Burned: A rhetorical analysis of a modern adolescent novel in verse
The book Burned by Ellen Hopkins examines how being raised in a fundamentalist religious faith can make it difficult for an adolescent to establish an independent identity. All adolescents must go through a struggle in our society to establish a positive sense of self, but the protagonist's circumstances make it particularly difficult. In Burned, Pattyn Scarlet Von Stratten, the eldest daughter in a large Mormon family, is sent away to live with her aunt, after her family can no longer control her. Pattyn finds happiness and freedom in the arms of a non-Mormon boy named Ethan. However, that happiness is shattered when she returns home and eventually Ethan dies in a car crash.
This narrative might seem impossibly melodramatic and unrealistic on paper. However, the way that Hopkins conveys it is through a unique style: through poetry. The first chapter unfolds in a series of stanzas:
But I do know things began
To spin really out of control
After my first sex dream (Hopkins 2007: 3).
The effect of this poetic style, in halting and slightly inexpert free voice is to convey the tone of a young woman scribbling in a notebook, trying to understand her life. It makes the events seem more realistic, because it is told in a teenage voice, and conveyed like many teenage girls write.
The use of poetry also reveals a great deal about the main character's aspirations and interests, and makes her more likeable for the reader. Pattyn tells the reader that her only real friends are books. The library is her one source of intellectual freedom before she leaves for Nevada. Even when she cannot escape her father's grasp, she can at least escape in her mind. Pattyn says that "literature opened my eyes" to a more positive way of looking at sexuality and to a new identity, beyond those offered by her conservative, Mormon household (Hopkins 2007: 5). Pattyn is evidently intelligent -- a list of her favorite authors includes Poe, Salinger, Bronte, and other 'dark' authors as well as romantic ones like Jane Austen (Hopkins 2007: 8).
Pattyn's desire to escape into fiction and poetry also seems 'in character' because it highlights how horrific her home life can be: she is abused, over-controlled, and repressed by her father and her mother condones the violence through inaction. No one in her church believes her. Voiceless in real life, she tries to find herself in words. The "borrowed eyes" of authors give her hope that she can escape from a God-ordained role as a wife and a mother (Hopkins 2007: 10). Additionally, Pattyn's decision to chronicle her life in prose is somewhat ironic: as a member of the Latter Day Saints, she is expected to 'journal' as a way of keeping track of her spiritual struggles and monitoring them for purity. Writing, however, becomes a source of release and rebellion for the main character. "What would I write in a book everyone was allowed to read," she asks (Hopkins 2007: 12)? Instead of a desire to conform to the dictates of her church, in her journal she writes poetry about 'itches' she feels when she looks at boys and other transgressions of thought and deed.
Pattyn lives in a world where women are devalued -- the fact that her mother gave her father seven daughters and no sons is seen as a black mark against her and only after she is expecting a boy is she redeemed in the eyes of her husband. Pattyn tries to rebel against these ideas, but still has some trouble entirely turning away from them. For example, in some of Pattyn's poetry, there is foreshadowing about her eventual fate. She describes having babies as "beautiful" and "incredible," but doesn't want to feel compelled to have a child (Hopkins 2007: 10). She looks forward to having a baby with Ethan, because she loves him and he is her one source of happiness. Despite her rejection of her Mormon upbringing, she still seeks her new identity in terms of love for a man and procreation.
The style of the book allows the writer to portray the conflicts of a young woman's mind. Pattyn wants to be free, but she also wants love. She wants to her enjoy her sexuality, but she also knows that this can be dangerous, and leave her even more vulnerable to living a life like her mother. Being an adolescent means feeling contradictory impulses: Pattyn alternates between childish delight: "Aunt J. uses horses and dogs/just like in the movies" and enthuses about moving in with her aunt, even while she also talks about her fears for the future (Hopkins 2007: 201).
The predominant rhetorical strategy used in Burned is pathos, or invoking a sense of pity. Pattyn is in a situation over which she has little control. As a teenager, she cannot easily leave her family and begin a new life, and when she does, her father tries to prevent her. The fact that she is intelligent and capable makes her situation even sadder. And finally, after the death of Ethan at the end of the novel and her miscarriage, she has lost everything that gives her life meaning.
The book also invokes some sense of ethos, or the ethical responsibilities of freedom and responsibility. Pattyn is unjustly denied the ability to fully live her life at the beginning of the book. The book defends all people's right to choose their own destiny, and not live within religious constraints. Also, Pattyn's father is blatantly hypocritical because of his alcoholism and the way he treats his wife. He pretends to be a religious Mormon, and uses the tenants of his faith to repress his wife and daughters -- yet he also does things that are forbidden in the Church of Latter-Day Saints. It could be argued that the portrayal of Pattyn's father interferes with the book's sense of realism, given that he is such a one-dimensional character, but as the book is told only from her perspective, it is important to note that it only aspires to show how a parental figure is seen through the eyes of a young woman, not how the man 'really' is.
An ethical concern raised by the book's tone is the portrayal of the Mormon community. Of course, there are religious fanatics in every religion and the book is written from an adolescent's point-of-view. However, because so much of the unhappiness detailed in Pattyn's poems center around the Mormon Church, and her inability to be reconciled to its precepts, it is easy to see how someone who is a practicing Mormon might feel that the book was one-sided in its portrayal. Pattyn's Aunt J. is also a Mormon, but a lapsed one.
As a novel, Burned makes less use of logos than of any other rhetorical strategy. The end of the book, in which Pattyn faces an unbearably and unexpected tragic end, challenges most expectations of a realistic conclusion. Pattyn also seems to be engaging in a violent revenge fantasy in the last few pages of the novel which seems uncharacteristic of her character in the earlier pages. Even the fact that a condom breaks to cause her to become pregnant seems more like a convenient plot device, and rather clumsy. The perspective of the novel, however, is partially at fault to the degree to which the narrator is unable to analyze her life: Pattyn is also so emotionally close in time to the events that are happening to her, it is difficult for her to achieve a sense of emotional distance from the events that transpire. Her view, Ethan is the most wonderful boy alive, and her whole life revolves around his existence, and this…