Naomi, one of my interns from Charles Wright Academy, Tacoma, USA, has kindly shared this book review with us.
According to the Merriam Webster dictionary innocence is defined as: “Freedom from guilt or sin through being unacquainted with evil” and “a lack of worldly experience or knowledge: simplicity” What this definition gives to its reader is innocence within a binary context; one is either innocent or one is not innocent, and where one may fall on either part of the spectrum is determined by an evaluation of the entirety of one’s identity but even more so one’s experiences. In the definition above, innocence is set up as a non-transactional state of being. In order to be innocent one has to have never been “acquainted” with evil, or one has to lack in experience; a lack of innocence requires an action or series of actions. With this understanding of innocence in mind many questions arise: Who exactly is innocent? Are we born innocent?
When contemplating these questions the great of work of Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady comes to mind. In one scene, the novel’s protagonist, Isabel Archer regards a painting and feels that she “carries within herself a great fund of life, and her deepest enjoyment was to feel the continuity between the movements of her own soul and the agitations of the world” In this moment Isabel is the embodiment of innocence and her desires to interact with the “agitations” of the world are James’s way of telling readers that Isabel does not simply just desire life experiences that are pleasurable and liberating, she also desires experiences that are agitating, painful and even corrupting. James presents innocence as something that remains stayed and still until it is disrupted; innocence can not last forever. So, presuming that this notion is true, the great irony of culture’s relationship with innocence must be acknowledged. In the world that we live in we accept blindly and uncritically that innocence cannot last forever, however, we also are obsessed with its preservation; Children are told not to grow up too fast, but are scolded and put in place when they decide to think for themselves. Women are told to remain pure and chaste for as long as possible, but also to own and accept their sexuality. It seems that people are comfortable with the loss of innocence as long it isn’t in any way disruptive or threatening to others. In Portrait of a Lady Isabel togels with this conflict. Isabel desires experiences and knowledge presumably to make her not innocent, but she is acutely aware that this may be alarming and uncomfortable for others to accept: “The poor girl liked to be thought clever, but she hated to be thought bookish; she used to read in secret and, though her memory was excellent, abstain from showy reference” Isabel’s intellect is an act against her innocence, and as a result of Isabel’s intelligence she is aware of that exact fact. Isabel is aware that through her knowledge of the world she is assuming a power and a control of her life that is that of a mature person, not a child who is unknowing and in need of guidance.
The tendency to romanticize innocence is directly linked to a fear of the potential power of so-called “innocent” people. The romanticization of innocence can also increase fear and perpetuate harmful images of those who are not seen as innocent. Now that there is an established definition of what innocence is and why we love it (and fear it) so much, my opening questions must be addressed: Who is innocent? Are we born innocent? The predominant cultural narrative is that everyone is equal and everyone is born with certain unalienable rights. Essentially, we are all born innocent and filled with the potential to become who we wish to be with the help of the security our certain God given rights provide us. If we examine history, however, this does not always seem to be the case. In America today who is perceived as being worthy of innocence varies depending on certain random factors-- notably race, gender and socioeconomic standing. In America if you’re male and black your innocence is time sensitive. By the time black men reach puberty the canvas of their lives is drawn on and vandalized by harmful and dangerous stereotypes and perceptions which claim that innocence is not something black men can be. Similarly women lose the security of their perceived innocence at around the same time. However, for women the drawings by others on their canvases are not images of danger, fear or impurity. In many cases it is the opposite; women do not lose their innocence, they instead are told that it is their moral and social responsibility to maintain it. Isabel, being a white American woman in England in the 19th century, is subject to the latter. When men come to visit Isabel they “were afraid of her; they had a belief that some special preparation was required for talking with her” The fear the men have of Isabel can be summarized as the fear that she is not innocent. To them, Isabel is supposed to be an image of chastity and virtue. Innocence is heavily gendered and is often used as a marker to define the goodness to which one upholds their femininity.In Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, at first glance, the novel appears to be a stereotypical 19th century classic. Well, it is. The Portrait of a Lady however cannot be reduced to a central plot device such as family conflict à la Jane Eyre or an epic love triangle such as in Pride and Prejudice. The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James’s signature work, is defined by its ability to take simple constructions and expectations of its readers and expand and expose the true complexities and nuances of the human experience. At the center of The Portrait of a Lady is the deconstruction of our oversimplified and binary definition of innocence. The definition of innocence with which we are familiar may in some ways be true, however our current understanding of the word fails to recognize the subjectivity and intricacies of the human condition which make innocence and non-innocence almost impossible to truly define.Through the experiences of Isabel, James challenges his audience to question this false construct of innocence. Through reading The Portrait of a Lady one can find solace in understanding the impossible task of existing in a world based on false constructs such as innocence, which function to imprison others in their identities as well as maintain the existing powers that be.
Thank you Naomi!