Young protagonists are a curious choice for adult authors; however, Joyce Carol Oates, James Joyce, and John Updike used teenage protagonists as symbols for immaturity. It seems the authors’ purposes were to reveal the consequences of mistaking real life for fantasy, and, in this way, all the protagonists suffered illusions about their identities. Nevertheless, in light of their circumstances, the protagonists experienced sudden flashes of insight that allowed them to mature and understand actions produced consequences.
Joyce Carol Oates reveals a teenage girl’s inner insecurities in her short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Connie appears to be a typical teenager who likes to spend time with friends and go out on dates. She is still a young girl, but Connie tries to convince others that she is a mature woman. Left home alone one day, a seemingly older man in a young disguise comes to her house. He claims his name is Arnold Friend, but Connie soon realizes, he intends to hurt her.
Ultimately, Oates’ protagonist Connie is in her own youthful fantasy world. She is young and attractive, but she convinces herself she is wise above her years. Moreover, she feels she is infallible due to her beauty. Connie’s mother frequently scolds her daughter, but Connie believes her mother only complains because “Her mother had been pretty once too, if [she] could believe those old snapshots in the album, but now her…looks were gone” (Oates). Connie doubts her mother’s former beauty because she does not want to realize that beauty fades. On the other hand, it seems Connie does not realize that she is immature because of her “high, breathless, amused voice…made everything she said a little forced, whether it was sincere or not” (Oates). Connie’s inability to determine the difference between sincerity and animosity implies she does not know the difference between reality and imaginary. It's almost as if her daughter is living up to the gender stereotypes marketed in today's society.
In contrast, in her essay, "Don't You Know Who I Am?: The Grotesque in Oates's 'Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" author Joyce M. Wegs asserts Oates’ story focuses on the negative side of human intention. Wegs explains that “Oates uses the grotesque…to suggest a transcendent reality which reaches beyond surface realism” (66). Weg’s observation implies Oates’ intention was to contrast beauty and innocence to ugly and evil. While Arnold personified evil, it seems Oates’ main objective was to offer her protagonist clarity, albeit, it was too late. However, a “transcendent reality” suggests the moment when our subconscious takes over. Perhaps, Wegs agrees that Connie experiences a pivotal moment that leads to her maturity.
Consequently, Connie experiences her own form of awareness as she realizes she will have to die in order to protect her family. Her epiphany allows her to realize that she is not the center of her own universe. Essentially, she has deluded herself into thinking she was mature. As Connie makes her way to Arnold, “She thought for the first time in her life that [her heart] was nothing that was hers…but just a pounding, living thing inside [a] body that wasn’t hers either” (Oates). Essentially, Connie finally realized that she did not know how to define herself because she only focused on fantasy. In a fantasy world, no one would die, so her interaction with Arnold results in a powerful insight into her false perspective of life.
Similarly, in his short story “Araby,” James Joyce reveals a young man caught between fantasy and reality. The narrator has a crush on Mangan’s sister. He thinks about her all the time, but he does not seem to have an ordinary crush. The narrator admits, “Her image accompanied me even in places the most hostile to romance” (Joyce). Ordinarily, one would assume a young crush would involve happy and sweet images, or sexual in nature sweet images; however, the narrator’s admission that he also thinks of her in hostile ways reveals he has a difficult time distinguishing reality from fantasy.
Incidentally, Joyce does not name his protagonist, so, in a way, this suggests the narrator does not view himself as a person. He lives in a fantasy world in which he believes he loves a nameless girl. Therefore, his reality consists of daydreams and abstract people. However, it seems others believe the narrator has a solid understanding of his world.
For example, in his essay “The Structure of Araby,” Jerome Mandel suggests Joyce bases his story on a medieval romance. According to Mandel, a typical medieval romance consists of three events. The events include “an enfance [which] defines the hero’s youth before his coming to manhood…the introduction of the lady…and a commitment to a quest” (Mandel 48). While Joyce’s narrator is definitely a youth experiencing the first inklings of a man’s sexuality, Mandel’s term “enfance” is debatable. Mandel explains an “enfance” is a matter of location as well as upbringing” (49). In other words, a hero’s home and surroundings define him. Mandel asserts “The boy’s youth…is defined by a street that is blind;” however, the word “blind” suggests the narrator has no defining qualities. For example, if a person is blind, he or she does not have concrete images to base his or her thoughts on. Therefore, he or she would be unable to describe anything other than what goes on inside him or herself. It does not seem feasible to define a character with location especially if the location does not bear significant details. Therefore, Mandel’s initial analysis is irrelevant. On the other hand, Mandel correctly identifies the damsel in distress type character and the narrator’s quest. Regardless, Joyce’s story does not bear any other similarities to a medieval romance. Instead, the protagonist is a nameless character who lives in a fantasy world. Usually, one would hope a hero was aware of his surroundings. With that in mind, the narrator finally realizes his reality.
