As adolescents are on their path to adulthood, they begin to question the meaning of their goals and interests in life that leads them on a journey to discover their true identity. The feeling of not belonging or even feeling like an outlier of society is a dominant aspect that surrounds the adolescent. The idea of adolescence introduced to a society that viewed them as delinquents brought forth the change of a genre that many youths related to. This also cultivates the idea that identity transformations are an “active and selective drive separating roles and values that seem workable in identity formation from what must be resisted or fought as alien to the self” as Erik Erikson discusses in his work The Life Cycle Completed (73). This in turn creates an identity crisis that is observed in many adolescent literary texts such as The Outsiders, in which Ponyboy attempts to follow in his family’s footsteps while searching for an identity of his own;and Monster, where Steve Harmon struggles to hold on to the truth of his identity and innocence. For many adolescents who are seen as criminals – such as Ponyboy and Steve – their journey to find who they are forces them to step out of their comfort zone and observe their environment.
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In Walter Dean Myers’ novel Monster, Steve Harmon is stuck between the thin layer of adolescence and adulthood. As Steve is charged as an adult as an accomplice to murder, we readers are able to observe the underlying problems that makes him an unreliable narrator that leads to his identity confusion. This is due to the difference of his personal accounts from the various first person narrative journal entries to his screenplay which is told in a third person narrative format. One example of this is when we find out that Steve was presented with the task of being the lookout for the robbery. Although there is no suggestion that he was pressured into being the lookout, it is evident that he decided to do it in an immature way to fit in with a different crowd. Steve finds himself hanging out in the streets of Harlem trying to impress gang members like King and Osvaldo. Steve’s involvement in the crime along with his narrative leaves room for doubt when it comes to his reliability as a narrator as he admits in his journal entry “What did I do? I walked into a drugstore to look for some mints, and then I walked out” (Myers 140). However, when he is under oath, he lies about being there on the day of the murder. His tendency to lie to convince the jurors of his innocence is evident as it becomes ambiguous whether or not Steve Harmon is guilty.
This fact leaves the reader with a chance to create their own impression of Steve as his conflicted feelings towards his own character traits leave him confused about his own identity as he processes the reality of the situation. In “New Kids on the Block: School Reform, the Juvenile Court and Demographic Change at the Turn of the Century”, Baxter states that “The hysteria about the rise in juvenile crime at the end of the 19th century seems to be less about specific crimes committed by teens and more about their conspicuous presence in society – loitering in alleys and street corners” (Baxter 36). The commanding presence of the adolescents created a fine line between their flagrancy and the hysteria that was created due to the conspicuous behaviors that caused concern in society. This idea is reinforced by Kathy O’Brien, Steve’s attorney, as she believes that he is guilty and prepares him for the worst. Steve understands the notion that the jurors may set their prejudices against him as a young, Black man on trial as more guilty than his white counterpart. He notes in his journal while describing his fellow inmates, “I want to feel like I’m a good person because I think I am. But being in here with these guys makes it hard to think about yourself as different” (Myers 62). Steve has to come to grips with the burden of having to view himself through the eyes of others as they measure his innocence out of contempt and pity.
In fact, O’Brien was aware of this dilemma as she makes Steve realize that it is a difficult feat to overcome to make him look human in their eyes. Steve notes the difficulties of prison life as he desperately wishes to show people who he is: “I wanted to open my shirt and tell her to look into my heart to see who I really was, who the real Steve Harmon was” (Myers 92). His belief in his own identity and innocence is clouded by O’Brien’s preconceived judgement that Steve is guilty as she was pensive and tense when he was acquitted. Her reaction bothered Steve a few months later as he tries to figure out who he is outside of his trial and why O’Brien reacted the way she did when they won. Erikson even mentions that “some adolescents have to come to grips again with crises of earlier years before they can install lasting idols and ideals as guardians of a final identity” (Identity 128). Steve’s exposure to the racism in the courtroom traumatizes him enough to lose his sense of self and community as he is isolated by the stigma of his arrest that prevents a successful, life-affirming identity.
Furthermore, in Hinton’s The Outsiders, Ponyboy endures extreme amount of trauma and stress that pushes him to the edge of a psychological breakdown. This is due to the struggle that Ponyboy carries in figuring out who he is and where he belongs. Ponyboy questions what the point of the gangs are due to the death of his friends and from the Socs. Erikson states that “adolescents not only help one another temporarily through such discomfort by forming cliques and stereotyping themselves, their ideals, and their enemies; they also insistently test each other’s capacity for sustaining loyalties in the midst of inevitable conflicts of values” (Identity 133). In sticking together with the Greasers, Ponyboy creates a false identity that pleases his friends and family; however, in the trauma that he sustains, he learns and grows into someone that is able to be both a Greaser but his true self. When Ponyboy endures the death of Johnny and Dally, it destroys what he believed he knew about himself and leads him down a path that eventually helps him with is self-identity. The psychological trauma that he faces leads him to write his life story.
Moreover, Ponyboy, in dealing with the death of several people in just two weeks, resorts to reading to help him through the trauma. According to Ken Donelson, author of the article “Literature for Today’s Young Adult”, “…the idea of using books to help readers come to terms with their psychological problems was firmly entrenched. Philosophically, it was justified by Aristotle’s Poetics and the theory of emotional release through catharsis” (Donelson 69). This idea is seen with Ponyboy and Johnny, when Ponyboy recites Frost’s poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay”. Ponyboy finds Johnny’s note in the book Gone with the Wind, and Johnny wrote
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I've been thinking about it, and that poem, that guy that wrote it, he meant you’re gold when you're a kid, like green. When you're a kid everything's new, dawn. It's just when you get used to everything that it's day. Like the way you dig sunsets, Pony. That's gold. Keep that way, it's a good way to be (Hinton 182).
Ponyboy finds this note after Johnny has passed away and when he is trying to cope with the emotional and psychological trauma that has impacted him. This reminds Ponyboy of the relationship that he has with Johnny, who urges Ponyboy to stay innocent and to hold on to the qualities that make him different than the other boys. This helps Ponyboy cope with his loss, and pushes him away from the edge of self-destruction. According to Erikson, “if the desire to make something work, and to make it work well, is the gain of the school age, then the choice of an occupation assumes a significance beyond the question of remuneration and status” (Identity 129). This helps him write down his experiences and to achieve a sense of self in which he has longed for but also does not stray from the Greaser culture.
All in all, the lack of identity in adolescents has been a predominant aspect within the culture and the texts that surrounds it. Most often than not, the protagonist of the story must endure some kind of trauma in order to realize their potential and self-identity. Steve’s loss of identity is revealed throughout the novel as he struggles to identify who he is and his innocence. In Ponyboy’s case, however, he bases his identity on the group he is a part of. When he endures death and trauma, he starts to grow into the person he has always wanted to be while still recognizing where he came from. Adolescence is a confusing age in which teens have to figure things out themselves in order to understand who they really are in order to grow.
- Baxter, Kent. “New Kids of the Block: School Reform, the Juvenile Court”. University Alabama Press, 2008.
- Donelson, Ken and Alleen Nilsen. “Literature for Today's Young Adults”. Pearson, 2004.
- Erikson, Erik. Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York, W.W. Norton, 1968.
- Erikson, Erik. The Life Cycle Completed. New York, W.W. Norton, 1997.
- Hinton, S. E. The Outsiders. New York, Penguin Group, 1995.
- Myers, Walter Dean. Monster. New York, HarperCollins Publishers, 1999.
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