by Rebecca Lake
Children generate a certain atmosphere as fragile individuals, requiring protection against the cruelty of and within this world. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout explores the complexities of characters that harbor a certain impression of childish innocence while continuously affected by the severity of reality. As an adjective the word “innocent” refers to someone free from blame, yet still suffers the consequences. Innocent and innocence imply a sense of ignorance to the world, but within the very definition of the word “innocence”, people who suffer the wrath of consequence know the cruelty of this world. These two definitions offer a tension between appearance and internal mentality; the exterior expression of purity not accurately reflecting the tormented truth of the interior mind. By perpetuating an innocent facade, innocence prevents a human from facing themselves and progressing past the complications of the world.
Denise, a young pharmacy assistant, fulfills the description of innocence with a sense of youthfulness in her physical stature “like a thirteen-year-old” (8) and the genuine levity of her character. In experiencing harsh realities, Denise understands the evils of existence, but her demeanor and “the purity of her dreams” (11) act as a form of defiance to her awareness of real world horrors… As a literal child, Denise witnesses the deterioration of her mother to MS (7) and the harsh fate of age, sickness, and death. In this incident Denise loses the traditional ignorance associated with youth. At twenty-two Denise’s husband dies, accidentally shot at the hands of his best friend (19) and years later she runs over her cat, an emotional support after the death of her husband (24). In the detonation of the label innocence, Denise fails to meet the requirement of pure, unspoiled by the world, but equally she fills the descriptor of not carrying blame, yet suffering. Ever since the destruction of her childhood, Denise clings to an atmosphere as young and dainty, frail as a child. This repression continues until a transitional moment as Denise enters the realm of motherhood. Denise preserves youth in the absence of a quality childhood; but “no girl stay(s) a girl…the gravity of life weighing her [Denise] down” (27). By physically changing through childbearing, Denise fully receives the burden of reality, no longer repressing factors that defiled her real time as an innocent.
Diverging from an attachment to innocent traits, the character Kevin represents the recognition of falling from innocence, obsessing over that loss to the point of corruption. At a young age Kevin’s mother commits suicide, exposing Kevin to her dead and bloody body on the kitchen floor (33); Kevin’s purity leaves at this sight. Constantly tapping into the trauma, Kevin seeks a career in psychology, attempting to resolve other’s issues and not his own; he entertains a damaged relationship that ends in despair (42) and later returns to the hometown with a plan to end his own life. The narration of Kevin’s observations reveals his opinion toward innocence and the ignorance surrounding it as he watches the wild rogues, how they contain “sad ignorance…in their benign white petals” (31); this blindness to reality coordinates with sorrow as shown with Denise’s steadfast innocent appearance while her mind endures personal tragedies. Kevin’s dedication to his mother’s suicide, the pinnacle of innocence, prevents Kevin from moving toward an adult acceptance. Kevin’s current frame of mind traps him in a childlike obsession, wondering why, wanting answers. Saving Patty Howe from the violent shoreline waves (47) injects a mental change for Kevin. The passion for life overthrows the mystery of death, Kevin pushes away his inexperience toward the values of living.
Sitting at the cusp of youth and innocence, eleven year old Winnie Harwood portrays the natural progression into an adult relationship with the world. The Harwood family operates with a system of dysfunction and isolation. Winnie’s mother, Anita, inherits the disapproval of the town (182) and functions through the use of pharmaceutical sedatives (184). Anita controls her eldest daughter, Julie by keeping her contained within the house as a way to prevent Julie from engaging in a non-marital living situation. Winnie observes the complications of her family, especially her mother, but stays unaware, not comprehending the underlying problems for the family. When Julie reveals Anita’s desire to prevent Julia from engaging in unmarried sexual relations (as Anita had), Winnie claims to understand, “but she didn’t know, exactly” (190). In Winnie there rests this spark of purity, of childhood ignorance; the complex nature of the Harwood family ruins Winnie’s innocence as Julie asks Winnie to betray their mother, by covering for Julie as she flees to Boston with her boyfriend (197). The lie challenges Winnie to evade the suffocation of her household, signifying that “something had changed for the good” (198). Within this change, Winnie acquire more understanding in her environment, considering the feelings of her neglected father by imagining the unique problems to him as a person. Winnie’s decision to eat pancakes despite her own preference (199) marks a transition from innocence to awareness over when to comply with request(s) and when to defy the unreasonable institutions of her mother.
Three characters combat a perception of innocence and battle the forces that ruin and taint the purity of children. For each character there rests an underlying problem of abandonment and separation from a mother figure; these characters lose an essential protective barrier against the world. Denise and Kevin share mothers that, due to a sickness, create an environment for an unsuccessful childhood. A genetic disease terrorizes young Denise, forcing Denise to act as a caregiver. Later in life this struggle transforms into an unhealthy ignorance toward hardships as she compartmentalizes the burden of the world within her attitudes. Kevin’s mother carried a decision to live or die and, by deliberately choosing to die, Kevin experiences this damaging consumption in death. By accepting the gravity of misfortune and the inspiration of life, Denise and Kevin respectively break from the constricting influence of grief and pain. Winnie, as a child, demonstrates how acknowledgement leads to progression and acceptance. Innocence towards reality works logistically for a normal eleven year old, but the level of malfunction within the Harwood family prompts more defiance towards the traditional childhood norm. Winnie’s ignorance, as with Denise’s and Kevin’s, prevents her from escaping her mother’s impractical control. Only through a deliberate rejection of her mother’s influence does Winnie exert personal dominion over her own life and future. From there, she now knows how to deceive and escape the oppressive Harwood house.
Through these characters, they lay out a four-step process to overcome the naivety of clinging to innocence when personal experience demand growth. Innocence allows for a protection against the cruelty of the world, but once misery corrupts and destroys, ignorance only restrains and conflicts. Ignorance stands for naive, blind to reality; a person cannot overcome difficulty without proper knowledge and understanding of their condition. Acceptance allows for a handle against the world to create protective barriers based on conscious knowledge rather than ignoring the problem; recognition fosters skills to deal with misfortune in productive ways and cope with all mental facilities.