Popular media abounds with cached tropes, with easy, prepackaged ideas that travel in the wake of simple visual or textual cues. A man kicks a beggar and has scary facial hair? Ok, so he’s evil. Another is clean-shaven and helps the beggar? He’s good, and will probably save the world, especially if he’s an orphan and/or was born under mysterious circumstances. You get it. The writers of these works put in cultural reminders, so we know early on how we’re supposed to feel about certain characters. It’s easier than developing them, and the superficial result is the same. Good writers, of course, will be aware of these tropes and use them carefully, or subvert them when useful.
One of the most oft-invoked tropes in coming-of-age stories is the loss of innocence1 as the step that causes a character to grow up. But what do we mean by “loss of innocence?” It’s not “innocence” in the sense of “having done nothing wrong” but in the “naive,” “blissfully ignorant” sense. The idea is that once the character has witnessed or experienced evil, or just tragedy, he or she is somehow an adult. Of course it’s not that simple, but I believe that it is one of those things that reappears so much precisely because it rings so true. We feel the truth of it. What is it, though, about witnessing bad things that causes a person to grow up? I don’t think it’s the comprehension that bad things happen or that they happen without clear justice. It’s the part after that. The part where things are broken. In the short-lived cult-TV series Firefly, there’s a scene where their ship isn’t working, due to a particular part being broken. The captain asks the mechanic, Kaylee, to find some way to fix the ship. Kaylee, who has a deep, almost affectionate connection with the ship, just looks up at him with despair in her eyes, and says, “Sometimes a thing gets broke, can’t be fixed.”
I think that’s the loss of innocence – the recognition that for all your good intentions, even for all your good actions, no matter how hard you try, things go wrong. Things go wrong, and they can be your fault, and there’s no way to make them right again. I imagine that it comes as a bit of a shock to anyone who encounters that late enough in life to understand that all of the storybooks and all of the movies had it wrong. Things don’t always go right, and you don’t even always get a chance at redemption when things go bad. True, it doesn’t always play out that way. Sometimes, you can fix it. But, sometimes, “a thing gets broke, can’t be fixed.”
And that, in part, is what it means to grow up.
- No, before any of my friends start getting all worried, let me assure you that I’m fine, and there’s no tragedy that sparked this post. ^