Versions of Childhood in "A Cage of Butterflies"

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					The Versions of Childhood Represented In A CAGE OF BUTTERFLIES
By Brian Caswell

Sarah Don Conference Paper
Abstract This paper investigates the multiple versions of childhood and adolescence constructed by A Cage of Butterflies, by Brian Caswell. In this paper, the ways in which these versions of childhood and adolescence are constructed have been explored through analysis of the characters, language features of the text and the author‟s cultural assumptions prevalent within the narrative.

1,293 words

© Sarah Don, Australia, 2008

Introduction A Cage of Butterflies by Brian Caswell constructs multiple versions of childhood and adolescence which vary with age and intelligence. This essay explores how the author has constructed these versions through the setting, plot and language features of the novel. By analysing these aspects of the text as well as the individual characters, this paper investigates how Brian Caswell has posited his perspective of cultural assumptions pertaining to childhood, depending on the age and intelligence of the child.

Plot Summary A Cage of Butterflies, is set in a research institute in Sydney where the researchers have two main projects in progress concerning high-order thinking. The first version of childhood that Caswell addresses is that of gifted adolescents. Seven teenagers, who have been identified by their teachers as being “gifted”, were brought to live at the institute to contribute to Dr. Larsen‟s research. The teenagers themselves refer to the institute as the „farm‟, and assimilate it to a „think-tank‟ as they feel that they are like “experimental white mice, following…mazes [and] performing meaningless party tricks…”(Caswell, 1992, p.35). The second group of children under observation at the institute are referred to as the “babies”. The five children, aged between five and nine years old, are clearly not babies, however, their level of brain activity due to their telepathic abilities has deprived their bodies of energy to grow, so they appear much younger than they are biologically. Before the “babies” were admitted to the institute, they were all mistakenly diagnosed with severe autism, and Larsen, not being the most sincere character in the novel, convinces the “babies‟” parents that their apparently autistic children would be better-off in the institute. However, Larsen knew that the “babies‟” condition was more mysterious than autism, and his ulterior motive was to conduct research and experiments on them to find out what made them so special. The adolescents in the novel challenge tabula rasa theory as the book suggests that giftedness is genetic and not learnt (Landry, 2006). As the plot develops, the teenagers in the think-tank have to figure out a way to rescue the babies from one of Larsen‟s pending experiments. In their escape from the research institute, they fake their death and live together „happily ever after‟, inventing contraptions and enjoying each other‟s similarities, intelligence and companionship. This demonstrates the use of sequencing by the author in order to position the reader to believe that the feats that the teenagers achieve in rescuing the “babies” are primarily due to their intelligence, and that their actions are beyond what would be expected of an „average teenager‟.

© Sarah Don, Australia, 2008

Invited Reading The values expressed in the text are those formed by Western society which Brian Caswell is part of. In A Cage of Butterflies, Caswell invites the reader to accept the cultural assumption that gifted teenagers are not the norm and do not „fit in‟ amongst their mainstream peers. The author also invites the reader to assume that the “babies” in the institute are not representative of the majority of children their age. These cultural assumptions that gifted children do not „fit in‟ is supported by Western sources such the following extract from an article elucidating the social and emotional frustrations of gifted teenagers; “The gifted child who has learned…to conceal her true abilities may, as she moves through school, slip further and further behind a screen of camouflage…[in] the process of „blending in‟.”.(Coleman, 1985) Similarly, there are Western texts to suggest that children displaying symptoms of autism do not fit the description of a „healthy child‟ and are consequently not expected to „fit in‟. (Brereton, 2007) Therefore, the invited reading is that individuals who do not conform to the norms of Western society find it difficult to fit in with their peers.

Setting The setting of the text positions the reader to believe that the children and adolescents in the institute have been removed from society on account of their differences. The fact that the gifted teenagers live in an institute for high-order thinking research, suggests that they should be secluded from the rest of society because of their giftedness. Similarly, the way that Dr. Larsen sought after particularly specific cases of autism suggests that children who don‟t smile, laugh, play or talk are not representative of the author‟s accepted version of childhood. The institute isolates the characters from the rest of society because of their differences, and therefore positions the reader to believe that all the “babies” and gifted adolescents have are their “differences in common, and it [gives] them an identity” (Caswell, 1992, p.52).

