Innocence

by Aaron Roy Weintraub

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In his story about moving away from innocence through a sexual relationship, Harold Brodkey develops a narrative in which the reader seems to acquire knowledge along with the narrator, thus presenting a parallel loss of innocence on the reader’s part. When published in the 1970s, the story attracted attention in part because it was sexually explicit compared to most stories of the time, especially in regard to female desire. Wiley, a male college student, is straightforward in presenting his goal of having a sexual relationship with Orra, a female student at his university’s “sister school.” Until the mid-seventies, higher education was often segregated by gender. Only male students attended Ivy League schools, which had a counterpart in which women enrolled; in this case, the schools are Harvard and Radcliffe.

Wiley sets out on a quest to have sex with a woman whom he believes to be more experienced than he is. Wiley’s initial attraction to Orra has little to do with her as a complete person; he seeks a conquest. His interest is primarily motivated by what he understands to be her sexual identity—her reputation, which he has learned from rumors. As her pursues her, however, Wiley learns more about himself, emotionally as well as sexually, but he is not alone in losing his innocence. Orra also sheds some naïve preconceptions about her identity. Initially she is dismissive of Wiley’s stated desire to give her an orgasm, which she sees as a male need that is extraneous to her experience. She attributes his attitude to male ego, based in his arrogant supposition that he will know how to fulfill her. Gradually, however, both shed their protective layers and develop a relationship that goes beyond sex. As they grow toward full adulthood, in part by placing sexual activity in perspective, their maturing represents not merely loss of innocence but rejection of the needs it represented.

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