The Theme Of Coming Of Age In

Literature Essay, Research Paper

The Theme of Coming of Age in Literature

There comes a time is each person’s life when they reach the point where

they are no longer children, but adults. The transition from a child into a

young adult is often referred to as the “coming of age,” or growing up. The

time when this transition occurs is different in everyone, since everyone is an

individual and no two people are alike. Certain children reach this stage

through a tragic, painful event which affects them to such extent that they are

completely changed. Other children reach this time by simply growing older and

having a better understanding of the world around them. The coming of age

really is indefinite and cannot be marked in general overview. This stage in

life is one of the most important and most popular themes in literature. The

coming of age theme is found in one of the one of the best coming to age stories

that have ever been written. Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird is a sensitive

touching portrayal of a young boy who grows up through shocking yet realistic


Although many people are only aware of the coming of age theme through

literature and other forms of entertainment, there is also a very realistic part

to this event in a person’s life which is often ignored. The coming of age is

an event which is often celebrated in many different cultures, through rituals

or ceremonies. The rituals, also known as passage rites, mark the passing of a

person from one stage of life to the next: birth, infancy, childhood, adulthood,

old age, and death. The coming of age is celebrated along with birth, and death

because it is known as a universal life crises. Evoking anxiety, these crises

often elicit passage rites. Arnold Van Gennep stated that “Passage rituals have

three steps: separation from society; inculcation-transformation; and return to

society in the new status.” (1995, Grolier Encyclopedia)

All passage rituals serve certain universal functions. “They serve to

dramatize the encounter of new responsibilities, opportunities, dangers. They

alleviate disruption in the equilibrium of the community. They affirm community

solidarity, and the sacredness of common values.” (1995, Grolier Encyclopedia)

In addition, cultures use initiation ceremonies to mark the transition

from childhood to adult status. Rites for males are usually more elaborate and

dramatic and generally involve the community more than do those for females.

Among the African Gusii, for example, girls are at about age nine, boys at

twelve years old; Thonga boys may be sixteen. Boys rites often involve

seclusion from women, hazing by older males, test of manliness, and genital

operations, including circumcision. Girls rites are just as bad if not worse

with things like removal of the clitoris. In some places in North America, the

ritual is individual where as in Africa and Oceania the ritual can be collective.

A plain Indian adolescent boy undertakes a vision quest; he goes out alone into

the wilderness, endures hardship, and seeks a vision from his animal guardian

spirit; if he gets one, he returns a man.

Yet a different way for these rituals is group rituals. These often

takes months or even years, as among many Australian aboriginal tribes. Novices

learn great quantities of information and obey countless taboos. Instructors

are men who are strangers to boys. Ritual pulls the boy from childhood,

especially from his mother. He moves from the category of women and privileged

children toward the privileged one of the adult males. Such rites maintain

adult male togetherness and strengthen cultural continuity. They resolve boys

conflicts about sexual identity and establish clear attitudes toward fathers and

mothers. Such rites dramatize the power of older over younger males and state

that “only women can make babies: but only men can make men.” (1995, Grolier

Encyclopedia) Such passage rites symbolize death of the child and rebirth as a

man, as well as male envy of females. Versions in modern Western society

includes religious, confirmation, fraternity initiation, and military training.

In addition to the different ways that culture celebrates the coming of

age it is also one of the worlds most popular and beloved themes in literature.

“The Circus” is a touching story about a man’s kindness and how the realization

of this played an important part of his son’s coming age. In Dan Clark’s “The

Circus” , it is obvious how this young man realizes what being kind really means.

Clark states that “We didn’t go to the Circus that night but we didn’t go

without.” (1995, pg. 4) quote demonstrates that the young man realizes that it

is more important to be generous than it was to go to the circus. This was the

first step of this young man’s transition into the adult life. More often than

not, the plot, characters, theme and conflicts in literature deal with the theme

coming of age, are very realistic.

