The crushing revelations of adolescence are perhaps hardest for boys. The elucidation of this fact is best captured by Alberto Moravia’s 1948 novella Disobedience and François Truffaut’s 1959 film The 400 Blows. It is no coincidence that the release of these works occurred so closely together. The post-WWII era was a period that exemplified forcing young men to fall in line in a capacity beyond soldierdom. The crushing pressure to grow into a “respectable” person by attending school, finding a well-paying job and marrying a “nice girl” proved too much for some, like Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) in The 400 Blows and Luca in Disobedience.
For both characters, the revelation of harboring a distinct hatred for authority begins with their parents, figures they once deemed the source of all good, but now view as the sole reason for their oppression. This ire then bifurcates toward school, and the teachers who, as Doinel notes, “teach lots of useless things like algebra and science.”
In Luca’s case, the contempt for his parents, who he once held in such high esteem until reaching adolescence, manifests itself in rebellion against everything that represents life, and the conventions and motions attached to it. At first, this process of renunciation–of possessions, pleasures, etc.–causes a distinct split within Luca as the narrator remarks, “He was truly furious with himself, just as though–he could not help thinking–he were divided into two parts, one of which lay, abandoned and wretched, on the ground, feebly defending itself, while the other stood over it, striking it without mercy.”
Eventually, Luca finds the persistence in his hatred to shirk all scholarly responsibilities, still attending, but not performing. He also disavows his most valuable worldly items, including his stamp collection, books and sporting goods. In order to sell his library under the nose of his parents, he lies and tells them he wants to make a profit off them at the used bookstore and then pool his savings to have enough for a new record player and some records. Like his counterpart, distorting the truth is essential to self-preservation, or rather, self-decimation. Doinel states of lying to his parents, “I lie from time to time. Sometimes because if I told the truth they wouldn’t believe me.” When you’re “just a boy,” it seems, no one wants to think anything but the worst of you anyway.
With the money he makes, Luca takes another drastic stand against authority by burying the loot in a park near the area where they feed the lions. As he watches, he thinks about how satisfying it would be to become a sacrifice to the beasts, serving a greater purpose in this than any he could in going on living. After all, “To die, it sometimes occurred to him, was perhaps the one true pleasure life reserved for mankind.”
The final step in his procedure of clandestine disobedience is to stop eating. He consumes just enough for basic energy, nothing decadent, not even his favorite–cake. This form of abdication from the existence laid out before him by his parents, teachers and other caretakers is, he believes, the final nail in his coffin. “It seemed, then, that there were rules for death as there were for life. If living meant being enthusiastic about one’s lessons, loving one’s parents, saving up money, becoming attached to objects, eating, it followed that dying must mean not eating, ridding oneself of all affection both for things and for people, and, above all, sleeping.” Doinel, too, takes on this form of approach to a dissent that others might view as a type of death. Ultimately, his so-called laziness, cheating and thievery is what lands him in a psychologically-oriented observation center for youths.
Just when Luca thinks he’s got his defiance finely tuned, he becomes infatuated with a governess who comes to live in his house with three of his cousins while their mother recuperates from an illness. Even though she’s homely and much older, Luca is incredibly desirous of her, and hates himself for being so. Alas, the burning loins of puberty are hard to ignore for him, which the governess immediately capitalizes on by inviting him to her home after she pursues him during her own version of hide and seek. Battling the struggle within himself to resist or succumb, Luca finally ends up going to her two weeks after her invitation only to find that she is on her deathbed. It is then that his certainty in violently disobeying the norms of life are further confirmed. “And so, he could not help thinking, this was what it meant to live, to go on living–doing, with passion and determination, absurd, senseless things for which it was impossible to find any justification and which continually placed the person who did them in a state of slavery, of remorse, of hypocrisy.”
With this harrowing experience avoided and a lesson fully apprehended, Luca continues going about his means of insurgency, falling ill during a recitation of Dante in his class that leads to him being in a state of delirium for months while on bedrest. When his hallucinations have finished with him, he awakens to find an aged nurse watching over him. She insists, “You’ll get well if you’re obedient and do all the things you ought to do.”
Just as the governess, however, her designs on him are impure, a suspicion made evident by the lecherous manner in which she washes him after he becomes conscious for the first time. Still, when she devirginizes him, Luca can’t help but feel a certain gratitude. “The nurse had given him a second birth when, in his desire for death, he had been already dead. But he knew that his second birth could never have taken place if he had not first desired, so sincerely, so whole-heartedly, to die.” This is also the case with Doinel, who experiences a sort of death when he goes through the catharsis of being imprisoned by the sea and tells his tale of woe to the psychologist before breaking free and at last making it to the shore, where he so long dreamed of going, thereby invigorating within him a renewed sense of gusto for life–even if it does mean existing within the limiting confines of obedience.
Ultimately “He [Luca and Doinel] saw that this was his life; and that now it only remained to him to be patient and live it out to the end.” But it takes a lot of painful hostility and insubordination for an adolescent boy to reach this conclusion.