prison guarded by a central watchtower. Prisoners housed on the circumference of the wheel theoretically behave themselves because they never know when they are being watched (Foucault, Discipline 201). This model is at work in The Chocolate War (1974), by Robert Cormier (Yoshida 111). Certainly the students at Hogwarts–who are watched not only by their teachers, but also by prefects, by poltergeists, and even by the portraits on the wall–live in an atmosphere of constant surveillance designed to remind them of their powerlessness. The greatest testimony to the power Harry Potter’s father and his friends wield in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999) is their ability to hide a portion of their magical powers from their omniscient headmaster. This sen se of institutional watchfulness is present in most novels for adolescents, reinforcing for the adolescent reader the impossibility of solipsism. (2)

Mikhail Bakhtin might note that the need for the panopticon exists in conjunction with the carnivalesque atmosphere present in all schools. The carnival exists as a steam-letting measure that allows the masses to feel temporarily empowered so that they will willingly retain their disempowered social status (195-206). At Hogwarts, the trips to the local town and the occasional high-jinks tolerated by the school faculty provide an antidote to their students’ sometimes overwhelming power. The carnivalesque has, nevertheless, a constraining function since its ultimate goal is to ensure the status quo. Thus, schools repress with authoritarian measures, such as the panopticon, and they repress with allegedly antiauthoritarian measures, such as carnivals–but in order to endure, the institution must necessarily invoke some form of tolerable institutional repression. Harry and his friends coexist with this system, recognizing it as especially necessary in an environment wherein magic has empowered students far more t han students in the average (Muggle) school. But the fact remains: the school teaches them, increasing their knowledge and therefore their power, while it simultaneously represses those powers. The very function of such institutions as school, government, religion, identity politics, and family is to serve as “Ideological State Apparatuses” that interpellate subjects as socially constructed beings (Althusser 155). School is the institution that indoctrinates Harry and his friends into the social state in which they live. Hogwarts does so by simultaneously liberating and limiting the adolescents who live there. In almost every adolescent novel, some institution exists that simultaneously increases and decreases adolescents’ sense of their own power.

Parental Authority

If being empowered by institutional repression marks one necessary ingredient of adolescent literature, the adolescent’s ability to negotiate parental authority marks another. According to Jacques Lacan, the child’s first emotional crisis must be negotiated with the mother as the child moves from a stage of Imaginary oneness with her to a recognition that he is separate from her (Ecrits 1-7, 197-99; see also Natov 1-16). From there follows entry into the Symbolic Order, marked by conflict with the Name-of-the-Father (Lacan, Ecrits 199). For adolescent literature, this translates into a necessary from of the Oedipal struggle that seems (at times maddeningly) unavoidable for Western authors of adolescent literature. For critics of the Bildungsroman, such as Buckley and Tennyson, the son’s ability to reject the father is the critical component of maturity. Feminist scholars and those who have learned from Lacan have a slightly more nuanced reading of the process that includes the adolescent’s ability to (Imagina rily) identify with and eventually separate from the mother.

In any event, Harry Potter displays both strands of crisis with parental authority. For example, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry learns that his mother saved him from certain death through sheer dint of her love for him. When Harry was a baby, his family was attacked by the evil wizard Voldemort (often called–in language that seems to parody Lacan–“He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named”). Harry’s mother has sacrificed her own life for her son’s. As a result, Voldemort can kill the boy neither in that attack nor in subsequent attacks later in the series. Once Harry realizes this, he feels loyally identified with his mother. In his memory, he exists within her powerful love, is One with her, and so cannot be vanquished by this masculinized agent of World Death. (3) Harry struggles throughout his life with this male agent of the Symbolic Order who would separate him from the inviolability of his Imaginary existence with his mother. But, of course, his sense of Imaginary Oneness with his mother can exist onl y because she is dead. The relationship is therefore entirely imaginary in both the Lacanian and the non-Lacanian senses of the term.

