Roberta Seelinger Trites
Literary Conceptualizations of Growth: Metaphors and Cognition in Adolescent Literature
(Philadelphia, USA: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2014)
In the seminal Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature (2001), Roberta Seelinger Trites argued that adolescent literature is more about teaching adolescents to conform to societal pressures than it is about growth. In this follow-up to that project, Literary Conceptualizations of Growth: Metaphor and Cognition in Adolescent Literature, Trites asks why growth is such a prevalent concept in adolescent literature.
In her introduction she states that adolescent literature is the only genre written with the specific ideological intent of undermining the reader’s subject position. The purpose of this new book is to ask why that is.
As a field, cognitive linguistics and brain science have been viewed as complex at best and intellectually intimidating at worst. Trites’ introduction to her thesis succeeds in bringing readers up to speed, for want of a better phrase, without overwhelming them, or without overwhelming her argument.
Over the course of the book, Trites posits that our own cognitive structures are responsible for the prevalence of growth as both a metaphor and a narrative pattern in YA literature. She is not seeking to define the young adult novel but rather to examine how growth is conceptualized in literature and in literary criticism. She is specifically interested in the metaphor as a linguistic phenomenon, and how this particular phenomenon affects the ways in which we conceptualize the world around us. She draws on the work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980) to argue that cognitive structures such as metaphors and their influence on conceptualization should be studied in terms of both language and thought. She returns to her central theme, the concept of growth, to illustrate this point, stating that growth is first defined by categorization, but also in metaphorical terms.
Trites admits that there is more to understanding literature than simply understanding metaphors and patterns of narrative structure. Through a series of research questions, she aims to interrogate the nature of that understanding, asking how do the cognitive processes of memory and repetition figure in the production and reception of narrative? How does our learned use of language limit and enhance narrative understanding?
One of her research questions highlights a possible weakness in the application of cognitive linguistics to this particular genre. Trites asks how the brain recognizes and understands stock characters, narrative formulae, and narrative conventions. One might ask if the neurological science yet exists that can answer that question – and one might also ask whether this kind of critical work, based so fundamentally on textual patterns and narrative structures, should take place in that particular scientific realm.
There is a consistent and accessible structure to Trites’ book; chapters begin with working definitions which are then deconstructed and applied to textual examples. Chapter One investigates the concepts of growth, cognitive linguistics, and embodied metaphors, starting with a comprehensive background and review of current and past literature. The chapter then expands into an examination of embodied metaphors of growth in literary criticism, using Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as an example in fiction of the concepts discussed in the chapter. This opening chapter provides a template which is followed throughout the book – a template which proves to be economical and effective.
Chapter Two continues with an analysis of sequences, scripts, and stereotypical knowledge, explaining each concept before Trites widens its scope to look at the phenomena of memory, perception, and emotion. Chapter Three is concerned with blending and cultural narratives, with blending being defined as a specific cognitive process that creates complex concepts from multiple sources. Chapter Four takes the form of an in-depth case study of the cultural narrative of what Trites calls the “Pixar Maturity Formula”. She looks at maturity and causality in both Up (2009) and Toy Story 3 (2010), expanding the scope of her thesis by applying it to the medium of cinema. Chapter Five constitutes an analysis of epistemology, ontology, and what Trites terms “the philosophy of experientalism”. Here, critical focus is placed on the novels of David Almond, and the expression of embodied reason within his narratives. The chapter goes on to examine the epistemology and ontology of racial construction, using Alexie Sherman’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian as a case study.
The text concludes with Chapter Six’s investigation of the hegemony of growth in adolescent literature. Trites examines growth in terms of its metaphorical power and its historical conceptualizations in order to quantify its implications in literature for young adults.
At the core of Trites’ thesis is the observation that we are surrounded by metaphors of growth, and these metaphors fascinate her. That fascination has produced a critical text that is as enlightened as it is essential for those pursuing and interrogating the phenomena of cognitive linguistics.
Rebecca Long, Trinity College Dublin, December 2016.
Animality and Children’s Literature and Film
(Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)
Dedicated to a dog named Sam, who ‘seems to have always thought that he is a person’ (1), Animality and Children’s Literature and Film sets out to deconstruct the familiar human-animal dichotomy and hierarchies based upon it. In this thought-provoking, interdisciplinary study, Amy Ratelle challenges the prevailing popular and critical tendency to regard animals in books and films for children simply as anthropomorphised substitutes for humans. Instead, drawing on the emerging field of animal studies and on posthumanist scholarship that critiques the notion of an exclusively human subjectivity, Ratelle provides fresh insights into a dozen or so stories published between the late eighteenth to the early- twenty first century, as well as a small selection of films for children.
