Adolescent Characters in Literature: Coming of age Conflicts


Adolescent Characters in Literature:

Coming of age Conflicts

Cultural rifts that occur within adapting societies present conflicts and issues in complex variations when dealing with the human condition. Literature historically has been a learning tool for children and adults during their socialization stages of life. The human condition with infinite ideologies can present itself through conflicts the characters face in literature. The complexity of conflicts that characters face in both, “What it’s like to be a Black Girl” and “Country Lovers” help us navigate feelings and emotions associated with the socialization process during adolescence.   

Each piece uses words to build in the context that will stimulate internal responses about this stage of life.

Considerably so Crapo (2013) clarifies, the coming of age socialization processes as, “humans are taught proper social behaviors by watching and interacting with members of the same cultural group.” It is this idea of socialization that makes literature a critical tool in understanding the human condition. Literary devices and elements that both Patricia Smith and Nadine Gordimer use help bring the issues and challenges during puberty. Wenzel(2005) suggests that literature acts as a facilitator for culture, language, and critical thinking. The relatable message for our society allows for critical reader response and it is because all humans go through this stage of human development that makes writing about these conflicts helpful to all humans. Caring about the issues of humans within a society may motivate the overall meaning and in turn when we critically analyze the evidence presented with logic we interpret societal conflicts with intellect and greater understanding(Mosser, 2013, section 1.2).

The meaning of a piece of literature like “What it’s like to be a Black Girl” written by Patricia Smith in 1991, places emphasis on the narrator of the poem who is also the main character.  The writer engages us in the conflict by describing the child’s world. This helps the reader see the teens undesirable life and opens the discussion around urban women and social identities. Particularly both literary pieces describe conflicts within female African-American youth.  The ethnic struggle spans decades and has caused a stigma of misrepresentation.  The construction of social identities, the perception of American beauty and self-sexual worth that initially causes the internal conflict in both the poem and the short story. Racial dimensions are shown to complicate the cultural landscape and Henton (2012) goes on to write, it is this attack on the concept of beauty which is plagued by the dominant culture. In turn damaging ideologies of self-image of the African female adolescents slowly deteriorates.

Suddenly normative values shift and mass culture opens the political landscape and deepens external conflicts within a society. Even when Paulus went to boarding school and the other children started to discuss him as Basie – “little master”(Clugston,2014) this indicates Thebide’s realization that her relationship is racially taboo in both societies. The story moves on and Thebedi ends up pregnant and the child is an offspring of Paulus’s. The story’s rising conflict, puts emphasis on the theme of racism. Paulus is aware of the child’s existence, and ultimately kills the innocent baby. The cruelest form of racism, a murder. As the baby can not find the difference in race, innocence makes him a victim of a hate crime. A character or persona of the writer of a piece of literature allows for the internal struggle we read about uncover similar situations that we relate to our own experiences in life. Giving humans a diverse pool of interpretations about issues within our own psychological sphere. Opening unique insight into how people form their self-identity, social status and economic worth within their cultural group.

The title of the poem itself is a powerful literary element and sets out to first highlight the narrator of the poem, which in this case, is also the character with the internal struggle.  Second it sets up a persona of the character which by the sign of her of racial ethnicity, within the title she is an African-American Girl.  The word  “ Black” as in “Black Girl” which is a form of slang for African-Americans to show skin color and the title flows into the poem making it the first line of the piece of literature.  The line after the title details the age of the character and helps the reader step into the girls world and read the piece as if we were the same age.   Smith opens her poem by writing, “First of all, it’s being 9 years old and feeling like you’re not finished, like your edges are wild,” also a simile is used at the end, to indicates the young women emotional  awareness of forced maturity(Clugston, 2014, Chapter 4). The emotional connection with the character sets a clear understanding of the external racial tensions plaguing the socioeconomic environment of the time. This helps to illuminate the theme of Racism which is an interconnected conflict with society that both girls face in each literary piece.

The “black girl” in Smith’s 1991 poem, clearly states the girl’s age, nine, which in American culture is still a child.  

