“The Pigman’s Story: Teaching Paul Zindel in the 21st Century”

by Grant T. Smith, Ph. D.

Associate Professor of English

Viterbo University

La Crosse, Wisconsin

        There is much not to like about John Conlan and Lorraine Jensen, the principal protagonists in Paul Zindel’s classic novel, The Pigman.They are liars.They swear (or at least John says 3@#$% when he gets angry). They abuse drugs.Beer, wine and cigarettes seem to be their staple diet.They label all adult authority figures as morons.Even a pet store clerk is labeled “this nasty floorwalker” when he tells them not to feed the animals (77).They destroy public and private property.Neither urinals nor a friend’s home is safe when they are around. They whine endlessly about the “phoniness” of others while never recognizing their own flaws.John laments the absence of affection from his parents; yet, when he has the chance to show genuine affection to Lorraine, he becomes a sexist bore.A fellow classmate is called a “four-eyed dimwit” (3) and according to John, all of their friends “had a problem all his own” (119).They are extraordinarily ego-centric teenagers.Quite frankly, adult readers may find it difficult to connect with them as real characters, much less like them.


        Would I want to have either of them as a son or a daughter?Would I want my own children to associate with them?Would I want to teach them in a ninth-grade English class?Well, probably not.Even though they are obviously sensitive youngsters and very good writers, when I go into the men’s room, I want to be reasonably sure that the urinal is not going to explode beneath me.And I do not want to be in the middle of a spelling quiz when 25 apples start rolling down the aisles toward me.Such juvenile mean spiritedness doesn’t appeal to me.However, my 14-year-old son told me after he finished the book that he would very much like to know John and Lorraine, and he certainly saw them with much more sympathy and compassion than I.Ultimately, this “perceptive” view of teenagers is what saves The Pigman as a bildungsroman novel.And this is why I have even taught The Pigman in a sophomore English class.


    These two deplorable characters may distort the world they see, but this distortion resonates with many teenagers who feel disenfranchised from the world around them.John and Lorraine live in dysfunctional families, but their families reflect the fragmentation of modern society that teenagers deal with every day.John remains emotionally distant from Lorraine and Pignati, but this distance mirrors his mother’s and father’s emotional unavailability to him when he most needs it.Teen readers can thus connect with John and Lorraine because these characters signify much of what teenagers know as “reality.”


        To my son, John and Lorraine were not indefensible.John and Lorraine may tag Miss Reillen as the “Cricket” because she is overweight, yet they do befriend a lonely widower who needs desperately some companionship in his life.These teenagers skip school and miss completely why they (more than anyone else) should pay attention to the amendments to the Constitution that guarantee their freedom of expression.Yet, they ponder in a poignant way various meanings of life: carpe diem, relationships with others, pre-mature death, respect and responsibility.And any young adult reader who has experienced divorce in his or her family will read the irony and complexity in Lorraine’s conclusion: “It makes me think that love between a man and a woman must be the strongest thing in the world.”


        Every adolescent who pleads with his or her parents to be “treated as an adult” and to be given “adult” privileges, will live John and Lorraine’s fantasy evening in the Pigman’s home wistfully and romantically.And those readers will come crashing to earth when only a few pages later they live John and Lorraine’s “morning after” that is filled with harsh words and hard glares.John and Lorraine learn that being an adult is easy when you wear costumes and a fake mustache.It is much more difficult when the toast burns and the garbage needs to be taken out.Teen readers who have strained relationships with “The Old Lady” and “Bore,” may identify with John and Lorraine who understandably rebel against sexually repressed, abusive, compulsive, and dishonest parents.However, those same readers will take note when John and Lorraine (literally looking at life through new glasses) finally admit their complicity in the Pigman’s death, and their role in building their own cages.“There was no one else to blame anymore,” says John.“Our life would be what we made of it—nothing more, nothing less” (148-149).As one of Paul Zindel’s readers stated in a letter to him, [The Pigman] had a part of almost everyone I know in it, and I can’t be sure which one was me” (154).


