As the American legal justice system will tell you, immorality is generally thought to increase with age; crimes committed by children are among the few that still have the power to shock anyone nowadays, and given their unusualness, they generally receive more delicate treatment in court. In fact, many child crimes result in sentencing against parents, who some argue are responsible for their children’s bad behavior. Of course, nowhere can you find more discussion on the nature of good and evil than in literature. To get a feel for the literary stance on the innocence of children, let’s take a look at a few of the classics.
J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is a good example of a more modern story that really dives into the debate. Its young narrator, Holden Caulfield, repeatedly paints a picture of adults as being insensitive, calculating, self-absorbed, and even sexually threatening, essentially equating all things corrupt with adulthood and all things innocent with childhood. Holden’s ideas aren’t wildly original, but what gives them a special twist is his famous use of one simple, two-syllable word: “phony.”
In Holden’s world, anyone who is post-pubescent runs the risk of becoming a phony. At some level, this suggests that the bad behavior of adults is unnatural – and should, in theory, be avoidable. Holden even envisions himself as a catcher standing in a field of rye to prevent innocent children from plummeting over a dangerous precipice (and presumably into adulthood). It’s a strange image, but then again, what better way to emphasize that whole innocence-is-natural thing than children playing in a breezy field of grain?
The Catcher in the Rye isn’t the first great American writer to set these two camps in opposition. Perhaps the granddaddy of them all is Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, which portrays a 13-year-old boy foraying into nature to defy some of the most deeply-held beliefs of the adult world. Raised half by a strict, Christian widow and half by an abusive, reclusive alcoholic, Huck never comfortably integrates into society to begin with. When he then sets off down the Mississippi, he symbolically breaks his last ties with the “sivilized” world in favor of island campouts, naked rafting, and watching the stars.
His independence of thinking is challenged with the addition of Jim, an escaped slave, to his voyage. Although Huck struggles with the fact that it’s “sinful” to aid and abet Jim on his flight to the North, he can’t find it in his heart to betray his friend and willingly forfeits his soul to help him. Like Salinger, Twain aligns youth and nature with true-heartedness against the corrupting influences of unnatural adult conventions.
What makes us feel all warm and fuzzy inside about this overall premise is the implication that people are born essentially good and become corrupted as the adult world rubs off on them; evil behavior is a social problem, not a personal one. Of course, not all literary masterpieces share this optimism. Take William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, for example. While an unnamed war wages in Europe, a group of British schoolchildren becomes stranded on a deserted island in the Pacific – only this time, children plus nature definitely does NOT equal youthful innocence.
Although the children initially attempt to organize society in a way that would have made mummy and daddy proud, the effort gradually loses momentum as individual personalities come into conflict: the tribe factions, children are killed, and eventually, the island is consumed by an all-out war of its own. What’s worse, this moral decay only quickens as the children venture further and further into the wild, suggesting that human nature is darkest at its core. Although the arrival of a navy cruiser at the end of the novel brings an end to the boys’ private island hell, the obvious symbolism of the warship sends a strongly depressing message: that either the children are no better than the adults… or the adults are no better than the children.