Although the age ten typically marks the start of “pre-teen and “teenage” years, the black girl has a sense of innocence built into her persona and is represented through stating the girls age. The theme of lost innocence repeats the awareness to the conflicts within the text and brings meaning to both the poem and the short story.  The poem has language, that can be interpreted as an experience the young girl had, possibly a forced sexual act or some form of cruel domestic violence. Ultimately hindering the concept of herself and damaging her feelings of worth.  The changing adolescent hormones also unavoidable in the human stages of life seem to show the psychological mind frame of the girl.

Similarly the short story by Nadine Gordimer “Country Lovers” which was written during the same historical time, allows the reader to feel the tensions between the teens as they navigate an  interracial relationship. The ethnic discrimination helps highlight the struggle through the socialization process of the teenage years. Adapting into the politics of adulthood during cultural rifts within society for young girls was difficult during the story and the poem.   The understanding of cultural identities or “race” is clear when the main female character in the short story, Thebedi, describes the children and their behaviors after they go away to school, “The farm children played together when they were small; but once the white children go away to school they soon don’t play together any more”(Clugston,2014.). Considered a literary technique when writing literature,  foreshadowing helps to show how, Paulus the farm owners son, and his reaction to similar socialization within the white community. Both teens are noticing the racial landscapes as each meet the division based on the color of skin after and during the schooling process. .

Paulus and Thebedi still close friends because of their interactions with each other during early childhood, has started to formulate attraction towards each other. As children, their friendship started innocently, oblivious to color of skin and stigmas in society. Thebedi and Paulus soon blossom into a sexual relationship both experiences the feelings of first love and forbidden romance. The experiences and the environment in which all humans construct emotional feelings affects all developmental phases of life.  As the teens begin to fall in love they also begin to discover how the social and racial taboos hinder emotions. It is these political landscapes beyond the text that form the setting of each literary piece and strengthens the theme of  Racism which is an external conflict for both characters.

Humans cross-culturally celebrate teen socialization in parallel to rites of passage, coming of age concepts and critical points in the human development.  By instilling the same values and conforming to normalcy of the culture the child’s transition into adulthood plays a critical role in construction of human social identity(Carpo, 2013). Emotional comprehension is a part of this stage and the characters feelings can be indicated in literary devices such as tone and through the structure of words, the patterns of figurative imagery and iconic symbols the author specifically incorporates.  “Country Lover” is a story of interracial friendship at a situational time in history. The subjective expression is clear in the tone of the narrative and guides the reader on to a personal deep understanding of the subject and theme of racism.The conflictual nature of Afrikaner cultural identity is manifested in various ways in the second half of the narrative as it follows the lives of its subjects during the latter part of their journey(Jacobs,2006). Depictions of youth can be clear in the style of dialogue that progresses like age through the short story and poem. By the end we sense maturity and growth within the characters ideas and purpose.

The variations in knowledge capacity and lack of full emotional ranges for both girls are presented to the reader in their adolescent transitional phase of life. Through literary devices both pieces of literature, grab our attention to the underlining themes of Racism and Socialization of adolescent African-American girls. The figure of a women, a black women’s literary production, and black feminist theories have been uncritically deployed in a range of mainstream discourses as metaphors or symbols(Mann, 2011).

The Coming of age era of human development traditionally and cross-culturally opens looming fears and anxieties about adulthood, responsibility and purpose to the world. It is this uncertainty that Literature helps to uncover about  the conflicts and issues.  Both Patricia Smith and Nadine Gordimer use the theme of racism to show the conflicts within society.  Cultural conflicts that humans faced during this historical time formulated concepts of racial identity for youth in America. The emphasis on  the socio-economic struggles of adolescent social status is still a conflict in teenage culture.


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Jacobs, J. U. (2006). Diasporic Identity in Contemporary South African Fiction. English In Africa, 33(2), 113-133.
MANN, R. (2011). Theorizing ‘What Could Have Been’: Black Feminism, Historical Memory, and the Politics of Reclamation. Women’s Studies, 40(5), 575-                           599. doi:10.1080/00497878.2011.581564
Mosser, K. (2013). Ethics and social responsibility (2nd ed.). San Diego, CA: Bridgepoint Education, Inc.
Wenzel, M. (2005). The crucial role of literature in the generation of knowledge and critical thinking. Literator, 26(1), 69-82.