Table of contents
2. The novel Absolute Beginners
2.1 The main character
2.2 The main themes
3. Theories on youth and youth cultures
4. Is Absolute Beginners main character a typical teenager
of the fifties?
The purpose of this paper is to analyse the question to what extent a piece of art, in this case a novel, can serve as a basis for cultural studies. For this reason the representation of youth and youth culture in the novel Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes will be analysed.
In the second chapter this paper introduces the novel with its main characters and the main themes. The third chapter then focuses on the theories of youth and youth culture from Ogersby. To combine the results drawn from the first two chapters, the fourth chapter deals with the question whether Absolute Beginners main character is represented as a typical teenager of the fifties or whether he is just a construction by the author. All the results of the paper are combined in the conclusion to prove whether the novel serves as a medium for representing youth cultures of the fifties in England or not. This leads to the answer of the question how a piece of art can be taken as a basis for cultural studies.
2. The novel Absolute Beginners
The novel Absolute Beginners written by Colin MacInnes was first published in 1959. It is one of his most celebrated novels and ‘The cult novel of the year’ (Sunday Times). It is a novel about the new generation of the fifties: the teenagers.
The novel has no structured plot with a set frame, nor a beginning or an ending. It is rather an excerpt of someone’s life. The reader accompanies the life of the unnamed nineteen-year-old protagonist for the total of four month. With his eyes the reader gets an insight into the teenage world, their excessive lifestyle, their hopes and their struggles. The novel starts in June 1958 and ends in September 1958 shortly after the Notting Hill race riots.
2.1 The main character
The protagonist of the novel is the unnamed nineteen-year-old photographer. He earns his money with casual work as a photographer taking pictures from the high society and his teenager friends. He lives in a room in Napoli, a London district that attracts with its cheap housing poor and mostly foreign families. He probably could have afforded a different place, but he is longing for a life different from his parents and their class influenced society. He wants to live his own life, after his personal and new ideas and opinions. Living in Napoli gives his the opportunity to create his individual personality and his own identity away from the influence of his parents.
But the real reason […] is that, however horrible the area is, you’re free there! No one, I repeat it, no one, has ever asked me there what I am, or what I do, or where I came from, or what my social group is, or whether I’m educated or not […]
He has hardly any social contact with his family. His father, an amateur historian, is the only person he talks to when he visits his family, mostly to use his darkroom to develop his pictures. He disrespects his mother who has turned their home into a boarding house against the will of his father. Most of all he dislikes his older half-brother Vernon who is a nobody in his eyes.
The trouble about Vernon […] is that he’s one of the last of the generations that grew up before teenagers existed: in fact, he never seems to have been an absolute beginner at any time at all. Even today, of course, there are some like him, i.e., kids of the right age, between fifteen or so and twenty, that I wouldn’t myself describe as teenagers […]. But in poor Vernon’s era, the sad slob, there just weren’t any: can you believe it? Not any authentic teenagers at all. In those days, it seems, you were just an over-grown boy, or an under-grown man, life didn’t seem to cater for anything whatever else between.
The protagonist is proud to be a teenager. When he realizes that he belongs to the first generation of teenagers ever, he starts to live his life to the maximum and tries to lead a different life then the generations before him. He desperately wants to be different and he wants to be respected by his family and most of all by the society, even tough he despises both. Deep down he knows that one day he will be an adult and will belong to the society, which he hates so much. Maybe he hopes his behaviour as a teenager could influence or even change the society. He is proud to be respected by the other teenagers and even serves a role model for some of them, although he does not say so. When the novel starts in June 1958 he is once again aware of the fact that he is almost an adult and decides to enjoy his last teenage year, to make it the best ever.
[…] and I swore by Elvis and all the saints that this last teenage year of mine was going to be a real rave. Yes, man, come whatever, this last year of the teenage dream I was out for kicks and fantasy.
The new status of the teenagers in post-war Britain gives him the chance to experiment with life. The teenagers and the industry created an own market and lifestyle for this new generation, new styles and consumer goods are developed, influenced and constantly changed by the young generation. The protagonist of the novel gives detailed information about his life and especially his life besides from his work, which is hardly mentioned at all. He is fascinated by music especially jazz music. He belongs to the new-formed teenage high society, which is probably only a high society in their eyes and is deeply involved with going to jazz clubs, buying jazz records and talking to others about music. For him jazz music is as important as his claim to be part of a classless teenage society.
 Colin MacInnes,Absolute Beginners. (New York: Allsion & Busby Limited, 1980), 48.
 Colin MacInnes,Absolute Beginners. (New York: Allsion & Busby Limited, 1980), 36.
 Colin MacInnes,Absolute Beginners. (New York: Allsion & Busby Limited, 1980), 12.