‘Apt Pupil’ is a symbolic novella about American society, Nazis’ atrocities and human life. – By V.N.Giritharan

'Apt Pupil' is a symbolic novella about American society, Nazis' atrocities and human life.  - By V.N.GiritharanWriter Stephen King.‘Apt Pupil’ is a symbolic novella about American society, Nazi atrocities and human life. ‘Life is a tiger you have to grab by the tail, and if you don’t know the nature of the beast, it will eat you up’ says Dick Bowden, Todd’s father. It is true. In ‘Apt Pupil’, Stephen King shows how Todd Bowden loses his hold on the tiger and becomes the nightmare of American society. The author analyzes the ups and downs of American society,  the great human tragedy of the 20th century and   human existence through the symbolic characters Todd Bowden,  Kurt Dussander and Morris Heisel.

Stephen King uses a two way approach to criticize  Americans. He creates Todd Bowden as a symbol for America. Todd Bowden’s personality reflects the positive and the negative aspects of his own society.  If you compare Todd Bowden and America, you could easily see the similarities between them. Like America  he is so young, healthy, energetic, hard working and positive. At the same time, his fondness for violence reflects the dark side of America.  When Todd reads the war magazines, he reads with ‘a mixture of revulsion and excitement’ (King, 118). When he listens to the stories from Dussander , he is not concerned about the sufferings of the victims. Instead, he wants to hear  about ‘the firing squads. The guys who had to dig their own graves… German doctors trying to mate women with dogs, putting identical  twins into  refrigerators to see whether they would die at the same time.’ ( King, 127, 128). Yes, he wants to hear about all the gooshy stuff. When he listens ‘his tongue came out and wetted his lips ‘(King, 127).  

The second technique Stephen King uses to criticize America is criticizing through Dussander’s remarks and his own narration. The following Dussander’s remarks about the ‘American Lie’ and the author’s remarks American society prove this.

“..they speak of morality while they douse screaming children and old women in burning napalm. Your draft resisters are called cowards and  ‘peaceniks. For refusing to follow orders they are either put in jails or scourged from the country… those who demonstrate against this country’s unfortunate Asian adventure are clubbed down in the streets’ (King, 128).

“…he was growing up in a society where magazines like Penthouse were available to anyone with a dollar and a quarter, or to any kid who reach up to the top shelf of the magazine rack and grab a quick  peek before the clerk could shout for him to put that up and get lost…” (King, 134).

This dark side of  American society makes Todd Bowden’s monstrous ending.  All these show that ‘Apt Pupil’ is a  critical  novella about American society.

‘Apt Pupil’ is also a symbolic  novella about the Nazi atrocities against innocent Jews. Stephen King criticizes the German’s genocide against Jews through the two symbolic characters Kurt Dussanders and Morris Heisel.  If Dussanders reflects the Nazi’s dangerous existence, on the other hand Morris Heisel is the symbols of the victims of that great tragedy. Dussander murders Morris Heisel’s wife and his two daughters. In fact Dussander is a real monster. He murders millions of Jews. A lot of  information about Nazis’ violence and the concentration camps came out from the war magazines, Dussander’s stories to Todd Bowden and Morris Heisel’s own life. Dussander talks about ‘..gas ovens’ (King, 131), about ‘experimental gases’ (King, 135) such as ‘Yodeling’ gas or ‘Pegasus’. Another interesting thing is Dussander’s personality. Stephen King portrays Dussanders as a mentally sick man. According to Dussander, ‘the dream is the truth. .. the work must go on if we are to survive’ (King, 129). He fails to differentiate the dreams from reality. That’s why , even in America, he still continues to carry out his killings. ‘..what we did was motivated only by survival, and nothing about survival is pretty.’ says Kurt Dussander. In fact it is true. But Stephen King doesn’t want to show the readers that the Nazis’ actions are justifiable just by comparing their actions with ‘survival’ concept.  He wants to show the readers that Dussander commits his atrocities not because of his survival but because of his own mental sickness. Thus Stephen King  blames the Nazis are sick people through the symbolic character of Dussander. Indirectly, he points out that the Nazis committed their atrocities not because their survival was in peril but because of their mental sickness. All these reasons point out that ‘Apt Pupil’ is a symbolic  novella about Nazis’ atrocities and the sufferings of Jews.

‘Apt Pupil’ , in general , is a novella about humans existence. the whole story talks about human life indirectly through the symbolic  characters. The lives of Todd Bowden, Kurt Dussander and even Rubber Ed show that ‘the life is a tiger we have to grab by the tail, and if we don’t know the nature of the beast, it will eat us up'(King, 120). The healthy, energetic, hardworking and positive kid Todd Bowden , at the end, becomes a little monster. He becomes as serial killer. Why does he become the nightmare of America? He should have realized that society in which he lives is a society where magazines like ‘Penthouse’ are easily available. Also , he should have realized that America is a place where old monsters like Kurt Dussander, can live peacefully and secretly as normal, respectable neighbors. He should have saved himself from the impact of his own society’s negative dark side. Instead, he allows himself to be dragged by the flow of his society’s violent tendencies. Life is not an easy thing. At each moment , we have to survive to be alive. We have to control our lives in a positive way to survive. The negative society, the negative people and the negative mind make our lives so miserable. In Todd Bowden’s case, he is healthy, energetic, hard working and positive. But, the negative aspects of American society, and the old monster Kurt Dussander’s companionship have a more powerful influence on him than his own’ all American’ , positive personality. At one point , Todd accuses Dussander of being the reason for his academic failures.. The following Todd’s accusation proves this.

“It is your faults. All those stories. I have nightmares about , do you know that” I sit down ad open my books and I start thinking about whatever you told me that day and the next thing I know , my mother’s telling me  it’s time to go to bed. Well, that’s not my fault” (King, 154).

If Todd had guarded himself from these negative aspects of life, he could have survived as a true, ‘all American kid. Instead, he becomes a little monster. Life is a  dangerous beast. We should know how to control our lives. Otherwise this beast will eat us up. This is the  concept behind this short piece of fiction ‘Apt Pupil’. ‘Apt Pupil’ is a story about human life.

In ‘Apt Pupil’ , Stephen King criticizes two American citizens Todd Bowden and Kurt Dussander. Being an American citizen, Stephen king , in fact indirectly criticizes all human beings by criticizing American citizens. He criticizes American society. He criticizes Nazis’ atrocities. He criticizes human life. It is a wonderful novella about human life. Certainly we don’t want to become monsters like Dussander or Todd Bowden. But, we want to achieve success in our lives. If we understand Stephen King’s warnings in the novella, If we learn from those warnings, certainly each of us will become an ‘Apt Pupil’.

* Page numbers are in reference to the book ‘Different Seasons’ ( A collection of novellas) by Stephen King.