Nicholas Hornby's About a Boy centers on the relationship between 36-year-old Will and 12-year-old Marcus. The novel is based, in part, on author Hornby's experiences teaching groups of "alienated kids" in Cambridge, England which adds to the palpable reality of the emotions in the story (Knowles 10). Both of the two males exist along on the margins of society, neither performing up to his potential because of a combination of laziness and fear, coupled with a dysfunctional home life which separates them from the majority. Will makes the choice to separate himself because he has enough money to pay for a lifestyle that he enjoys without having to work or accomplish anything. Marcus, on the other hand, has been more or less forced into the margins of society because of his mother, his lack of a father, and a less than traditional upbringing. These men, or soon to be men, are at the center of the story, but their journey towards the creation of an unusual but completely functional family unit is dependent upon the female characters present in the novel. Though Will and Marcus are the protagonists and it is these males that experience change through the course of the novel, this change is only created after they have interactions with female characters. Each of three major female characters in the story represents the stages of maturation of the two males. The most important female characters in About a Boy are Marcus's mother Fiona whose suicidal mentality forces her son to reach out to a potential father figure, 15-year-old Ellie McRae who instills Marcus with confidence in the person that he is and becomes one of the first persons within his own peer group with whom he can relate, and then finally Will's romantic interest, a woman and single mother named Rachel who brings about Will's final indoctrination into the world of adulthood after his prolonged adolescence.
Fiona functions as a representation of the early childhood step towards maturation where the person cannot think outside of his or her own needs. Rather than understanding the larger picture of the world and owning up to responsibility, such as rearing a child, this stage of development disallows anything but abject selfishness. To this end, Fiona expects Marcus to be the son that she needs rather than trying to be the mother than he needs or deserves. Instead of encouraging his own interests, Fiona insists, through passive aggressiveness and yelling, that Marcus becomes a younger male version of her own self. Any choices that Fiona makes, she expects Marcus to follow along with her decisions. At the start of the story, this has always been the case. Whenever Marcus and his mother disagree, they battle and then he gives in, unwilling or unable to retain his position in the face of opposition from his mother. This is evident when the mother and son are discussing the pizza that they have just ordered and Marcus realizes that one of them has pepperoni on it because they ordered it before Fiona has broken up with her latest boyfriend. This means that the mother's relationship had to have ended sometime within the last thirty minutes. She is upset and Marcus is not allowed to be similarly emotional. Rather, he must take up the adult role and comfort Fiona. With regard to the pizza, Fiona wants to throw it out because "Marcus and his mother were vegetarians" (Hornby 1). It is unlikely that a twelve-year-old has come to the conclusion on his own that the eating of meat is morally wrong and thus has made the determination to abstain from the eating of meat for either health or for philosophical reasons. Therefore, it can only be interpreted that he is a vegetarian because his mother is a vegetarian. Fiona has little interest on Marcus's own sense of morals, nor his life choices. Her positions are Marcus's. This is how it has been and how she expects it always will be.
At twelve years old, Marcus is cognizant of this problem between himself and his mother. He knows that something is wrong in his upbringing. Yet, Marcus is unable to remove himself from his mother's wishes or her philosophical positions. Because Fiona is the only adult in Marcu's life, he must abide by her decisions even if a part of him disagrees with them. Hornby writes:
Marcus knew he was weird, and he knew that part of the reason he was weird was because his mum was weird. She just didn't get this, any of it. She was always telling him that only shallow people made judgments on the basis of clothes or hair, she didn't want him to watch rubbish television, or listen to rubbish music, or play rubbish computer games (she thought they were all rubbish), which meant that if he wanted to do anything that any of the other kids spent their time doing he had to argue with her for hours. He usually lost, and she was so good at arguing that he felt good about losing (12).
This illustrates the relationship between Marcus and his mother. Whenever he thinks of something that would be counter to his mother's position, it results in an argument. Fiona is not mature enough to realize that her son should be allowed to participate in activities similar to those of his peers and instead indulges in hours of shouting, as though she were also twelve years old.
Marcus, who has grown up in a dysfunctional environment with his mother for the last four years initially rebuffs her but will eventually cave in to her demands. The most blatant example of this is when Fiona decides that she is going to move her little family to this new location in order to get a job, supposedly. However, she is actually just removing Marcus from any happy place that he knows and forcing him to completely restart the process of maturation in a larger city rather than the area in which he had grown accustomed. In his book about suburbia in literature, Roger Webster writes:
The cultural baggage that attends suburbia makes the experience of residence dispiriting and desperate. In order to escape this pernicious influence, the individual is required to recreate him or herself, fashioning and identity based upon falsity and wish-fulfillment. Any rebellion against the oppressive conformity of suburbia necessitates a compromise of the self and a blurring of the boundaries of identity (144).
This battle between mother and son is thus indicative of the battle between suburbia and city. In the process of fighting with and then reconciling with his mother, Marcus becomes re-indoctrinated into her way of thinking and stops making decisions as an individual person with his own perception.
The second stage of development from childhood towards becoming an adult is the step where the child moves away from the parental clutches and starts to formulate unique personality traits, such as individual interests. It becomes evident in interviews that Hornby has personal experience with growing up in a family of divorce and feeling like you do not fit in you're your peers. In an article with the Sunday Times, it was said, "Like any child who lives through his parents' divorce, he had the older-than-his-years knowing that comes from having witnessed something complicated and adult happen. 'You don't analyze it as a teen, but you certainly learn what to say and what not to say, and to self-edit" (O'Brien). All children put into this kind of situation will have similar emotions and undoubtedly similar findings. With parents in such a state of emotional turmoil, it is very likely that they will take out their upheaval on the nearest target, in this case their children. When the child in question does not have a strong support system, they find themselves attached to the parent very strongly and clinging to their side as they spin out of control.
Teenager Ellie McRae fulfills the function in the novel of allowing Marcus to reevaluate himself in terms of his personality and in the ways in which he relates to his mother. Up until her introduction in the novel, Marcus has been miserable at his new school. He is mocked even by the teachers because he sings to himself, a tick or neurosis which makes him unique but in this society has labeled him as different and other, thereby worthy of mockery. Marcus has a very difficult life. His father is gone, his mother has attempted suicide, and the only constant presently in his life is Will, a source of support no one could have anticipated. William has provided him some strength and a belief in himself that he has not had up to this point in his life. However, it is not until young Marcus meets Ellie that he is finally able to completely formulate his own identity. Here is another person who does not fit into the cookie cutter model of the average British…
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