Monday, March 15, 2010

A Place Between

Last week, I wrote about the notion of innocence being used as character and also hinted at how that trait slowly morphs with the acquisition of experience. The process of moving from one sphere to the next is hardly clear cut. Sure, there are a lot of symbolic events that people like to point to as a defining moment...but the truth is, the journey from innocence into experience is pretty murky. The second half of childhood is basically spent walking a tightrope and trying to balance between the two. Watching characters navigate between the two is one of the reasons many middle grade and young adult novels appeal to adults. The conflict makes for interesting character.

There is an endless variations on which course that journey can take. One that I've always found fascinating in literature is when a character uses a perceived innocence to their advantage. In these moments the two worlds collide within the character and demonstrate the pull of each. One interesting example of this is the character Emily in Richard Hughes' A High Wind in Jamaica. Her entire life within the story is a conflict between these two worlds. Despite being tossed about in unpleasant circumstances, Emily holds onto a innocent quality...that is, until one violent event forces the scales to tip.

Emily resists the pull away from childhood. She clings to her innocence even while aware of the fact that she is, for the most part, only pretending. On some level, she knows what she is doing is wrong, but her wish to remain in a carefree world is so strong that it causes her to ignore the truth even at the suffering and death of others. Emily's not exactly a sociopath, but there's a hidden danger within her as long as she continues to wear this disguise so well.

-In another room, Emily with the other new girls was making friends with the older pupils. Looking at that gentle happy throng of clean innocent faces and soft graceful limbs, listening to the ceaseless, artless babble of chatter rising, perhaps God could have picked out from among them which was Emily: but I am sure that I could not.- (closing paragraph from A High Wind in Jamaica).

In some ways, innocence becomes the lure of evil in this novel. It's a Siren that calls to us, telling us to stay in a place we could never remain. It's one of the most interesting reversals of these two concepts in literature. The two words attempt to exist side-by-side in the novel, but ultimately they cannot remain separate. One must intrude on the other.

The story is a sort of anti-coming of age novel. Coming of age novels are all about a character coming to terms with the passage from one to the other and finding a balance. Emily, when faced with that moment, soundly rejects it. But no matter how hard she pretends, there is no going back to that place you left.

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