The Boarding School Microcosm: The Unrealistic Portrayal of “Real Life” in the Institutions of Young Adult Literature
Young adult novels set at boarding schools typically feature protagonists that encounter trials not necessarily representative of life outside of fiction on their journey towards adulthood. Rather, these texts amplify struggles and cause problems for the characters detrimental to their coming of age, presenting overwhelming problems of inaccuracy in boarding school novels and rendering them less realistic than merited. Death, alcohol abuse, and behaviors indicative of mental unwellness occur without much (if any) adult interference, and the young characters struggle to succeed within the academic environment at a level that would, in reality, be just cause for concern among their peers and superiors alike. Novels such as J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, John Knowles’ A Separate Peace, and John Green’s Looking for Alaska portray the dramatization of adolescent struggles within a boarding school setting, serving as prime examples of the tragedies of youth as depicted in a fictional school setting. Thusly, the archetypical boarding school novel within the young adult category of literature stresses trauma too heavily and cannot be considered truly reflective of reality.
Popular in literature, the boarding school setting provides a consolidated means of offering an audience access to multiple aspects of a teenage character’s life. In reality, the setting does indeed combine social life with academic and personal. While that translates as a more dynamic version of the typical school story in juvenile fiction, the practice of using boarding school as a safe environment in which young people are able to thrive as a result of constant, careful monitoring of a high standard is a “basic assumption” that “is a common, socially condoned, and usually unquestioned premise that sending children to boarding school is good for them. A common phrase used to justify this practice is that boarding school will be ‘the making of them’” (Schaverien 683-4).
While boarding schools are by no means an ideal atmosphere in which adolescents can gain exposure to a multidimensional world, as no environment is absolutely perfectly suited for learning and growth, the setting is typically depicted as one contributing to the success of the ideal child. “Despite the popular literature on this topic there is little written, from within the analytic world, about the lasting psychological and sociological impact of boarding schools” (Schaverien 686). This flawed social representation catalyzes the perception of the shortcomings of boarding schools, fueling the inaccurate fictional portrayals of the location that are only dramatized by the portrayal of the negligence of adult figures and lack of appropriate regulations. The typical school story in young adult literature details the lack of adult aid in the trials the young characters face while coming of age, but the boarding school story highlights this even more, providing a broader setting for those authority figures to disappear from.
Devon Preparatory, the fictional boarding school of A Separate Peace, embodies this imperfect boarding school setting then exaggerates it, featuring few responsible adults who bother to interfere in the misbehaviors and reckless teenage boy activities of main characters Finny and Gene. The latter serves as both the protagonist and narrator and spends time throughout the course of the novel—even in his musings set in the future in the first chapter—simply describing the school’s physical properties: “Devon is sometimes considered the most beautiful school in New England, and even on this dismal afternoon its power was asserted” (Knowles 8). The book features Devon as only a setting to be respected; it is not the nature of the boarding of students itself but rather the lack of supervision that this particular setting allows that results in Finny’s tragic accident.
While Devon itself cannot necessarily be held responsible for the actions of the characters and the resulting broken leg of their friend while adventuring, their occurrences would be much less likely at a public school or in a non-academic setting altogether. This casual establishment of Devon as the product of the author’s desire to protect the integrity of boarding schools can be attributed to how “Knowles carefully shields his fictional academy from criticism” (Pitofsky 390). In constructing the setting to be more representative of the typical school story than the more detailed boarding school story, the author has the ability to stay fairly realistic and avoid playing into the stereotypical dramas associated with fictional boarding and preparatory schools. Nevertheless, the dramatization in A Separate Peace occurs at such a level that is ridiculous in comparison to realistic standards for school-age children like Finny and Gene and the adventures upon which they embark.
This fiction, despite its attempts to make the boarding school setting more realistic, is not an accurate portrayal of adolescence because of the “remote and indistinct” setting Knowles creates:
First of all, he keeps the Devon School and its routines offstage throughout the novel. Second, when the students in A Separate Peace suffer physical and emotional trauma, Knowles makes it clear that their injuries are self-inflicted and therefore Devon should not be held responsible. Knowles’s efforts to turn the reader’s attention away from the school have a paradoxical effect. On the one hand, they weaken A Separate Peace by making its main setting remote and indistinct; on the other, they help to explain the novel’s enormous popularity (Pitofsky 390)
The isolation and lack of accountability Devon has in these boys’ lives permits them to act more independently; Devon’s remote location might have its appeal to readers, but it does result in the abandonment of its care of its students like Gene and Finny. Devon is not responsible for them as a real school would be, consequently allowing them to engage in dangerous activities.
