Is loss of innocence a theme in Steven Millhauser's In the Penny Arcade?
August Eschenberg is only eight years old, and already exhibits an early proclivity for the mechanics of the machines in his father’s shop. Steven Millhauser, in the first of the short stories comprising In the Penny Arcade, emphasizes his young protagonist’s fascination with the intricate workings of the products. As Millhauser states it, August “was enchanted by the clocks and watches in his father’s shop.” Mesmerized by a picture in a museum he visits with his father, he is instantly curious as to the mechanics involved in its moving components. A security guard, at the boy’s father’s prompting, turns the picture around, revealing the mechanism. August is able to view the secret to the picture:
“He had guessed the secret of the magic picture at once, which in no way diminished its enchantment, and when the man in the uniform turned the picture around, August recognized all the familiar wheels that controlled all the emotions.”
The theme of “loss of innocence” does present itself throughout Millhauser’s stories, and it is certainly present in “August Eschenberg.” August grows up to be an artisan, his automatons a model of technological and artistic sophistication. Into his life comes Hausenstein, who will flatter the young man and begin a relationship that will forever shatter August’s preconceptions about the role of art in modern society. Hausenstein pretends to a commitment to art that is quickly sublimated to kitsch, because that is what the public wants – a concept completely anathema to any serious artist. As Millhauser describes Hausenstein’s philosophy:
“He had recognized at once the astonishing quality of the Eschenberg automatons, for he himself possessed possessed a small talent in that line, and he had recognized at the same time that those automatons were fated to be driven out by the sort of cheap approximation that was the true symbol of the new age. Since this fate was inevitable, he had decided to be its instrument.”
As “August Eschenberg” progresses, August is forced to confront the realities of the world in which he lives. His commitment to his art can only survive in his own small world. “At the Sign of the Black Boot,” the new theater dedicated to automatons turns out to be the very exposition of vulgarity to which Hausenstein is so committed. When August enters it for the first time, he is struck by the sights, including the woman working the ticket booth, “a tight-corseted woman with half-bared, very round breasts, between which sprouted an artificial rose . . .” Hausenstein is entirely mercenary, and mocks August’s rejection of the pornographic milieu into which he has been thrust: “Tainted money, eh? A bit too literary: Pip and Magwitch.” The reference to Dickens’ Great Expectations is intended to rub August’s nose in the sordid ooze that Hausenstein has created. August’s loss of innocence is complete.
In “A Protest Against the Sun,” Millhauser again tears the innocence out of the heart of a young child, in this case Elizabeth, a girl spending a day at the beach with her highly-educated and socially refined parents. It is, as Millhauser opens the story, “an absolutely perfect day.” For her parents, however, the perfection is marred by the intervention of a younger, less tranquil crowd. A radio blares nearby, upsetting the tranquility. For Elizabeth, however, the world is still filled with wonder. She is mildly annoyed by her parents’ preoccupation with work and books, copies of which contaminate the pristine environment. Her parents’ refusal to regress emotionally and inculcate a level of tolerance for the inconsiderate conduct of the rest of society offends her, as when her father, rejecting the suggestion he put on his shirt lest he get sunburned, replies, “I never burn, except with moral indignation. Plato was right: in a properly ordered republic that radio would not be tolerated.”
Elizabeth, however, is passing through that stage of life when thoughts drift away from scenery of one kind towards that of another, in this case, sex. Her focus is now on the way boys treated her during sex and the glances of strange men in her direction. Elizabeth receives a glimpse of the real world, however, with the impromptu passing of a teenage boy, who eyes Elizabeth and her parents with a look of obvious contempt. As Elizabeth observes, “. . .he was mocking us – them – all this . . .he was protesting.” Her parents’ obvious disinterest in the apparent judgments of a teenager and their willingness to continue to enjoy the day at the beach is not entirely shared by their daughter, but Elizabeth falls back into the fold, with the mundane observations regarding the heat and sand returning to the center of attention.
The teenage boy’s obvious disapproval of the sight of the nuclear family enjoying itself at the beach is but a slight if abrupt disruption in that enjoyment – for Elizabeth if not for her parents. The boy’s disdain, however, represents a peak at the fissures in society’s tranquility that will upset Elizabeth’s world’ somewhere down the road.
Catherine, the central figure in “The Sledding Party,” will similarly experience a bit of what we call a loss of innocence, as her platonic male friend, Peter, decides to reveal at an inopportune moment that his feelings for Catherine exceed those in the opposite direction. The high-school years are a complicated time for most children, as their sexuality is in full-bloom yet their level of emotional maturity lags considerably behind. Concepts like “puppy love” have long since been replaced with, especially on the male side of the equation, obsessive lust. Peter’s awkward confession jolts Catherine out of her comfortable world and introduces her to the next phase in the maturation of human beings. Her loss of innocence entails the end of a trusted friendship for no other reason than the intervention of hormones.
“Loss of innocence” is a recurring theme throughout Millhauser’s collection of short stories and, while time precludes additional examples, suffice to say each of his stories involves in some measure this literary phenomenon.