Language used by adolescent characters in A Cage of Butterflies One particular character who is representative of the version of adolescence constructed by the novel is Greg. When he describes his high school life before he joined the institute, Greg points out the cultural differences between him and his peers, saying, “it doesn‟t take long to discover what being different means”. (Caswell, 1992, p.10) He describes all the teenagers in the think-tank as being a “mismatched bunch of…misfits, with super-high IQs and sub-zero social skills,” and says that “[our high school peers] don‟t understand us any more than we understand them”. (Caswell, 1992, p.9) These statements describe Caswell‟s belief that gifted and average teenagers are two discrete entities that cannot understand each other and because giftedness is in the minority, it is less socially accepted.

© Sarah Don, Australia, 2008

Greg also uses Chris, another adolescent at the institute, as an example of the sort of tricks they used in order to „fit in‟ at school. Greg says in the novel that Chris “fak[ed] enough mistakes to keep him[self] near the middle of the class…he played basketball and football…even scored a few detentions and one letter home”. (Caswell, 1992, p.10) This highlights the cultural values that these teenagers had assumed of how a typical teenager should behave. Greg describes Chris‟s undoing as an illustration of what the other adolescents in the institute were really like before they joined the think-tank, underneath their cultureconstructed facades of pretention. Greg says, “but they got [Chris] in the end…he made the mistake of discussing the importance of Stephen Hawking‟s unification work in quantum theory and relativity physics with one of the science teachers”. (Caswell, 1992, p.10) In this passage, discussing scientific matter at a level beyond what is culturally expected of an adolescent is described as a „mistake‟. This word highlights the author‟s belief that adolescents should be playing sport and collecting detentions rather than conducting in-depth scientific discussions with their teachers. Greg also says, “Chris realised he‟d blown it…once they were onto him, there was no point in pretending anymore”. The use of the phrase “…they were onto him…” suggests that gifted adolescents such as Chris should be sought out and ostracised from society for not fitting the archetypal adolescent stereotype. The use of these phrases in a negative tone illustrates the author‟s view that gifted adolescents should hide their intelligence in order to blend into the mainstream.

Conclusion A Cage of Butterflies is a cultural artefact that constructs several versions of childhood and adolescence. There are four versions – two pairs of binary oppositions – gifted adolescents versus average adolescents; and children with exceptional cognitive capacity versus children who laugh and play. These four versions of childhood have been constructed by the text through the use of sequencing, the implications of the setting, values of the characters, and the language used to describe the effects that giftedness and high-order thinking have on the characters and events in the novel. Versions of such discourses of childhood and adolescence are a product of the author‟s own values and beliefs. Therefore, the versions of childhood and adolescence constructed in A Cage of Butterflies are representations of what Brian Caswell believes children and teenagers should emulate.

© Sarah Don, Australia, 2008

Bibliography Brereton, A. (2007) Early Features of Autism, Monash University, http://www.med.monash.edu.au/spppm/research/devpsych/actnow/factsheet03.html (25/05/08) Caswell, B. (1992) A Cage of Butterflies, University of Queensland Press, Australia. Coleman, L.J. (1985) Schooling the gifted, Menlo Park: Addison-Wesley, U.S.A. Gross, M. (2003) The "me" behind the mask: Intellectually gifted students and the search for identity, SENG, http://www.sengifted.org/articles_social/Gross_TheMeBehindTheMask.shtml (25/05/08) Landry, P. (2006) Tabula Rasa and Empiricism, http://www.blupete.com/Literature/Biographies/Philosophy/Locke.htm#Tabula (25/05/08) Mendaglio, S. (2004) Social and Emotional Issues, SENG, http://www.sengifted.org/articles_social/Mendaglio_DabrowskisTheoryOfPositiveDisintegrat ion.shtml (25/05/08) Wikipedia, (2008) Tabula Rasa, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tabula_rasa (28/04/08) Wikipedia, (2008) Nature Versus Nurture, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nature_versus_nurture (09/05/08) Wikipedia (2008) Jean-Jacques Rousseau, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/JeanJacques_Rousseau (09/05/08) Wikipedia (2008) John Locke, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Locke (09/05/08)

© Sarah Don, Australia, 2008