Themes in Literature

Innocence and Experience

Innocence and Experience 

Perhaps because literature so often focuses on human experience, it frequently covers the themes of innocence and experience. Just as there are many stories, so too are there many forms of both innocence and experience. For many centuries, innocence and experience were interpreted primarily in terms of religion, with innocence denoting a state free from sin. As European civilization became increasingly secularized, however, these terms took on more general usage wherein innocence came to denote roughly a state of naïveté or simplicity without necessarily implying religious overtones (though these had not vanished). One of the most frequently depicted changes, and one that became a touchstone of romanticism, is that from the optimism of childhood to the realities of adulthood. William Blake’s popular set of poems Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794) helps to illuminate the interdependence and relative value of both terms.

At first, childhood may seem like a time of innocence and freedom from the responsibilities of maturity, whereas adulthood is a time when experience, education, and exposure to the world taint one’s sense of innocence. Even in this straightforward account, the two terms are interdependent, as a time of innocence can only be recognized retrospectively, from the vantage point of experience. Blake takes this tension between the two terms to new heights in his poems, however, demonstrating that people are capable of either state at various times in their lives. Furthermore, either state might take the form of the other. For example, in “The Chimney Sweeper” from Songs of Innocence, the young chimney sweep Tom Dacre has a dream wherein he and his friends are freed from their coffins by an angel, who leads them to play happily in the clouds. On the one hand, the dream epitomizes innocence in that it takes the form of a fantasy in which Tom gets to escape from work to play with his friends. This thought, that he would be rewarded at the end of his life, keeps him going: “Tho’ the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm / So if all do their duty they need not fear harm” (ll. 23–24). On the other hand, this vision of innocence seems to simultaneously convey a darker point from the side of experience. In one sense, Tom’s vision suggests that the only way for these children to be released from their horrible working conditions is through death. Inverting the closing line, it is precisely by doing their duty (cleaning chimneys) that they need to fear harm (black lung, cancer, accident). This final line turns out to be ambiguous indeed, because it could equally serve as a kind of threat to the people who mistreat the children: If they do their duty to the children, then they need not fear harm. The companion poem (also named “The Chimney Sweeper”) from Songs of Experience reinforces this point.

The speaker of this poem fully recognizes what might only be hinted at in the other. Of his parents, who put him to work, he says, “They think they have done me no injury: / And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King / Who make up a heaven of our misery” (ll. 10–12). These lines serve as a great example of how Blake’s poems complicate the narrative of growth, because here it is the adults who are innocent and naive whereas the child is burdened by the harsh realities of his experience. In another sense, however, the adults could be to blame for purposely trying to minimize their responsibility by inventing the idea of heaven to justify their exploitation of children. In other words, adults fully realize how horrible their actions are but seek to cover up their knowledge with narratives of earthly suffering and heavenly reward. Like poetry, fiction often deals with issues of innocence and experience. In fact, one of the major genres of the novel, the bildungsroman, tells the story of a character’s education and growth. While these stories ostensibly focus on a single protagonist, the growth of the individual is often linked to and helps to illuminate larger societal changes or conflicts. In this sense, the bildungsroman often tells the story of a particular character in a way that also ties into the development of his or her community. Both Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) and James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man (1916) are examples of the genre, although Portrait resists the kind of closure typical of the genre. One novel that resonates on both personal and societal levels in terms of the relationship between innocence and experience is Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The story is initially narrated by a sailor who listens to the mysterious Marlow, who in turn recounts his experiences piloting a steamboat up the Congo River. Marlow begins as an idealistic youth, looking to a life at sea as a chance to explore new lands or, as he phrases it, the blank spaces on maps. Taking a job with a Dutch trading company, Marlow heads to Africa with high hopes. Through a series of events in which he witnesses firsthand the cruel and senseless behavior of the Europeans, culminating in his meeting with Kurtz, Marlow is forced to question many of the traditional narratives he started out with, including that of the moral and spiritual superiority of Europeans compared to the native African peoples. Marlow’s physical journey up the Congo, into the heart of Africa, can be said to correspond with his spiritual journey, in which he investigates the “heart” of humanity. Kurtz’s dying words, “the horror,” coupled with his barbaric behavior (note, for example, the skulls on the fence around his house) suggest that there are terrible passions in each of us waiting to be released. Marlow’s encounter with Kurtz is immensely disappointing in that Marlow had heard nothing but fantastic tales about how intelligent, cultivated, and efficient Kurtz was. Kurtz turns out to be a disappointing hero to say the least. In a much broader sense, however, Marlow’s transition into experience can be seen to represent the larger experience of European colonialism. As he points out to his listeners, “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much” (7). Marlow’s personal disillusionment signals a growing awareness of the violence and cruelty that underpinned the supposedly beneficial process of colonization. James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man tells the story of the growth and development of Stephen Dedalus.

Like Marlow, Stephen slowly gains knowledge about the effects of imperialism, though in his case he does so as a member of the colonized people. Portrait presents a more complex picture of the interrelationship of innocence and experience, as Stephen moves from one pole to another within each of the novel’s five sections. For example, at the end of the third section, Stephen has become convinced that he must repent his sins and dedicate his life to serve within the Catholic Church. In the next section, however, he begins to implement this plan only to abandon it in favor of his calling to become an artist. Each section presents a crisis that Stephen responds to by adopting a new goal, which is then replaced in the face of the next crisis or problem that he faces. In this sense, Stephen is constantly passing through stages of innocence and experience, but each version of experience is subsequently revealed to be yet another form of innocence. Accompanying each new goal or level of experience, Stephen employs an increasingly complex vocabulary and style. For example, the simple language of the children’s tale at the beginning, “Once upon a time and a very good time it was” gives way, in the final section, to Stephen’s elaborate arguments about aesthetics. In keeping with the restless mental development of its protagonist, Portrait is difficult to read as a straightforward national allegory for Ireland. While Stephen recognizes the power structures behind the use of the English language, for example, he also flatly rejects the calls of nationalism in favor of a European cosmopolitanism in the form of his pending trip to Paris. Stephen’s dedication to further his education and to escape from the confines of his country demonstrates a commitment to continue the process of discovery that is at the heart of literature. Precisely by reading and thinking about literature, we are able to evaluate our own sense of experience and, hopefully, to enrich it as well.

See also Adams, Henry: Education of Henry Adams, The; Austen, Jane: Sense and Sensibility; Carroll, Lewis: Alice’s Adventures inWonderland; Cisneros, Sandra: House on Mango Street, The; Defoe, Daniel: Moll Flanders; Dreiser, Theodore: Sister Carrie; Forster, E. M.: Room with a View, A; Harte, Bret: “Outcasts of Poker Flats, The”; Hawthorne, Nathaniel: “Young Goodman Brown”; James, Henry: Portrait of a Lady, The; Turn of the Screw, The; Kincaid, Jamaica: Annie John; Nabokov, Vladimir: Lolita; O’Brien, Tim: Things They Carried, The; Poe, Edgar Allan: “Murders in the Rue Morgue, The”; Salinger, J. D.: Catcher in the Rye, The; Twain, Mark: Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The; Voltaire: Candide; Wharton, Edith: House of Mirth, The; Wiesel, Elie: Night; Wilde, Oscar: Importance of Being Earnest, The; Picture of Dorian Gray, The.

4 thoughts on “Innocence and Experience

  1. “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” ― Plato

  2. Sitting in bed rhyming poetic terms to scouting for girls songs, thanks a bunch English Literature, I’m now a walking dictionary

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