THE NOTION OF INNOCENT CHILDHOOD IN LITERARY HISTORY – A BRIEF SURVEY
Of all human conditions, innocence seems easily the best and the most desirable, for it means the complete absence of error, regret and all the anxieties that go with these— anxieties about avoiding guilt and making amends, for instance. When juxtaposed with guilt and remorse, innocence is indisputably better, just as something clean is better than something soiled, something fresh better than something stale. The state of innocence is characterized by unalloyed trust and the reassuring presence of virtue. And hence the loss of innocence is indeed reason enough for profound regret. Human life is such a capricious business that however conscientiously most of us conduct our lives, we can hope only to achieve a state of second best.
Childhood denotes that stage in human life when, innocence, by common consent, is taken for granted. Childhood and innocence often go hand in hand and are considered almost synonymous. The delightful coexistence of these two blissful states of life is assumed to offer at least a momentary glimpse of the beautiful and the eternal amidst the transient and the fleeting.
A better understanding of child development is bound to promote greater self-awareness, for, we will be able to know ourselves better by recognizing the influences that have made us into the people we are today .Childhood is a period of vulnerability, ignorance and impracticality. It is a time of discovery where anything can seem possible and when the troubles of the world have not much bearing on the child. However, although people change throughout their lives, it is in childhood that developmental changes are especially dramatic. During this period, a dependent, vulnerable newborn grows into a capable young person who has mastered language, is self-aware, can think and reason with sophistication, has a distinctive personality, and socializes effortlessly with others. Crucially, most of the traits and habits one masters in childhood last a lifetime.
Many a literature has been created by studying the innocence of childhood. The innocent child has been a long-standing literary figure, used throughout the centuries and cultures by authors keen to explore the subtleties and paradoxes of children and their behaviour.
Why authors employ childhood innocence in literature is a complex and intricate question, because it involves considering the role of the author under many different lights. In the first place the author here can be seen as someone who wants to convey a message, politically or socially, and manages to do so in a subtle form through the innocence of the on-looking characters, the children. One must also see the task of the author as a psychologist and philosopher, keen to develop new perspectives and ideas about the mind and human nature, and thus in need of a different perspective and attitude in his or her characters to illustrate these ideas— the innocent child could serve no better purpose.
Significantly, the study of innocence enables the author to explore the intricacies and subtleties of the complex emotions, psychology, perceptions and philosophies of the innocent child's mind. The third facet of a writer is that of being a craftsman of words, and using a different language and time-scale, that of a child's, is an exceptional opportunity to innovate and experiment.
It will indeed be interesting to take a look at how different authors in the past have approached the innocent child in their works. John S. Whitley points out that in literature an interest in children grew up with the Romantic Movement, especially in the writings of Rousseau and Wordsworth (Whitley 18). For them, the child represented a pre-Industrial Revolution innocence, an integrity of being based on an unlimited capacity for wonder and fancy.
Jeanette Sky relates it to the most elemental of myths— Man's Fall from Eden. She says:
Placing the child in an Edenic state of innocence, the Romantics and later the Victorians created a powerful, but also problematic myth of childhood. Transforming earlier religious myths and ideologies, the Romantics created a new myth of original innocence in contrast to the myth of original sin. The child became the sacrosanct image of innocence opposed to the fallen adult (Sky 363).
John Locke argued that the newborn infant comes into the world with no inherited predispositions, but rather with a mind as a tabula rasa or a blank slate that is gradually filled with ideas, concepts, and knowledge from experiences in the world. Jean Jacques Rousseau claimed that children at birth are innately good, not evil, and that their natural tendencies should be protected against the corrupting influences of society.
According to Rousseau there could be no original sin in the human heart because, as is made clear already at the beginning of Emile, “God makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil” (5).The sympathetic, romantic attitude towards children inspired by Rousseau had an important influence on society. And hence more than any other, Rousseau is often heralded as the one who created the climate in which Blake, Wordsworth, Lamb and Coleridge wrote on innocence.
William Blake, in his Songs of Innocence, relates the activities of children, in their spontaneity, to the activities of nature (Whitley 18). The work, which came out in 1789, was an ardent celebration of children having access to a kind of visionary simplicity denied to adults.
Nine years later came Lyrical Ballads to which Wordsworth contributed several poems describing not only the child’s view of the world, but also the child’s superior knowledge.
Oh dearest, dearest boy! my heart
For better lore would seldom yearn,
Could I but teach the hundredth part
Of what from thee I learn.
A person of the Enlightenment would probably be at a loss as to what exactly Wordsworth claimed to be learning from the child. But this was only the beginning of a new sanctification of the child as being closer to paradise and thus possessing a secret knowledge.
The child was surrounded with strong notions of a religious and mythic kind. The child was seen as closer to Nature than the adult and was believed to have intuitive perceptions of eternal truth which adults can rarely even have a glimpse of. The prelapsarian view is exemplified in a charming passage quoted by George Boas from John Earle's Microcosmographie (1628): “[The Child] is the best copy of Adam before he tasted of Eve or the apple; . . . his Soul is yet a white paper unscribbled with observations of the world, wherewith, at length, it becomes a blurred notebook. He is purely happy, because he knows no evil, nor hath made means by sin to be acquainted with misery. . .” (42).
Wordsworth gives a clear example, of the Romantics’ idealisation of childhood, in his “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” which is prefaced with the famous words, “the child is father of the man”.
