Friday, November 12, 2010

The Innocent: A Fourth Conventional Liteary Archetype

We envy babies for more than their dewy, rosy skin, so soft and warm. We envy their weltanschauung. For children, magic operates in the universe, and all things are possible. Such is their state of innocence.

I still recall when my daughter lost some of her innocence. She asked Santa for an impossible gift: an animated Santa that, like Salvation Army bell-ringers, jangles a bell, the sound signalling much joy to come. Perhaps someone, somewhere made such a toy, but if so, it was not made in the year she asked for it. Friends and near strangers in other states searched for me; family in other cities looked. No such Santa was for sale.

I bought a Rudolph instead. His nose shone red and when squeezed, his belly sang endless, childish Christmas tunes, including “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Jingle Bells” while his head rocked from side to side. A friend at work wrote a note from Santa, explaining that he could not give up the Eve to ring a bell for her, but Rudolph, due to clear skies around the world, had volunteered to await her morning. The note replaced cookies in a plate that had been left for the big guy; my husband drank the milk.

Despite my clever ruse, my daughter was not fooled. She played along as she tried to sort out the probability of a world-wide conspiracy that told children of a Santa that could not, in fact, deliver the goods, but years later, she told me that she knew, on that childhood Christmas morning, that Santa Claus was but a myth. She had moved one step along the game board of Life from innocence to cynicism, and that is what happens to The Innocent, another conventional, archetypal literary character.

Some time later, in her fourth-grade year, my daughter asked for a haircut just like her teacher’s. I had no problem with her request because, after all, it is her hair, but I hated to see her beautiful long locks go and missed them when they did. She missed them immediately. She looked in the mirror and did not see what she had hoped to see. She grieved. She sobbed. She asked me how long before her long locks returned so I did what any self-respecting parent of virtue might do: I lied. I plucked a number from the mesosphere and said, “three months,” believing that in three months, my daughter would no longer feel the sting of loss and short hair. I was so wrong.

When the world had grown three months older--something I had not guessed that my daughter would keep track of--she asked me if something were wrong because her hair did not fall below her shoulders after three months. Like a beetle pinned to the science-project board, I was caught so I admitted that I had lied--a so-called innocent lie to make her feel better.

Her eyes widened. She stared, and her mouth gaped a bit before she said, “You lied” as one might say, “Did you say cancer? I have cancer?” Her tone was flat, the tone of someone who knows the language is English but cannot comprehend the words at all. In expression and words, she conveyed her disbelief in the possibility that I had lied.

For days, she wrestled with the truth and quizzed me about other possible lies. We had many frank conversations, and I apologized over and over. But no apology could alter the outcome: my daughter’s innocence had been stolen again. She had to face the truth that a parent may not be able to stitch bad patches together into one huge good. In fact, my daughter now realized, even parents may dissemble, wearing the face of someone trustworthy to mask the hideous lying face below.

This is the stuff of literature and literary archetypes. The innocent is a character, usually adolescent, who comes closer to the truth of adults. He learns that even the myth of Santa does not apply to the poorest among us. He watches sitcom families live in impossibly nice homes and apartments, realizing at last that his own family will never have the means or opportunity to live as they do.

The innocent knows at all too young an age that bullies exist. Worse, sometimes those bullies are his own parents who beat, scald, batter, and isolate him. He bumps into a schoolmate and learns, upon being shoved down, that sometimes people are cruel for no reason whatsoever. He watches his father or mother walk out the door, never to return. He confronts the finality, the irreversibility of death, and his entire weltanschauung inevitably shifts.

Sometimes, even when innocence dies abruptly, the characters live happily ever after. Cinderella is a fine example of that. She, we presume, once had a loving mother. After her mother’s death, her father remarries, only to leave her in the care of a step-mother who despises the child who did not come from her own womb. The wicked step-mother uses Cinderella as a servant, casting her into the ashes of existence where no remedy or kindness lays. Cinderella, however, at least in Disney’s famous version, has a fairy godmother who facilitates a good outcome. Cinderella finds a fella who takes her away from all her misery, into a palace, where he cherishes her all her days.

