Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 623
Innocence is superficially a story about lust and love. Its characters exhibit all of the symptoms one might associate with young, college-aged angst, and the author provides the reader with vivid and organically luscious depictions of the sexual encounters between the story’s protagonists, Orra and Wiley. However, below the surface, Innocence attempts to portray issues related to self-doubt, feelings of inadequacy, and a reticence to expose one’s true self to the outside world. Orra in particular is a complex and many-faceted character who struggles to open herself to anyone, and the author uses the increasingly intimate sexual encounters between her and Wiley in order to highlight her coming out of her shell.
Orra’s hidden personality is most directly attested to when she first joins Wiley for a night of passion and lovemaking. Early on in their encounter, Wiley comments that
She was a curious sort of girl; she had a great deal of isolation in her, isolation as a woman.
The reader ultimately comes to understand that Orra is isolated, in some respects, because she has never had an orgasm, and she holds a fairly dismissive attitude regarding men’s ability to satisfy her sexual needs. As Orra comes to fall in love with Wiley, this sense of self-isolation turns inward, as she begins to deny her own access to carnal happiness. At one point, Wiley refers to her as being “self-abnegating,” and he provides a descriptive explanation of her self-abnegation in chapter 3:
I watched her in bed; her body was doubting, grudging, tardy, intolerant—and intolerably hungry—I thought. In her pride and self-consciousness and ignorance she hated all that in herself. She preferred to think of herself as quick, to have pleasure as she willed rather than as she actually had it, to have it on her own volition, to her own prescription, and almost out of politeness, so it seemed to me, to give herself to me, to give me pleasure, to ignore herself, to be a nice girl because she was in love. She insisted on that but that was too sentimental, and she also insisted on, she persuaded herself, she passed herself off as dashing.
The implication in this passage is that Orra denies herself the right to experience authentic sexual euphoria, that all of her efforts are directed at suppressing this possibility for the sake of her lover, almost as a gesture of her own inner strength and pariah-like disposition. It becomes Wiley’s responsibility to break through her barriers in order to establish a true connection, because (it is implied) up to this point, Orra’s pleasure has merely been a facade.
Continuing the theme of self-abnegation, even Wiley demonstrates some elements of falsity. He is desperate to find any way to bring genuine pleasure to Orra through his sexuality without it being cheapened by her innate psychological drive to make him feel accepted and sexually gratified. Wiley behaves in ways that ultimately come to diminish his own sexuality, and this is all for the sake of satisfying his lover. In chapter 4, he says,
Perhaps that only indicates the extent of my selfishness. I didn’t mean being feminized except for the feeling that Orra would not ever understand what I was doing but would ascribe it to the power of my or our sexuality. I minded being this self-conscious and so conscious of her; I was separated from my own sexuality, from any real sexuality; a poor sexual experience, even one based on love, would diminish the ease of my virility with her at least for a while; and she wouldn’t understand.
These quotes highlight the artificiality of sexual encounter and self-expression, which form an underlying theme of the entire story.