Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Dead Boys and Adolescent Girls: Unjoining the Bildungsromdn in Carson McCullers's the Member of the Wedding and Toni Morrison's Sula

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Dead Boys and Adolescent Girls: Unjoining the Bildungsromdn in Carson McCullers's the Member of the Wedding and Toni Morrison's Sula

Article excerpt

IN CARSON MCCULLERS'S FIRST NOVEL The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940) her adolescent girl protagonist, Mick Kelly, is left to deal with the aftermath of the accidental shooting of a three-year-old neighbourhood girl, Baby, by her beloved younger brother, Bubber. Mick lies to Bubber, who has hidden himself away after the accident, telling him that Baby has died when she is only wounded and that he is going to the electric chair for what he has done. Convinced that she can manage Bubber, Mick thinks her intervention will ensure that "he would never want to pick up a gun again in all his life" (Heart 151). Bubber is never the same. After the combination of the shooting and Mick's symbolic execution of him, he withdraws into himself and from the world. Mick's part in the cutting off of a future for the initially intellectually curious and engaging Bubber is one of the tragedies of the book, but her tough, almost sadistic treatment of her brother also coexists, inextricably, with something much more tender. The night following the shooting, after Bubber has been retrieved from a runaway attempt and then cried himself to sleep, Mick gets into bed with him:

She was awake a long time. In the dark she put her arms around him and held him very close. She touched him all over and kissed him everywhere. He was so soft and little and there was this salty, boy smell about him. The love she felt was so hard that she had to squeeze him to her until her arms were tired. In her mind she thought about Bubber and music together. It was like she could never do anything good enough for him. She would never hit him or tease him again. She slept all night with her arms around his head. Then in the morning when she woke up he was gone. (Heart 159)

Mick's sensual, affectionate care for Bubber reveals a maternal, idealizing, and erotic fascination with the small, "soft" body of the young boy (their mother is dead and Mick looks after Bubber and their baby brother). At once "soft" and "hard," the love Mick feels for Bubber is indeed deadly--the squeeze that breaks bones and selves. He himself hardens because of the incident, rejecting both Mick's attempts at comfort and his nickname, the soft, tearful-sounding Bubber, and reverting to his given name, George.

In this article I map the contours of the ambivalent, loving, and deadly relationship between an adolescent girl and a much younger (effeminate and/or unformed) boy, as revealed in another of McCullers's novel, The Member of the Wedding (1946), and in Toni Morrison's Sula (1973). These novels are harsh toward their adolescent girl protagonists, who nonetheless arguably fare better than their younger male counterparts who wind up dying dramatically. What is the relationship between the violent ejecting of a young boy from the plot and the resulting (shaky or anti-) developmental storylines of their adolescent girl heroines? In what follows, I will unpack versions of the future (for the protagonist and for the female Bildungsroman) that are imagined and discarded at these moments, as well as versions of political rage, ambivalence, and critique that are made manifest through these boys' deaths.

Recently, there has been a spate of queer critical work on the ways in which, in a range of works, the queer child (or the child as a trope for the potential queerness of temporality itself) functions to disrupt teleological developmental narrative (oriented toward adulthood and heteronormative reproduction), even as s/he also functions as its best guarantor. (1) Yet it is the adolescent, rather than the child, who holds the key place in Western literature's most influential narrative of development, the Bildungsroman. The Bildungsroman relies for its plotlines on the choices encountered by a young person on the verge of adulthood. According to Franco Moretti, the central dynamic of the Bildungsroman is marked by a tension between a narrative drive toward a settled telos--adulthood, marriage, and vocation--and a contrasting urge to linger in present-centred, picaresque pleasures signaled by circulating capital and an aesthetic that in the nineteenth century became identified with the emotionally charged and experimental moment of modern youth. …

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