Tuesday, December 2, 2014

From Self-Absorption to Moral Reform

Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid invites the reader to identify with its protagonist through a subtle illustrative technique. When the protagonist's moral choices are less than ideal, this invitation challenges the reader to also identify with the protagonist's faults and pushes the reader towards moral reform. Kinney's use of a journal to narrate this development is meaningful in multiple ways.

The novel's illustrations primarily advance the plot and convey dialogue in a succinct manner (although some illustrations merely repeat what has already been described in narration, without addition). Not every illustration is necessarily humorous, and few contain the sophistication of a New Yorker cartoon. However, I think they serve an important purpose in inviting the reader to identify with Greg. Notice the physical characteristics of Greg's classmates, friends, teachers, and enemies. Everyone has at least one unique feature: a big nose, prominent teeth, large hair, a hat, glasses. The simplest character of all is Greg himself. Every other character, whether male or female, is a variation on Greg's plain physical features. Except for the three tufts of hair sprouting from Greg's head, Greg could almost be a stick figure. (I find Greg's father and older brother to be especially funny variations--they are simply older versions of the same exact character!) Kinney does this purposefully. Whether the reader was in middle school last week or last century, who can't identify with the young Greg? Greg's everyman (everyboy?) characteristics help the reader see himself in Greg. [I say himself purposefully, because I don't know what the female reaction to this would be. Greg's experience seems fairly masculine, and while it connects with my own middle school experience, I can't speak for women who read the book. I'd be interested to discuss the female take on this book in class. I do think that Kinney's invitation to identify with Greg can still apply for female readers and doesn't automatically negate the whole argument.]

Early in the novel, the reader is likely to have subconsciously identified with Greg, not only from the illustrations, but through Greg's lens on the world: he seems to be the only sensible person around. However, a number of incidents throw his sensibility into question. A continuing theme through the novel is Greg's poor treatment of the lovable Rowley, who is a friend of utility. In fact, it seems that all of the people in Greg's life are there for utility, helpful only to the degree that they help Greg play more video games or become more popular at school. In a previous post, Anna considers Greg's "deception" to be "the darker side of the novel." While I imagine that adult readers are perceptive of Greg's selfishness from the beginning, I don't know what an actual sixth grader would think of Greg's Christmas thank-you cards or his actions during the school play. I know that my little cousin in the second grade loves this book; I don't doubt that Greg Heffley has inspired him to commit a few nefarious deeds of his own. For a nine-year-old, Greg is the Machiavelli of middle school!

Anna almost understates the situation: Greg's self-absorption is really the only side of the novel until the last pages, when Greg makes a single gesture of self-sacrifice and pretends that he touched the cheese (rather than Rowley, who was forced to eat it). Hopefully all readers are appreciative of this character development--especially my cousin.

Kinney's use of a journal to convey the narrative of a self-absorbed sixth grader is quite brilliant. The first entry of the "JOURNAL" explains why Greg Heffley would choose to write his personal experiences in the first place: Greg believes that he is surrounded by "a bunch of morons," that he is "smart and handsome," and that one day in the future, millions of people will want to know about his childhood (Kinney 2). (Ironically, millions have read about this fictional childhood). Isn't a journal naturally inward-looking and self-congratulatory?

Not necessarily. Not every journal will become a bestselling book, and everyone who keeps a journal knows this. Most people don't want their private thoughts published for the world to read. Journals are also an effective tool to track one's moral development. Ignatius of Loyola instructed the faithful to track one sin (or category of sin) each day with simple tally marks. He hoped that as the sin became less prevalent, the record would be a visual reminder of success and an encouragement to eliminate the tallies entirely. Benjamin Franklin created a chart of virtues that he filled out at the end of every day to record which virtues he lived and which he neglected. These are just two examples of personal journals meant to lead to moral growth.

I don't think it's accidental that Greg's physical characteristics are so simple. Just as Greg places himself at the center of the universe, Kinney wants us readers to enter into the center of the story, becoming the protagonist. All of us are a little like Greg: self-absorbed, using others as means-to-ends, often blinded by our own ambition and greed. It is a prideful desire to go inward which leads Greg to start his journal, but a journal is ironically one of the most effective tools for moral reform, which ultimately leads one out of oneself and into the realm of sacrificial love. When I, as a reader, criticized Greg's actions, I know that I was often criticizing myself. Greg's journal, like all good satire, compels us all to become better people.

No comments:

Post a Comment