Forgive me, Readers, for what I am about to write may be classified as comparative literature. Don’t get too excited now.
I present to you two novels that couldn’t be more different:
Ferdydurke – a surrealist tale of a thirty year-old man erroneously deemed unfit for adulthood and forcefully sent back to secondary school, written in 1937 by Polish author Witold Gombrowicz.
A Confederacy of Dunces – a comic tale of a thirty year-old man living with his mother who is forced to seek employment against his will, written in 1963 by Louisianan author John Kennedy Toole.
In Ferdydurke, the protagonist, Joey (in the English trans.), gets dragged by a former professor back to high school and must integrate himself with painfully immature teenagers. Eventually, he is forced to live in a homestay where he is treated as a young boy (in spite of still being a thirty year-old adult). He runs away and accidentally finds himself at his aunt’s and uncle’s estate, who proceed to treat him with a condescension as if he were nothing more than a child.
In an effort to reclaim his adulthood, he runs away with his lady-cousin (of ambiguous relation) and professes his (false) love to her. They live happily ever after (probably).
In A Confederacy of Dunces, the protagonist, Ignatius, gets forced into a job working at a pants factory (and later goes into selling hot dogs) by his mother who needs him to raise money to pay for damages done in a car accident. Unfit for the real world of employment, he jeopardizes his work and antagonizes his neighbors and coworkers, pushing his mother to commit him to a mental institution, lest he forever be a petulant, overgrown child.
In an effort to avoid being committed, he runs away with his old college sweetheart (and/or enemy) and together they drive off into the ambiguous future to live happily ever after (probably).
Behold two stories of young men unfit for their world.
Joey is brought back to secondary school because he fails to fulfill the expectations adults have for other adults, namely self-definition. His relatives tell him, “If you don’t want to be a doctor, at least be a womanizer, or a fancier of horses, be . . . something definite.” His inability to fulfill a role in his society is what forces him back into the trial of growing up (or growing down, in his case) again.
Ignatius is forced to get a job because he spends all day every day chasing fruitless scholarship in the ivory tower if academic pursuits to no sense and end, and it becomes high time for him to support his family (mother). His absorption with meaningless academic pursuits convinces the rest of his society that he is doing nothing of any use and can most definitely find a job (as academic pursuits have no real worth).
In a way, the stories are opposite. Joey, because of his failures as an adult, is forced to be a child, and failing that, flees. Ignatius, because of his failures as a child, is forced to become an adult, and failing that, flees.
And yet, how do they flee? Both into the arms of a woman they might not actually desire, deceptively and desperately persuading their respective female saviors that they’re ready to move out and move on (into companionship, i.e. the Adult World). These two men, facing the consequences of their prolonged immaturity (Joey -> insanity at the hands of his aunt and uncle | Ignatius -> commitment into an insane asylum by his mother), reluctantly pair themselves off with duped partners, and their stories end.
Their ascent into the world of adulthood is a deception, forced upon them by circumstance, using sex as their alibi, as if no one can question a grown man once he is beside a woman.
Certainly there exist those who are fully confident in their ages and relationships, but I do wonder: how often is marriage (or companionship) really just a desperate attempt to clutch adulthood from the jaws of an eternal childhood, lest one never grows up in a world which demands that we do so?