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Edward Eaton | Alienation, Isolation, Technology, and Literature

January 29, 2012

Edward EatonROSI'S CASTLE“No man is an island….” When John Donne wrote that, he did not take into account the needs of literature. Literature in general—and Young Adult literature in specific—makes a habit of forming men, and women, into islands. Indeed, writers go to great lengths to isolate their characters. So common is the trope of isolation that critics and teachers often overlook it when discussing books. Isolation has been used as a structural and thematic tactic in every genre. Hamlet is written as an outsider, a professional student who has been permitted, or urged, to separate himself from his his country, his family, and his inheritance. The Pevensie children have been sent away from their home, parents, and friends. The orphan Oliver has been separated, at birth, from his family, as have fellow orphans Frodo Baggins and Harry Potter. My own Rosi Carol has lost her parents and been uprooted from her hometown and sent to a place that is alien to her.

This is no accident. Nor is it a coincidence. The very nature of reading a book requires an element of isolation. Music is often listened to in a group. Plays and movies are intended to be consumed by masses of people in concert with one another. In the cases of these three art forms, the work is shared from beginning to end, the pieces are finite, and the experiences complete. Aristotle argues that the very value of theatre is the collective catharsis the audience undergoes. Paintings can be looked at by multiple people at the same time. While the experience is not completely shared, the painting itself is seen completely in a very short time and the presentation is public. Reading a book is private. Even if people are reading the same book at the same time they are rarely reading it at the same pace or in the same physical area.

Reading is an individual event, not a team sport. As such, the experience is different for each reader. Han Solo and Indiana Jones look like Harrison Ford to everyone who sees the films. A writer might describe a character in some detail, but few draw actual pictures or take photographs of their characters. Many readers might think that Harry Potter looks like Daniel Radcliff and that Don Corleone looks like Marlon Brando (or Robert De Niro), but that is not because of auctorial intent but rather the influence of film. Anna Paquin is not nearly as busty as Sookie Stackhouse is, as described by Charlaine Harris. My own Rosi Carol is blonde and pretty. Blonde is blonde. What ‘pretty’ means to me might be vastly different from what that means to you. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” may be a trite cliché, but that does not make it untrue. It certainly stands to reason that we, the readers, might form a stronger connection with some characters using just an issue like this: in most cases, the main character’s ideal beauty looks a lot like mine.

There are a variety of ways to isolate and separate characters. The main characters in fiction are routinely isolated from the other characters through internal monologues. We read their thoughts and those of very few others. The hobbits in the Lord of the Rings are the only truly dynamic characters because they are the only characters who have thoughts and opinions that can change (the exception being a few chapters that focus on Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli; even then, those chapters are the most objective in the narrative). Other than three or four chapters, Harry Potter is the point-of-view character throughout the entire series. We learn little to nothing of any of the other characters that is not filtered through his thoughts. The hobbits, Harry, Bella Swan, and others will always be separate from their friends and lovers because we can only read their minds. We are Harry’s allies more than Ron or Hermione are because we understand what Harry wants and fears; they can only guess. Further, we never really associate with those secondary and tertiary figures. What pain has Aunt Petunia gone through first when her sister is taken from her to join the Wizarding world and later killed? We see Uncle Vernon as somewhat laughable; we ignore that he appears to be a conscientious father and hard-working man who does not have the benefit of magic. We may understand that Harry is happy to get away from his family, but it should strike us that perhaps some of the unlimited wealth he inherits could go to make the Dursleys’ lives a little easier. But they, and to a lesser degree Ron and Hermione, are not really our concern. Good and bad in the Wizarding world are defined by Harry. Since Harry’s concept of good and bad are almost exactly like mine, I am further bound to him and alienated from the others.

