Social Hierarchicalism and Morality in Craig Silvey’s Novel ‘Jasper Jones’

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In this analytical essay, Joshua Cabucos discusses the theme of moral enlightenment and transformation in Craig Silvey’s novel ‘Jasper Jones’.

Human morality is fundamentally undermined by ambiguity and complexity; prominent philosopher, prof. Roberto Unger, draws many parallels between young adult literature and the dynamic nature of the human moral condition. Indeed, Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones is synonymous with transformative themes of moral enlightenment surrounding the adolescent experience. Perhaps the most apprising motif is that of the subversion of the traditional good and evil model. Allegorically vivid, the plot compels the reader to examine the capriciousness of the model of good and evil in hierarchical society and, by implication, the impact of prejudice and perspective. Silvey’s projection of a contorted societal paradigm aligns with the prevailing archetype for a coming-of-age novel, best described by Lois Stover (2001) who asserts that youth literature should mirror the complexity and consternation of realistic adolescent development. The reader is inclined to empathise with the morally relatable character of Charlie Bucktin, whose revelatory narrative and character development explores the ‘true nature’ of good and evil in society and whose interactions with stereotypical character personalities highlight the hypocrisy of social status. Charlie’s innocent worldview as a moral flagship of adolescence, juxtaposes the ‘awakening’ experiences of his character and provides a platform to enlighten the reader as to the shroud of ambiguity surrounding the perception of good and evil: is social status truly indicative of intramural morality?

Jasper Jones is an embodiment of Silvey’s conception of good and evil; stereotyped as ‘bad news’ and oppressed by the broken hierarchical system, Jasper ultimately manifests as a moral protagonist and rises as a true hero despite his repressive circumstances. Jasper Jones’ character is victimised by prejudice and subjugated by authoritarianism in his societal microcosm. It is poignant that not even Charlie, the novel’s moral guide and the reader’s ‘conscience’, can transcend this hypocrisy, “He’s a Thief, a Liar, a Thug, a Truant. He’s a feral and orphan, or as good as. He’s Mum’s dead and his father’s no good. He’s a rotten model… the example of where poor aptitude and attitude will lead” (p6/7) Further, Silvey makes a powerful link between injustice and hierarchy through Jasper’s distrust of the authorities, which forms a pedestal for the narrative itself. As the novel progresses, this theme is reinforced by several incidents which are manufactured to incite sympathy for Jones at the hands of Corrigan’s hypocrisy. Charlie narrates these events, morally empathising with Jasper, and effectually contrasting Jasper’s moral strength with the moral weakness of ‘the constable’ and the prejudicial community. Charlie siding with Jasper against authority represents a significant point of persuasion in the audience adopting a positive viewpoint toward Jasper Jones’ cause. The inescapability of this hypocrisy is ironically epitomised in Jasper Jones who feels the need to enforce his own hierarchical superiority over Jack Lionel. Silvey subverts the traditional good and evil model by sympathising with the character who would be viewed by social hierarchy as morally regressive; he effectively advances the notion that Jasper’s position in the social hierarchy does not deem him intrinsically evil or morally compromised- in fact presenting him as a principled individual with whom the audience can relate. This compels the reader to confront their own prejudices based on social hierarchy and re-define their preconceptions on good and evil in contemporary society, conforming to Stover’s interpretation of transformative young adult literature.

Pete Wishart and ‘Mad’ Jack Lionel represent polar extremes of the Corrigan’s macrocosmic social hierarchy, utilized by Silvey to effectively illustrate his subverted hierarchical model. Within the novel, Pete Wishart is enigmatic in his voicelessness, the entirety of his characterisation based upon his hierarchical position. He is wrongly deemed morally incapable of the crimes against his daughter solely because of his powerful social status; the notion that even Charlie, the reader’s conscience, could not penetrate Wishart’s veneer is extremely impactful. Silvey makes a compelling statement regarding society’s erroneous perception surrounding the synonymy between social status and morality by inverting the accepted paradigm in showing a powerful and respected individual within the hierarchy to be morally corruptible. There is a strong juxtaposition between Wishart’s character and that of Jack Lionel who is initially portrayed to be the Pete Wishart’s moral antipode. A ‘mad’ and reclusive sociopath, he is inevitably presumed the prime suspect in Laura’s murder by the community, victimised and estranged by Corrigan’s hierarchical prejudice. Charlie leaves no doubt as to Lionel’s hierarchical position, “Jack Lionel’s portrait is smudged with ink” (p316). This is epitomized in the stealing of his peaches- his social status is so deeply intertwined with his intramural morality and character that Corrigan’s prejudice manifests as fear. Yet as the plot progresses it becomes evident that he is, despite being an outcast in the lowest tier of the social hierarchy, a morally upstanding individual with strong family values. The reader accompanies Charlie on this revelatory journey as he redefines his preconceptions, “Mad Jack Lionel isn’t a criminal… He’s just old and sad and poor and lonely” (p302). Silvey uses the juxtaposition of these two characters throughout the novel illustrate his subverted hierarchical model; he proves the perception that one’s morality is interrelated with social status as fallacious by reversing the character stereotypes of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Thus, he makes evident the discriminatory moral classification system that this model places on society – the vicious circle which surrounds hierarchicalism. This idea, evident in the 1960’s, translates fluently into the modern era, where hierarchical prejudice is still prevalent and relevant to youth in society. This heavily aligns with Lois Stover’s prerequisites for ‘quality’ adolescent literature in addressing the complexities and ambiguities surrounding the relationship between social status and righteousness; there is no true external measure of morality because it is inherently dynamic. The adolescent reader is forced to reassess their own condition; their prejudices on social status and their entire conceptualization of the hierarchical model itself.