Instead of a physical transformation from boy to hero, Joyce’s narrator experiences emotional growth while at Araby. The carnival seems to be closing soon, so the narrator does not see a wild and wonderful place and only overhears the mundane conversation. Therefore, encased in his fantasy world for so long, the narrator finally sees reality for what it is. His epiphany reveals his life was based on illusions, and as he “Gaz[ed] up into the darkness [he] saw [him]self as a creature driven and derided by vanity, and [his] eyes burned with anguish and anger” (Joyce). It is actually this moment that begins his transformation. His anger allowed him to focus on life. Perhaps Araby is his “enfance” because it is only at this moment that his location illuminated what he was.
John Updike also uses a young protagonist in his short story “A & P.” Sammy, a cashier in a small convenience store, quits his job after his boss asks three teenage girls, in bathing suits, to leave the store. Initially, Sammy views and judges various customers while he works. Three attractive teenage girls command his attention, and as he watches them make their way through the store, he feels an attraction to the girls, but he judges them by their appearance. Especially taken with the girl he calls Queenie; Sammy discloses that her bathing suit straps had slipped down and the overall effect “was more than pretty” (Updike). While Sammy notices the girls’ attire was unusual for the store, his observation suggests he is becoming aware of his own sexuality. Usually, if a boy sees an attractive girl, he will profess her good looking, but in the case, there was a bit “more” than the usual temptation.
At the same time, Sammy judges another customer in the store, but she is an older woman in her forties. She catches him watching the girls, and Sammy deems her “a witch… [who] if she’d been born at the right time they would have burned her in Salem” (Updike). His insight regarding the older woman is contradictory to his initial reaction to the three girls. Coincidentally, it seems in Salem young women was characterized as witches because of their looks, behaviors, or attitudes. In this way, Sammy is an immature protagonist who cannot tell the difference between fantasy and reality. His fantasy involves attractive young girls, but he ignores the reality that old age destroys youthful beauty.
Incidentally, in his essay "John Updike's 'A & P': A Return Visit to Araby,” Walter Wells compares Sammy and Joyce’s, narrator. Wells explains that “Like "Araby," "A & P" is told after the fact by a young man now much the wiser…[because] The self-delusion in both cases leads quickly to an emotional fall” (128). Essentially, all three stories involved self-delusion; however, in Sammy’s case, he does not come to the conclusion that he lived an illusion based on beauty. Ultimately, his epiphany comes after he quits because, in that moment of clarity, he realizes he made a mistake. Initially, Sammy thought he was advocating proper treatment of others, but instead, his reason was an illusion. Overall, he now understands that in reality there are consequences to every action.
We often suspect teenagers live in fantasy worlds - where the development of the prefrontal cortex is evident in their decision-making skills. It seems that Joyce Carol Oates, James Joyce, and John Updike did too. Nevertheless, their short stories propose that is never too late, or in the protagonists’ cases too early, to have a sudden flash of insight that reveals reality and true meaning. Indeed, sometimes our actions have extreme consequences, but in this case, Connie’s, Sammy’s, and the young boy’s actions propelled their epiphanies. In short, it was in those moments that they matured. While their futures are unknown for the reader, their insight solidified the natural progression towards maturity. Life does not always happen as we want it; however, it is our consequences and actions that empower us to learn and to grow.
Mandel, Jerome. "The Structure of "Araby"" Modern Language Studies 15.4 (1985): 48-54. JSTOR. Web. 13 May 2013.
Wegs, Joyce M. "Don't You Know Who I Am?: The Grotesque in Oates's 'Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" The Journal of Narrative Technique 5.1 (1975): 66-72. Academic OneFile. Web. 13 May 2013.
Wells, Walter. "John Updike's "A & P": A Return Visit to "Araby." Studies in Short Fiction 30.2 (1993): 127-33. Academic OneFile. Web. 13 May 2013.