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A Revaluation of the Theme Self-Identity and Individualism in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland are two literary works that are well known examples of children’s literature. These two books are different altogether but have striking similarities in some of the concepts depicted by the writers. They are both adventure stories but Carroll’s literary work is purely fictional while Alexie’s novel is a narration alluded from his life experiences. They both present two young adults who share a curiosity that drives them away from their safe places into the world of self-discovery. A comparative analysis of the main characters in these books reveals the ways in which children’s adventures shape the formation of their own identity as well as their sense of individuality. The challenge is in bringing out the moral of the two stories while upholding positive outcomes of Carroll’s and Alexie’s imagination on children’s tales.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie can be described as an enjoyable new generation story written in the 21st century from the eyes of a teenage boy with a fresh visual and engaging literary style. Sherman Alexie has carefully embedded a visual and verbal language in a descriptive manner which is coherent with the title. This is evident by the way Arnold Spirit Junior innocently reveals his feelings and emotions about his experiences.
It is important to note the authentic structure of the book consisting of cartoon pictures which Junior uses when ‘words are too limited’. These cartoons assist readers to understand the text as well as facilitate discussions about visual imagery. In addition, the use of cartoons has a thematic connection to the persona’s emotions and feelings. Junior acknowledges that he draws because he wants the world to pay attention to him. This narrative clearly highlights Self-identity and self-esteem as the root theme which connects to other themes including poverty, family relations, death, racism and discrimination which births bullying, alcoholism and violence.
Alice in Wonderland is a classic tale book written in the 19th century filled with fictional adventures of a young girl, Alice. The writer takes the reader into a world of fantasy characterized by epic creatures as well as physical body transformations and magic. Alice in her innocence gets to discover the world of adulthood in a dream.
The key characteristic of this story is the use of symbolism. Lewis Carroll has employed symbolic resonance majorly encompassed in the term ‘Wonderland’. The symbols work cohesively to convey one meaning. In addition, one object may have multiple symbolic meanings. For example, the caterpillar’s referral to the mushroom can be viewed as a sexual threat due to its phallic shape which generally symbolizes sexual virility. It can also be viewed as a distortion of Alice’s perception of adults and adulthood. The writer further uses the structure of a dream to bring out the child’s struggle to survive in the confusing world of adults.
Just like Alexie’s novel, this narrative is wrapped around self-identity in the silly and arbitrary eyes of a child. Alice in Wonderland is built on the phenomenon of myriad transformations since the character finds herself expanding and shrinking in size very often. During her journey through wonderland, Alice is growing up whereas Arnold Spirit Junior throughout the novel extends his boundaries beyond the Indian Reservation in a bid to identify his individualism.
Learning to read is learning to see and this is what the two writers have used to educate the reader. Identity is a crucial term among the adolescent because it is the foundation of their individuality. The journey to a new identity is never easy especially for children who are transitioning into puberty. Children develop their own identity by learning more about their environment. They hint clues about who they are as well as whether they take after certain things they admire. It is adorable to see the unprejudiced and innocent way young children approach the world through Alice’s Adventures and Arnold Spirit Junior’s experiences.
The first step to self-identity is defining the characters in question. Who is Alice? Who is Arnold Spirit Junior? At the beginning of the Carroll’s novel, the reader is introduced to a sensible girl from a wealthy English family. While at home, Alice is sure of and comfortable with her identity because the environment is more real, clear and logical. Her encounter in Wonderland, a delusional world, costs the little girl her initial identity which begins to fade away as she meets unorthodox creatures. Wonderland consistently challenges her perceptions at every point causing her to suffer an identity crisis. This can be seen in her conversation with the caterpillar where it asks her to identify herself, “Who are you?” (Carroll) and Alice gives a rather confused response “I hardly know sir, just at present-at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then”(Carroll). Although her response shows that she is keen to the fact that she has been changing ever since she landed in the place, she does not know who she is.
Alice is a human creature in a world with anomalous creations which are very different from her. It is quite normal for her to be confused as to what her identity is. It is easy for the reader to note that the animals also cannot identify to such a creature as Alice. They had never seen anyone/ anything like her. Later on in the book, the writer introduces the reader to the pigeon who mistakes Alice for a serpent. The pigeon has a logical reason for referring to Alice as a serpent which is solely based on her physical features causing her doubts to increase.
The young girl is more confused about her own development because she keeps on growing and shrinking in size after drinking or eating something given to her. Her identity keeps on changing which keeps her worried. The reader finds that the character’s size reduces when she meets a challenge and needs to grow smaller in order to hide from her antagonists. Her need to increase in size arises whenever she wants to command authority in her own defense. Her consistent transformations bring to light her inquiries into her own identity reflecting the difficulties of growing up especially when children advance to puberty.