In Cinder-Edna and Ever After, a film starring Drew Barrymore, the happy ending results from Cinderella’s own grit. She knows what is right. She possesses a healthy, vital dose of empathy for others who suffer. She has little to call her own, but she is whole and content. Who then could not fall in love with such a woman?

More often, the ending is not a happy one. Usually, the adolescent grieves as Jem did after a jury of white men finds an innocent black man guilty of rape in To Kill a Mockingbird. Jem learns a lesson that we all must learn at some point, in some way: our neighbors may not have our best interests in mind when they act and decide.

Sometimes, the innocent becomes bitter and runs from others, as Chris McCandless did after he condemns his parents for their actions (from Jon Krakauer’s analysis of Chris in Into the Wild). At other times, the ending is tragic as it was for Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. Rescued from the streets, Heathcliff’s benefactor, Mr. Earnshaw, pampers the waif, making him equal and even superior to his own son, Hindley. When Mr. Earnshaw dies, Hindley takes his revenge upon Heathcliff, evicting him from the house, denying him an education, and forcing him to live among the filthy. With his innocence restored by Mr. Earnshaw, then stripped by Hindley, Heathcliff becomes a twisted, bitter man, bent upon revenge and dedicated to cruelty. He never enjoys peace or finds happiness.

Reading Challenge:

Read a Stephen King novel or novella, featuring adolescents. Christine or “Apt Pupil” and “The Body” in a collection entitled Different Seasons will serve. Note the role of The Innocent in these.

Writing Challenge:

Tell a story about a day or time when you lost a measure of your own innocence. What new conclusions did you draw about the universe and people as a result?

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

Since I confessed to telling a lie in this post, I think it’s as good a time as any to review the uses of lie and lay.

First, lie can be a noun or a verb. George Washington supposedly said, “I cannot tell a lie,” and I confessed to having told my daughter a lie about hair growth. Both of these are examples of lie as a noun.

Lie is also a verb
and is used as a verb in the following examples:

• I would like to live my life as a dog because then I would only be required to lie down all day while my food digested.
• Each afternoon, I lie on the couch to rest my body while exercising my mind with Jeopardy.
• We now know that lying in the sun to tan our hides is a very bad idea.

Lay can also be a noun or a verb although the use of lay as a noun is definitely not polite in all social circles. As a verb, lay means that a human places something or someone who is no longer alive somewhere. For example:

Lay your coats on the bed in the front bedroom please.
• Mr. Jones was laid to rest today in Green Lawn Cemetery.
• “The chicken laid 3 eggs today--very unusual.”

The most important point to keep in mind when you review the examples above: lie is for humans; lay is for non-human or dead humans. Easy? Well, you would think so, but lots of people cannot keep the two sorted out, especially when other verb tenses come into use.

Here are the primary tenses for lie and the correct word:

• Every day, I lie down for a nap between 3:00 and 4:00 p.m.
• Yesterday, I lay down for a thirty-minute nap at 3:30 p.m.
• Tomorrow, I will lie down for a nap in the afternoon.
• All my life, I have lain on my couch for an afternoon nap.
• I must have been asleep lying on the couch when you called.

See one problem? The past tense of lie is lay. With that one confusing exception, the differences between verbs and their tenses are distinct.

Here are the primary tenses for lay and the correct word:

• Each evening, I lay my clothes for the next morning across an ottoman in my bedroom.
• Yesterday, I laid my clothes for the next morning across an ottoman in my bedroom so that I could arrive at work earlier than the day before.
• Tomorrow, I will lay out the clothes that I must pack for my vacation.
• All my life, I have laid a wreath on the graves of veterans for Memorial Day.
• Your wallet is laying on your dresser.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach