In Daniel Defoe's 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe, the title character leaves home at age 19 to seek his fortune. On his first voyage, he is shipwrecked; then, on setting out again, he is kidnapped and enslaved by Moorish pirates, only escaping two years later through a mix of subterfuge and luck. He nearly dies while trying to make his way to civilization, but is rescued by a Portuguese slave ship, which deposits him in the strange new land of Brazil. This is a rough metaphor for the way that many people in their early 20s feel after leaving college.
Crusoe safely farms his way to prosperity in Brazil for a while, but soon goes to sea again, whereupon he is shipwrecked on a godforsaken rock of an island for the next 27 years of his life — most of which he spends alone, subsisting off whatever food he can scrounge from the meager land. After many years, he discovers ravenous cannibals on the nearby shore. His sole human company is one of their escaped prisoners, with whom he can converse only in very broken English. This, of course, is how most people just out of college worry they might spend the next several decades of their lives.
Whether or not there is an underlying social or psychological reality to the idea of the "quarter-life crisis," people have experienced a good deal of insecurity and confusion for a long time. Robinson Crusoe takes place in the mid-1600s, and many critics have pointed out that the novel's concerns are symptoms of a world in which young individuals enjoyed unprecedented liberty to live their lives as they chose — to choose their work, to choose their city, to marry for love — but against a background of equally unforeseen economic uncertainty and cultural upheaval. Social theorists call these conditions the hallmarks of "modernity." It's these conditions — having to choose what to do with your life at the end of your childhood, rather than having it determined for you by others — that make the very notion of a "quarter-life crisis" intelligible. With great freedom comes great anxiety.
The genre of the novel is full of famous examples of young adults in moments of doubt, conflict, distress, and anguish. Jane Eyre is 19 when she meets Mr. Rochester; so is Dorothea Brooke in George Eliot's Middlemarch. Elizabeth Bennet is "not yet one-and twenty." Stephen Dedalus of Ulysses is 22. Julien Sorel, the amoral, ambitious hero of Stendhal's The Red and the Black, is 23. Isabel Archer is described as "a young girl" when she steps on stage in Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady; Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man is forcefully expelled from his college; and Nick Carraway has just graduated from Yale and become "a bond man" in New York as The Great Gatsby opens. More than poetry, more than song, even more than film, the novel is the medium that takes the problems of being young seriously.
But what good does that do for the contemporary 20-something, aside from making it clear that life has been rough at this age for the past several centuries? It's unclear that novels provide especially good advice. Not only would you want to watch out whose advice you follow (aping Stephen Dedalus or Julien Sorel can only end badly), but it also seems a little shallow to turn these books into a kind of glorified self-help.
I doubt anyone's modeled their conduct on Isabel Archer before, but judging from phenomena like The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and What Would Jane Austen Do?, more than a few people have styled themselves latter-day Austen heroines. Even professionals, from F. R. Leavis to Rebecca Mead, gush over the practical wisdom of Middlemarch. And Jane Eyre seems a recurrently popular choice for a certain kind of sermon about the self: Be kind, be honest, be independent; but don't change yourself for anyone else, and be true to your feelings and ethics. We don't need Charlotte Brontë for that, however. We could glean as much from a few good fortune cookies. (And the Austen of Emma would disagree fiercely with Brontë about the "don't change for anyone" bit.)
Literary critics today often have an allergy to identifying with characters too openly, or boiling down great works of fiction into a syrup of advice, to be taken by the spoonful before bedtime. Not only does it seem to cheat these works of their full meaning, but it's a bad way of living, as well — pretension in the strictest sense, a kind of half-baked grown-up make-believe.
"All people of broad, strong sense have an instinctive repugnance to the men of maxims," wrote Eliot in The Mill on the Floss (herself a woman much given over to writing in aphorisms), "because such people early discern that the mysterious complexity of our life is not to be embraced by maxims." Fiction survives the fortune cookie because it offers something of that mysterious complexity instead of mere maxims. It doesn't offer much by way of empathy (a friend is better than a book for this), or actionable advice — taking Austen as gospel will not teach you whether or not you should ask that one person out, or accept the one who asks you. Nor does it claim to teach you how to grieve or love or forge yourself into some adult form. The novelist who preaches has ceased to be a novelist, and become something else instead — an essayist or preacher, a prophet, or a kook.
What it does afford, especially to the readers who find themselves between what Dante might have called the first and second quarters of the path of our life, is a set of voices that aspire not to cheat the full complexity of the issues that face a modern Lizzie Bennet or Nick Carraway. It is the opposite of life-coaching, of parental advice, of the modern impulse towards semi-scientific modeling — the insistence that things are always made better and easier by breaking them down into simpler parts. The best novels offer the reader who comes to them as a young adult the chance to be intelligently engaged as an adult capable of dealing with the overwhelming complexity of the lives we lead. They untangle the mesh of easy comfort and reassurance that we sense and instinctively mistrust, and give us the privilege of dealing with the underlying warp of what others have perceived to be true and real — and decide for ourselves whether they are either of those things.
So when you find yourself alone on one of the barren islands of the human spirit, with the cannibals gathering on the beach and the food dwindling and only an overgrown parrot to keep your chin up, remember that no novel will rescue you from those desolate shores. But it is the novel that allows us to see where we are clearly and without delusion, and in so doing, begin to plot our escape, and seek out real hope.
You can read more of Spencer Lenfield's writing — and see a few drawings — at loosesignatures.blogspot.com.