Charting the literary and later filmic representation of animals and their relationships with humans over more than two centuries is no easy task. Ratelle’s solution is to focus largely on canonical works with which readers are likely to have some familiarity. So, for example, a discussion of Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty (1877) is conducted alongside an explication of Judith Halberstam’s theories about the architecture of monstrosity to explore how the conflation of human inferiority and animality problematizes notions of race, class, gender and sexuality in the well-known and long-admired children’s novel. Similarly, a detailed account of the history of pigs and factory farming is linked to an analysis of E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (1952), Babe (1995) and Chicken Run (2000) as part of an investigation of spurious vindications of producing animals to feed humans. In another chapter, a comprehensive summary of the technologies of pain employed from antiquity to the late-Victorian period provides context for an examination of the ethics of laboratory testing of animals in a discussion of The Rats of NIMH (1971). While the inclusion of the critically neglected Memoirs of Dick, the Little Pony (1799) is to be lauded, it is the only relatively unknown text covered in the study.
In Ratelle’s view, the configuration of childhood as separate to adulthood resembles the constructed distinction between the human and the animal. Furthermore, children, because they are relatively powerless and seldom as articulate as their elders, have, according to Ratelle, long been associated with animals. In Fabulous histories, designed for the instruction of children, respecting their treatment of animals (1786), Sarah Trimmer drew on this association to compare and contrast the behaviour of human children with a group of nestling robins and so provide social and moral lessons for her young readers, who were encouraged to treat animals with kindness. Early writers of children’s fiction encouraged identification with animals, who were endowed with only those human characteristics likely to provide examples of good and bad behaviour. During the nineteenth century, writers of children’s fiction, including Anna Sewell, similarly tended to encourage their readers to empathise with animals in order to reaffirm their own humanity and superiority. Interestingly, however, middle-class, Victorian children who read animal autobiographies such as Black Beauty, went on to become active members of the anti-vivisection and animal rights movements. As a result of an increasing recognition that animals are capable of suffering, American and late-twentieth century children’s fiction and film, while endeavouring to empower children, increasingly challenged the assumption that animals are inherently subordinate to humans. Nevertheless, both Charlotte’s Web and Chicken Run ultimately retreat from critiquing human consumption of animals on a large scale and so re-inscribe the human/animal binary they challenge.
The dedication and the study itself reflect Ratelle’s passion for animals. That passion enhances what might otherwise have been a dry or earnest application of posthumanist theory to a range of children’s texts and films. Throughout, theorists who challenge the assumption that humans are superior to other animal species are invoked to insist convincingly on the rights and agency of all animals. For example, Donna Hathaway’s concept of a ‘companion species’ and Deleuze and Guattari’s hypothesis of ‘becoming animal’ are used to highlight the complexity of Jack London’s deconstruction of nature/culture, animal/human and domesticity/wilderness dichotomies in The Call of the Wild (1902). In a related vein, Jacques Derrida’s identification of a carnophallogocentric paradigm of meat consumption informs Ratelle’s analysis of Charlotte’s Web.
For scholars of children’s literature, this approach has both advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, it fuels original readings of canonical texts and highlights how fruitful and provocative the application of critical theory to children’s literature can be. Less helpfully, there are occasions when the explication of critical theory and historical background take precedence over textual analysis. For example, the explication of technologies of pain through the ages takes ten pages while the analysis of the 1982 film, The Secret of NIMH, runs to just three pages. Furthermore, Ratelle argues that focus on exceptional, individual animals in children’s books has resulted in a denial and/or rejection of animality in general. Yet, she focuses only on a small sample of canonical stories and films for children in her study. This narrow focus, however inadvertently, misrepresents and/or denies the variety, richness, and breadth of children’s literature in general. The provocative basic premise of this lucidly written monograph – that humans are animals like other animals – implies that children are essentially little beasts. That, alone, ensures that Animality and Children’s Literature and Film will be of interest and value to anyone involved in the study of texts and films produced for children, rather than kids or puppies or the young of any other animal species.
Anne Markey, Dublin City University, December 2016.