“So, what do you guys remember about Wuthering Heights?” my English teacher asked us on the last day of class. Our AP Literature test being next week, we were in the process of reviewing books we had read in high school in about two minutes each. Considering the fact that we had read Wuthering Heights in tenth grade, I was sort of impressed any of us remembered anything about it, but also disappointed by how much I had forgotten. Beyond forgetting the majority of the characters’ names, I was having trouble recalling even the most basic details of the plot, which was shocking considering I had deemed this book a favorite a mere two years ago. Would I forget this much of The Great Gatsby in another year? How long before my current favorites would be a distant memory?
Suddenly, I was shaken out of my reverie by my teacher’s descriptions of the second generation of characters in the book. “Young Cathy and Linton have a romance at first, but then Cathy ends up marrying Hareton. And remember, Hareton is this beast, he’s sort of animalistic, almost, but he ends up being very nice to Cathy.” I had a strong feeling of anger, and couldn’t really explain why. All I knew was that Hareton was not an animal, Hareton was the sweetest boy in the entire world, and he was really just misunderstood.
Apparently, I remembered a little more than I thought – that is, I remembered how I had perceived certain characters, but not why. Oddly, although I had clearly felt my tenth grade self’s reading of the book to be nuanced and complex, I had clearly missed some of the basic literary devices in the book. And, in the end, I hadn’t come up with something especially thoughtful – I had simply decided Hareton was a good character, and therefore assumed him to be perfect. Was there some nuance in his personality? Probably, but I couldn’t tell you what it was.
I’ve been noticing this a lot lately. When I watch TV shows that I watched in middle school or even later, I remember feeling strongly positive or negative about a character, and wait through endless episodes to be reminded of what gave me that feeling. As the relevant episodes come and go without a satisfactory explanation, I begin to realize that the younger I was when I watched something, the fewer nuances I saw in it. Characters were Good or they were Bad, and any characters that got in the way of good characters became evil by process of elimination. This was a comforting way to view the world, but it’s recently been making me feel like the entire world was keeping a secret from me that it’s only just beginning to trust me with.
The other day I saw a play that I had seen two years earlier, and while I got the same basic message, I felt very differently about it. Oh, this play had some political message? Two years ago, you could have fooled me. And no, I didn’t think this time that it was obviously the saddest thing in the entire world. It’s nice to have a concrete measure of how I’m growing up, but it’s also bittersweet. The same way I’m completely ready to move across the country for college, and only this year realizing how difficult it will really be to say goodbye.
There’s a benefit to seeing the world in black and white until our brains and reasoning develop more fully – it provides a sense of security. When you can safely classify things as friendly or dangerous, you don’t have to work nearly as hard to understand the world or at least feel that you do. As our security blanket of obviousness falls away, the shades of gray in the world are revealed. At first they’re scary, because they’re so vague and unclear and we haven’t had much practice looking at them. But gradually, they become as much of a comfort as our earlier certainties. I wouldn’t be who I am today without the philosophy that there is no right way of looking at the world, and middle school me could never have come up with that.
I’m happy to say goodbye to these former versions of myself, but sad to see them go. I’ll miss the days when I didn’t realize the Chronicles of Narnia were a barely-veiled religious allegory, and could safely declare Hemingway to be a Bad Author. Of course, I won’t miss the ridiculous things I thought then – but they were a part of me, as much as anything I think now, and so if nothing else I feel a bit of nostalgia towards them. I feel like the philosopher in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave who emerges into the sunlight and, upon returning to the cave he grew up in, is mystified by things he previously considered obvious. Maybe I’m not one of the enlightened yet, but I’m on my way. And that’s both scary and completely exhilarating.