Yet another story is Gary Paulsen’s “Hatchet” which is a story about one

boy who must survive in the wilderness, with only a hatchet as a weapon. This

is a story of courage about how one child was forced to transform into an adult

in order to endure the circumstances surrounding him. Brian Robeson was

stranded on an island, after his plane crashed down while traveling to see his

father. He had no food, now way of communication and only a small hatchet to

save his life. Through terrifying events, “Hatchet” is the story of one man’s

struggle to survive. It is obvious how Brian Robeson was forced to “come of

age” or “grow up.” He boarded the plan that would change his life forever, as a

child, and returned home a grown man. The circumstances Brian was put under

after the plane crashed changed his life forever. When he returned home, he

looked at things from a different perspective and was not quick to take small

things for granted .

Lastly, Hugh Maclennan’s story “Explosion” is a story about a young boy

named Roddie Wain, who was late for school on the famous morning that Mont Blanc

crashed into another ship on the Halifax harbor, causing monstrous destruction.

Roddie Wain begins his journey of coming of age on this morning when he is faced

with the continuance of death, screams, and shrieks, surrounding him. Through

the days events, this child grows in to a young man through a series of shocking

and terrifying events. Near the beginning of the story, Roddie is only a child

who was late for school, and knows he is not in trouble due to the tornado that

just passed because of the explosion. He is happy that he will not be in

trouble. By the end of the story, he wishes he was back in school and in

trouble rather than being faced with the horrible sight of death and blood. An

the end of the story it is also rather obvious that he is not only saying that

he wants to be back in school, he is also saying that he wants to be a child

again. Something impossible, after all his has seen and been through. The

theme coming of age is found over and over again in literature, but each time we

learn something new. Humankind too comes of age with each new story, facing the

universal process of coming of age to repeat itself throughout a lifetime.

Furthermore, Harper Lee’s novel To Kill A Mockingbird is one of the best

coming of age stories ever written. It is a sensitive, touching portrayal of a

young boy who comes of age through shocking, yet realistic events. Through

Harper Lee’s story we see how one boy, Jem Finch, changed from a young child who

played make believe, to a young man looking for justice, after an amazingly

thrilling summer when a boy was changed into a man.

The first summer passed and Jem Finch was ten years old and afraid of

old ghost rumours. The second summer passed and Jem was eleven; he enacted a

drama from his imagination in his front yard along with Scout and Dill. Still

summertime, and they tormented a man by sticking a note on the end of a fishing

pole, trying to persuade the man to come out. Still summertime and Jem, Scout

and Dill tormented the man yet again by invading his privacy and trespassing.

It was fall, and Jem stood in his front yard as tears of sorrow fell down his

face, while Nathan Radley cut of his only communication with Boo Radley. It was

winter, and Jem and Scout sat outside, watching as a house burned down and a

ghost threw a blanket over Scout. It was winter, and Jem stood prouder than

ever, as he watched his father kill an infested, dying dog. It was spring, and

Jem raged against an old lady by destroying her roses, kicked his sister to the

ground in fury and helped her back up. It was summertime, Jem saved his

father’s life as well as Tom Robinson’s. It was summer, and Jem sat and watched

the trial which would change his life, turn him into a man. It was summertime

still, and the justice system that Jem had so much faith in, let him down and

broke his heart. Jem stood in the courtroom as tears strolled down his face

for Tom Robinson, and what the justice system had done to him.

It was summertime still, and a young man fought to change the justice

system, and to make things right, giving everyone hope for the future. It was

fall, and a young man ran made with rage when his sister mentioned the trial and

the courthouse. It was fall, and Jem’s life was saved be the man who had once

feared so much. Through these touching, traumatic events, it is easy to see how

one young care-free boy, turned into a young man full of rage, let down by the

justice system. Harper Lee’s story How To Kill A Mockingbird is a

representation of reality, since, for Jem to grow up he had to face many heart

wrenching conflicts which turned him into a young man. Harper Lee’s story was

indeed touching, realistic and unforgettable.

In conclusion, coming of age is an important and unique universal

experience. Coming of age is a preferred theme among many authors , all over

the world. Although it is a very popular theme, it is important not to forget

the traditions and ceremonies behind it. This theme was beautifully portrayed

by Harper Lee’s novel To Kill A Mockingbird. Every child most come of age at

some point in their lives, whether through a horrible ordeal, or by the passing

of time, but what is most important is that you learn from it and carry it

throughout your life. Always remember that everything that happens during a

lifetime is important and happens for a reason. The process of coming of age is

repeated throughout that lifetime, so take it and learn from it.


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