The Man Without a Face

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The Man Without a Face

by Isabelle Holland


A young adult novel set in a resort town in the American Northeast sometime between the late 1950s and early 1970s; published in 1972.


In order to gain entrance to a preparatory school, young Charles Norstadt seeks the help of a mysterious recluse with a horribly scarred face. The two strike up an unlikely friendship, and in the end Charles learns the meaning of compassion, love, and emotional responsibility.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

Isabelle Holland was born on June 16, 1920, in Basel, Switzerland. As the daughter of a U.S. Foreign Service officer, Holland lived in several different cities while she was growing up. In 1942 she graduated from Tulane University and later began a twenty-five-year career in publishing. In 1967 she published Cecily, her first book, and left her job soon afterward to attend to her writing full-time. Holland has published, in addition to many adult novels, over thirty books for young adults, including The Man without a Face (1972).

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

Boarding school

During the time of the novel, eastern boarding schools such as St. Matthew’s were completely isolated environments. The students were expected to eat, sleep, exercise, talk, and play at the school. Even their “free” time was, in reality, quite structured. Such schools were organized to serve not only as educational institutions, but as a substitute for the family as well. Although tuition and fees varied from school to school, most were expensive. Because of the high cost of attendance, the student body consisted chiefly of children from wealthy families. Also, as late as 1977, the majority of eastern private boarding schools were restricted exclusively to either males or females. Many students felt confined to an unnatural environment because of this, and in some cases the absence of the opposite gender seemed to increase the students’ normal adolescent preoccupation with sex rather than lessen it.

The role of women

Marriage rates soared in the United States after 1945. By 1950 the average age of American brides had fallen to twenty, with more teenagers getting married than any other age group. The result of these early marriages was a so-called baby boom, a sharp increase in the birth rate. Even college-educated women joined the trend. Two-thirds of all women dropped out of college before graduating, either because they wanted to marry or were afraid that too much education would ruin their marital prospects. This preoccupation is borne out in The Man without a Face. Charles’s mother lives out her ambitions vicariously through her various husbands, and his sister Gloria, despite her excellent grades, is concerned primarily with the fear that she cannot keep a man.

Economically Gloria’s fears make sense. The road to upward mobility for women after World War II lay not in pursuing their own careers but in marrying well-educated men (Gloria’s boyfriend Percy, as she proudly notes, is a student at Princeton University). In the postwar years, the number of women preparing for careers in the professions declined sharply, and family life again became the focus for the hopes and aspirations of American women. The results of a 1962 Gallup poll revealed that women across the country were committed to living though their husbands and children. An astonishing 96 percent of women polled declared that being a housewife made them extremely happy (Rosenberg, p. 156). And yet despite this outward show of contentment, signs of discontent were lurking.

Most women interviewed admitted that they wanted their daughters to have more education and to marry later. This growing sentiment stemmed largely from the hope for a better life that all Americans shared as a result of the unprecedented economic growth of the postwar years. Between 1940 and 1960, the number of Americans living in poverty shrank from 33 percent to 13 percent (Rosenberg, p. 140). Women found themselves caught between the growing importance attached to money in a consumer society and their own exclusion from the labor force. These tensions were finally given a voice when, in 1963, Betty Friedan helped launch the birth of the modern women’s movement in the United States with the publication of The Feminine Mystique, an attack on the popular notion that women could find fulfillment only through child-bearing and housewifery.


World War II served as a critical divide in the social history of homosexuality. Large numbers of young people left families, small towns, and closely knit ethnic neighborhoods to enter a sex-segregated military or to migrate to larger cities for wartime employment. In these new settings it became easier for gay men and women to meet others, to form groups, and generally to explore the gay world. After the war, many of these young gays made choices designed to support their gay identities, and a sustained and vibrant gay subculture developed. Many cities saw their first gay bars in the 1940s. The publication of Alfred Charles Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior of the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior of the Human Female (1953), moreover, confirmed for this generation that their preference for partners of the same sex was not as rare or as aberrant as had been believed.

The increased visibility of gay culture provoked latent social prejudices and triggered a backlash. During the Cold War era that marks the time period of the novel—an ideological battle that pitted democracy against communism—the nation seemed to be in search of scapegoats. It is hardly surprising that, given this inclination, the government labeled homosexuals a danger to society. President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued an executive order in 1953 barring gay men and women from all federal jobs, and many state and local governments followed suit. In the 1960s, influenced by the black civil rights movement, the so-called “homophile movement,” whose members fought for gay rights, became more visible. Activists picketed government agencies in Washington to protest discriminatory employment policies. On Friday, June 27, 1969, New York City police raided a Greenwich Village gay bar, the Stonewall Inn. Contrary to expectations, the patrons fought back, provoking three nights of rioting. Almost overnight, a massive grassroots gay liberation movement was born. By the mid-1970s, male homosexuals and lesbians had formed more than a thousand organizations scattered throughout the country. These organizations succeeded in substantially revising the public policies that had kept them in a state of secondclass citizenship. By “coming out of the closet” and publicly proclaiming their identity, gay men and women ushered in a social change movement that has grown substantially ever since.