Isolation in literature has two main functions. The first one is simply technical. There are are only so many ways for an author to present exposition to the reader. Rowling could stop the narrative flow and say, “Well, dear readers, it might interest you to know that in the Wizarding world, many of the wizards travel from one place to another through Apparition.” Instead, she has Harry either looked astonished at the latest feat of magic or, more simply, ask someone what is going on. Unfortunately, this means that Harry can never fully become part of the Wizarding world; otherwise he would no longer need to ask (Hermione, on the other hand, a muggle who joins Hogwarts at the same time as Harry, does become comfortable in and knowledgeable about her new world).

The second main function is thematic. We identify with characters because they have qualities that we associate with ourselves. Who among us would not be willing to bear the ring to Mordor? Who would not wish to cross wands with Voldemort or help Aslan defeat Jardis, the White Witch? The reality is that most of us are depressingly normal. Although we might recognize man’s inherent normalcy in others, we reject it in ourselves. You may be as dull as milquetoast, and probably are. I, however, am a true individual and capable of great heroism and genius. When I was in high school, it was not uncommon to see friends fall out and even fight over who was more like Holden Caulfield. It was a silly argument: Holden Caulfield was much more like me than any of those phonies. Just as main characters are identified and isolated by having thoughts, so am I. Since I am not Sookie Stackhouse, the only people whose thoughts I can hear are characters in books. In some ways, they are emotionally more real than the guy who sits across from me on the bus. Cogito ergo sum, says Descartes. He and his adherents argue that thinking proves existence. ‘Cogito’ is first person singular. ‘I’ think. The phrase is inherently solipsistic. ‘I’ think. Not you. ‘Sum’ is first person singular as well. ‘I’ Am. Not ‘we’ or ‘you’ or ‘they.’ Once you are beyond my senses, you cease to exist. I am alone. I am isolated because I, and only I, think and exist. Or, rather, only I and Frodo Baggins and Holden Caulfield, and Rosi Carol, and Harry Potter and Bella Swan and John Watson think and exist.

Of course, isolating characters can, and often does, create problems. There can be issues with readers. I have a seven-year-old son who likes to play Harry Potter with his friends. The players so identify with Harry and not with any of the other characters that most of them end up in tears. There can only be one Harry at a time, after all. Since he goes to an all-boys’ school, you can imagine the hysteria when someone has to play Hermione (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

The characters development can suffer as well. One wonders how Harry Potter acquired such strong social skills and such a charismatic personality living in a closet under the stairs. Personality is the result of life experience. His treatment at the hands of relatives might result in many types of personalities; however, a keen judge of character, being open and honest, and a natural leader are probably not qualities psychologists would anticipate given his upbringing. More likely, Harry would be a loner, sneaky, and very angry—like Voldemort. It is natural for Harry to cast himself as the hero, the chosen one, in his fantasies. In reality, though, the best he could aspire to would be a quirky sidekick like Ron; more likely he would be a Crabbe or a Goyle. If his superior personality, moral values, and social (and magical) skills are inherited, then perhaps the pure-blood supremacists have a valid point after all. It could be, though, that the entire series is simply an extended psychotic episode. Speaking of delusions, how does an anti-social poseur of a wallflower like Bella Swan become the belle of the vampiric ball? Is it not convenient that her vampire friends have none of the drawbacks that every other vampire in history and literature must endure, and that none of them has anything better to do with their time than to follow her around and keep her out of trouble?

Bella and Harry have one thing in common. They are the new kids on the block. That is one of the methods writers regularly use to isolate their characters from others. They do not know the local rules and customs. Harry, like Oliver Twist, has the added literary advantage of being an orphan. Parents have a nasty habit of interfering in their children’s lives and trying to keep them from doing stupid things like taking on diabolical dark lords or moving in with pickpockets and prostitutes. Harry, unlike Bella and Oliver, has been subjected to the other most frequently used method of isolation and alienation: he is rich. Most of us are not rich, even though we would like to be. In fact, the point of being rich is that we do not want to be like everyone else. The advantage of characters being rich is much the same as the advantage of real people being rich: they can do whatever they want to do. Frodo, Pippin, and Merry can afford to go off and save the world (Sam goes because it is his job). Any other hobbit would have bills to pay and a mortgage to keep up. Normal people simply cannot afford to go on quests.

