ALAN v22n1 - Studying Cormier's Protagonists: Achieving Power Through Young Adult Literature

Volume 22, Number 1
Fall 1994

Studying Cormier's Protagonists: Achieving Power Through Young Adult Literature

Virginia R. Monseau

Having taught high school English for several years back in the late seventies and early eighties, I can't help but think of my former students as I consider the concepts that Sharon Stringer discusses in her article in this issue. I remember Linda, who hung around with the "burnouts" and who once told me she belonged in the "loony bin." One spring morning she brought me a daffodil. And I think about Tim, one of the class troublemakers. (I made sure he sat in the first desk, directly in my line of vision.) Imagine my shock the day he wrote me a note, asking why we didn't read and write more poetry.

Now that I think back on it, I realize that these students were indeed "identity confused." They had both experimented with drugs; they were frequently in trouble; and Linda had even attempted suicide once. Most of us have Lindas and Tims in our classes, but we're so busy with our personal and professional lives that we usually don't think much about their problems or how we might help them better understand what's happening in their lives. I wonder now what might have happened had I used some of Robert Cormier's books in my ninth-grade classes. I Am the Cheese , The Chocolate War , and After the First Death were certainly popular back then, as they are now, but curricular constraints and a dearth of money prohibited their use in our very traditional English classes. How I regret that now.

Though I'll never know how my students might have reacted to any of these books, I'd like to speculate on what might be gained by using these novels, not only as compelling literary works, but also as a means of helping students understand what's happening to them during this difficult time called "adolescence." I concentrate on these three novels because, of all Cormier's books, I think these three are the most frequently used in classrooms today.

Concepts like "identity confusion," "fidelity," "emotional autonomy," and "identity achievement" are abstract and difficult for some students to grasp; but, when we connect them to the behavior of fictional characters that adolescents care about, they suddenly become meaningful. Stringer's article speaks of "tests of character." All of us are tested just about every day of our lives, but most adults can deal with these tests with some degree of confidence because of past experience. Adolescents, however -- untested and insecure -- must have the chance to experiment with different roles, to succeed and to fail, before they can commit to a certain way of thinking and behaving. This period of "moratorium," as psychologists Erik Erikson and James Marcia call it, is essential.

What better way to understand this concept than to look at Jerry Renault in The Chocolate War ? He seems conventional enough at first, trying out for the football team, ogling girls. But something inside him, which he doesn't quite understand, compels him to "go against the grain," to be a nonconformist in a world of conformity. To use another cliché, he is "testing the waters" to see if Trinity -- indeed the world -- will accept him as an individual. What happens to him as a result is devastating, but does this make his nonconformity any less worthwhile? What do Jerry's actions say about him as a person? Has he achieved "emotional autonomy," no longer dependent on peer approval, or is his final advice to Goober, "Don't disturb the universe," a sign of capitulation?

And what about Kate in After the First Death ? Having played only the role of "all-American girl" all her life, what psychological changes does she undergo as she copes with the responsibility of a busload of children and the reality of death at the hands of terrorists? Unwittingly Kate is thrust into the role of protector, forced to look inward for the courage and strength she is not sure is there. Like many females, she has been accustomed to seeking outside validation of her worth, demonstrated by her wish that her parents were there to tell her she is brave. We as readers see her courage, but she does not. By the end of the novel, we can see that Kate is the perfect example of psychologist Carol Gilligan's definition of "moral maturity" -- an integration of justice with an ethic of care. Not only has she shown compassion and concern for the children in her charge, all the while plotting a means of escape; but she also gives comfort to the young terrorist Miro, even though she is repulsed by what he stands for. Cradling him in her arms, his gun crushing her ribs as he rails hysterically at her suggestion that Artkin was his father, she "rocked him gently, the way she had rocked the children on the bus, crooning softly, a song without a tune, words without meaning, but sounds to bring him comfort and solace" ( First Death , p. 210 ). This is a new Kate, a different Kate from the one who boarded the bus that morning to take the children to day camp. After much soul-searching, she is just beginning to understand who she really is. Ironically Miro robs her of the chance for further exploration when he squeezes the trigger, killing her instantly.

As we study Kate, we must also study Miro. Cormier has spoken and written of Miro's "monstrous innocence," born of the life he has led, a young man trained by terrorists to kill or be killed. Miro is the perfect example of an adolescent who is in "identity foreclosure." His strong identification with the adult terrorist Artkin interferes with his personality development as he continuously represses his natural adolescent desires and inclinations for fear of incurring Artkin's wrath and losing his respect. He likes Elvis Presley, for example, confiding this to Kate in a weak moment, but he would never let Artkin see this "frivolous" side of his nature. He is sexually curious, fighting his attraction to Kate, refusing to give in to his natural desire to learn about the opposite sex because Artkin would not approve.

Miro has taken on the role of terrorist without trying any other options, suppressing his own needs and sublimating them to the needs of his "homeland." Do we as readers take pity on him for this? Do we try to understand his blind devotion to a homeland he has never seen? A letter written by a student in Stringer's Adolescent Psychology class might give us some insight. It was written in response to my assignment to write to one of the characters in After the First Death .

Dear Miro,

You emerged from your young life without the necessary background to make something of yourself; so people would think. But you somehow had the ability to excel in your language course at the "special school."

How sad it is that you were not taken out of the dreadful situation that you were in and nurtured and developed into a worthwhile human being.

I believe that the capacity was there for you to become someone who was a compassionate, loving person. But I want to avoid trying to think of you in terms of my society. I'm trying to look at how you could have become an asset in your world.