The divorce rate in the United States began to rise dramatically in the mid-1960s. Ever higher marital expectations, an increase in the number of working women, the rebirth of the feminist movement, and the adoption of no-fault divorce (divorce granted without the need to establish wrongdoing by either party) took their toll on marital stability. Yet, despite no-fault divorce, men and women did not stand on equal footing in their newly single lives. Women and children, who in most cases lived with the women as their dependents, were often left in an unenviable position. Statistically, while men’s standard of living rose sharply in the years following divorce, that of women and children declined sharply. The seeming equity of no-fault divorce did not extend to a job market that was instead characterized by gender discrimination. Many divorced women had been out of the job market for years and were poorly equipped to earn their own living. Finally, even an educated or experienced female could expect to earn far less than her male counterparts.


Before 1900, about 90 percent of all marriages were first marriages, and most remarriages involved widowed parties. As the divorce rate began to rise, however, remarriage rates increased dramatically. Most of the change took place after World War I. Whereas in 1917, 87.4 percent of all grooms were marrying for the first time, by 1970 only 77 percent of brides and grooms were entering marriage for the first time. Also by 1970 some 17 percent were remarrying following a divorce (Leslie, p. 566).


YearNumber of divorcesDivorce rate per 1000 population
  (Leslie, p. 529)

Statistics show that the probability of divorce increased with each successive remarriage. In the 1950s divorce rates from second marriages were twice as high as those from first marriages. In those cases in which one of the partners had been divorced twice before, the rate of divorce from the third marriage was higher yet.

Although American attitudes toward remarriage were complicated by a widespread negative stereotype of stepparents, William Goode, in his book After Divorce (1956), suggested that remarriage tends to regularize the position of children following the trauma often associated with divorce, and that reconstituted families are similar in most respects to unbroken families. The end of The Man without a Face portends that its main character, Charles, may finally become part of such a reconstituted family.

The Novel in Focus

The plot

Fourteen-year-old Charles Norstadt is an unhappy boy. He lives in a house full of women, with no father and no friends except for a stray cat named Moxie, whom he cares for despite the objections of his mother and sisters. He and his two sisters, Gloria and Meg, each have separate fathers, all of whom are absent. Charles has no interest in getting along with his soon-tobe stepfather Barry Rumbolt. Charles’s mother is about to get married for the fourth time, and her son voices his disapproval of the way she goes through men: “Some women have gardening for a hobby…. Mother’s hobby is marrying” (Holland, The Man without a Face, p. 10). Young Charles suffers from low self-esteem and is convinced that he lacks the intelligence necessary to perform well in school. His dream is to become an airplane pilot like his father was. Partly because the memory of his father is not well regarded around the house, this ambition is ridiculed by his mother and his sister Gloria, whose sole mission in life seems to be to persecute Charles.

The family lives in New York City but spends summertime in a resort town on a peninsula in the Northeast. They are arriving on the peninsula when the novel opens. Charles’s crisis begins when he discovers that Gloria has reneged on her plans to go to boarding school. This news comes at a bad time, for Charles has just intentionally flunked the entrance exam for St. Matthew’s preparatory school under the assumption that Gloria was leaving. Now that she is staying, the dreadful prospect of spending two more years with her in New York prompts him to write to the school and beg for a second chance. When his request is granted, he begins to study for the test. He soon realizes, however, that he cannot succeed on his own, and when his sister Meg suggests that he seek out “the man with no face” for help, he reluctantly agrees. This man, whose real name is Justin McLeod, is a mysterious recluse with a disfigured face who lives on the edge of town. Not much is known about McLeod. Some say that his face was injured in a car accident and that he writes pornography under a pseudonym, but no one is certain about his past or present.

At first, Charles is rebuffed by the surly McLeod. But his persistence eventually pays off, and McLeod agrees to tutor him in arithmetic, English, and the Latin classics. McLeod is a rigorous and unforgiving teacher, but his tough treatment of Charles has a positive effect on the boy. Charles begins to take responsibility for his studies, and gradually he gains confidence and makes progress.

