“Adam and Eve, on eating the apple, could not have been more upset than I was” (The Go-Between Ch. 10). Discuss the ways in which the movement from innocence to experience is portrayed in two novels.
“A story of innocence betrayed, and not only betrayed but corrupted” – thus L.P. Hartley set out to write The Go-Between, a story of childhood, sexual awakening, social convention and class. Ian McEwan’s Atonement, a postmodern novel heavily influenced by The Go-Between, shares all these themes and more as it explores the nature of innocence and experience.
The Go-Between and Atonement are most notably Bildungsromans – novels which chronicle the “coming of age” of a child. While many novels of the genre feature a movement from innocence to experience in the protagonist, both Leo and Briony, the narrators of these two novels, undergo an exceptionally profound and disastrous loss of innocence. The dual narrative voices of the two novels are themselves both innocent and experienced: the naivety of the juvenile narrator is overlaid with the shrewd hindsight of their aged self. This is used to dramatic effect in Atonement, when the older Briony bluntly states the imminent disaster – “Within the half hour Briony would commit her crime” – creating an atmosphere of prolepsis, or narrative anticipation. The Go-Between similarly hints at the forthcoming tragedy, albeit through the subtler means of foreshadowing through symbolism: both the ominous “long smear of blood” on Marian’s letter to Ted and Mr Maudsley’s prophetic epithet “Leo Colston, who slew the Goliath of Black Farm” portend the novel’s tragic denouement. The lifelong effects of the summer of 1900 on the old Leo are indicated by his wistful, regretful tone throughout the novel and by the prologue where he laments that he was “let down” by his childhood self; “vanquished, and so was [his] century.” The dramatic irony of the reader’s superior knowledge over the innocent child is augmented by both the experienced narrator’s retrospect and the reader’s own historical perspective. While Leo optimistically anticipates the twentieth century “winged with hope,” the characters of Atonement, with their “dread of conflict”, exemplify the complacency of appeasement and the interwar years, preferring to consider “re-armament and the Abyssinia Question… simply not a subject”. By contrast, the late twentieth century reader knows of the “hideous century” that awaits: the universal movement from innocence to experience that the Second World War brought, when “the sight of a corpse became a banality.” Thus the dual narrative simultaneously embodies the past and the near-present; hope and regret; innocence and experience.
Briony and Leo’s respective journeys from innocence to experience hold many parallelisms, both in the pivotal events of their transition and in the rich imagery that illustrates their psychological development. Both “a young thirteen” – “an awkward age” – they are on the cusp of adolescence and sexual awareness, yet through an emotionally distant, lonely childhood, suggested by Briony’s “hard-faced dolls, the estranged companions of a childhood she considered closed”, are unfamiliar with intimate human interaction, especially of a sexual nature. “Vague and ill-defined,” not only does their perception of sex reveal innocence in their lack of experience, but also exposes ignorance in their misconceptions. While Briony may consider “sexual bliss” to be “as yet unthinkable”; remote, alien and unfamiliar, she still strongly associates it with evil as shown by her reaction to the word “cunt” in Robbie’s letter: “That the word had been written by a man confessing to an image in his mind… disgusted her profoundly.” From there it is a short leap of her “over-anxious imagination” to begin considering him “the incarnation of evil.” Leo too harbours misconceptions relating to sex: for him, the elusive “spooning” – a dated euphemism for courtship and romantic relations – is shrouded in mystery. Considering it “the aspect of grown-up behaviour that we found the silliest”, Leo “despise[es] it more than anything – soft, soppy” and “vulgar”. Despite their repulsion, Briony and Leo feel both “disgust and fascination” in the “shady secret” of sex, sensually symbolised by the Atropa Belladonna, which with its “bold beauty” “invited and yet repelled inspection”. This apprehension, even fear of sex, is also contained in the highly phallic and threatening symbols of the gun, and to a lesser extent the cricket bat, for aggressive masculine sexuality: “Ted had once more imposed himself on me with his gun, his cricket bat, his self-sufficiency, his panoply of masculine endowments and accomplishments.” Both novels make heavy use of symbols such as these to convey the movement from innocence to experience, particularly The Go-Between, described by Hartley himself as “pregnant with symbols”. The episodes set in 1900 and 1935 both use a backdrop of summer, which, “with its heavy fragrance, its burden of pleasures” was believed to “encourage loose morals among young people.” With the excessive heat – “the climate of my emotions” – summer symbolises maturation and sexual fruition, both in the youngsters’ burgeoning sexual awareness and the consummation of the lovers’ desire. The bridge that Briony crosses having been given the fateful note also represents a transition from innocence to experience, both in the crossing of the sexual boundary in Cecilia and Robbie’s relationship that the note instigates, and in the irreversible transition that Briony makes from passive observer to guilty participant.