- Reflexive Matriarchal Art as Re-Vision of Nuclear Fear:Stephanie S. Tolan's Pride of the Peacock
Recently, books treating nuclear themes for young adults have been criticized as both unoriginal and escapist (Glazer); a more recent related article indicts these books further for failing to convey any depth of emotional deprivation and, especially, for failing to subvert the status quo through their structure and meaning (Bosmajian). Stephanie S. Tolan's Pride of the Peacock (1896) transcends these limitations. This novel concerns the profound emotional impact of Jonathan Schell's The Fate of the Earth on fourteen-year-old Whitney, who has read this hardly escapist work for "a nonfiction book report" (75). Tolan's novel details Whitney's lonely awareness not only of her own nuclear fear but also of others' lack of concern over or their overt denial of the possibility of nuclear destruction. In a ruined garden, Whitney meets Theodora Bourke, a sculptor who is renovating the site as therapy in coping with the violent loss of her husband. Working with Theodora to restore the garden, this paradise lost as it were, Whitney begins to fashion a clearer sense of herself and specifically to sculpt a strategy for expressing her feelings. Tolan's novel, simultaneously activist propaganda and aesthetic achievement, reminds us once again that art and politics can be brilliantly integrated.
The reflexivity of Pride of the Peacock provides one mechanism of this integration of art and politics. At a number of points, Tolan's novel alludes to several genres of young-adult fiction, and, accordingly, draws attention to its own relationship to these genres. It mentions the sort of fiction seemingly preferred by young female readers, such as Whitney's friend Allie, who is "forever reading romance novels" (9). Whitney's effort, on [End Page 171] one desperate occasion, "to immerse her brain so thoroughly in [the] mindless mush" of "a teen romance novel" that "she couldn't think" is an indicative failure (39). Through her protagonist and by the example of her own novel, Tolan critiques the girl-boy romance genre as well as all other "escapist fiction"—including spy thrillers, mysteries, and science fiction—urged upon Whitney by various male characters (26). In the process of its own narrative, Pride of the Peacock revises such fiction for young adults.
Tolan particularly targets the comfortable closure conventionally provided by popular escapist fiction. Her own book, in contrast, withholds any simple solution to the question of nuclear fear. In this respect, Tolan's fictional art mimics Schell's documentary art, as described by Whitney: "She was sure at the end of the book there would be an answer, the thing that would save her and everybody else and the earth. But the author didn't have the answer. He didn't even say for sure there was one" (5). In Tolan's novel, a deep friendship is formed between two women, and a communal female aesthetic, as we shall see, is offered as one progressive response to the ruined garden of the status quo; however, nothing in Tolan's book amounts to a sure solution. Its reader is left only with a tentative hope that a matriarchal aesthetics might "push the darkness back a little" (182, emphasis added). Both Whitney's adjustment and the world's redemption remain uncertain. The implied reader, in short, cannot close Tolan's book with a comfortable mental resolution concerning Whitney's or the world's fate.
This discomfort, the result of resisting the conventions of young-adult fiction, is one means Tolan employs to revise the expectations of her readers. In terms of reader-response theory, the provocation of dissatisfaction in a reader through managed absences can potentially lead to reflection that, in effect, invites "the reader to participate not only in the viewing but in the making of the novelistic universe" (Iser 111-12). Mental reflection is crucial if Tolan is to attain a new readership for her kind of book, a readership distinct from the passive consumers (such as Allie) of escapist fiction. This reflexivity in Tolan's work also instructs future authors on the need, as imaged in Theodora's ruined garden...