Although they are an unlikely pair on the surface, Charles and McLeod are drawn to each other by a shared sense of exile, and in time they grow to be friends. McLeod’s remote house overlooking the sea becomes a refuge for Charles, and he begins to spend more and more time there.

One day, Charles learns the secret of McLeod’s past: he was once a teacher at St. Matthew’s, but lost his job in a car accident in which he suffered his facial injury. Although the circumstances of the accident are never entirely clear, we learn that there was a boy with McLeod in the car, that the boy was killed, and that McLeod spent two years in jail as a result of the incident. Now McLeod lives in isolation and writes fantasy books under the name Terence Blake. Soon after Charles learns these details, he goes to the beach with some friends, who pressure him into smoking marijuana. In a moment of weakness he reveals McLeod’s secret. Almost immediately, he regrets betraying the confidence of McLeod, his one true friend.

As the summer moves on, Charles and McLeod grow progressively closer, hiking together, swimming together, and eating together. Then one day Charles arrives at McLeod’s house on Sunday, his day off. McLeod is on the way to church, and Charles decides to accompany him. But in the middle of the service, something strange happens. Charles suddenly grows dizzy, and when he looks at McLeod, he can’t see his face! “Although I could see his body and shoulders and I knew his head was there, I couldn’t really see it” (The Man without a Face, p. 136). Later Charles realizes that although he didn’t remember it at first, he had in fact been to church long ago. The memory involved his father, so when he looked up he had expected to see not McLeod’s face, but his father’s.

Charles comes home one night to find his sister Gloria in his bed with her boyfriend, Peerless Percy, and discovers that Percy has killed the cat Moxie with a kick of his boot. Charles flies at Percy in a rage and is struck down. After burying Moxie, Charles returns to his bedroom to find newspaper clippings left by Gloria. The clippings document everything about his father: he attended the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, served as a Navy pilot in the Korean War, and won the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Navy Cross. What Charles did not know, however, was that his father “died of chronic alcoholism in Sydney, Australia, where he had been living on skid row for some years” (The Man without a Face, p. 146). Suddenly, Charles remembers what happened in church with his father that evening long ago. He had accompanied his father there and drifted off to sleep during the service. When he woke up, men were hauling his father out and dumping him on the pavement. With all these things rushing through his mind, Charles returns to McLeod’s house and crawls into his bed, where they have a homosexual encounter. The following morning, Charles is too confused emotionally to speak about the night before.

Shortly thereafter, Charles overrules his mother’s objections and after passing the exams enrolls in St. Matthew’s (she fears that attending an all-boys school will turn him into a homosexual). Eventually, however, thoughts of McLeod catch up with him, and he returns to the house on the bluff. McLeod is gone, leaving only a note. In the note, McLeod forgives Charles for his behavior at the end, and thanks him for giving him “something I hadn’t ever again expected to have: companionship, friendship, love” (The Man without a Face, p. 155). The note also asks Charles to forgive his father because “he did his best. More people do that than you realize” (The Man without a Face, p. 155). Charles’s newest stepfather, Barry Rumbolt, appears later and informs Charles that McLeod is dead, and that he has left the house to Charles. Making it clear to Charles that he is not his father, Rumbolt lets the boy know that he must make his own decisions now. They seem to accept each other, and a degree of normalcy promises to ensue in their relationship in the family. Confronted with the choice of whether to stay or go back to school, Charles chooses school.

The absent father

Charles’s problems seem to stem largely from a single circumstance: the absence of a male authority figure in his life. His own father exists only as a vague memory, and the various stepfathers that followed have come and gone too quickly for him to feel anything toward them but indifference or resentment. As a result, the only remaining symbols of authority are his mother and older sister. As Charles himself says, “I felt I was drowning in women” (The Man without a Face, p. 14). Holland’s portrayal of the problems resulting from this breakdown of the traditional family structure mirror those warned about by social scientists of the day. Harvard University sociologist Talcott Parsons, perhaps the most important social scientist of the postwar era, developed a theory with regard to adolescent male rebellion based on the emotional normality of the nuclear family. According to Parsons, a boy needs a father toward whom he can orient his rebellion and grasp a positive identity, and masculine aggression is a result of the absence of a father and an overdominant mother. Only by reestablishing the coherence of the traditional nuclear family can such problems be averted. These preoccupations became the standard fare of studies of delinquency in the 1950s (Parsons in Kimmel, p. 228).

