Look, look. Here comes a friend. The friend will play with Jane. They will play a good game. Play, Jane, play. (First Prologue)
The chipper language of the prologue stands in stark contrast to the sexual and racial horrors we confront as the novel unfolds. It raises the question of who exactly gets to experience innocence in society.
Prologue, Part 2
Guileless and without vanity, we were still in love with ourselves then. We felt comfortable in our skins, enjoyed the news that our senses released to us, admired our dirt, cultivated our scars, and could not comprehend this unworthiness. (2.4.40)
Innocence means different things to different characters in the novel. For Frieda and Claudia it means not allowing someone else's harsh words to interfere with their own sense of worth. This is refreshing example of how innocence can be constructive and helpful.
It never occurred to either of us that the earth itself might have been unyielding. We had dropped our seeds in our own little plot of black dirt just as Pecola's father had dropped his seeds in his own plot of black dirt. Our innocence and faith were no more productive than his lust or despair. (from second Prologue)
Here Claudia looks back on her innocence as being literally unfruitful. While there is something undeniably sweet and ethical about the girls planting the seeds, Claudia reveals herself to be a particularly realistic (if not pessimistic) kind of narrator here, as she claims that her innocence and faith produced nothing good in Pecola's life.
Autumn, Chapter 1
She eats the candy, its sweetness is good. To eat the candy is somehow to eat the eyes, eat Mary Jane. Love Mary Jane. Be Mary Jane. (1.3.33)
The simple language here matches the simplicity of Pecola's desire to be innocent, beautiful, and good.
Autumn, Chapter 2
While he moves inside her, she will wonder why they didn't put the necessary but private parts of the body in some more convenient place – like the armpit, for example, or the palm of the hand. Someplace one could get to easily, and quickly, without undressing. (2.5.7)
Geraldine's opinions about sex reveal the extent to which she is still very childish about these matters. The innocence about sex that many of the women in the novel display contrasts with the behavior and mannerisms of the prostitutes and the men.
I was glad to have a chance to show anger. Not only because of the ice cream, but because we had seen our own father naked and didn't care to be reminded of it and feel the shame brought on by the absence of shame. (2.4.31)
This passage suggests that Maureen is trying to make Claudia feel bad about something innocent and normal – seeing her father without his clothes on. We might also think about innocence itself as being defined by an absence of shame.
Autumn, Chapter 3
And there wasn't nastiness, and there wasn't any filth, and there wasn't any odor, and there wasn't any groaning – just the light white laughter of little girls and me. And there wasn't any look – any long funny look – any long funny Velma look afterward. No look that makes you feel dirty afterward. That makes you want to die. With little girls it is all clean and good and friendly. (3.9.41)
In this passage, innocence is not something experienced by young girls so much as a quality seen and desired by an adult. The fact that children do not experience innocence but instead have it taken away from them seems to be one of the major tragedies of the novel.
Pauline and Cholly loved each other. He seemed to relish her company and even to enjoy her country ways and lack of knowledge about city things. He talked with her about her foot and asked, when they walked through the town or in the fields, if she were tired. Instead of ignoring her infirmity, pretending it was not there, he made it seem like something special and endearing. For the first time Pauline felt that her bad foot was an asset. And he did touch her, firmly but gently, just as she had dreamed. But minus the gloom of setting suns and lonely river banks. She was secure and grateful; he was kind and lively. She had not known there was so much laughter in the world. (3.7.14)
This idyllic scene is one of the few truly innocent moments we get in the novel. It makes us wonder what the Breedloves' relationship might have been like if they had lived in a different time and place.
His sexuality was anything but lewd; his patronage of little girls smacked of innocence and was associated in his mind with cleanliness. He was what one might call a very clean old man. (3.9.5)
Soaphead – the sole academic figure in the book – uses his intelligence to manipulate the concept of innocence, extending it to include his own sexuality.
What could he do for her – ever? What give her? What say to her? What could a burned-out black man say to the hunched back of his eleven-year-old daughter? If he looked into her face, he would see those haunted, loving eyes. The hauntedness would irritate him – the love would move him to fury. How dare she love him? Hadn't she any sense at all? What was he supposed to do about that? Return it? How? (3.8.87)
Adult men in the novel tend to either worship innocence or be disgusted by it. We might think of Soaphead and Cholly as on opposite ends of this spectrum. Pecola's innocence only reminds Cholly of his inadequacy as a father, enraging him further.