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Curtis Sittenfield’s award-winning novel, Prep, and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian illustrate the prominent theme of isolation in an upcoming teen’s life. In Prep, the reader is brought through Lee Fiora’s trauma filled journey through a renowned institution known as Ault. In the novel, Lee endures many of life’s challenges such as heartbreak, betrayal, and trying to fit in, all while trying to navigate and adapt to the alien environment of the institution. In Alexie’s work, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, the audience is taken through the story of a young Indian teenager named Junior who escapes from the confines of his reservation by attending the predominantly white and rich school outside of the reservation. In the Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Junior also endures many of the same challenges to that of Lee such as being a part of a lower income household, losing friends and family, and trying to fit in. Both of these works gracefully demonstrate the struggles and significance of isolation in a young, upcoming teenager’s life.
Both novels do a fairly good job at expressing the theme of isolation by introducing the obstacles of poverty and lower social class to the storyline. In Sittenfield’s, Prep, this is accomplished through the various references to Lee’s dependence on her scholarship and her family’s lack of financial stability that she often thinks about. Lee continuously feels a disconnect from her peers and embarrassment as a result of her financial situation. As stated by a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Valerie Laken, “She (Lee) has none of the social or financial assets to help her fit in among the sons and daughters of senators and bankers.” This furthermore enforces that Lee experiences isolation amongst her and her peers as a result of her social status and lack of financial stability. In the Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, the depiction of living poverty and belonging to a lower social class gives off a sense of isolation in a similar manner to that of Prep. In the story, Junior is a poor Indian boy who attends a rich white school in hopes for a better education as a way to have a better life. Isolation through poverty is shown by moments throughout the novel such as when Junior repeatedly attempts to hide his poor background from his peers at Reardan; however, the truth is exposed later on. One of Junior’s denials of his lack of wealth can be found in the conversation between him and Penelope in Chapter Seventeen, where he specifically states that he could not lie to her anymore when she asked if he was poor. This denial of his true self can be viewed as a sense of self-induced isolation by Junior. As a result of adding the element of conflicting social classes and wealth, the audience gets a sense of how and why the teen may be struggling with isolation, especially with those who may have more financial stability.
Similar to the previous paragraph, the two novels display the theme of isolation by establishing the notion of division through the discrimination of others. These actions alone can be relayed to feelings of isolation, because by discriminating others, a dividing line of standards is drawn between people. In addition, race is shown to have an effect on social relations amongst groups of people (Omi and Winant 56). An example of this in Prep is the indirect hint of racism that is presented at Ault. During a brief section of the novel, it is said that in the past no students of color were attending Ault (Sittenfeld 190). The separation of students based on race could imply that although the school is accepting of students of other ethnic backgrounds, a potential bias is still present within the walls of the institution. In the Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, prejudice towards others is shown throughout the novel and gives the audience a sense of isolation between Junior and those around him. An example of race playing a part in Junior’s life is his torn feelings of belonging to the Indians, as well as the white population of his school, which gives an explanation to the phrase “a part-time Indian.” The divided feelings Junior experiences result from both the students at his school, as well as his friends and family back home. In Chapter Six, Junior asks his parents, “Who has the most hope?” Hesitant at first, his parents then reply with, “White people.” By his parents reinforcing the notion of a hierarchy of race, Junior is stuck a limbo of comparing himself to others, especially his white peers. Another example of Junior being discriminated from others due to his background is the insensitive and racist comment made by Roger during Junior’s career at Reardan. Although the comment is not stated here, Junior states that the insult was by far, “the most racist thing I’d ever heard in my life” (Alexie 64). All in all, it is safe to say that the theme of isolation as a result of discrimination is prominent within these two novels.
Death and loss are powerful elements in life, especially within these novels. Following loss of someone close, the victim(s) may go through a phase of yearning to recover the lost person, as well as feel a heavy sense of hopelessness and despair, which are symptoms of isolation (West 283). The novels, Prep and the Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, illustrate an element of isolation by including scenarios of death and loss of relationship, both of which induce a sense of isolation in the victim. In Prep, Lee has multiple occasions of breaking bonds with friends and lovers; whereas Junior has instances with both, a loss of friendship and coping with the death of loved ones. In Prep, Lee develops various relationships all throughout her time at Ault; however, many of them end in tragedy as the story continues. An example of Lee’s struggle occurs early on in her freshman year where Lee meets one of her dormmates, Little Washington, and a friendly and reliable bond is formed between the two. Following this, a reoccurrence of thefts took place in her dorm. Lee then comes home early one of the days and is met by Little rummaging through her other roommate, Sin-Jun’s, belongings. This led to Lee reporting Little and that friendship being lost. Another example of Lee experiencing loss is with a fellow freshman at her school. Lee develops a significant crush on a freshman named Cross Sugarman following various nights secretly spending time together. To the reader’s surprise, this love gets cut short, as Cross losses interests and “leads on” Lee. As a result of these events, along with many other similar events, occurring, Lee exhibits symptoms of isolation and depression, as her grades and attitude plummets. With this being said, it is fair to say that Lee’s experiences with loss and her reaction to those events exemplify the theme of isolation. In the Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Junior is repeatedly faced with heavy family losses, as well as the loss of his childhood best friend, Rowdy, which results in Junior feeling isolated from others at Reardan. One of the occurrences of death Junior faces in the book that highlights the theme of isolation is the death of his dog by the hands of his father in Chapter Two. In this scene, Junior’s family could not support the life of his dog due to a lack of money in the family; therefore, the dog was put down. Junior states in this scene that his father “shot my best friend (Alexie 59).” This simple statement carries a lot of dark, depressing emotion such as being alone and losing one close. Another standout example of Junior expressing isolation in the novel is following the ride back home after his grandma’s funeral. Junior says, “And all of us laughed as we walked and drove and rode our way back to our lonely, lonely houses (Alexie 127).” This statement obviously mentions feeling isolated and alone, even in the safety of his own home. Both Prep and the Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian express feelings of isolation and dread through loss and death within the lives of the characters.
Prep and the Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian encompass the theme of isolation in a variety of ways. In Prep, Lee Fiora’s struggles are journeyed through as the lost teen tries to adapt to her new surroundings at Ault. During her journey she is met with heartbreak, betrayal, and the burden of being “different.” In the Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, the audience follows the story of a young boy named Junior who, like Lee, is adapting to a new institutional environment. However, in this novel Junior endures With this being said, both of these works gracefully demonstrate the struggles and the significance of isolation in a young, upcoming teenager’s life.
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