Not too long ago, I read three 19th century novels that feature young people as leading characters.
Stendhal’s “The Red and the Black” is sometimes called the first psychological novel. The main character is Julien Sorel, a man in his early 20’s from a modest background who gets involved first with the church and then with increasingly high aristocratic circles in France. He has exceptional mental gifts and high ambitions but no knowledge of how to behave in the great world. Entanglements with highly placed women lead him to commit a crime for which he is tried and punished. Stendhal draws Julien with great skill. he is a sensitive young man with a concern for his own integrity, yet he is proud, superior, a numbskull, concerned chiefly about himself.
Esther Summerson in Dickens’ “Bleak House” is the opposite. Illegitimate, abandoned by her mother, she has a difficult life until a well-to-do middle-aged man brings her into his house as a companion for two cousins who are under his protection. Society has changed since Esther’s day, but in Dickens’ time, she would have been seen as a model of service, loyalty, patience, and friendship. She sacrifices herself for others and in the end of the story she receives the reward her virtues deserve. Many 21st century readers will find her overly submissive and too restrained by the conventions of the culture she lives in,.Still,even today society benefits from people like Esther.
Dostoevsky’s “A Raw Youth” or “The Adolescent” gives us another picture of a young person. Also illegitimate, Arkady Dolgoruky decides that his idea for life will be to seek power and wealth so that he can live as he pleases, in solitude and silence, but he doesn’t take many steps toward his goal. Instead, he becomes involved in numerous encounters that take up his time, his thoughts, and his feelings and that draw him away from his mission..Chiefly, he gets to know his father, a semi-playboy, whom he hungered to bring into his life. I particularly liked the way Dostoevsky portrayed the shifts and turns of Arkady’s personality. He is the most deeply felt of the fictional young people I spent time with.
All three novels are long and expansive and depict whole societies as well as the concerns of their main characters. The nineteenth century was a uniquely blessed time for fiction and in many ways our novels today still stand in the shadow that century cast over the future. For example, each of the three novels I read illustrates a feature of life that is with us today — that young folks often have energy, strength, the capacity to dream and wide horizons, but they are subject to the power of a variety of older people, who don’t always set good examples. How do they cope? Esther does well. Julien Sorel does not. Arkady finds his way and seems to set aside his dream of being the emperor of his own life.
Another young person I came in contact with is Salome in Richard Strauss’s opera of the same name. Her stepfather, one of the Herods who ruled in Israel in Jesus’ time, has eyes for her and asks her to dance for him. She resists. He offers her anything she wants, as much as half his kingdom. When she finishes her dance, she asks for the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter, both to punish John the Baptist for rejecting her and to torment her stepfather. She gets her wish. After that, her loneliness and isolation become very clear “”If he had looked at me,” she says of John, “he would have loved me.”
Salome surely misbehaved and was the author of a dreadful crime, but in this version of the famous story, the influence of her environment contributed greatly to the state of her mind — self-regarding, materialist parents, the great privileges of high rank, no caring supervision or suitable romantic interest, or even friends. Her situation surely would have been much better if she had had loving, responsible grown-ups looking out for her.