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The Concept Of Childhood Innocence English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1850 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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In this TMA, I intend to explain how everyday lives challenge the construction of childhood as a time of innocence. In the main part of my assignment, I will explain the idea of innocence, which started with Romantic discourse of childhood and how it shaped our view of childhood. I will also look at two contradictory ideas of childhood innocence and guilt in Blake’s poems and extract from Mayhew’s book. Next, I will compare the images of innocence in TV adverts and Barnardo’s posters. After that, I will look at the representation of childhood innocence in sexuality and criminality, and the roles, the age and the gender play in portraying children as innocent or guilty. I will include some cross-cultural and contemporary descriptions on the key topics. At the end of my assignment, I will summarize the main points of the arguments.

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The concept of childhood innocence began with the Romantic view of childhood, where children were seen as pure and sin free. The concept was greatly influenced by the eighteenth-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Rousseau, (1765) believed that children are born good and guiltless, and through life experiences, they learn badness and guilt. Most parents see their children as innocent and want to protect them from the bad world we live in. This is not always easy, especially when the country they live in is at war and children take part in it, or they live in a poor country. The war and lack of sufficient money are some of the challenges the childhood innocence faces in today’s world.

The idea of childhood innocence exists in parallel with the concept of childhood guilt. Mayhew, (1861) portrays childhood innocence as a time of play and protection by parents. In the extract from his book London Labour and the London Poor, he writes about the eight-year-old Watercress girl (Book 1 U212, p.228) who ‘lost all childish ways’ because of the work she needed to do. The necessity of her work forced her to become an adult like, and adults are not innocent. In today’s Western society, working parents protect children’s innocence. However, in the late nineteenth century people were poor so the children lost their time of innocence and play, because they needed to go to work and help support the family. Unfortunately, this is still happening in some parts of the developing countries. The two contradictory ideas of childhood innocence and experience can also be seen in the two poems of William Blake (1789 & 1793) ‘Infant Joy’ and ‘Infant Sorrow’ (Book 1, U212 p. 225). In which he represented the child in two contrary ideas, innocence versus experience.

In everyday life, there are different images of childhood. Some of them try to protect their innocence, like the TV ads in Video 1 Band 3. They represent the children as naturally good. The babies in the Evian water advert (Video 1 Band 3) are the symbol of the purity and the innocence, also, the red coated girl in the Peugeot TV advert (Video 1 Band 3) shows the ‘idealized image of childhood innocence’ (Video 1 Band 3 pp. 246). These representations of childhood innocence are being utilized for profits. Therefore, both adverts portray the image of inexperience and innocence. In contrary, the posters of charity Barnardo’s (‘Giving children back their future’, Barnardo’s, 1999. p. 233-234 in U212 Book 1) represent child’s experience. The charity has used pictures of a baby boy and a toddler girl in their posters. The images of the children themselves are innocent but the situations the children are represented in are not. In fact, they are very disturbing to look at. The girl wears a lovely yellow dress, but she is about to go into a strangers’ car and in the distance, we can see some women prostitutes, which gives us an idea that the girl is being exploited. Both girls, the one in the TV ad and the one in the poster, represent innocence, but the world around them is not innocent. Both images look for the inner goodness in adults, to protect the child, from the violent world surrounding us. If the charity or the TV ads had used images of teenagers rather than young children, the message would have not been so powerful. The aim of the charity is to shock us and to get our attention, and these posters definitely do that. The aim of the TV advert is to persuade us to buy the things they are selling, by representing the desired image of the innocent children.

The social constructions of sexuality differ in cultures, upbringing, age of the child and the time in history. In Western societies, a child’s sexuality is a taboo (Jackson, 1982), whereas in non-Western societies it is rather something biologically given and natural. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) the originator of the psychoanalysis challenged the Western view of children’s sexuality. ‘Freud viewed childhood sexuality as biologically given and not as a social construct.’ (Kehily and Montgomery, 2003, p. 238) However, Freud’s work has been criticized as he did not acknowledge ‘the issue of intention’ (Kehily and Montgomery, 2003, p. 238) and child’s sexual abuse.

