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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 487

Orra is an undergraduate student at Harvard University. She is complex, seemingly regal, and of a character and sophistication that causes the men around her to experience both feelings of anxiety and mawkishness when in her presence. She is stunningly beautiful, and her beauty is compounded by the aloof, bourgeoise...

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Orra is an undergraduate student at Harvard University. She is complex, seemingly regal, and of a character and sophistication that causes the men around her to experience both feelings of anxiety and mawkishness when in her presence. She is stunningly beautiful, and her beauty is compounded by the aloof, bourgeoise disposition she adopts when interacting with her fellow classmates. She is, as the narrator (Wiley) describes, a “trophy,” something to be admired with a dispassionate affection more than any deeper sentimentality.

However, it is Wiley’s desire to court Orra, and he eventually succeeds in convincing her to join him one night in his room for a night of passionate love making. Although both Orra and Wiley have a reasonable amount of sexual experience, they remain enigmatic to one another, both psychologically and as active bodies. Much the remainder of the story focuses on Wiley’s dual efforts to bring Orra to an orgasm while simultaneously penetrating her outward defensiveness. He believes that at any moment, at the slightest indication that he may begin to take more of a liking to Orra than she does of him, Orra could slip back into her habitual, inner-isolation, abandoning the passion that the two had been working towards throughout the night.

Over time, the two students maneuver over each other’s bodies and within one another’s personalities, and they inevitably fall in love. It becomes increasingly apparent that Orra is withholding her true aspirations for sexual gratification by claiming that she has in fact never had an orgasm, insisting that she tend to Wiley’s needs (such as fetching both of them breakfast the following morning), and maintaining an almost paternalistic attempt to satisfy her lover. Over time, Wiley becomes aware of her sexual reticence, and he begins to resent the seeming artificiality of their body-to-body contact. For him, it is almost as if any particular position that he might try in the moment, any movement or reciprocated sound that Orra may make, is a kind of window-dressing in anticipation of another love-making session that will take place in the next thirty minutes. The dishonesty becomes almost palpable to him.

However, over time, and due to his experience, Wiley is able to win Orra over. As they make love one final time, Orra sinks deeper and deeper into orgasmic sensations, and Wiley is able to bring her to climax. When they finish, Orra feels vindicated: she expresses the sentiment that “I always knew they were doing it wrong, I always knew there was nothing wrong with me!” This statement is a double indication both that Orra was never a bad love-maker, but simply had partners who were unable to fully satisfy a woman’s needs, and that she as a person was not freakish, not hopelessly alien, but rather capable of being loved and accepted. Wiley and Orra cry in one another’s arms upon recognition of their bond.

Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 595

Unlike many of Brodkey’s short stories collected in Stories in an Almost Classical Mode, “Innocence” was not first published in The New Yorker. Instead, it appeared in New American Review, presumably because of The New Yorker’s reluctance to publish the common four-letter word that is used for copulation. “Innocence” is a story of young lust—as opposed to young love—in which the protagonist, a Harvard undergraduate, achieves what he feared was the unachievable: a sexual encounter with a very popular and beautiful Radcliffe undergraduate, Orra Perkins.

Orra is not inexperienced; she has been intimate with seven or eight men before she meets the narrator. She has never achieved an orgasm with them because, according to her, she is too sexual to have orgasms. She is not overly distressed by this omission and strenuously discourages the narrator from trying to give her the orgasm that he so much wants her to experience. His motive is twofold: He thinks that he will own Orra if he achieves his end, and he also thinks that his own sexual pleasure with her will be enhanced if she can respond more fully to his penetrations.

This story, generally considered to be among Brodkey’s best, is some thirty pages long, of which two-thirds is devoted to presenting a highly detailed account of how Orra is brought to the pinnacle of passion. Before the story ends, Orra not only has her orgasm but, thinking back on it, also has another, multiple orgasm. Despite all the explicit physical detail the story contains, the result is neither prurient nor clinical. Rather it is realistic, direct, and detailed—so detailed, in fact, that the reader begins to long for Orra to achieve the orgasm.

This longing is part of Brodkey’s technique. He does not seek to titillate his readers; rather, his aim is to walk them through the experience. As the two participants in the event strain through the seemingly endless encounter to achieve a climax, the reader is dragged along. Eventually, the reader is so worn down by the detailed narration of the event that he or she feels as physically spent as the perspiring participants when the moment of ecstasy finally arrives.

Brodkey’s interest in beautiful people such as Orra reminds one of the fiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Brodkey’s characters usually are well-to-do or quest after those who are. The original description of Orra is remarkably similar to that of Joel Bush in “First Love and Other Sorrows,” leading one to speculate on whether Joel in that story was a first, unfulfilled homosexual love.

The title, “Innocence,” may seem ironic, but it really is not. Despite having had some sexual experience, Orra is a neophyte in the bedroom. The narrator is little more experienced, although he knows his way around sufficiently to manipulate Orra’s body to achieve the ultimate aim of giving her an orgasm.

True to the concerns in many of his other stories, Brodkey’s theme involves dependency and achieving union through weakness—in this case, Orra’s past inability to reach sexual fulfillment. The narrator’s ability to bring her to the point of climax makes her dependent upon him in ways that she has never before been dependent upon anyone.

This story, virtually without plot, is an intricate depiction of both the physical and emotional details of a crucial event in the lives of two twenty-year-olds. The description engages all the senses, moving slowly through every second of the prolonged encounter and showing Brodkey as the recognized master of protraction.

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