The theme of adulthood and growing up runs through the novel. We are able to see how Will views himself and the world around him. He is a 36-year-old man and, and with his life experience, should really be more analytical about people and situations. However, it could be said that he refuses to grow up and is more like a child trapped inside a man’s body.
By contrast, we also see the world through Marcus’ eyes, and he is so weighed down by worry and responsibility that he seems more like a man trapped inside a 12-year-old’s body. Gradually, as the novel unfolds, we see the two characters exchange roles, until Will eventually accepts that he is a grown-up with commitments to other people, and Marcus learns to accept that adults are not his responsibility, and he is not to blame for other people’s failings, such as his mother’s depression. At the end, Will is a normal adult and Marcus is a normal child.
In About a Boy, Nick Hornby explores adulthood through:
Marcus is worried about being bullied.
“You’ll get used to it,” his mum said as he was eating his cereal, probably because he was looking miserable.
Marcus is eating his breakfast before leaving for school. He knows that he must face bullies every day, in and out of school, and he needs an adult to sort it out for him. His mother should be the one who does this, but she is so weighed down with her own concerns that she hardly notices that her son is so miserable. The fact that he is eating his cereal seems to emphasise the fact that he is only a schoolboy, because it is repeated in the book as part of his morning routine.
When Fiona comes home from hospital, Marcus feels a huge burden of responsibility for her, and she does not realise this.
He couldn’t speak. He didn’t know what to say. He didn’t cry either. It was much too serious for that. So he just stood there.
What got him about this was that there wasn’t even anything very shocking […] But this was the scariest thing he’d ever seen, by a million miles, and he knew the moment he walked in that it was something he’d have to think about forever.
… everything he looked at seemed to have something about death in it, and he didn’t want to watch anything about death. He didn’t want his mum to watch anything about death, come to that, although he wasn’t sure why.
Marcus feels abandoned by his mother when she takes an overdose and tries to kill herself. He does not know how to react.
Marcus reacts in a mature way, even though he cannot understand why this has happened. Any other child might not realise how serious the suicide attempt was, but Marcus knows that it is an enormous thing that will have consequences which stretch into the future.
When Marcus goes to rent a video, he feels a responsibility towards his mother, wanting to shield her from the evils of life. This is normally what a parent would be expected to do for their child.
Marcus seems to have no idea about fashion. He generally wears the clothes which are chosen for him by his mother.
This changes at the end of the novel.
… Marcus came round just after midday, in the hairy jumper Fiona had given him for Christmas and a disastrous pair of canary-yellow cords that might have looked cute on a four-year-old.
He dressed better – he had won the argument with his mother over whether he should be allowed to go shopping with Will – and he had his hair cut regularly...
Most small children simply wear what their parents put on them, but as they grow older, they generally develop their own sense of fashion and become quite choosy. Marcus is more like an old man, in that he is happy to wear whatever is provided for him. It signals that he has far greater worries in his life than his clothes.
At the end of the novel Marcus is far more like a normal teenager and this is largely to do with Will explaining to Fiona that Marcus was a target for the bullies in his unfashionable clothes.
Will buys a lot of magazines which he thinks give him the up-to-date information about the latest trends in music, fashion, cars and so on.
Will didn’t know how seriously you were supposed to take these questionnaire things, but he couldn’t afford to think about it; being men’s–magazine cool was as close as he had ever come to an achievement, and moments like this were to be treasured.
Most men aged 36 do not take the results of magazine questionnaires seriously. It is a sign of Will’s lack of maturity that he does so, and it also shows how much time he has on his hands because he has never had a job.
Will realises that Marcus has no idea about topics which are of interest to other boys his age and plans to educate him about them.
Marcus needed help to be a kid, not an adult. And, unhappily for Will, that was exactly the kind of assistance he was qualified to provide. He wasn’t able to tell Marcus how to grow up, or how to cope with a suicidal mother, or anything like that...
At this point in the novel, it is starting to dawn on Will that he is not the same as most men of his age. He is not yet concerned that he is more informed about issues which are of interest to young people, but as the novel progresses he does see that he needs to grow up and be more of a responsible adult-figure.
Rachel tells Will that he could very easily be depressed but that he always seems to be positive.
There’s always a new Nirvana album to look forward to, or something happening in NYPD Blue to make you want to watch the next episode.
That’s the point? NYPD Blue? Jesus.It was worse than he thought.
Although Rachel seems to be congratulating Will on being able to cope without other people or even a job, she actually makes him see that his life is pretty aimless. He loves her so much that he wants to be the best he can be for her, and this is when he begins, at last, to behave as a grown man.
How does Hornby explore the theme of adulthood in About a Boy?
Hornby uses Marcus and Will to illustrate how people mature into adults. He presents the two characters as polar opposites of each other; the child is at first like a man, and the man is at first like a child. Gradually, as Marcus and Will interact with the group of people around them, and as they learn to fit into their own slots in society, they take their rightful places; Marcus as a child and Will as an adult. Marcus learns to form his own opinions and not feel so responsible for his mother, whereas Will learns that he needs to allow other people into his life, even if they do bring their own problems with them.