By William Harvey
July 10, 2003
The reason J. K. Rowling is so unique is that she understands the psychology of children and young adults better than any writer in history. Any writer, no matter how great, has to struggle to understand the motivations, desires, and thought processes of children. By the time writers are educated and mature enough to write with any skill, their own childhood is so far behind them that they have forgotten what it feels like to be 13 or 14. They strain, they imagine, they exercise all the powers at their disposal to reconstruct the youthful psyche, but in the end, they fail.
Steinbeck is one of my favorite writers, but his portrayal of the young routinely falls flat. Toni Morrison and Arthur Miller do a slightly better job (I'm thinking of Beloved and The Crucible, respectively), but still, their younger characters are one-note while their older ones reveal the mastery of a great writer.
Compare the character of John Proctor to that of Abigail Williams' female cronies. Abigail herself is fairly well-drawn, since she's supposed to be a young adult. But while Miller expertly captures the child's desire to conform, he declines to portray the motivation behind that desire, and the other aspects of character which it affects. Rowling does this masterfuly, and subtly: the pomposity of Ernie MacMillan is much more interesting than it appears, when you remember that he has not always been that pompous, and has not always believed Harry. Rowling understands the peculiar brand of bravado that children undergoing emotional sea changes experience, and it is depicted with deft assurance.
In Miller's defense, none of Abigail's followers are a major character. But neither is Ernie MacMillan! Also in Miller's defense, the scenes with Mary Warren are extraordinarily moving. But step back from the emotion: Mary is acted upon; she does not act. She is a pawn in the hands of adults. It is true that she is not a strong-willed character, and that is why the scenes work. And why did Miller choose to make her a weak character? Because writing those scenes with a strong-willed Mary Warren would have required a knowledge of teenaged thought processes that is beyond even Miller, whom I regard as one of the best writers of all time, period.
Even in masterpieces where children make the briefest of appearances, the authors display an embarrassing lack of understanding of the young mind. I'm thinking of Orwell's 1984 and Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Jude the Obscure is one of my favorite books, but I'm afraid Hardy's portrayal of the young Jude misses the mark entirely. He gives the seven-year-old Jude emotions more proper to a 27-year-old, thereby robbing him of the complexity of emotion that is actually felt at that age. Like so many great authors, Hardy created a stunted man, NOT a child.
Rowling is the lone exception. Even other children's authors miss the mark. Orson Scott Card's children talk like college professors and think like Ethiopian gang leaders; Philip Pullman's children act with the assurance of James Bond and inhabit the emotional world of dime novels. Madeleine L'Engle's children speak sentences of such eloquence and clarity that the only way a child could talk like that would be with the assistance of a ventriloquist with a doctorate in English from Harvard.
The piercing understanding of the young mind is what sets Rowling above the pack, and adults flock to Harry Potter because they are as interested in the accurate representation of children in literature as children themselves. In fact, a mother can learn more about how her 15-year-old thinks by reading the new Harry Potter book than by reading a book entitled "How your 15-year-old thinks" by a man with a lot of letters after his name.
If A.S. Byatt fails to appreciate that, it is her loss.