- Power and Polyphony in Young Adult Literature: Rob Thomas’s Slave Day
Although first-person and singularly focalized third-person narration remain the most common narrative forms in young adult literature, novels featuring multivoiced narration have long played an important role in the genre. These novels—in which narrative responsibility is shared by at least two narrators or focalizers—enact Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of polyphony by explicitly demonstrating the mutual influence and interplay of multiple voices. Because one of the most common and important goals of polyphony is to portray the development of characters’ identity and subjectivity, multivoiced narration is in many ways particularly applicable to young adult literature, a genre defined by its protagonists’ maturation, increasing awareness of their subjectivity, and expanding worldview. Multivoiced narration also highlights questions of power by constructing complex networks of character relationships that demonstrate the challenges that adolescents face while navigating various institutional and social hierarchies. Although adolescent narrators are given narrative authority, it is immediately and frequently challenged by the other voices that compete for influence and control; this distribution of narrative authority suggests, in turn, that the best way for adolescents to gain access to any degree of power is to understand and accept their roles in a system that represses them. Rob Thomas’s 1997 novel Slave Day, which features eight first-person narrators and an explicit concern with the power structures at play in a small-town Texas high school, is a particularly useful example of the ways in which multivoiced narration can provide insight into adolescents’ experiences of and access to power. [End Page 66]
As many critics (e.g. Schuhmann 314) have noted familiar, relatable first-person narration has become something of a hallmark of contemporary adolescent literature; while third-person narration occurs somewhat less frequently than first-person narration in adolescent literature, it remains a prevalent narrative form in this genre. Typically, third-person narratives employ one focalizer through whose eyes the events are presented and perceived. In both of these conventional narrative forms, the focus on a single consciousness allows for a comprehensive development of one character’s growth and subjectivity. However, while narratives that feature only one perspective present a clear focus on identity, one of the most common criticisms of first-person narration or third-person narration focalized through the eyes of an adolescent is that the narration is overly simplistic or limited. Mike Cadden asserts that “by employing an all-too-reliable young adult’s consciousness, the YA novelist often intentionally communicates to the immature reader a single and limited awareness of the world that the novelist knows to be incomplete and insufficient” (146).
Cadden provides helpful insight into the particular effects of the most common type of narrative in young adult literature by examining questions of power available to or possessed by the author, the narrator, and the reader. Borrowing a term from Bakhtin, Cadden argues that young adult fiction is inherently double-voiced, as the perspectives or beliefs of both the adult author and the adolescent narrator may find expression in a given work:
When an adult writer speaks through a young adult’s consciousness to a young adult audience, he or she is involved in a top-down (or vertical) power relationship. It becomes important, then, that there be equal (or horizontal) power relationships between the major characters within the text so that the young adult reader has the power to see the opposing ideologies at play.(146)
While singly-voiced novels can of course portray the horizontal power relationships to which Cadden refers, multivoiced narration allows for a more thorough investigation of “opposing ideologies” and demonstrates the ways in which the various points of view influence and are influenced by each other. Indeed, this interest in the ways that voices exist in concert speaks directly to Bakhtin’s investigation of polyphony, which is his term for the situatedness of language, understood generally as the representations of and relationships between a variety of voices and discourses. Although most novels are to some degree polyphonic because they include voices other than the narrators’ through dialogue, letters, and so on, novels employing multivoiced narration allow for the...