The Alan Review
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Volume 22, Number 1
Fall 1994

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The Psychological Changes of Adolescence: A Test of Character

Sharon A. Stringer

Through interdisciplinary collaboration, Virginia Monseau (see article p. 31) and I have used Robert Cormier's novels in English courses and Psychology classes at Youngstown State University. Virginia has been a guest speaker in my Adolescent Psychology class for three years. I have also given several presentations in her undergraduate and graduate classes on "Adolescence in Literature." Robert Cormier's novel, After the First Death, has also been required reading for my course on Adolescent Psychology.

At the beginning of each quarter, I ask students to discuss tests of character from their own lives. Later, students write a paper describing the identity crises and moral development of the protagonists in Cormier's novel. The effect of the novel in psychology classes is stunning. On the course evaluation, one student wrote, "I loved it. I'm not a big reader. I couldn't put this novel down. Keep using it." Another student wrote that the writing assignment "was a good experience. It made me draw on my own inner strength, bring out my own ideas. The paper helped me to put to use what I learned and this is important because it shows what I understood."

Men and women identify with Kate in After the First Death as she struggles to listen to her inner voice, abandon her former disguises, and develop genuine courage in the midst of terror. Like Adam in I Am the Cheese, and Barney Snow in The Bumblebee Flies Anyway, our own self discovery raises issues related to trust, fear of disclosure and silence. The challenge for teachers and writers is to foster strength of character in education as we bridge theory and practice. Understanding the conflicts and changes of adolescence moves us closer to that goal.

The first section of this paper highlights the social setting and the psychological changes that trigger identity crises and moral conflicts in adolescents. Then, the work of Erik Erikson, Lawrence Kohlberg, and Carol Gilligan serves as a backdrop for illustrating "tests of character" that adolescents face in Robert Cormier's novels. To conclude, I will describe potential outcomes and educational implications of these tests.

Adolescents face complex identity crises and moral conflicts today because there are mixed cultural definitions of "health" and "strength of character." On the one hand, we hear a message to be humble, to show stoicism, selflessness or sacrifice. Carol Gilligan and others (Gilligan, Ward, & Taylor, 1988; Lerner, 1989) remind us, however, that silence, conformity, or submission can occur at too high a cost to selfhood. Separation accompanies the development of identity during adolescence (Kroger, 1989). Yet, independence evolves in connection to family, peers, and society (Conger, 1991; Steinberg, 1993). Silence, distance, and severing family ties can lead to overidentification with the peer group, identity confusion, and excessive rebellion (Steinberg, 1993).

Research indicates that self esteem decreases during early adolescence, particularly for young women (Atwater, 1992). Adolescents' idealism coincides with their enhanced sense of uniqueness, self consciousness, and critical thinking. Combined with the increase in family conflict during early adolescence, these changes heighten adolescents' need for peer approval. Conformity to the peer group peaks at approximately twelve to fourteen years of age (Steinberg, 1993).

Collectively, these changes make adolescents targets for psychological intimidation. Intimidation is a central theme in Cormier's novels. The terrorists, shrewd judges of risk, are experts at manipulating others. In The Chocolate War, Archie, the mastermind of the Vigils, is tender one moment and cruel the next. His inconsistency keeps followers vigilant. Occasionally, Artkin of After the First Death gives Miro praise or offers tidbits of "inside" information. The leaders' use of intermittent praise, propaganda, and bribery attract loyal gang members. Fear and the threat of losing peer approval motivate young adults to perform acts for the group that they would not do alone. Moreover, a conspiracy of silence and diffusion of responsibility within the group maintain the status quo until there is a "stand-off" and final test of power.

Suspense mounts as several protagonists detect a "hidden agenda." They suspect that "things are not what they appear to be on the surface." Labeling themselves as "spies," the protagonists begin an earnest search for their identity. Adam of I Am the Cheese gradually discovers that he is the bait in a dangerous "cat and mouse" game. Adults' interrogations of adolescents in some stories resemble "double jeopardy." Who can trust whom? The sense of mystery and disorientation catalyzes adolescents to dig deeper and pursue the truth.

Individuals' responses to conflicts, pressures, and setbacks partially determine the outcomes of tests of character. How does the search for identity mold a person's "strength of character"? Erik Erikson proposed that during the fifth psycho-social stage of development, adolescents face a "normative crisis" that involves a struggle to achieve an authentic identity. According to Erikson, identity development is a lifelong process that assumes special significance at adolescence. Adolescents need to experiment and test different roles before they make a commitment to a career, political system, or religion. Erikson and James Marcia emphasize that in our complex society, this time of experimentation, the moratorium, is crucial for identity achievement (Atwater, 1992; Conger, 1993).