When I wrote ROSI’S CASTLE, I chose to saddle my heroine with the top three forms of isolation.

Edward at Rosi's Castle

Edward and son at Rosi's Castle

I killed off her parents so that there would be no adult who could explain to her what her family secret was and prepare her for her adventures. She has an uncle who is her guardian, but he is intentionally distant. Dumbledore always has handy advice and often some trinket that happens to be exactly what Harry needs to resolve his conflict. Richard Carol simply advises his charge not to get involved unless she is prepared to face the consequences. It is hardly an avuncular approach, but Rosi’s destiny is one that will further isolate her from her loved ones. Like Harry, she will have to make some tough choices. Unlike Harry (spoilers), her friends are not surrounded by the unseen protective shell that seems to protect so many characters in literature.

I moved her to a new town. Part of this was for the humor of a big-city girl trying to deal with small-town attitudes. She is a bit arrogant; they are a bit suspicious. I also did not want her to have any allies. Rosi must solve the mystery she faces in the first book of the series alone. Even though she makes friends, they cannot help her.

I also made her rich. On one level, her family’s wealth is connected with the mystery. On another level, the wealth and the position as local gentry further separate her from the locals. The general attitude that she must accept is almost medieval. She has great responsibility and unusual power; she also is not held up to the same standards as everyone else. As long as she fulfills her destiny, she can live pretty much as she likes. It is demanded of her. At the very least, she is expected to be eccentric. Some of the locals see her as a devil or a witch. However, as long as she she upholds her end of the bargain, they will overlook her faults. In the second book, one of her allies comments that Rosi is “our witch.”

Rosi Carol, like Harry Potter and Bella Swan, is a reflection of our desire to be other than those around us. Sure, we want to keep up with the Joneses, but only because they live better than us we do. We want his car because it is newer than ours. We want her hairstyle because it is more fashionable than ours. If we really wanted to be like everyone else, we would want to be barely employed with mortgage problems and a low credit score. Give one of the 99% a winning lottery ticket and he will run as fast as he can to the 1%. Just about any television family has it better than us. The Friends group all had jobs that they conveniently never had to go to. Phillip Banks’ family lives in a fairly tony neighborhood. The Huxtables are rather upscale. Of course, not all families on television are rich. Note, however, that the struggling Simpsons hang out with ex presidents, eat lobster on a regular basis, and live in a four-bedroom house. Of course, these are fictional characters, but they do inform our concept of reality just as much as our neighbors do. Perhaps even more: we spend more time with them.

Isolation is becoming harder and harder to establish for writers. Most books take place in a vaguely contemporary time period. It is becoming increasingly more and more difficult to put characters in situations, or at least locations, where being in touch with one’s support group is impossible or even all that difficult. The culprit: technology.

It used to be that to use a telephone or send email, one had to be in a specific place. Phones were used at home. Computers were large and unwieldy. Now, my phone and my Internet are on my cell phone. I no longer check my email; I simply turn on my phone’s screen and can see if I have received anything. I can be found by my family and friends at just about any given time. Just a few years ago, my students merciless teased a classmate who spent class time on his phone. Now I find it hard to compete with Wikipedia, texting, and exploding birds.

It used to be that if I wanted to stay in touch with a friend from college, I had to go through the trouble of dialing a phone or stamping an envelope. Now I simply turn on my phone and know about their daily lives through Facebook and other social networks. I probably know more about their daily lives that I ever did when I was in college. Back then, regular group get togethers at parties or in the dining hall resulted in edited and polished overviews of our days. We would rehearse our anecdotes for maximum response. Now, we use the shotgun method. Hundreds of posts, desperately hoping for ‘likes’ or even comments to validate trivial events like sitting in a doctor’s waiting room (39 comments long) or 25 pictures of a flower from different angles (62). The point is, my social life is not defined by my friends at work or at home but by the number that appears on the computer screen. After Seung-Hui Cho opened fire at Virginia Tech in 2007, within days, if not hours, his life as a loner was substantiated when one news program pointed out that he had few friends on Facebook. A year or so later, a student of mine argued that she knew she had developed an enduring relationship with a woman she had met on a field trip because they had already, two days later, ‘friended’ each other.  In April 2010, the influence of Facebook and other like social networking sites on the social scene was firmly established in pop-cultural terms when the South Park “You Have 0 Friends” was aired. Social networking reached a nadir in the summer of 2010, when the driver of a truck that crashed and killed eight people at an off-road race in California posted his regret on his Facebook page—perhaps in between turns on Word with Friends.

