Duel at High Noon: A Replay of Cormier's Works
Today's baby boomers were reared in times of romanticism. Wars were won, the American Dream was a real possibility, and even the turbulent 60s were colored with strokes of idealism. According to formula, literature for adolescents through the 50s and into the 60s was didactic and predictable, with the teenaged protagonist eventually adopting behavior that was acceptable to adults. Given such a vision of the world, one can comprehend why Robert Cormier has faced criticism for his portrayals of good versus evil in many of his works. His books are avidly read by teenagers, but many parents have difficulty with his dark view of life and negative portrayal of humanity (Ellis, 1985). All too often, parents are protective and controlling of their children's lives, but kids want books to reflect reality. They know that the "good guys don't always win" (West, 1987). Cormier defends his harsh look at reality since "Kids know the language they hear and what's going on in the locker rooms and the school buses. They know my books are mild in comparison" (Silvey, 1985b, p. 295).
Influenced at a young age by movies of the 1930s, Cormier is intrigued by the development of characters and story plots with slight twists (Silvery, 1985b). During these Depression times, movies such as gangster films and budget westerns provided escape mechanisms, entertaining the young and old alike. Traditionally, the heroes were easily spotted as rebels, outcasts, or loners. The good guy might be disguised as an outlaw, but by movie's end, the outcome was one of triumph for "doing the right thing." Cormier's character and plot developments mirror the 30s images, but the happy endings seem to be left on the cutting room's floor.
In his novels, Cormier strives for shocks of recognition and hopes that people react, "Yes, this is the way it is or could be" (Silvey, 1985b, p. 293). He writes realistically, not didactically, since "it's impossible to write about kids of that age without going into certain things that are on their minds" (Silvey, 1985b, p. 294). To allow young people to be viewed as individuals, mothers and fathers are often absent in Cormier's works (Bugniazet, 1985). As for role models, Cormier states that "I can't be concerned with that. I'm not worrying about corrupting youth. I'm worrying about writing realistically and truthfully to affect the reader. What I worry about is good taste and getting my message across by whatever means I can" (Silvey, 1985b, p. 294).
Of concern to Cormier are the morality issues and individual development crises that dominate the genre of adolescent literature. Cormier, however, deals with a different morality than the personal concerns of most adolescent novels.
Not one of Cormier's characters is concerned with "alcoholism, drug use (except when imposed by institutions), premarital sex, childbirth, physical handicaps, social and racial problems, divorce, mental illness (except where imposed by institutions), and homosexuality (Duncan, p. 1)." His focus has not been on menstruation, rape or prostitution. Cormier's characters stepped boldly and independently into the world of adolescent literature where most characters finally got their first bra, reached a decision about having intercourse, chose to have an abortion or a baby, kicked a drug habit or adjusted to a single-parent home....it took the good sense...to have a larger view and see the much greater problems that young people face. (Ellis, 1985, p. 11)
Interested in the operation of society, Cormier writes political novels. In doing so, the situation is primary in importance and characterization is secondary (MacLeod, 1981). Hence, the central theme in his novels has been the struggle between individuals and institutions. Cormier "focuses our attention on individuals. In doing so, he causes us to see, through these individuals, that the boundaries and the controls need not be accepted passively. They can be challenged; indeed, they must be challenged" (Ellis, 1985, p. 11). Cormier is "frightened by today's world, terrified by it... that comes out in the books" (Silvey, 1985a, p. 155).
More than just a story of peer pressure and schools, The Chocolate War parallels Nazi Germany throughout the text (MacLeod, 1981). The world of power and manipulation creates shock waves of possibilities. In Cormier's own words, "Never does the book fail to get a response" (Cormier, 1985b, p. 4).
His casual references to topics such as masturbation offer reassurances to today's youth (Bugniazet, 1985). The opening scenes, short reminders of cinematographic inter-cuts (March-Penny, 1978), set the troubled tone for the episodes to follow. The twisted teacher image sends conflicting messages of good and evil while the repetition of games pushes against individuality. In the end, survival through conformity comes too late for Jerry, but the message is clear: "Don't disturb the universe" (Cormier, 1974, p. 187).
In an unusual attempt to respond to unanswered questions in The Chocolate War, Cormier penned Beyond the Chocolate War. Without a doubt, Archie must get the black marble in this sequel to prove that he is human. With the sharp illusion of the guillotine, Cormier ignites the action and reminds us that life is made of choices and that we choose whether to follow or lead (Silvey, 1985a).
