What is it that is most appealing about children? Is it simply their physical beauty? Is it their openness to loving and being loved? Their playfulness, their innate humour? Beyond these things, in my view, children are beautiful because they possess something that we have all lost – the quality of innocence.
Innocence is not merely lovely, it is heartbreaking because it represents Housman's "blue remember'd hills" … the "happy highways where I went/and cannot come again".
The gap between innocence and experience is endlessly explored, like a gap in a tooth, by artists and writers. I have felt in exile ever since childhood – not as a result of some traumatic experience, but the simple, slow dimmer switch of time passing and imagination coarsening.
But what is innocence? Like St Augustine on the subject of Time, 'If you do not ask me what time is, I know it; if you ask me, I do not know.'
When I watch my youngest daughter, Louise, playing for an hour with Sylvanian families, singing to herself, I know I see it. When I watch my 10-year-old, Eva, dancing as if no one is watching, I know I am also seeing it. But it is ineffable.
It is, at one level, a rarefied quality of ignorance. To not grasp imaginatively that death will come. To be ignorant of sex, likewise. To believe in the irrational – Santa Claus, fairies, monsters under the bed. And, of course, the myth of the infinite power and goodness of parents.
This is perhaps the hardest part of all innocence to let go of. My eldest, Jean, nowadays seems perpetually disappointed in me and I can only ascribe this to the fact that I have let her down by proving unable to either be perfect or protect her against the world. After all, she was forced to face the separation of her parents when she was only six years old. But I feel, self-defensively perhaps, that her disappointment is more about her particular loss of what we all must lose.
Innocence goes deeper than ignorance. It is some mysterious operation of the imagination, the part that can enter into mental universes from which one is soon to be forever excluded. I have my own particular recollection of this.
Every year from when I was of reading age, I was given a Rupert the Bear annual for Christmas and every Christmas day I fell upon it with a passion, losing myself in the mysterious tales of Chinese wizards and sea-gods and wood sprites. Then one year I picked up the annual and could not "get into it". It was just a book with pictures and a story. I could no longer enter its portal and inhabit its world.
Even now I remember the sting of disappointment. My wife thought I was mad when last year I bought a large painting of Rupert from the artist Mark Manning (who has done a series depicting scenes from Nutwood). But I suppose therein lies the explanation.
Innocence is also the growth of self-consciousness, perhaps the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" referred to in the story of Adam and Eve. Perhaps you are thrown out into a world bled of colour and meaning and spend your life trying to regain it.
But can you regain it? Not in its original form, certainly. But sometimes, now I am growing older, I feel shadows of my ancient innocence in the night sky, in the song of birds, in the earth's breathing out of white and pink blossoms.
I am unlearning all the things I have been taught in life, and perhaps this, as well as the more tragic meaning , is what Shakespeare talked of when he wrote that the final age of man is: "Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion."
All Quiet on the Western Front Theme of Innocence
Innocence is almost an enemy in All Quiet on the Western Front – a soldier must get rid of it right away if he wants to survive. Our narrator learns to lose his innocence quickly, mostly by observing that loss in others around him, but also through his own experiences. And he consciously feels that loss as he survives in the story, noting how he has become "old folk" and how separate he feels from the new recruits entering the fray, recruits only a year or so younger than he is, but far more innocent.
Questions About Innocence
- Who is most innocent in this novel?
- Has Paul already lost most of his innocence when the novel begins?
- What does it mean to lose your innocence on the Front?
- How old are Paul and his friends?
Chew on This
Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.
Because he has become so numb, Paul regains his innocence at the very end of the novel.
The soldiers never lose their innocence.