Harry’s father plays a prominent role in the third novel, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, when Harry fears the Dementors, a type of incubus that sucks people’s souls out of their bodies. From his father’s best friend–a thinly veiled father-figure functioning in loco parentis–the boy learns to work a spell called a “patronus” that evokes the spirit of the father to protect him from Dementors. Harry’s ability to work the spell resides in his eventual perception that his father lives within him; the boy has supplanted his father and become his father so that now he can save himself from evil. Only because of this introjection is Harry fully able to enter the Symbolic Order, an entry marked by his success in evoking the necessary words of the spell that give him power over the (always and only male) Dementors. It is as if Harry has created a spell out of words evoking his father in logos parentis, if my violent yoking of heterogeneous languages can be forgiven. (4) The physical absence of Harry’s fath er necessitates the boy’s creation of a symbolic presence for his father to serve as a defense against death. When Harry defends himself from death by creating his father out of words within his own mind, he has experienced a misrecognition, a meconnaissance, that allows him to (mis)perceive himself as an “‘Ideal-I,’ a person whole and entire, capable and independent” (McGillis 42). With this action, the boy proves that Oedipus is alive and well at Hogwards School for Witchcraft and Wizardry–and the proves the inseparability of his growth from his perception of his power in relationship to his parents’ power.

A necessary component of every Harry Potter book is his conflict with the power wielded by at least one of his teachers. Throughout the series, Harry and his friends conflict with Severus Snape, the potions teacher at Hogwarts. Harry also has conflicts in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1999) with a teacher named Gilderoy Lockhart because Harry recognizes how duplicitous the man is. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, he questions the authority of the journalist named Rita Skeeter. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000), Harry conflicts with one of the Ministers of Magic. In all of these experiences, Harry is testing his powers; but significantly, in all of them, he still manages to retain a tenable position within Hogwarts as an institution. While he is able to confront authority, he never completely overthrows it. He is never an agent of anarchy. Ultimately, all of his actions serve to support the intentions of the headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, so while Harry may appear rebellious, he is no iconoclast. In fact, although many protagonists in young adult novels initially appear to be iconoclasts, few still are by the end of a YA novel. Indeed, most have found subversive ways to work within the system and still remain a part of it, drawing their own authority from a system they once purported to resist.

Corporeal Limitations

In the fourth book of Rowling’s series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry and his friends discover yet another dimension of power, that of their burgeoning sexuality. The sexual tension that has been smoldering between Harry’s two best friends, Ron and Hermione, begins to sizzle, and Harry himself is enamored of Cho Chang. In the media hype that preceded the release of the fourth book, much was made of the fact that Harry and his friends would discover sexual attraction in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. That Rowling waited until the midpoint of the series–the fourth book of a projected seven–reflects the cultural tendency to define sexuality as the purview of maturation. (5) No one can be surprised that adolescent novels discuss sexuality far more often than children’s novels do. Experiencing sexuality is almost a de rigueur rite of passage for adolescents. After all, part of the titillation of sexuality for many teenagers resides in being able to rebel against authority figures by enjoying a forbidden sexuality.

Far more interesting, however, is the connection between sex and death in adolescent literature. Sex and death are linked in western discourse from at least as far back as that Ur-story of human sexuality, Adam and Eve’s fall from the Garden of Eden. Only once Eve discovers knowledge is she doomed to procreate and to die. Thus, in western discourse, knowledge of sexual pleasure is inevitably linked with power: sexuality and knowledge both empower and disempower Eve (Foucault, History 53-73). In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Cho Chang, Harry’s inamorata, also attracts the attention of Cedric Diggory, one of Harry’s rivals for the Triwizard Cup in a tournament that involves three wizarding schools. Among its many other uses in the narrative, the tournament is a mechanism for Cedric and Harry to work out their male aggressiveness as they compete for the attention of the same girl. By the tournament’s end, both Cedric and Harry have descended to an underworld of death as they fight Voldemort, who is rebor n into a new body during the enterprise. And Cedric, one of the characters who has felt sexually attracted to Cho Chang, dies there.