The epigraph connects man’s childhood to his manhood. Here he makes use of the Platonic Philosophy that man is born in this world from a pre-existent state of greater perfection and happiness and that his manhood has its head and source in his childhood and is spiritually linked each to the other in spite of the corruptive influences of the world of senses. He nostalgically reminisces the pleasant things he had access to in his childhood:
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light
But the heavenly beauty which he saw in every common sight is no longer there for him to see, now that he is a man. Bewailing the loss of childhood glory he grieves: “Whither is fled the visionary gleam?/ Whither is it now, the glory and the dream?”. Childhood becomes a memory, a mythological state, as we can see in the fifth stanza: “trailing clouds of glory do we come/ From God, who is our home/ Heaven lies about us in our Infancy”. Clothed in religious metaphors, childhood becomes graspable as a metonym of paradise.
Children are perceived as being in a higher spiritual state than adults, because of their nearness to their birth and so to a pre-existence in Heaven. The gap between the adult and the child is overcome through a language that is highly religious; the child represents man before the Fall in the Garden of Eden. In these terms growing up becomes synonymous with the loss of Paradise, or in the words of Wordsworth, “Shades of the prison-house begin to close/ Upon the growing boy”. The child and the world of the child became symbols representing an ideal world, the world of the Real from where everything else emanates.
What the Romantics bequeathed to the later nineteenth century was an image of the child as innocence incarnated. By the Victorians, the family was viewed as a miniature replica of a virtuous society under the stern but loving auspices of God. Instead of being regarded primarily as sub-adults with limited functional value, children were to be cherished, even pampered. The idea of childhood innocence became attractive to families who had reached or were striving for middle-class success and respectability. Fathers and mothers had to meet obligations and cope with stress and loss in the real world, while it was considered that children should be spared all of that. It was believed that children cannot yet understand the temptations and perils of sex or the concept of mortality and loving parents should see to it that their children live in a world of innocence as long as possible. However, the Victorian novelists came to see the child more and more as a victim of social pressures, of a society obsessed with the idea of progress. They decried the exploitation of children and tended to see them as the innocent victims of societal attitudes. The Victorians thus concomitantly emphasized the role of the family and the sanctity of the child.
In The Mill on the Floss George Eliot describes Maggie Tulliver’s childhood in joyously evocative detail but loses objectivity in the second half and presents society as a prison-house which crushes Maggie; in the later nineteenth century novelists, like Marie Correlli and J.M.Barrie, all that remains is regret at the passing of childhood and relief at the death of a child because the burden of adulthood is thus avoided (Whitley 19).
The myth of the child as innocent was brutally overturned with the publication, in 1905, of Freud’s Three Contributions to a Theory of Sex, which included a discussion of infantile sexuality. This theory is completely at odds with the Victorian myth which saw sexual passion as the devil’s work, as corrupting innocence.
Two pre-Freudian novels by Henry James, What Maisie Knew (1897) and The Turn of the Screw (1898) had already suggested the possibility of sexual awareness in children. Later, Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica (1929) has had a remarkable influence in persuading twentieth century readers that children can be cruel, and that their world can be amoral.
And with William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954) this subversion of the notion of innocent childhood reached its pinnacle. Thus, it becomes quite evident that the notion of childhood innocence, as presented in works of literature, has undergone a sea change over the years.
People often wish to recapture the golden moments of childhood and relive those nostalgic times in the present. One would even dream of regaining the lost childhood. It is quite natural then that one might try to visualize what the world would be like if people remained children forever. Would all the issues that torment the world vanish into thin air? Or would people still be fighting all these wars? The Romantic and the Victorian attitudes to childhood suggest that a world peopled only by children should be heavenly. But this hasn’t been the case later on.
It is quite obvious that this shift in perspective came about towards the end of the nineteenth century and got widespread currency in the literary circles in the twentieth century. Should we then surmise that children all over the world decided to shed all their innocence and become cruel all on a sudden by the turn of the century? That certainly cannot be the case. Then was it the direct consequence of “the Decadence” that characterized the end of the nineteenth century? That possibility cannot certainly be ruled out.
It is also expressly possible that people got a better understanding of the workings of the human mind during the time that they felt that the children who grow up to represent the evil reality cannot themselves be inherently innocent.
Again, it is also possible that this shift in perspective was effected by the socio-political situation of the time that offered a conducive environment for the malicious impulses dormant in the human mind to manifest themselves. Obviously the atrocities committed by man during the two world wars cannot be overlooked. A longer and more serious scrutiny might be necessary to answer these questions.
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Baldwin, James Mark. Mental Developments in the Child and the Race: Methods and
Processes. New York, 1895.
Boas, George. The Cult of Childhood. London: The Warburg Institute, 1966.
Bucher, Alexius J. Our Lost Innocence or Aggressive Freedom. Nagercoil: Assisi Press, 1990.
Coveney, Peter. Poor Monkey: The Child in Literature. London: Rockcliff, 1957.
Edgeworth, Maria. The Parent’s Assistant. London, 1815.
Rousseau, Jean Jacques. Emile. Trans. B. Foxley. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974.
Sky, Jeanette. “Myths of Innocence and Imagination: The Case of the Fairy Tale”.
Literature & Theology, Vol. 16. No. 4, December 2002.
Whitley, John S. Golding: Lord of the Flies. London: Edward Arnold Ltd., 1970.