        When I taught The Pigman to a class of tenth graders in Las Vegas, Nevada, I taught the novel as a classical bildungsroman novel, a story that deals with the development of a young person from adolescence to maturity.It satisfies all of the elements of a “rite of passage” tale or an “education novel.”It is autobiographical.The protagonists grow up in a setting that they feel constrains them socially and intellectually.Their parents are hostile to their creative instincts and antagonistic to their ambitions or new ideas.Lorraine and John don’t actually flee this repressive atmosphere—they are stuck at home and at school—but they do find a refuge in Pignati’s home where their real education begins.They have one “near sex” experience that initiates them to adulthood.They do some serious soul searching when their friends trash Pignati’s home and of course when Pignati dies, and this soul searching leads to a new vision of life for them.


        I followed The Pigman with the classic film Rebel Without a Cause.The students had little difficulty seeing the parallels between the book and the movie: the “anti-hero” protagonists who have redeeming qualities, the conflict with authority figures, the musings on the “meaning of life,” the attempt to play act adult roles, the flirtation with death, and the loss of innocence which (at least for Jim Stark) leads to wisdom and reconciliation.


        After viewing and discussing Rebel Without a Cause, the class next read Catcher in the Rye.Again the students were quick to recognize the conventions of a rite of passage novel in Catcher, and they saw many parallels between Holden and John, not the least of which that both boys are counseled to see a therapist!But at this point I asked the students to re-visit The Pigman and Catcher from two different points of view—an adult point of view and (if the student was a male) from a girl’s point of view.


        If you are 15 years old and struggling with all of the pains of puberty, it is about as difficult to read The Pigman from an adult point of view, as it is for a parent, struggling with the pains of raising that 15-year-old, to read The Pigman from an adolescent’s point of view.But as Wayne C. Booth argues in “Censorship and the Values of Fiction,” teen-age readers often overlook Holden’s deficiencies and Salinger’s subtle contrasts between what Holden says and what Holden does.Teenagers tend to see only Holden’s sensitivity, compassion, generosity, and struggle for a pure world (Booth 162-163).They tend to overlook Holden’s deficiencies: his habitual exaggerations, his non-stop criticism of everything, his inability to shed his Peter Pan persona and live a mature life.The same can be said of John Conlan (and to a lesser extent of Lorraine Jensen).These two characters are “role models” for teen-age readers primarily in their representation of the consequences a person makes when he or she makes a dumb decision.To them life is a series of games played at the expense of those unfortunate enough to get in their way.Is this readily apparent to a young adult reader?Probably not, and so this is where English teachers enter the picture.


        The first questions I ask my students are, “Can we trust these narrators?Why or why not?”John is an admitted liar, and Lorraine is so filled with psychoanalytic garble that their role as reliable narrators is severely tested.In many ways, John and Lorraine’s confessions are dramatic monologues where, speaking from a moment of crisis, they disclose much more about their own “true” nature than they do about the phony world around them.Also, because the reader only knows the story from John and Lorraine’s point of view, the reader must either take their account as truth, or consider the possibility that there are other “true stories” out there.These stories may either contradict John and Lorraine’s story, or at the very least, add a dimension that the protagonists have (for whatever reason) omitted or changed.This is a profound concept for young adult readers to consider:Whom do we trust?How do we determine what is true?How do I shape truth in my own narratives?


        Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield are often classified as unreliable narrators or “naïve narrators” because they lack a sophisticated comprehension of the events they describe.Given John and Lorraine admitted tendency to exaggerate and distort events, they may be placed in this same classification, and the reader must be wary of anything they report.The reader must consider the narrators’ motives, alternative points of view, and alternative judgments.If John and Lorraine are fallible in their narrative, can we believe their descriptions of their parents?Can we trust their account of the party at Pignati’s house?An adolescent who begins to read and question with this frame of mind quickly becomes a mature, sophisticated reader, a reader capable of understanding the complexity of narratology in fiction.Readers of The Pigman cannot rely solely upon the narrators to provide insights of the human condition, or relationships, or the society in which John and Lorraine reside, the readers must glean those insights themselves.


        Because The Pigman is narrated in alternate chapters by a boy and a girl, the novel also offers readers a wonderful opportunity to study gender differences.I challenged my students to examine carefully the voice of each narrator.What did John include in his narrative that Lorraine left out or modified?When did they contradict one another?What motivated each narrator?How did each narrator respond to the same conflict?How did John perceive himself?How did Lorraine perceive herself?How did each narrator perceive others?How do both characters perceive relationships?John writes the last chapter.What would Lorraine have written?There are any number of questions that can be raised about gender differences and similarities in this novel.


