Master of Arts (MA)
Semester of Degree Completion
John David Moore
Robert Cormier is "the premier writer for adolescents in the United States" according to The Handbook of American Popular Literature and dozens of literary critics. Although his novels have won numerous awards from the American Library Association (ALA), his novels have also generated controversy from critics who believe his novels are excessively dark and disturbing. Adolescents in Robert Cormier's world are by no means the average teenagers one may expect to find at a local high school. Instead, the adolescent world is shown to be more complex and dangerous, where evil preys on the good, where loneliness and isolation are not occasional occurrences but commonplace, and where anyone who dares to be different is doomed to failure. Cormier's fiction suggests a nihilistic view of society and also implies a dystopia, with almost every present force (government, schools, and religion) mounting together to crush caring individuals. Cormier shows even those who are in power and control (antagonists) find no more happiness than their victims.
While Cormier's adolescent novels (which include The Chocolate War, I am the Cheese, The Bumblebee Flies Anyway, Beyond the Chocolate War, We All Fall Down, Tunes for Bears to Dance to, In the Middle of the Night, and Tenderness) belong to the "problem novel" sub-genre of realistic fiction, they also philosophically differ from the typical problem novel, as represented by such writers as Avi, Judy Blume, Glendon Swarthout, and Paul Zindel. It helps to understand Cormier's fiction by placing it in the context of naturalism, which emphasizes the impotence of individuals because of forces within nature and society. Cormier's vision of adolescents is unusual within the context of adolescent literature because it seems to undermine the concept of the individual, showing adolescents as unable to escape from the problems that encompass them, in part because the problems are difficult, but mainly because the culture of adolescents in conjunction with adult culture ultimately punishes those who attempt to be different, unique, or (especially) good.
Cormier's world is one devoid of hope, which contradicts the setting of most problem novels. Additionally, Cormier's novels undermine a common theme in adolescent literature, the "rite of passage" that develops teens into adults. Instead of treating adolescence as a rite of passage, Cormier shows it to be a period where no transition is needed or can occur since both adults and teenagers are shown to be equally brutal to people who wish to be good or independent.
Finally, Cormier's intense focus on characterization makes him unique from most problem novel authors, which usually focus on the "problems" instead of the characters or relationships. Cormier seems to hint that the problems that surround his characters are arbitrary, and most of the actual harm (both physical and psychological) that occurs to adolescents who try to be different from their peers come from the majority of seemingly ordinary adolescents who are shown to be brutal to anyone who wishes or dares to be different. Thus, I conclude that Cormier exposes the dark side of human nature, and his vision of the adolescent world is one where evil triumphs over good and where individuals who dare disturb the universe are crushed.
Walker, Erik M., "Beyond the Problem Novel: Robert Cormier's Vision and the World of Adolescent Tragedy" (1998). Masters Theses. 1735.