Sexuality and death are often linked in adolescent literature to depict the carnality of the human body: experiencing sexuality is as important to maturation as understanding that we are mortals who will die. Robert Cormier links sex and death in the first chapter of The Chocolate War when the protagonist fleetingly remembers his dead mother and he compares the thought to “seeking ecstasy’s memory an instant after jacking off” (10). The protagonist of Aidan Chambers’s Breaktime (1978) tries to distinguish his own authority from his father’s authority in a quest that leads him to better understand both sex and death; in one scene, the narrator describes a couple having sex in a coffin (130-31). In yet another example, the protagonist of Madeleine L’Engle’s A House Like a Lotus (1984) finally understands her mentor’s predatory sexuality only once she understands that it is linked to the woman’s fear of death. Hugh and Irene, the double protagonists of Ursula K. Le Gum’s The Beginning Place (1980), do battle wi th an incarnation of the fear of death–a creature that smells of semen–and make love for the first time after they have killed the creature. Given the frequency of this pattern in adolescent literature, it seems likely that as the Harry Potter series continues, Harry’s sexuality will become even more clearly implicated in his understanding that death makes us mortal. Accepting sexuality and mortality gives adolescents the ability to better understand the power and limitations of their own bodies.

Moreover, according to Roland Barthes, accepting the death of the parent (the ultimate authority figure) creates the ultimate grief, for from it the child learns of his own mortality. Harry’s parents are dead; ergo, he himself is mortal. Perhaps the greatest difference between children’s and adolescent literature resides in the two genres’ implications about the limits of the human body. In children’s literature, death represents children’s separation from their parents (Coats 116-20); in adolescent literature, death functions as the adolescent’s own awareness of herself as Being-toward-death, the stage that Heidegger identifies as the individual’s recognition that her or his existence can be defined only in terms of her or his lack of existence–that is, in terms of the limits of her or his own body (304-07).

Barthes employs photography as a metaphor that explains the objectification of the individual inherent in her death. Every photographic image of a person that captures the individual as an object transfixed in time is an artifact that contains “this catastrophe” of death (Barthes 96). The photographed object, like the corpse, is powerless, devoid of agency–except in Harry Potter’s world, where photographs wave at the person watching them. Wizard photographs have agency, so they serve as artifacts that defy death: Harry’s parents wave to him from a photograph album in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (304) and in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (212). This denial of death’s power is symptomatic of the series’ conflicted attitude toward death. After all, the first book describes death as “the next great adventure” (297), effectively neutralizing death’s power and denying the primacy of Being-toward-death in an adolescent’s self-definition. This tendency to minimize death might seem odd unless we bear in mind that this is the very nature of power, to both admit and deny, simultaneously to empower and repress (Foucault, “Two Lectures” 88-92). Thus, marking the series’ obsession with death, the photography metaphor at once affirms and denies the permanence of death.

Barthes notes that photography became established in the nineteenth century (92) during an historical era in which death became removed from home life and institutionalized by hospitals, morgues, and the funeral industry (Aries 2). During the same era, the Bildungsroman–the novel that codifies the inexorable growth of the individual as s/he progresses one stage of life closer to death–became entrenched in the Western literary canon. And, simultaneously, Freud taught Westerners that sexual repression drove all of their impulses. In other words, as the culture became fascinated with climaxes–as the culture became obsessed with ending(s) and teleology–photography emerged simultaneously with the Bildungsroman, a genre about growing more sexual and nearer to death. This metaphorical relationship between time passing and photography appears in a number of late twentieth-century adolescent novels, including Block’s Witch Baby (1991), Chambers’s Breaktime, Cross’s Pictures in the Dark (1996), Johnson’s Toning th e Sweep (1993), Krisher’ s Spite Fences (1994), Lowry’s A Summer to Die (1977), and Magorian’s Good Night, Mr. Tom (1981). The adolescents in these novels contemplate various pictures in much the same way that Harry Potter pores over photos of his parents. Once the protagonists gaze upon a recursive image repeated with some sort of variation, however, they experience an epiphany that helps them to reconcile themselves to Being-toward-death (Trites, “Narrative Resolution” 129-49). Harry, for example, has internalized the image of his father from gazing at his photograph so often. When he sees himself from afar at a critical moment in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Axka ban, he assumes that what he has seen is his father. Later, he realizes that he has actually gazed upon himself in a magical moment in which he has existed in duplicate. The significant point, however, is that because of his physical resemblance to his father, he can acknowledge that his father exists within him. This epiphany allows him to re concile himself to his father’s death and presumably to his own Being-toward-death. But the epiphany has been enacted only because Harry’s father’s image has appeared with variation: this time the image is Harry himself.

