The Themes of the Innocence in the Literature To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye
Listening to young children giggle as they race around the playground, it is not hard to understand why people associate childhood with being carefree. Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever. At some point in their life, all children go through the loss of innocence, a life changing experience, if not a series of them, that transforms the world views of children into those of mature adults. During this transition, a child has unstable emotions, changing attitudes, and a shifting moral compass. Consequently, the child is apt to endure substantial internal conflict.
The loss of innocence usually happens gradually as one progresses from childhood to adulthood, but it may occur rapidly as the result of a traumatic experience. The loss of innocence is a common theme in literature, both because the experience is universal and because it is a rich source of psychological turmoil. To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye are two well known examples of the bildungsroman, a literary genre centered around a young protagonist’s coming of age. Set in vastly different cultures, To Kill a Mockingbird tells of a rapid and premature loss of innocence that results from trauma, while The Catcher in the Rye portrays a more gradual, yet very traumatic path during which the protagonist loses his innocence. While the cultural settings and the pace of the losses of innocence are starkly different, both stories depict stressful and psychologically challenging transitions.
Harper Lee’s courtroom drama, To Kill a Mockingbird, is set in Maycomb, a small town in Alabama, during the Great Depression. The novel chronicles the abrupt loss of innocence experienced by Scout Finch, a little girl. She is traumatized as the result of witnessing the seemingly nonsensical incarceration of Tom Robinson, a black man, for a crime he did not commit. When Atticus, Scout’s father, decides to defend Robinson in court, all of his family members are affected. Atticus had been well respected in his community up until this point, but his decision to defend a black man shakes his position to the point that he and his children are now subjected to ridicule. When one of Scout’s classmates, Cecil Jacobs, claims that Atticus is a “nigger lover,” Scout becomes enraged. Her terrible fury causes her to physically assault Jacobs.
In the aftermath of this event, Atticus makes Scout promise that she will never beat up anyone again, at least in his defense. Reluctantly, Scout agrees, and though she no longer acts out in public, the events surrounding the trial of Tom Robinson continue to bring her grief. She witnesses her neighbor Walter Cunningham, who she had never seen in a negative light, join an angry mob which attempts to lynch Tom Robinson, most likely assaulting Atticus in the process.
When she and her brother Jem ask how a good person can do bad things, Atticus decides to share one of the cruelest facts of life. “He might have hurt me a little…but son, you’ll understand folks a little better when you’re older. A mob’s always made up of people, no matter what. Mr. Cunningham was part of a mob last night, but he was still a man. Every mob in every little Southern town is always made up of people you know—doesn’t say much for them, does it?” (Lee 157)
Young Scout learns about the darker side of human nature earlier than would have been typical for a girl during the 1930’s. Through her experiences and her father’s guidance, she understands that human nature is complicated, and that a single person may be capable of both good and evil actions.
In contrast to the rural south in which Lee’s novel takes place, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye is set in the northeast, during the 1950’s. The story is told from the perspective of protagonist Holden Caulfield, a privileged, yet troubled seventeen year old boy. As the narrator, Holden describes several days of events from his recent past. On the verge of transitioning from childhood to adulthood, the teenager has become increasingly distraught, and is in fact telling his story while a patient in a mental health facility.
The reader recognizes that Holden’s problems have been ongoing for several years, emphasized by his having flunked out of four different preparatory schools. It is clear that he fears making the transition to adulthood. Evidence for this, and perhaps that Holden finds unchanging situations comforting, is his fondness for the Museum of Natural History. Life, particularly the changes it brings, are confusing. In contrast, the exhibits at the museum show items frozen in time. “The best thing about thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move … Nobody’d be different […] Certain things should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone.” (Salinger 121-122) Despite being nearly fully grown, Holden is still innocent in the sense that he is naive in his understanding of how the world works, despite believing that he already does understand this.
In addition, despite flunking out of several schools, Holden is convinced that not only is he smart, but also one of the few people that sees society for what it truly is. Holden thinks that others, especially adults, are “phony.” In Holden’s classifying adults as “phonies,” he has constructed a reason for failing to transition towards adulthood, as he does not wish to become like the “phonies” he sees around him. While skipping school in New York, not only does Holden learn that the world is much crueler than he ever imagined, but also that he is insignificant to the world.
Unlike Scout who had a strong, supportive father, a loving relationship with Calpurnia, as well as a bond with her brother, Holden lacks a support system to bolster him in his time of crisis. While he has a bond with his sister Phoebe, she is much younger than he. There is one adult in the story who nearly impacts Holden, having come close to helping him, but Holden finds an excuse to dismiss his advice. Mr. Antolini, a former teacher of Holden’s, nearly penetrates Holden’s protective shell. Holden is nearly touched by Antolini’s attempt to tell him about what will happen if he doesn’t turn things around: “I have a feeling that you’re riding for some kind of a terrible, terrible fall. But I don’t honestly know what kind…. It may be the kind where, at the age of thirty, you sit in some bar hating everybody who comes in looking as if he might have played football in college.
Then again, you may pick up just enough education to hate people who say, ‘It’s a secret between he and I.’ Or you may end up in some business office, throwing paper clips at the nearest stenographer. I just don’t know. (Salinger 186) Holden feels threatened enough by Mr. Antolini’s vision, however, that he attempts to convince himself that Mr. Antolini is a pervert. In Holden’s world view, this would make disregarding the advice seem like the logical thing to do. At the end of the book, Holden not only misses Mr. Antolini, but all of the people that he had previously resented. Holden wishes that he had listened to their advice, a sign that he may be maturing, and that his difficult experience in New York may have changed him for the better.
To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye are two bildungsroman set in very different circumstances. In one case, described is a child’s early and rapid loss of innocence in which she benefits from an effective support system. In the other case, a seventeen year old has a very difficult time psychologically, resulting from his intentionally distancing himself from people who could have provided him the necessary support to get through an emotionally trying time.
Part of the wonder of childhood is being free of responsibility. If not for the loss of innocence, we would forever remain children, never truly understanding the world around us. Stating that the loss of innocence is the most important part of growing up only understates its importance. Rather, the loss of innocence is growing up. Even if a human being were to somehow manage to make the journey from birth to physical maturity without the losing his innocence, he could not function independently. It is simply necessary that one understand at least some of life’s painful truths. For example, people must understand that resources are scarce if they are to buy things wisely, that life is not forever if they are to plan their futures, and that it is unwise to trust everyone if they are to deal with others intelligently.
Whether one’s loss of innocence is a transition that occurs gradually, as it was in Holder’s life, or one that occurs rather prematurely and rapidly, such as in Scout’s life, it will almost always be hard. Perhaps this is one reason that many cultures have specific rituals to celebrate coming-of-age, such as the bar mitsvah or the quinceanera. Through these ceremonies, people can stop to appreciate the positives that accompany the growing pains of psychological maturation.