Gene and Finny’s summer session spent in blatant defiance of the strictness of their Masters serves as an example of their embracement of liberties at the school, further demonstrated by Finny’s bold attempts to befriend the Masters enough to permit their jumping out of trees and missing meals. “The Master was slipping from his official position momentarily, and it was just possible, if Phineas pressed hard enough, that there might be a flow of simple, unregulated friendliness between them, and such flows were one of Finny’s reasons for living” (Knowles 22). Despite the apparent severity of the few adults in the novel, such as the Master who bothers calling Finny out for missing “nine meals in the last two weeks” there seems to be very little care on behalf of the school authorities about the boys on a daily basis when they are getting into trouble (Knowles 22). The boys are left to self-regulate—a practice common for fictional youth in boarding school novels but rarely successful, as would be more likely in reality: “Enough broken rules were enough that night” (Knowles 55). Furthering the idea that boarding school novels are not reflective of reality to the extent they are frequently given credit, in such texts there are no guidance counselor check-ins, no true punishments or scrutinizing of Finny’s fall and Gene’s role in the altercation… this novel is characteristic of a typical young adult novel in which the adults are rarely seen on center stage because they simply do not care. “In some ways, Knowles raises the suspicion that the authorities at Devon were negligent” (Pitofsky 403). The lack of adult attention only serves as a detriment to the wellbeing of these young characters.
A Separate Peace, like so many other young adult boarding school novels, allows its characters to participate in unrealistic activities because of the setting and the freedoms it allows (and, consequently, the loopholes and following trouble the youth find). Because of this, the characters are less relatable and the text is less effective as realistic fiction. Boarding school novels similar to Knowles’ hold their characters to unrealistically low standards and fail to interject responsible adults or realistic roadblocks for the adolescents, rendering them less like reality than audiences often give them credit for.
The Catcher in the Rye reveals the flaws of boarding school young adult literature similarly, emphasizing the lack of adult supervision and necessary interference in the self-regulation of adolescents in order to facilitate their successful coming of age. Protagonist Holden Caulfield spends only a short time at the beginning of the novel at his boarding school, Pencey Prep, but the significance of the setting on his mental health is great, an attribution augmented by the audience’s knowledge of his past failures at multiple other boarding schools. The exposure to competition among the other male characters and Holden’s desperate and successful attempts to depart the school speak to the unrealistic adult supervision in the novel, ridiculously lax even in the 1950s.
Holden’s repeated use of the words “phonies” and “hot-shots” reveal his discomfort with the masculine competition he experienced at boarding school. He identifies the rivalry aspect of the environment as being harmful to his search for a truthful, genuine life that will ideally provide him with some stability. Pitofsky’s review of masculine competition in The Catcher in the Rye substantiates the argument that Holden lacks the ability to find sincere characters in the book because his preparatory school has exposed him to other characters who do not aid him in growth, as a school in reality does intend to provide, as speaks to the nature of education. “The character tries to keep his distance from the materialism and self-importance he associates with ‘hot-shots,’ but boarding-school culture circa 1950 offered no refuge from aggressive masculine competition” (68). Holden is not in an environment that he feels allows him to thrive without threat when he is at one of his many boarding schools.
Holden’s relationship with his roommate, a popular young man by the name of Stradlater, reveals how he interacts with other characters his age, who are intended to be very average depictions of teenagers to highlight Holden’s lack of lucidity. The challenges the struggling protagonist faces (such as writing his paper for him, and attempting to talk to women) are amplified by his complaints that he does not fit in with the other characters, and then the descriptions of those characters going out and succeeding athletically and socially. “[H]e is perpetually reminded that other characters do not view success the way he does” (Pitofsky 74). Holden refers to Stradlater as a man “madly in love with himself” (Salinger 27). Holden’s criticisms of his roommate and even his professors past and present are vapid, judgmental to a point at which they are invalid and instigating even more unruly behavior from Holden that should warrant his institutionalization but do not until much, much later in the novel as a result of his lack of true adult aid at school.