Peter Brooks notes that all novels are telelogically-oriented, that is, all narratives are created with the function of delaying their own climaxes–i.e., their own deaths (97-109). According to Brooks, most narratives rely on recursive actions to delay their endings. We could say that they try to retain their power over the reader by repeating events until resolution is achieved through repetition with variation, as the recurring photographs of Harry Potter’s parents demonstrate. In another example out of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry and his friend Ginny communicate with a boy named Tom Riddle through his enchanted diary, an artifact of a boy presumed dead. Appearing numerous times, it provides Harry with clues as to the whereabouts of the Chamber of Secrets. Not until the diary appears repeated with variation, however, can the plot achieve resolution. When the author of the diary reveals that Tom Riddle was his childhood name before he became Lord Voldemort, Harry gains the knowledge that he needs to defeat at least this manifestation of the evil wizard. He saves himself and others from death, but, more important, he fulfills his parents’ destiny to defy the agent of World Death. Harry–and the text itself–struggle against Being-toward-death until the boy’s acceptance of his symbolic power allows the resolution of the plot to effect the book’s demise.

The Limits of Adolescent Literature

Everything in adolescent literature is designed to teach adolescents their place in the power structure. In order to mature, teenagers must understand that sexuality is a powerful tool, that they are mortal and will therefore die, that they must both break free from and accept the authority figures in their lives, and that they are institutionally situated creatures, as all people are. If the use of institutions, if the teenager’s rebellion against parental authority, if the adolescent protagonist and the very narrative itself are Being-toward-death in a movement simultaneously designed to admit and deny death’s power over the human body–then what is the ideological message of the adolescent novel? With incredible consistency, the answer is this: You shall know your power and that power shall set you free–that is, until you begin to abrogate institutional power or parental power or sexual power or the very power of death itself, in which case, the narrative will remind you of your powerlessness as surely as Harry Potter must return at the end of every school year to reside in relative impotence with his Muggle relatives.

Ultimately, most adolescent novels carry some ideological message that reinforces the need for the adolescent to conform to the status quo. If we believe Hollindale’s assertion that the power of adolescent literature lies in its cathartic power for the reader, then asking the reader to internalize these continued messages about the need for adolescents’ power to be limited is tantamount to destroying the adolescent reader’s potential power. Generally speaking, most adolescent novels make this argument at an implicit ideological level that is reinforced by issues of narrative structure. For example, adult characters are more likely to be the intradiegetic narrators who express. Ideological Truths than are adolescents. That is, adult narrators who are interior to the text often have more authority than intradiegetic child narrators (see Genette 227-37). The source of ideological authority in the Harry Potter novels, then, makes this series’ implicitly conservative agenda clear. An adult, Dumbledore, utters the theme(s) of every novel: “to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever” (Sorcerer’s Stone 299); or “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we surely are, far more than our abilities” (Chamber of Secrets 333); or “You think the dead we loved ever truly leave us?” (Prisoner of Azkaban 427); or “Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open” (Goblet of Fire 723). These are the themes of popular psychology and popular culture that many parents want their children to internalize. Not once in these four novels does an adolescent proclaim a major theme. That a textually-constructed adult (rather than a teenager) serves as the source of all this parentally-approved wisdom reminds the reader that adults have more knowledge than adolescents, so they must have more power. It follows logically that the only way for adolescents to empower themselves is to quit being so adolescent. Grow up. Get over yourselves.