Perhaps you could have taught others the language that you found so easy to learn. So that they too could have felt the pride you felt as you spoke and understood words from another country. In that sharing, you may have become close enough to another person to create a bond of trust and caring.

You learned your task well, so I do not want to think little of you for your actions. You did exactly as you were trained to do.

This college student obviously was moved to try to understand Miro rather than condemn him. It would be interesting to see how high school students respond to such an assignment and how their response reflects their understanding of Miro's situation.

Speaking of young protagonists in After the First Death , let's not forget Ben Marchand. He is certainly "identity confused," so closely identifying with his father, the General. Indeed, Cormier builds part of the novel on the confusion of the Ben/General personality. Like Artkin, the General is a "patriot" who sacrifices his son to "The Cause." Unlike Artkin, the General lives to regret it. On the one hand, the "father" dies, leaving the "son" to terrorize again; on the other, the son dies, leaving the father schizophrenic and unable to function. Does Ben's identity confusion cause him to commit suicide by jumping off the bridge? Or was Ben killed in the hijacking skirmish, a victim of his father's betrayal and of his own blind trust? Do we admire Ben or pity him? Another student letter provides an interesting perspective.

Dear Ben,

I thought it really took a lot of courage and commitment to meet with the terrorists and try to help end the crisis. At first I thought that you were only attending Fort Delta because that is what your father wanted, a kind of identity foreclosure I guess. However, even someone who is in foreclosure would question risking their life, unless they were really dedicated to helping in the situation. Now I realize that you were definitely identity achieved, maybe more than the others involved. The only thing is, you should have questioned more and tried to get a broader understanding of the situation. On the whole, I'd say you did a pretty good job!

This student obviously admires Ben, though he doesn't explain exactly in his letter what leads him to believe that Ben is identity achieved. Such a response would be provocative material for class discussion.

So far I have explored the more subtle forms of identity crises in Cormier's work, but in I Am the Cheese we have a protagonist who is literally confused about his identity. Confined to an institution, yet imagining that he is on a bike-riding journey to find his father, Paul Delmonte/Adam Farmer tries desperately to remember the events of his young life that have led him to this strange existence. From the flashbacks that we get, we see that his family life was rather dull and uneventful -- his father mysterious and his mother withdrawn. Cormier describes Adam as an outsider, a loner who is looking for affection and companionship. This is where Amy Hertz comes in. His association with her is his first attempt to try on a new role, the role of mischief-maker. Her "Numbers" give him a chance to be daring, as they do silly things like leaving a cart of baby food jars in front of the Kotex display at the local supermarket. But Adam's "moratorium" is cut short when his family is given a new identity and comes under the "protection" of Mr. Grey and his associates. After a car accident, in which his mother is killed and his father eventually run down, he is captured and kept a virtual prisoner, unable to become emotionally autonomous, lost in a world of drugs and interrogations. Like Jerry, Kate, Miro, and Ben, Adam too has lost his innocence -- the cumulative effect of the corruption around him.

The "mixed messages" that Stringer alludes to in her article might be a good starting point for discussion of identity development with students who are reading the novels of Cormier . Examining the pressures that society and the family place on young people by studying the situations encountered by the protagonists in these books may help students make better sense of their own lives. Exploring definitions of "character" and "self-esteem" with them and inviting them to draw from their own experience, for example, seems an effective way to help students make connections between fictional characters and themselves. Discussing "insecurity" and "intimidation" and how they affect our everyday lives is another step toward understanding. Encouraging adolescent readers to ask why certain characters behave as they do prompts them to look beyond the literal and the obvious to the more subtle forces at work in fiction and in life.

Cormier's fiction is rich in possibility, especially as we explore the much-criticized aspects of his novels. Does a book's grim ending engender a loss of hope? Or does it arouse the fighter in us who says, "I will not be defeated. Evil will not prevail"? Adolescent readers who can see that emotional autonomy depends on this kind of inner strength are well on their way to facing the difficulties inherent in growing up.

Using Robert Cormier's Novels to Explore Identity Development

* Moratorium (experimentation with roles).

Brainstorm as a class the different roles adolescents play. In journals, ask students to reflect on the roles they've played in their lives. Whom did they try to be? Why? What was the result? Then examine the roles played by fictional characters. (This examination could perhaps lead to an essay on the value to identity achievement of role experimentation.)

* Emotional Autonomy (gaining a sense of self).

Have students in small groups discuss the influence of parents and peers on their lives. (Or students might cite instances in their journals.) Ask students to write a letter thanking someone who has been influential in their lives in some way. Survey the class to determine whether the letters were written to parents, peers, or others. Discuss the influence of parents, peers, and other adults on fictional characters and how that influence promotes or impedes the development of emotional autonomy.

* Identity Confusion (impediment to identity achievement).

Talk about the importance of belonging to a group. Brainstorm what might happen when an adolescent feels isolated or left out. Have small groups discuss fictional characters who are identity confused and why.

* Identity Foreclosure (impediment to identity achievement).

Explore in journals how children follow in parents' footsteps or try to be like peers in choice of dress, career, politics, and/or religion. Discuss whether this is good or bad and how it might interfere with identity achievement. Explore further in discussion of fictional characters. (Or students might create and perform skits showing what happens when adolescents conform and don't conform.)


Cormier, Robert. After the First Death . Avon, 1980.

______. The Chocolate War . Dell, 1975.

______. I Am the Cheese . Dell, 1978.

Gilligan, Carol, et al . Mapping the Moral Domain . Harvard University Press, 1988.

Virginia R. Monseau teaches in the Department of English at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, Ohio, and is President of ALAN and co-editor of The Book Connection.