Holden’s aforementioned failure to succeed at any preparatory school preceding Pencey enunciate this point: “Thus, it is not hard to understand why Holden, a character with no discernible “furnace of ambition,” “will to excel,” or desire to be “toughened up,” has struggled to find a niche at the boarding schools he has attended” (Pitofsky 73). Pencey serves a non-therapeutic setting when all Holden needs to establish or regain mental stability at a realistically socially permissible level is some sort of therapy. Holden does not receive any sort of therapy at school—only later in the novel, when we see that he is in a mental institution and allowed to go back to school in the fall. It is only when he departs for New York City from Pencey that we see Holden encounter any sort of therapeutic setting, such as with his sister, or in the park. Consequently, this lack of help may cause readers to feel a sense of detachment from the character and his supposedly realistic story: “Holden’s decline in health may seem like an exceptional case, far removed from most people’s everyday experience” (Baer & Gesler 405).
What should come unsurprisingly, then, to a disconnected audience, is Holden’s alienation from succeeding at boarding school from the start, given his personality, incapable of developing—much less maintaining—a healthy mindset because he is unable to compete with the unrealistic standards of athleticism and romantic successes of his male peers at school but does mellow out when he is in some sort of setting in which he is given the opportunity to relax and contemplate his perception of himself.
The habits and lack of supervision of the adults in the contemporary bestseller Looking for Alaska also render it a typical boarding school novel, ranking among the likes of A Separate Peace and The Catcher in the Rye because of their struggling male protagonists in particular. The severity of the behaviors and consequences the students face in John Green’s 2005 tome is unrealistic in that their opposition of adult authority literally results in character Alaska’s death. The likelihood of these children getting away with smoking and drinking to the extent they do at Culver Creek Preparatory School is unfathomable in reality, as the negligence of the few adults in the book, such as decrepit Dr. Hyde and the Eagle, is not an accurate portrayal of typical adult interference.
The characters lie to their superiors and one another easily, taking turns covering for their friends and taking blame. They cuss, smoke, and drink… all while recognizing the detriments of their habits on their health and stability at school. Yet no adult bothers to truly interfere—in fact, the Eagle permits a trip to the Colonel’s mother when the children cannot verifiably be credited with actually visiting his mother (they do not). Alaska notes the Colonel’s affection for the students and secretly negligent policies, despite his attempts to enforce punishment. She attributes his occasionally authoritative behavior to his love of the school and belief that “busting [the kids] is good for the school and good for [them]… The Good versus the Naughty” (56).
According to Lewis et al., Looking for Alaska very heavily emphasizes the disconnect between those adolescents coming of age and their adult superiors. Although “Looking for Alaska demonstrates how adolescent behaviors have as much to do with adult expectations of them as they do with any “natural” need for rebellion or opposition,” the positioning of the adults’ interference with the children actually causes their detriment (47). Looking for Alaska provides a contemporary example of this unrealistic approach to boarding school fiction, taking away the merit from its accuracies by unequally emphasizing the faults of the setting.
The trouble the adolescents featured in these novels get in far exceeds any similarly aged people would in real life as a result of the isolation they face in boarding schools. This removal from the rest of society is not only physical—emotionally, these realistic fiction novels negate any positive influence from adults, sometimes excluding them completely from a situation and eliminating possibility for growth as a result of mature relationships developing in an academic setting. Accordingly, the young adults featured in this category of literature fail to flourish as civilized, well rounded individuals and are left to their own devices in fictional situations that are extremely dramatic.
Baer, Leonard D., and Wilbert M. Gesler. “Reconsidering the concept of therapeutic landscapes in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.” Area 36.4 (2004): 404-13. Web.
Green, John. Looking for Alaska. New York: Dutton Juvenile, 2005. Print.
Knowles, John. A Separate Peace. London: Heinemann, 1987. Print.
Lewis, Mark A., Robert Petrone, and Sophia Tatiana Sarigianides. “Acting Adolescent?: Critical Examinations of the Youth-Adult Binary in Feed and Looking for Alaska.” The ALAN Review Winter (2016): 43-50. Web.
Pitofsky, Alex. “Masculine Competition and Boarding-School Culture in The Catcher in the Rye.” Studies in American Culture 34.1 (2011): 67-85. Web.
Pitofsky, Alex. “Unseen Academy: John Knowles’s A Separate Peace.” Papers on Language & Literature 49.4 (2013): 390-414. Web.
Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1951. Print.
Schaverien, Joy. “Boarding school: The trauma of the ‘privileged’ child.” Journal of Analytical Psychology 49.5 (2004): Web.
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