Names are closely linked and help in the identification of a person. The easiest way to identify a person is by their name. A person can also be identified by their race, age, location citizenship among others. Arnold Spirit is a young Indian-American from the Spokane Reservation in Wellpinit, WA. Junior is known by two names; Arnold and Junior but he prefers to be referred to as Junior although at times he felt that Junior was an unusual name. This is evident by the way he introduced himself most of the time. To Junior having two names symbolized his two worlds and everything that was unfamiliar about them. In addition to his preferable names, fellow Indians at home called him “Apple” because to them he was a traitor.
Junior was never proud of his place of birth. In fact, his origin made him feel more like an outcast. He had a small body which made him a victim of bullying at the reservation. Because of this and poverty, he loathes his origin and describes Reservations as prisons for Indians, a place where Indians were supposed to be moved to die. The young lad’s desire for a brighter future saw him change schools from the reservations to a predominantly white community where he earned a new identity being the only Indian at Reardan.
During adolescence, young adults struggle to develop a sense of self-esteem and form an identity in their journey to self-discovery. Being different caused his peers to reject him. This shows that belonging to a community could help develop a sense of identity. Even in a predominantly white school, Junior did not forget his Indian heritage. Going to Reardan altered Junior’s point of view on concerns such as identity markers and shared norms. He says “Zitty and Lonely, I woke up on the reservation as an Indian, and somewhere on the road to Reardan, I became something less than less than less than an Indian”(Sherman).The boy’s move to the white high school can be seen by the reader as a shift from an area of dry to an area of greener pastures just like a ‘nomad’. In fact, his friend Rowdy calls him a ‘nomad’ because according to him he is a nomad just like old time Indians.
Junior lost the guiding forces of shared norms, thus he felt his identity slipping away as he joined the high school in Reardan. This highlights his loss of identity in an unfamiliar environment or community. Acceptance by his peers at the new community created a new sense of self-identity. He was no longer “less than less than less” as when he arrived. His description of himself changed to words like ‘mysterious’, ‘new’, ‘an exciting addition’, ‘a major stud’.
A dilemma arose in Junior’s life as he struggled to find his true identity. He found himself entangled in an identity web he pondered on whether he wanted to be the quiet artist he thought he was on the inside, the wild Indian like every member of his family, Penelope’s boyfriend or the new cool kid his schoolmates at Reardan thought he was. His multiple identities made his situation more complicated.
Child-hood is the first stage of life whereby children are looked upon as small adults. The way society views childhood today is different from a century ago. It is a privileged age which Carroll constantly uses to show the reader the childhood of Alice by demonstrating how other characters in the book regarded Alice as a little child based on her looks and behavior. In the first chapter, her elder sister is brought into the picture which makes the reader wonder whether Alice is the youngest in her family. The young lady is constantly referred to as “little Alice”. While Alice is asleep, her elder sister reflects to her own childhood picturing to herself how Alice would one day grow into a woman and even have children of her own. Another character, the King of Hearts, identifies with the child-like nature of Alice which he uses to explain Alice’s rebellious behavior in order to save her life. In addition, her actions and utterances in response to the questions posed to her by the unique creatures in Wonderland confirms the actions of a young adult.
Junior’s childhood in the book has not been clearly brought out by the writer. At the start of the novel, Junior is less optimistic about himself, his culture and future because of his family background. His negative attitude towards poor Indians can be identified with the idea of being poor. His childhood is surrounded by poverty which has led him to believing that he deserves to be poor. Poverty therefore clouds the truth about his identity and the identity of his community (Spokane Indian Reservation).
He saw Reardan as a different place from his home town which made him look down upon himself and even adopt the name ‘rez’ which was meant to degrade them to less than a zero. “I am a zero on the rez and if you subtract zero from zero you still have zero”. He further asserts that “Reardan was the opposite of the rez. (Sherman)
Children identify with situations in their families very strongly which influences their self-esteem and resultantly their identity regardless of whether they are outspoken individuals or introverts. A child whose childhood is utterly surrounded by poverty can easily identify with Junior’s situation. This can be illustrated by the words Junior used to describe his family. He mentions the fact that his family came from poor people up to his grandparents and possibly their ancestors as well. In order to uphold his identity as an awesome kid, he tries to hide his poverty which is part of his identity from his friends at Reardan but once he accepts his background and tells them the truth they became more sympathetic. The reader experiences the extent of the fourteen year Old’s family when his beloved dog Oscar falls sick and the father shoots the dog to put him out of his misery because they could not afford any treatment. “Poverty=empty refrigerator + empty stomach”(Sherman) this is what crosses his mind whenever he thinks of their poor condition.