The representation of child sexuality and eroticization of girls in an extract from novel Lolita (Book 1 U212, p. 264) by Vladimir Nabokov shows how a child’s sexuality could be seen through individuals’ eyes. The old man Humber constructs Lolita and her behaviour as sexual even when it is not. Nevertheless, the readers can receive the message differently depending on their own experiences. Someone can see it as a paedophilic act, others as a teenager being experienced and seductive. The novel ‘points to the unstable boundaries between sexual innocence and sexual experience.’ (Kehily and Montgomery, 2003, p. 245) The sexual knowledge and experience are also represented in the extract from the novel of Oonya Kempadoo Buxton spice (Book 1 U212, p. 261) in which the teenage girls are sexually aware just like Lolita. However, they do not have sex with the older man the teenagers look at his genitals and provoke Uncle Joe by a mixture of suggestions and questions about Miss Ann. The extract gives an example from one small group of girls, but it shows the contradictory understanding of childhood innocence. Contrary to the two sexualized images of girls is the Gap TV advert (Video 1 Band 3), that represents the teenage girls as nonsexual and innocent by dressing them in casual clothes and letting them to have fun, which are all associated with childhood innocence. This type of representation is linked with the purpose of the commercial, to persuade parents to buy clothes for their girls, and parents will not buy sexually influenced clothes. They want to protect their children from the sexual knowledge and experience.

The Video 1 Band 7 also raises issues of childhood innocence versus sexuality. The girls take part in the American beauty pageants that are very popular in America. They have the make-up on and wear expensive and sparkling costumes, dance, and sing songs. A judgement as to whether this is the sexualized image of girls if left to individual to decide. Another point of this band is that the beauty pageants are commercialized and very competitive. These may take away the girls’ innocence by making them a commodity. These contradictory ideas about childhood innocence and experience were written by Marina Warner in her article ‘Little angels, little devils: keeping childhood innocent’ (Book 1, U212, p. 258). Warner argues that a child’s sexuality is encoded in a child’s upbringing, which starts when parents dress their babies. Warner (1994) believes that children are innocent, but ‘It’s we who have lost innocent eyes.’ (Warner, 1994 Book 1, U212, p. 260) To protect childhood’s innocence, we have to include children in the society, because a child and an adult’s life are not separate (Warner, 1994)

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The concept of innocence exists in parallel with the concept of guilt. This can be observed in crime, which is another challenge of the construction of childhood innocence. In the UK case of the killing of two-year-old James Bulger, the two ten-year-old boys who admitted to his killing were tried in an adult court, even though they were classified as children by UNCRC (1989). They were seen by the British court as fully aware and knowing of their actions and the consequences. They were proven guilty and sent to jail, without any of the privileges children get. They were not given any counselling. The case has been advertised in newspapers and on TV. The boys’ names were publicized, and the nation was horrified that this incident happened in their community. The killers in the papers and on TV were represented as devils, whereas the little boy they had killed was seen as an angel. (Kehily and Montgomery, 2003)

In contrary to the British case, in Norway, the six-year-old killers of Sijie Raedergard were seen as innocent children, who did not know the consequences of their wrongdoing. After the police questioning and with the help of a psychologist, the children were sent, back home. They had been accompanied by a psychologist to help resolve any issues and help them emotionally. The community did not publicize the names of the boys. Following week, after the incident had happened, the boys went back to the nursery. None of the parents withdrew their children from that the nursery. The boys were seen as much as a victim, as the little girl they had killed. The mother of the murdered child did not bear a grudge against the boys, as she believes that they would not learn anything from going to jail. She thinks that the counselling will help them with coping in the community they live in (Audio 2 Band 5). The killers of James were ten-year-old children, but they were judged in court as adults, and adults are not innocent. The comparison of these two cases shows that the ideas about childhood innocence are not universal ideas reliant on the age and moral ability to understand. They are also dependent on the socially constructed ideas and applied approach to childhood innocence in certain countries and cultures.

In conclusion, all the evidence suggests that the concept of childhood innocence is greatly challenged by children’s life experiences. However, it also depends on the age, gender, time in history and culture they are brought up in. Every society and culture portray innocence in different contradictory ways and there is no right or wrong way. In the Western socially constructed idea, the concern about the sexual innocence is usually attributed to girls, whereas the concern in relation to child crime is attributed to boys. Therefore, gender as well as age plays an important role in portraying childhood innocence. The older the child the less innocent it is seen by an adult.


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