        As I stated above, The Pigman is a bildungsroman novel.But the bildungsroman is generally interpreted as the male rite of passage.The male experience is the universal experience.But today we have read enough of Carol Gilligan, Nancy Chodorow, and Jean Baker Miller to know that Freud, Piaget, and Kohlberg may not have been speaking for everyone when they defined the individuation process.Today we know that there are certain assumptions in this “universal” individuation process that may be appropriate for a boy’s experience, but not necessarily for a girl’s experience.For example, one assumption in the bildungsroman is that there are choices and opportunities that await the protagonist, and that the protagonist has the independence and mobility to make those choices and take advantage of those opportunities.This is not necessarily a given for a girl.Even today, a girl knows that her “independence” or destiny involves not only the decisions that she freely makes, but the dialectic of history, social structures, politics, and the behaviors of others around her.Lorraine learns this quickly enough when John yells at her to take out the garbage…after all, she made it.


        John Conlan may reasonably expect that the sexual experience traditionally present in a bildungsroman will ultimately be a positive experience; the same cannot be said for Lorraine, and her “sexually repressed” mother knows this.In a male rite of passage there is the symbolic rebirth, a symbolic acceptance by society of the “new autonomous man” who has much wisdom and experience to contribute to others.But even though we have enjoyed thirty years of the second wave of feminism, many girls still suspect that life does not offer the limitless possibilities that it apparently offers boys.Indeed, until recently, many female protagonists in rite of passage novels ended up married, mad, or dead!One of my students in Las Vegas suggested that John’s mother was all three!And finally, Gilligan suggests that this “privileged” image of the separate, independent, autonomous self may not even fit the image of a girl who finds her identity in connection with others.I found that my students responded with enthusiasm and maturity as we discussed gender issues in The Pigman.


        Paul Zindel wrote The Pigman in 1968.I was surprised to read that the novel is on any censor’s hit list.Paul Zindel is a Pulitzer Prize winning author.It is true that Zindel has characters who drink, smoke, swear, steal, lie, trash another person’s home, and generally distrust any authority figure more than 30 years old!Indeed, from John and Lorraine’s description of their teachers and parents, I’m not sure I would trust them either!But ultimately, the novel is an excellent example of ethical fiction because it places opposites side by side.John and Lorraine are next to Pignati, and this confrontation with alterity forces the teens to learn from a stranger.This is what strangers do for us.Strangers make us see beyond ourselves, and our narrow immature definitions of morality or reality.Strangers force us to confront our fears, prejudices, weaknesses, ignorance and desires.Eventually, Pignati forces John and Lorraine to re-examine how they want to live.This is what ethical literature does.This is what good literature does.We should teach it.


        John and Lorraine may not have many values that adults can admire—but they ultimately realize that they cannot continue to live by their own rules if they hope to participate fully in society.John and Lorraine learn from Pignati that “love” is not play acting in another’s clothes.Love is sharing with another everything that is important in one’s life.“Love between a man and a woman must be the strongest thing in the world,” says Lorraine, who has experience blessedly little love in her life.


        John and Lorraine learn that being an adult means more than the freedom to skip school and bomb urinals.Being an adult means taking the time to have fun and sharing that fun with someone who means everything to you.But being an adult also means that sometimes that fun and sharing leads to disaster, and you can’t always make amends for those mistakes.Being an adult means accepting responsibility for being stupid.John and Lorraine learn they can no longer blame their parents or the cops or the teachers or even their friends for the cages they build around themselves.John and Lorraine learn that a loss of innocence comes at a painful cost to themselves, but it may come at a far greater cost to another.These are valuable lessons to learn when you are a sophomore in high school.


        Flannery O’Connor said that only people with hope and courage read novels.Those are the people who dare to take long looks at themselves and dare to live others’ experiences (O’Connor 78).John and Lorraine take a long look at themselves.They dare to share in Pignati’s experiences and thereby gain what this stranger had to give.We should all have the courage to take that same look ourselves.


Works Consulted

Booth, Wayne C.“Censorship and the Values of Fiction.” English Journal 53. 3, 1964.

Mertz, Maia Pank.“Enhancing Literary Understandings Through Young Adult Fiction.”

Publishing Research Quarterly 92.8, 1992.

O’Connor, Flannery.Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose.Ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald.New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969.

Zindel, Paul.The Pigman.New York: Bantam Books, 1983.