Erikson defines one component of identity achievement as "fidelity" (Kroger, 1989). After experimenting with different roles and value systems, the person who develops fidelity makes an ideological commitment, discovers someone to believe in, or finds a cause to be true to without blindly obeying others.

Emotional autonomy may accompany identity achievement. One step in the development of emotional autonomy is the de-idealization of parents (Steinberg, 1993). The individuals who achieve emotional autonomy handle criticism, hurdles, and setbacks constructively by developing their own inner strengths and self esteem (Atwater, 1992). With the development of identity and emotional autonomy during late adolescence, such individuals are less dependent upon parent or peer approval.

The characters in Cormier's novels face moral dilemmas that parallel the conflicts presented in Lawrence Kohlberg's and Carol Gilligan's research on moral development. Their stories and dilemmas pose two tests of character. One conflict centers on the decision to conform to authority or disobey in order to preserve the rights of the individual. A second conflict is to balance a rational focus on rights and laws with an ethic of care and concern for human relationships.

According to Lawrence Kohlberg and colleagues, the moral decisions of adolescents and adults in the United States often reflect the Conventional Level of moral development. This level encompasses Stage 3 and Stage 4. At Stage 3, people win approval by pleasing others, being a good son or daughter, remaining loyal to the family or the peer group and conforming to social norms. At Stage 4, individuals emphasize their duty to a larger group such as the community (Conger, 1991).

Kohlberg proposed that relatively few people attain the highest level of moral development. At this Postconventional Level, people base their moral decisions upon internalized principles. Human dignity, fairness, and justice are central concerns. Individuals no longer view authority as "all-knowing" and they recognize that unjust laws must be defied. If faced with a conflict between society's rules and their conscience, individuals at the Postconventional Level follow their consciences.

Carol Gilligan provides a complementary vision of moral maturity (Gilligan et al., 1988). She proposes that the highest level of moral development for men and women involves integrating the emphasis upon justice with an ethic of care. The justice orientation provides impartial focus on rights, laws, and society. In contrast, the care perspective offers a more personal focus on relationships and attachment to others.

Identity crises and moral conflicts can promote positive change and growth. In Cormier's novels, heroes and heroines perform acts of fidelity. As a victim of memory experiments, Barney Snow persists with his plan to fly the Bumble Bee with Mazzo. This "last hurrah" may signify that what one individual accomplishes in his or her lifetime does make a difference, no matter how corrupt or powerful the group. As Barney explains to his friend Billy, "I've got to do something" (p. 142). Their flight in the car speaks to human choice and freedom. In After the First Death, Kate's search for fidelity emerges during the terrorists' siege. She claims "she had never been a hotshot in the philosophy department" yet "this new knowledge of hers, this new hope . . . the possibility that hope comes out of hopelessness and the opposite of things carry the seeds of birth-love out of hate, good out of evil" (p. 118). Kate also develops emotional autonomy as she searches inward for a courage she never thought she possessed.

In response to crises, individuals may resist intimidation. Their defiance of authority empowers their own sense of self, preserves their integrity, and promotes their moral commitment to fairness and justice. In The Chocolate War, Jerry faces a lonely struggle when he refuses to obey the Vigils. By going against the group, he takes a much harder path. However, he is a champion for individuality and freedom.

Intimidation, fear, and the loss of innocence can also create setbacks or stunt growth. Erikson proposes that when a person does not achieve identity, he or she experiences identity confusion. Although expressed in numerous ways during early adolescence, identity confusion as a longterm outcome of the fifth psychosocial stage may lead to adolescents' isolation, chronic delinquency, drug abuse, or suicide. Cormier's novels frequently describe adolescents' disorientation in time and place, a phenomenon that Erikson states is a common symptom of identity confusion (Muuss, 1988). Identity confusion is also expressed by adolescents' overidentification with the peer group (Muuss, 1988; Steinberg, 1993).

Without experimentation, individuals may prematurely choose an identity that parents or peers select for them. According to James Marcia, individuals who make a commitment to a career, religion or political system without experiencing a crisis illustrate identity foreclosure (Atwater, 1992).

Moral indifference and silence is a potential outcome of tests of character. Many young adults in Cormier's novels submit to authority or peer pressure. Corruption begins with smaller evils but eventually escalates to total disregard for care and human dignity. Moral deterioration may become so rampant that nobody "waves a red flag" to stop the victimizations.

Others are ultimately haunted by their indifference. These individuals are never the same after they overdo their allegiance to the group. Hurting other people takes its toll. In After the First Death, General Marchand performs his duty for his country but is devastated by his betrayal of his son Ben. If this father had developed a strong ethic of care, would he have been so aloof at the eleventh hour?

