An Open Letter to Students Who Think They Are the Stars of Their Own Bildungsromans

To the aforementioned students:

You are, at this very moment, coming of age. It makes sense, then, why you would identify so much with the Holden Caulfields and Stephen Dedaluses of our literature class. You are mostly males between the ages of 16-18, and so identify with their confusion as they try to figure out how to be the type of men they want to be despite society’s rejection of the things they hold dear: innocence, art, beauty, love of all things pure. Society is too focused on mechanically pumping kids through school on an assembly line – add some physics here, a little grammar there, stick some math and physical education in there too, and top it off with a good dose of standardized testing. You are too creative and intelligent for this assembly-line mentality. Stephen and Holden were, too, which is what finally inspires them to break out on their own. At long last, you have a character who is just like you. At long last, you have a blueprint for how to come of age in this world.

I get it. I really do.

I, too, love Stephen Dedalus and Holden Caulfield. When I first read Catcher in the Rye in high school, I saw in him the malaise of my generation, even though he would have been born at least 40 years before my peers and I. When one of my favorite professors introduced me to Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in college, I devoured every word, underlining most of the final chapter, marking huge stars next to passages that poked fun at Stephen’s poetic nature because I “got it” – I understood what these young men were going through.

I loved – and continue to love – these fictional men, to be sure. But I love them in a very different way than you do.

You see, as a woman, I was encouraged to love Stephen and Holden – and any other maladjusted male I met in real life, for that matter – just as I was encouraged to try to change them. You see, women who read these books are forced to filter their consciousness in a way you’ve never had to. We aren’t like Stephen and Holden. We are like their love interests while we are young, and like their mothers when we are older. In school, I could have been their Emma, their Jane, their pure-hearted, ivory-handed, unattainable love interest. Except I would actually talk to them, and they would love me even more. And then they could put their maladjusted ways behind them and live happily ever after; this is the end of most female-centered tales, after all, so it was the end of my understanding of how men and women relate to each other. Now, I re-read these pages and find myself wanting to make these young men a hot cup of tea or a bowl of chicken soup, put it down on the table, and listen as they pour their hearts out to me. I want to be their teacher or their mother (Isn’t there a little bit of each in the other?), to council them and help them find their way.

Because I had to filter my reading of these novels through my experience as a woman, I have some insight that you might never gain, and I think it’s important to share that insight with you before you meet the same end as these characters.

To begin, bildungsromans – or coming-of-age-novels – are not to be confused with epic tales, though they sometimes are. A bildungsroman ends not when our protagonists have it all figured out, not at the very end of their quests, but just on the cusp of their new understanding of adulthood. The rest of their lives are ahead of them and, though we hope that they are able to continue growing and changing long into their adult years, we are left only with that hope, and not a definitive answer. Just like women have to learn that relationships are not all sunshine and roses after the kiss that ends the Disney movies and rom-coms we devour through our teenage years, so, too, do you have to realize that growing does not end upon leaving school. In fact, it’s only just starting. As much as we want to think that Holden has it all figured out when he declares, “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody,” (because, let’s face it, that is such a beautiful sentiment on which to base the entirety of the rest of our lives) he doesn’t. We forget, in fact, that he is in a mental institution at the end of the book, having traipsed all round New York City by himself, all because he couldn’t admit he wasn’t over his brother’s death. This isn’t being grown up; it’s growth. That’s an important distinction. And, if he doesn’t continue to grow, how is he ever going to figure out where those ducks go in the winter?

Perhaps of equal importance is the fact that, though generations upon generations of people will easily declare their love for the Holdens and the Stephens of literature, even the most die-hard scholar/fan will tell you that, were these young men actual people, we wouldn’t like them very much. “How can you love someone but not like them?” you may very well ask. In literature, it’s easy. You love a character for his witticisms, his quotable lines, his grit, his honesty and integrity – or lack thereof – in the face of tough situations. You take inspiration from him or your heart goes out to him. He helps you understand some small part about life that you didn’t understand before. But, were you introduced to him, it would take you all of five seconds to roll your eyes and see right through his egotistical nature and decide he wasn’t the kind of guy you’d want to be friends with.

And, make no mistake about it, these young men are egotistical to the core. That’s part of what makes Salinger and Joyce so brilliant – something you probably can’t see yet because you are too close to it. They write self-centered post-pubescence with the mastery only granted to one who has gone through it himself. Stephen, come chapter 5, is the only person on that campus who understands beauty at all. He is, he thinks, even smarter than his professors as seen by the conversation he has with his dean of students. His dean could very well be egging him on by speaking literally while Stephen is speaking metaphorically but, since we see the episode through Stephen’s eyes, we can only assume Stephen is much smarter than his teacher. Holden, is similarly ego-centric, wanting to be the catcher in the rye and catch kids as they come through the rye, single-handedly saving them from going off the metaphorical cliff and thus preserving their innocence. He’s the only one who can do it, since he’s obviously the only one in the entire city who isn’t a phony, and who can identify phonies when he sees them. You, who are in the middle of the most self-centered point of your life, cannot see that in others. You can only see how much these characters relate to you, which is just a little bit self-centered in and of itself, don’t you think?

“But wait!” you protest. “Didn’t you just say that you wanted to be their unattainable love interest when you were younger? And their mother or teacher now that you’re older? Don’t women in all of these roles sort of have to like these guys?” Ah, this just further proves my point about your ego-centrism. I said these were the roles through which I had to filter my consciousness, not that these were the roles I wanted.

So what lesson is there here for you, if not the ones that the bildungsromans hold? The lesson, to my mind, is clear. See yourself in these characters, then grow past them. Understand that these characters are meant to represent a snapshot in time and, though you may be like them now, don’t strive for that as an end goal. Allow yourself a little bit of self-centeredness, as is natural for a teenager, and then use what you know from literature and from life to practice empathy. Don’t get so involved with yourself that you cannot see the bigger picture. Figure out how “to discover the mode of life or of art whereby your spirit could express itself in unfettered freedom.” Rub f-words off of public spaces and help kids keep their innocence for as long as they can. Then, grow further still. Learn from everyone and everything around you. Take it all in, and don’t be afraid to grow up. You have one great advantage that Holden and Stephen will never have: You are not stuck on the pages of a book. Your life doesn’t end when the chapter does. Your story is an epic journey, not a bildungsroman. Live accordingly.

Your Literature Teacher

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