Juvenile delinquency was not the only form of pathological behavior attributed to the absent father and the overprotective mother. The psychiatric theory that most families of homosexuals were characterized by an overprotective mother and an absent father, or that homosexuals feared engulfment by a dominant mother in the early stages of childhood, was widely accepted in the 1950s and 1960s. At that time, a fear of homosexuality, according to Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique, was “spreading like a murky smog over the American scene” (Friedan in Kimmel, p. 278). Peter and Barbara Wyden’s Growing Up Straight: What Every Thoughtful Parent Should Know about Homosexuality (1968) identified “prehomosexual” boys as those exhibiting “unmasculine” behaviors, which were reinforced by dominant mothers and absent fathers. For these vulnerable boys to become well-adjusted heterosexual men, the book holds, fathers must become role models for their sons, and mothers must accept their husband’s place at the head of the family. Only “sexually normal homes” could be certain to produce normal, heterosexual men. Though these theories were popular in the 1950s and 1960s, more recent sociological research has cast doubt on their findings.

Composition and sources

Holland herself attended private and boarding schools, and she, like her main character, resided in mid-twentieth century New York. Holland left a career in publishing to concentrate on writing in 1969. However, she never intended to write books for children. When her first book, Cecily, was published by the adult fiction department at Lippincott, the children’s book editor told her that she should write children’s books, and when she finished her next manuscript, he published it as a children’s book. At the time Holland began publishing her novels, the world of children’s fiction was undergoing tremendous change, as Holland herself observes in a 1980 article in The Horn Book Magazine:

Children’s books haven’t altogether stopped worrying about how our team wins the ball game or who takes who to the junior prom. But as the sixties passed into the seventies, there came the sound of crashing taboos. Books started talking out loud about sex, puberty, homosexuality, death, drinking, and drugs. And the novel specifically for young adults came into its own.

(Holland, “On Being a Children’s Book Writer and Other Accompanying Dangers,” p. 35)

Holland’s perception of the broadening scope of young adult books is particularly apt in light of the controversial elements in The Man without a Face. The inclusion of a homosexual encounter in a book for young adults, regardless of how it was received by critics, was an indisputably bold move. Yet, as Holland has taken pains to mention, she didn’t set out to write about homosexuality in The Man without a Face: “I started the book with only the idea of a fatherless boy who experiences with a man some of the forms of companionship and love that have been nonexistent in his life” (Holland in Gunton, p. 148).


Most critics agree that Holland’s strengths as a writer lie in her convincing characterizations and her understanding of the adolescent mind. But while some call her books, particularly The Man without a Face, “highly moral,” others regard them as didactic: “A … problem in Holland’s fiction lies in her attempt to impose her moral values on her adolescent readers. Her eagerness to condemn what she sees as the loss of traditional authority in child rearing, education, and religion often leads her to oversimplification and distortion of character and situation” (Hirsch in Gunton, p. 151). The homosexual episode in The Man without a Face caused something of a controversy among critics. Although most agreed that the brief encounter between McLeod and Charles was handled with discretion, some see McLeod’s death in the end as Holland’s way of avoiding a more natural resolution of the relationship:

Having introduced themes rich with ambiguity, the exigencies of the novel demand that they be worked out more fully. How might Charles deal with the complicated emotional and sexual feelings he has developed? What would be a realistic outcome of his relationship with McLeod?

(Hirsch in Gunton, p. 152)

Others expressed an even stronger negative opinion: “Holland’s novel contains one of the most destructive and fallacious stereotypes [in young adult novels dealing with homosexuality and the homosexual lifestyle]—the homosexual as child molester” (Hanckel and Cunningham in Gunton, p. 150). In Holland’s defense, she herself has stated that the encounter itself is less important than Charles’s resulting emotional maturity. Moreover, Sheryl B. Andrews, writing for The Horn Book Magazine, claims that “the act of love between Justin McLeod and Charles is a necessary emotional catharsis for the boy within the context of the story, and is developed with perception and restraint” (Andrews in Samudio, p. 616).

For More Information

D’Emilio, John. Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Gunton, Sharon R., ed. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 21. Detroit: Gale Research, 1982.

Holland, Isabelle. The Man without a Face. New York: J. P. Lippincott, 1972.

Holland, Isabelle. “On Being a Children’s Book Writer and Other Accompanying Dangers.” The Horn Book Magazine about Books for Children and Young Adults 56 (February 1980): 34-42.

Kimmel, Michael. Manhood in America: A Cultural History. New York: Free Press, 1996.

Leslie, Gerald R. The Family in Social Context. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Rosenberg, Rosalind. Divided Lives: American Women in the Twentieth Century. New York: Hill & Wang, 1992.

Samudio, Josephine, ed. Book Review Digest. Vol. 68. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1973.

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The Man Without a Face

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