The breakdown of the Bucktin family unit deeply affects Charlie as a moral narrator and provides the reader an emotive insight into the flawed nature of hierarchicalism as the parallel between power and principle is subverted. Early in the novel, Ruth Bucktin manifests as an exceptionally dominant figure within the family and therefore an embodiment of the oppressive nature of social hierarchy. “I don’t want the rest of my coffee, but it’s not worth the wrath of my Mum to waste it,” (p59) highlights the notion that Ruth Bucktin’s oppressiveness eclipses the truth and Charlie’s freedom of speech. This is furthered in the relationship between Ruth and Wesley Bucktin, “[my father] knew all Mum’s little secrets… it was easier for him to shrug and sweep it under the rug and pretend otherwise” (p371). Therein, Silvey develops the argument that hierarchicalism cannot efficaciously coexist with righteousness because it suppresses the moral foundation of truthfulness. Ruth Bucktin delineates Silvey’s subverted hierarchical model in showing her to be the most powerful individual within the family unit yet, as this deteriorates, simultaneously the most morally compromised. Inevitably revealed to be deceitful and emotionally unstable, her tyrannous abuse of power within the family is exemplified in her forcing of Charlie to dig a hole. The adolescent reader relates to Charlie as he vents his frustration regarding the pointlessness of the activity and the vindictive demeanour of his mother. This event is instrumental to the subversion of hierarchy in the family context as Charlie realizes that his mother is no longer his role model; his revelatory journey culminates in his belief that he has morally transcended his mother- a particularly persuasive notion that aligns with the adolescent experience. Charlie morally transcending both his mother and father represents a reversal of power within the family hierarchy; Silvey again subverts the prevailing model by making evident the inverse correlation between power and morality within the Bucktin family, applicable to the contemporary family unit. This topic presents a paradoxical yet relatable scenario to the young adult audience, effectually enlightening them as to the true nature of those with power within the hierarchy: one’s semblance is not indicative of their true moral demeanour.

Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones masterfully explores the indefinitely complex notion of hierarchicalism and morality in contemporary society. Silvey’s projection of a subverted hierarchical model compels the reader to analyse the fallibility of the model on which society is based and the repercussions humanity’s inherent prejudicial nature. Undoubtedly, such themes within the novel are intertwined with the adolescent experience, allowing Silvey to express motifs which are becoming increasingly pertinent to the youth of contemporary society. The characterisation of Jasper Jones, Pete Wishart and Jack Lionel as well as the portrayal of the broken Bucktin family are significant in advancing Silvey’s percipience around the adolescent condition; the flawed system of social hierarchy is not indicative of intramural morality and there must be no explicit relation between the two if the moral foundations of society are to be preserved. Jasper Jones embodies Lois Stover’s conceptualisation of ‘quality’ adolescent literature and thus epitomises timelessly impactful piece of literature, significant not only to the young adult genre but also to wider society. Silvey addresses and confronts the complexities and ambiguities which circumscribe the theme of hierarchicalism and, in doing so, affords the reader an invaluable and intricate understanding of this theme; Jasper Jones is an insightful text allowing the reader to obtain a more enlightened and diverse worldview- the gateway to understanding the true nature of society and in all its obscurities and complications.

How to reference this article?

Cabucos, J. (2020), Social Hierarchicalism and Morality in Craig Silvey’s Novel ‘Jasper Jones’, in, downloaded on today’s date.

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