The cumulative effect of corruption may be the loss of innocence. Like Henry in Tunes for Bears To Dance To, a person may initially feel doomed by his or her first major setback. During the final showdown, Jerry experiences a loss of innocence in The Chocolate War.

A new sickness invaded Jerry, the sickness of knowing what he had become, another animal, another beast, another violent person in a violent world, inflicting damage, not disturbing the universe but damaging it. He had allowed Archie to do this to him. (p. 183)

Several protagonists in Cormier's novels discover new information that shatters their former idolization of a parent or authority figure.

As these stories reveal, "winners" and "losers" are not easy to recognize. Heroes and heroines may be inconspicuous. This theme in literature and life strikes a chord for all of us. Happy endings where "mighty" champions receive medals or applause as they pass the toughest tests of character are rare. Unsung heroes and heroines may be discouraged, trampled, or defeated by forces beyond their control while the weak come out "on top." The odds of surviving, winning, or losing can also "flip-flop." Is that insight character building or disillusioning?

Unless we dig deeper, we may avoid solutions to tests of character. Like the protagonists in the novels, we now have clues that things are not always what they appear to be on the surface. Our society programs us to look for external symbols of achievement. A familiar message is that there are few role models for young people today. Are we looking in the wrong place? Tests of character are important in education, particularly when young people yearn for quick answers and tangible signs of change. On that note, Muuss (1988) describes the need to create "meaningful frustration" in the classroom. Robert Cormier's novels are a poignant reminder that often inner strength and genuine change begin slowly. We can save the fireworks for later!

Key Concepts

I have drawn upon the references cited at the end of this paper for defining these concepts that are listed below and included in my paper.

* Moratorium. As defined by Erik Erikson and by James Marcia, this is a period of experimentation that is essential for the individual to attain identity. The adolescent actively explores different roles before making a long-term commitment.

* Fidelity is defined by Erikson as one of the essential components of identity achievement. After experimenting with different roles and value systems, the person who develops fidelity makes an ideological commitment, discovers someone to believe in, or finds a cause to be true to without blindly obeying others. (Refer to page 235 of Erikson's Identity Youth and Crisis for a full description.)

* Emotional Autonomy. There are different components of emotional autonomy, as Lawrence Steinberg (1993) describes in his text. One component in the development of emotional autonomy is the de-idealization of parents. The individuals who achieve emotional autonomy handle criticism, hurdles, and setbacks constructively by developing their own inner strengths and self esteem (Atwater, 1992). As Eastwood Atwater (1992) explains, emotional autonomy develops more slowly than behavioral autonomy and it evolves primarily through our relationships with others.

* Identity Confusion. As defined by Erik Erikson and James Marcia, the individual has not made a firm commitment to any particular vocation or ideology. It can be expressed in numerous ways and is particularly common during early adolescence (Muuss, 1988). As a longterm outcome of the fifth psycho-social stage, identity confusion may lead to adolescents' isolation, chronic delinquency, or suicide. Identity confusion is also expressed through adolescents' overidentification with the peer group (Muuss, 1988; Steinberg, 1993).

* Identity Foreclosure. Without taking time to experiment with different roles and never questioning their beliefs, individuals prematurely choose an identity that parents or peers select for them. According to James Marcia, individuals who make a commitment to a career, religion, or political system without experiencing a crisis illustrate identity foreclosure (Atwater, 1992).

Discussion questions I use in Adolescent Psychology classes:

1. Why do so few people ever attain high levels of moral development? Do you think that prediction underestimates people?

2. Describe (from literature, psychology, and life) your images of strength of character, "black sheep," and "tests of character" (for example, tests of honesty, tests of courage). What options do people have?


Atwater, E. Adolescence (Third edition). Prentice Hall, 1992.

Conger, J. Adolescence and Youth: Psychological Development in a Changing World (Fourth Edition). HarperCollins, 1991.

Erikson, Erik H. Identity Youth and Crisis. W. W. Norton & Company, 1968.

Gilligan, C., J. Ward, and J. Taylor. (Eds.). Mapping the Moral Domain. Harvard University Press, 1988.

Kroger, J. Identity in Adolescence: The Balance Between Self and Other. Routledge, 1989.

Lerner, H. The Dance of Intimacy. Harper & Row, 1989.

Muuss, R. E. Theories of Adolescence (Fifth Edition). Random House, 1988.

Steinberg, L. Adolescence (Third Edition). McGraw Hill, 1993.

Sharon A. Stringer teaches in the Department of Psychology in Youngstown State University in Youngstown, Ohio.

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