The theme of innocence in Wigfall

How does Wigfall present the theme of innocence in ‘When the Wasps Drowned’?

This story deals with the theme of the end of innocence. Its protagonist Eveline is at the end of childhood, claustrophobic and confined in the hot summer gardens that represent the narrowness of childhood. She describes herself as ‘hungry’, and says the walls seemed ‘confining’. It is the moment where she can ‘finally’ see over the walls, but her ability to see further is not matched by moral understanding. Her moral innocence, or ignorance takes a sinister note – as she conceals the murdered girl’s ring. Whether she can’t see, or refuses to see that it’s wrong, is unclear to the end.

The story has a dark undercurrent from the start. This first appears in the wasps’ nest which they disturb that puts to an end their ‘barefoot wanderings’. Wanderings suggests the aimlessness of childhood, barefoot, its naked innocence. ‘Screams’ is juxtaposed disturbingly with ‘lazily’ and ‘smiling’: Tyler’s reaction of ‘laughing’ and thinking it a ‘joke’ echoes Eveline’s later, numb reaction to finding the dead girl’s ring. Neither of them fully comprehends the horror, though each is reacting to an event on a wholly different level. Just as Therese doesn’t understand what she’s found, Eveline doesn’t seem to understand that it’s wrong to hide the ring and conceal what she knows. In the moment where the police officers come, she suddenly merges again with the children, in the inclusive pronoun ‘we all shook our heads’. She does know. But she doesn’t want to. This is why she tells the children to ‘fill up the hole’. At the end of the story, she steps, together with the children back out into ‘the sunlight of the garden’. She’s on the threshold of innocence and experience and at this moment, she chooses not to cross over. She wants to be a child again, as where Therese’s bad dream is paralleled with her own. But for Eveline there is no comfort: she wanted ‘mum’s gentle shush’ but there was none.

In some senses, Eveline seems worldly wise. She takes the children out as a surrogate mother, which contrasts strangely with sitting by the swings so she can ‘watch the boys’, suggesting growing awareness. She is ‘pouting’ – as if a grown woman – at the end of the story, but the ‘red’ is coloured with ‘smarties’ an image of childhood. Childhood is not, however, always the innocent thing we expect. Therese is glad at the wasp ‘corpses’ and takes a stone to ‘pound them to dust’. The image is disturbingly violent. She wants revenge, a brute impulse, and will commit wasp-genocide to do it. This is nature red in tooth and claw. Eveline helps, watching ‘idly’ as if this destruction is casual.

Eveline’s comments on the weather are cynical where she says ‘when the weather changed we’d still be talking of the same thing’. The word change is repeated in this section, highlighting the theme of transition, from innocence to experience, immediately before the stark (but vague) revelation: ‘that was the summer they dug up Mr Mordecai’s garden’. The word ‘Mordecai’ seems made up of ‘mort’ (death) and decay, suggesting the death of innocence which is also symbolised bodily by the young, murdered girl. Her youth is brutally emphasised by the nightmarish image of the arm ‘growing up out of the soil’, like a young, vital plant. We know corpses can’t grow, but young girls should, which creates an eerie effect. Maybe Eveline is right to want to step back into the sunlit garden and not into the world of death and adult horrors.