The ubiquity of social networks has not only trivialized interpersonal interaction, it has made solitude a thing of the past. If someone wants to be alone, it is, of course, possible to turn all the gizmos off. However, we no longer live in a society where people can say they have no contact with anyone or have no friends. Support and information are just a few clicks away.

This may be seen as a good thing in real life, but it serves as a fairly serious obstacle that writers must face. In the case of Rosi’s Castle, I created a location where Internet and phone access are tightly controlled by the authorities. Even then, I had to do some late-in-the-game rewrites after one of my proofreaders pointed out that it would be a mistake not to make some sort of explanation clear to the readers. That some characters, like Bella, have so little contact with their social circles make us wonder how stable these characters are. Even self-obsessed nonconformists are glued to their phones most for the day, texting and tweeting and whatever else is the new method of keeping in touch. Of course, Bella’s desperate anti-social posturing is one reason Edward is so drawn to her (the other reason is that he is unable to read her mind: most of us pray for someone we can establish a real connection with; Edward Cullen wants someone with whom he cannot). Harry Potter, of course, predates social networking, but it does not predate the Internet. It may be convenient to fix your glasses using ‘reparo.’ It may be fun to ride to school on a broom. One wonders, though, what sort of Luddite society these wizards live in when they do not even use ballpoint pens and somehow think that owls are more convenient than email.

For hundreds of years, it was sufficient simply to move a character a few miles down the road. Even after cars and airplanes became common, a move from one state to another might created enough regional differences to alienate one characters from his or her surroundings. In the last five or six years, the way we connect with people has changed so drastically, it is no longer the case. The very concepts of secrecy and privacy have changed drastically and fundamentally. Any secret on the Internet is accessible by just about anyone. Banks no longer need to be held up when a password generator will do the trick with a lot less violence. Anyone who has had their email hacked (as happened to me a few months ago), feels just as violated as someone who comes home and finds the television missing. Perhaps even more so—the police could theoretically trace the burglar, but no one will really expend the resources to hunt through every Internet café in Abuja.

Now, a writer has to come up with a whole slew of situations to isolate characters. Unfortunately, given the state of things, often writers end up creating a characters so isolated, so alienated, so out of touch, that even the most loyal reader finds it hard to connect with them. Art is created to include the audience in the experience. When the audience can no longer associate with the characters, the work ultimately fails. It must. In Brave New World, Mustapha Mond argues that the advantages of the new technologies and the lifestyles they guarantees far outweigh whatever ephemeral advantages we can dredged from such a subjective, inherently alienating thing as art. Film and television, inherently mass forms of entertainment, can evolve. Take a look at the popularity of YouTube; $#*! My Dad Says was a television series based on a Twitter feed. Theatre and music can adapt. Literature (not ‘books’ which are simply physical objects with no inherent value), in some ways the simplest art form, will have a much harder time. Its evolution will likely make it less of a distinct art form. A few years ago, I heard a radio commercial advertising books on tape saying that literature now could be heard, as it was originally intended to be. For the time being, literature seems to wallow in its otherness. It is happily an artistic island. When literature adapts to the changing world and its technology, embraces the Internet and other forms of presentation, and rejects the isolation of its characters and audience to become a shared experience more in line with modern values, it will cease to have the same value—it will cease to be literature. “If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were.”

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