The Atlantic Wire
Mandatory Death in Y.A. Fiction
Ever wonder why it’s always the loveable characters that get killed off, leaving us bitter and restless? The concept behind it is, “you never know what you have ‘til it’s gone”. Sure, it’s cliché, but it works. John Frow, defender of multiple interpretations believes “genre theory is, or should be, about the ways in which different structures of meaning and truth are produced in and by various kinds of writing” (Frow, Genre). However, in various YA fiction that lacks a physical villain, death is an exception to open interpretation. When the protagonist has no driving motivation, a character with some innate flaw must die to spark the protagonist’s resolve. Although the death of an emotionally attached character renders many thematic meanings, the truth is inevitable: they had to die. When their death occurs, red flags should be going off with blaring sirens that say: ATTENTION READER: PLEASE NOTE THE DRAMATIC CHANGES IN THE PROTAGONIST FROM HERE ON OUT.
One of the most uninterpretable deaths must be Charlotte’s in Rowson’s Charlotte Temple. The tragic story has a chance to turn itself around when Charlotte’s dad arrives to rescue her. She didn’t die giving birth nor was she fatally ill. But Rowson’s not one to let Charlotte or the audience off easy, Charlotte will and must die for her filial disobedience. Who would take a moral story seriously if no one is going to be punished for their misbehavior? There’s no open interpretation about it, Charlotte’s fate was sealed the moment Rowson decided to write a didactic text. Rowson explains her reason and makes her intentions clear in the preface. The first sentence reads: “For the perusal of the young and thoughtless of the fair sex, this Tale of Truth is designed; and I could wish my fair readers to consider it as not merely the effusion of Fancy, but as a reality.” (Rowson, XLIX). Rowson states she designed the story not only to be true but it is in fact the Truth with a capital T so there’s no denying it. The story is a lesson to be learned and you best learn it. Her goal is for young women to thoroughly and seriously analyze Charlotte’s fated doom. If Rowson’s merciless kill left you ladies scarred and living with your parents ‘till you’re 30, then GOOD FOR YOU! Rowson is patting herself on the back.
In John Green’s Looking for Alaska, Alaska plays the sacrificial lamb. One explanation of Alaska’s death is her hypocrisy-if you can’t walk the walk, then don’t talk the talk. Alaska is continuously advocating feminism with comments like: “DO NOT OBJECTIFY WOMEN’S BODIES!” However, she has no problem making out with her boyfriend for others to see. Her excuse? “I just can’t seem to stop kissing my boyfriend.” Oh Alaska, if a woman’s “presence is manifest in her gestures” (Berger, Ways of Seeing) then can you really blame a guy for honking your boob? Alaska also condemns her friend for wronging her: “No woman should ever lie about another woman! You’ve violated the sacred covenant between women!” (pg. 65). What was that about sacred covenant, Alaska? I guess that didn’t cross your mind when you ratted out your roommate and got her kicked out of school. In the end, Alaska dies when she breaks the ultimate bond with her mother by forgetting her death anniversary. When a character is supposed to be the epitome of some trait and fails to maintain the charade, there are serious repercussions. And so, Alaska is booted.
Many would argue Alaska’s death correlates to the themes of pretentious feminism, childhood trauma, or language insecurity. But really, those are just well-incorporated excuses by the author that make for a good class discussion. She died because she was sucking the character out of Miles. Let’s consider what would happen if Alaska didn’t die. Miles remains the “drizzle” that is always drowned out by Alaska the “hurricane” (pg. 88). Alaska “would still be Jake’s girlfriend” (pg. 171). Miles continues “pining after her” and will be degraded to nothing more than a booty call. Our protagonist will live the rest of his life in the shadows of Alaska’s greatness with no will or identity of his own. Suddenly, we have a screen play for the next major indie film instead of a YA fiction novel.
Fortunately, Alaska’s death allows Miles to find his Great Perhaps, which was his original goal in the first place. If Alaska were to live, she would be able to answer Mile’s questions-which defeats the meaning of ‘Perhaps’. However, her absence causes Miles to realize: “I can’t remember, because I never knew” (pg. 173). Alaska’s death allows Mile to find his greatest mystery, his Great Perhaps and marks his growth. Not only that, but Mile’s is able to provide an answer for Alaska’s question as well. While Alaska was trying to find an escape route from the labyrinth, Miles assures we don’t have to worry about escaping because we are “greater than the sum of our parts” and therefore we “cannot fail” (pg. 220-221). Thanks to Alaska’s death, Miles is able to understand the meaning of life, therein redeeming himself as the protagonist and making us readers proud.
As literary scholars, we avoid “the possibility of a ‘correct’ interpretation” of a work; however, Hirsh’s “grounding of what he calls the ‘intrinsic genre’ of a text in the author’s will or intention” may not be as “flawed” as Frow believes (Frow, Genre). How else will we explain all the didactic texts of the Victorian period, Machiavelli’s The Prince, or America’s fetish for DIY books? Although readers may suggest a “multiplicity of interpretations” (Frow, Genre), some texts are meant to be taken at face value. As for Charlotte and Alaska, it’s hard to evade the idea that they are merely scapegoats of a greater scheme. Our favorite characters may have deserved more than death, but unfortunately, life’s not fair when you’re just a tool.