The realities of government, bureaucracy, secrecy, betrayal, and other aspects of politics describe the survival of the organization in I Am the Cheese. The pitch and frenzy of the drama increase as Cormier refuses to answer the why's for the adolescent reader. I Am the Cheese is like a mystery novel, forcing the reader to focus on what has already happened while blinding him to the present. The reader believes the wrong things and ignores the right ones. The biggest lie of all, that Adam is not on his way to Rutterburg, is hidden beneath the question of insanity. Cormier disguises truth as delusion and fantasy as the truth. Like The Chocolate War, the failure of individuals to protect themselves from corruption of the powerful emerges in I Am the Cheese (Nodelman, 1983).
Harsh realities are not covered up by parents in After the First Death. Instead, "violence initiated by the terrorists is matched by the equally violent response of the government, and the children are the victims of both" (MacLeod, 1981, p. 79). The extremes of patriotism turned into terrorism define innocence as a potentially evil quality, particularly political innocence.
References to the 1933 film, The Invisible Man, a favorite of Cormier's, are interspersed in scenes throughout Fade. Using an autobiographical approach, Cormier weaves such an intricate tale of power and its misuse that the reader is almost persuaded to believe that the fade is a reality. Cormier shatters our childhood fantasies of becoming invisible when scenes of incest and brutality force the reader to turn away with Paul, sharing the destruction of innocence and the burden of secrets (Campbell, 1985).
MacLeod (1981) charges that Cormier has departed from the standard models of writing and has gone beyond the limits of contemporary realism. His novels violate the unwritten rule that, no matter how realistic, there should be some glimmer of hope with a positive message. "Cormier has abandoned an enduring American myth to confront his teenaged readers with life as it more often is -- with the dangers of dissent, the ferocity of systems as they protect themselves, the power of the pressure to conform" (p. 76). Life, after all, isn't a B-Western flickering inside a darkened theater. "The lone dissent has not only failed, it is repudiated.... Gary Cooper lies in his own blood in the street at high noon" (MacLeod, 1981, p. 76). With intentional foresight, "evil is not conquered in Cormier's novels. His heroes are more tragic than not. It may be suggested that their flaw is an unwillingness to `play by the established rules'" (Ellis, 1985, p. 52). Perhaps, however, contrary to MacLeod's view, "the struggle is not hopeless, ...but formidable. ...[A]dolescents have an innate sense of immortality, and they perennially carry the seeds of the idealism which is the lifeblood of humanity. No one is better suited for recognizing and taking up the challenge" (Ellis, 1985, p. 53).
Even in a hospital permeated by experimentation and death, Cormier manages to interject a fragment of hope in his book, The Bumblebee Flies Anyway. The challenge of doing the impossible spurs Barney on as he works to see the make-shift car, the Bumblebee, soar through the night sky. The Complex, as the hospital is called, compels us to feel the boundaries of confinement and reminds us of our own mortality: we will all, eventually, face death. Just like Barney, the voyage of the Bumblebee impacts within us the hope of victory over death, the only key to survival (Campbell, 1989).
Cormier is "always trying to affect the reader because... ultimately the book, as a whole, becomes a catharsis and causes some kind of emotional responses" (Bugniazet, 1985, p. 15). There is some hope in his books; "maybe it's what the individual reader brings to the books," says Cormier, "but I thought I had this element in my books all the time. Adam's out there pumping on his bike. I said it all in The Bumblebee Flies Anyway when I had Barney say, `The bad thing is to do nothing'" (Bugniazet, 1985, p. 15).
Robert Cormier appeals to adolescents to reach beyond self-centered concerns to address more global issues such as political manipulations that can create or prevent nuclear war, environmental devastation, and economic fluctuations. Perhaps, the final act of justice and the difference between right and wrong may reside in the destruction of apathy and the disillusion of innocence. The adolescent reader, drawing the camera back slowly from the blood shed by Jerry on the field beneath the lights, is reminded of the duel at high noon. Sometimes, justice is lost, but it is never forgotten. Neither will be the powerful writings of Robert Cormier. "`His are among the few books written for young adults which, in all probability, will still be discussed in the twenty-first century" (Campbell, 1989).
Kathy Neal Headley teaches in the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education at Clemson University.