The environment has a way of revealing a certain identity to an individual as they advance into adulthood. Wonderland is the environment which Lewis Carroll chose to place Alice, the main character in the novel. Alice is driven into this unfamiliar location by her unquenchable curiosity. The reader sees her in chapter one starting off her feet as soon as she sees a rabbit with a waistcoat pocket. She even questions herself just to confirm whether she is the same as she was when she woke up that same morning. “But if I am not the same then next question is ‘Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the puzzle!”(Carroll). This was meant to inspire the young child’s mind into adulthood. This environment further compels her to try to communicate with every creature she meets.
Arnold Spirit in the story, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, experiences life in two different environments; Reardan and Wellpinit. The two regions symbolize the differences between the two worlds and the two identities he must adopt so as to fit in both worlds. Junior says, “Travelling between Reardan and Wellpinit, between the little white town and the reservation, I always felt like a stranger. I was half Indian in one place and half white in the other. It was like being Indian was my job but was only a part-time job”(Sherman). This statement clearly explains the title of the book.
The challenges that Junior faces as he adjusts in his new environment is something that arises in the personal lives of most teenagers. In fact, most teenagers abhor the idea of moving to a new school or being referred to as the ‘new kid’ when they transfer to another school. Junior in his case decided to move to Reardan after realizing that knowledge and learning were tools that would help him escape life on the reservation. In order to achieve his dreams he had to overcome the general apathy of his reservation and move towards a hopeful future in Reardan. The cartoon on page 43 perfectly demonstrates junior’s state of confusion when he was faced with the decision to move towards a hopeful future or wallow in his heritage.
Both writers allow the reader fully explore elements of sexuality and gender identity. Sexuality and gender defines who and what we are. The only identities the two writers do not miss is the fact that Alice is a girl and Junior is a boy. Being a fourteen year old, Junior unflinchingly open about his love for masturbation. He states, “I am going to talk about it because everybody does it. And everybody loves it”(Sherman). To some extent his sexual references are overtly confronting because he is not ashamed or embarrassed to openly declare them. “Naked woman + right hand= happy happy joy joy”(Sherman). Such open declarations bring out the authenticity and realism of the writer clearly highlighting the topic of sexual discovery among adolescent.
It also shows that the society is unclear about certain codes when it comes to interactions between males and females. This is seen through the friendly relationship between Junior and Rowdy. Rowdy yells” Don’t touch me you retarded fag!”(Sherman) when Junior touches his shoulder. This is highlighted again when Junior takes a cartoon to Rowdy in an attempt to fix their friendship. Rowdy’s father smirks at the cartoon and says, “You are kind of gay, aren’t you?”(Sherman) furthermore, when Junior approaches Gordy with his wish to become friends, Gordy steps back and replies “I am not a homosexual”(Sherman).
In the course of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, she experiences a mix of physical body changes which usually occur during puberty, a time when teenagers identify with their sexuality. Young Alice finds these periodic changes to be traumatic, and feels discomfort, frustration, and sadness whenever she goes through them. She struggles to maintain a comfortable physical size but keeps on finding herself in rooms that are either too big or too small to accommodate her. These constant fluctuations are closely related to the way a child may feel as her body grows and changes during puberty.
While Alice is running away from adolescents, Junior is moving towards acceptance of himself in different communities. Alexie explains the importance of creating a balance between community values, norms and individuality in order to become a complete individual. Gordy tells Junior, “Life is a constant struggle between being an individual and being a member of a community” (Sherman). Towards the end of the book, Junior began to see himself as a member of different tribes in order to forge a new and meaningful identity. His story began with a boy without a clear identity to a multi-tribal individual (belonging to many tribes). He was able to reconcile the multiple identities he had developed as he realized that he was a member of many tribes.
Her personal development into adult-hood has been quite a struggle especially with the constant ballooning and shrinking in size. Adults seem to have a great deterrent effect on her considering how unreliable, unfair and judgmental the characters she met were. After a tumultuous identity crisis experience, Alice wakes up in her elder sister’s laps and figures out that Wonderland was just a dream. Essentially, growing up in Wonderland meant the death of her child-hood, and although Alice certainly remains a child through her physical changes in size, death, in other ways, never seems to be far away in Wonderland because she will only keep growing up.
To conclude, it is necessary to further support the above arguments by examining the final images that each of these two picture books leave with the reader. As discussed earlier, Carroll’s symbolic illustration in Alice in Wonderland, pushes Alice, both figuratively and visually to the extent of her own maturity. Indeed, the final page-turn of the book evidently removes Wonderland from the story entirely leaving Alice in her former self. This builds upon the earlier established notions of self-identity in individuality, sexuality and different environments illustrating that child has the choice to either conform or rebel as puberty kicks in.
Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian boldly bridges identity gaps between different environments, tribal settings and situations. This is echoed in Junior’s final decision to embrace both tribes and achieve a better future. Therefore, the title The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is the most appropriate for this novel. In this reevaluation of the twobooks of children’s literature, it is necessary to acknowledge that children will find Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland the most entertaining books in their shelves.