Moreover, the villain in this series is a figure who refuses to honor socially sanctioned limits on power. That is, Voldemort is something of a teenager run amok–a rebel who refuses to internalize the repression mandated by his civilization. He wants to have power so he can use it to dominate others. In that sense, he is the perfect foil for Dumbledore, who has power that he does not want to use. It is Dumbledore’s self-control that marks his maturity, and Voldemort’s refusal to capitulate to the power-in-check model proffered by the state or institution that marks him as adolescent. And, of course, no good teenager would want to be like that. It is with such messages to readers that adolescent literature is all-too-often dedicated to teaching the intended reader that her or his subject position is inherently flawed and will continue to be so until s/he becomes an adult. In that sense, adolescent literature is probably the only genre in the world designed to propel the reader out of her or his own subject po sition.

Lest I appear to be singling out the Harry Potter books (which I actually quite enjoy) as somehow unusual or as a Betrayal Of The Sacred Trust of Adolescent Literature, remember that I offer them as a test case. The Harry Potter novels are among scores of adolescent novels that inculcate in teenagers their power relative to institutions, authority, and the limits of the human body. Novels by Francesca Lia Block, Bruce Brooks, Aidan Chambers, Susan Cooper, Robert Cormier, Gillian Cross, Chris Crutcher, Peter Dickinson, Virginia Hamilton, S. E. Hinton, Mollie Hunter, M. E. Kerr, Norma Klein, Madeleine L’Engle, Michelle Magorian, Margaret Mahy, Walter Dean Myers, William Sleator, Mildred Taylor, Sue Townsend, Cynthia Voigt, Barbara Wersba, Lawrence Yep, and Paul Zindel all display these characteristics, as do virtually every YA novel published in English since Hinton’s The Outsiders broke new ground for the genre in 1967.

In fact, the very existence of the YA novel depends on a cultural ability to question the power relations that construct the individual. YA novels require at their core the type of postmodern questioning of power relations traced by such theorists as Barthes and Foucault and Lacan. (6) Without the postmodern impetus to question how a character like Harry Potter comes into being informed as a subject by the social forces that act upon him, adolescent literature as we know it could not exist. Without the postmodern imprimatur on iconoclasm, the institutionally-sanctioned rebellion of adolescent literature would not be possible. Without the postmodern injunction against blind acceptance of divinely-ordered authority, adolescent literature would be unable to depict teenagers temporarily rejecting authority. Without the postmodern impulse to question the relationship between the individual and institutional power, we would be left with the type of linear Bildungsroman that was the darling of the Victorians.

But then, given that the genre’s underlying agenda may perhaps be to assure adolescents that they need to get over themselves and just grow up, perhaps adolescent literature is, as Jacqueline Rose would have us think of children’s literature, always already impossible. Indeed, adolescent literature may be as intent on thwarting adolescent power as Lord Voldemort is on obliterating Harry Potter.


(1.) For a cogent description of the parent-child relationship in children’s literature, see Coats “Lacan with Runt Pigs.” Two of the standard articles on death in children’s literature include Butler’s “Death in Children’s Literature” and Gibson and Zaidman’s “Death in Children’s Literature.”

(2.) Significantly, Harry’s father bequeaths to him an invisibility cloak that allows him to move about the grounds without being seen, and, indirectly, the Marauder’s Map that shows the whereabouts of every teacher on the grounds at any given time. But these two gifts function in the carnivalesque ways I describe below.

(3.) One of my friends assures me that Voldemort represents the epitome of capitalistic evil because his name said aloud sounds essentially like “Walmart.” The more standard interpretation of the name is that it derives from French, “Flight of Death.”

(4.) For more on the concept in logos parentis, see Trites, Disturbing the Universe 61-69.

(5.) Foucault distinguishes “sex” as a biological act from “sexuality,” which is discursively constructed and ideologically confined (History 68-69).

(6.) See Trites, Disturbing the Universe 16-19.

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Roberta Seelinger Trites ( teaches children’s and adolescent literature at Illinois State University, where she is an associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and a professor of English. She is editor of Children’s Literature Association Quarterly and author of Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature.

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