Symbolism, Innocence and Child Prostitution in Lullabies for Little Criminals
for Little Criminals, written
by Heather O’Neill, is about Baby, a young eleven year old girl, who evolves in
a hostile environment, which is also described by some critiques as, the
underground Montreal or as a “space of fractured surfaces” (Beneventi 263).
Set in this universe of poverty, the novel addresses many issues such as
addiction, abuses and mental health problems. The theme of prostitution is also
present in the novel. This theme is significant as it is foreshadowed at the
beginning of the story by the description of the environment; additionally, it
is linked to the ideas of loss and return to innocence, which are two processes
in which Baby goes through, due to the characters of Alphonse and Xavier, and which
are symbolized in the novel by the insects, the mother figure, the socks, the
change of name, the (dis)respect during sexual intercourse and the dolls.
Baby lives in many different places throughout the
novel due to her father’s decisions of moving, which does not allow the main
character to find roots and stability; this is significant as the lack of
stability forces her to go outside the house to meet people that would offer
her a false feeling of security. Beneventi says, “the house represents the
psychological rootedness of the individual, a ‘vital space’ where the
‘unconscious is housed'” (267), which is something Baby does not have. Instead,
she is surrounded by poverty, unsafety and “outside forces” (Beneventi 267).
The poverty is highlighted when the author describes the apartment as having a
“light switch that was practically black from so many hands turning it on and
off” (O’Neill ch 1 “Life”). She also says that the previous tenants left
behind a “set of fake nails … lying in a glass soap dish shaped like a shell
(O’Neill ch 1 “Life”). Baby therefore lives in dirt and since the traces
of the previous tenants are still there, it shows that the environment is
unsafe. Her father Jules is, at the same time, consuming drugs in these
apartments with other men. It is understood with the sentence, “Kent half
opened his eyes and smiled. … Once you smiled on heroin, your smile could
last a whole hour” (O’Neill ch 2 “Life”). Therefore, the house is not a
secure place for Baby. Beneventi says that she is “living in a space
constantly being violated by outside forces” (266). Since she cannot find a
home inside the house, she has to go outside.
The poverty in which Baby lives is emphasized by the
symbol of the cockroach, which acts as a foreshadowing for the rest of the
story. This element is important as it also symbolizes her naivety. Indeed,
using cockroaches as a way to describe a place is rather negative as those bugs
tend to live in dirty areas (“Cockroaches” para 29). In the novel, Baby
sees the bugs quite beautifully though, which emphasizes her innocence. She
describes the walls of the apartment as having cockroaches that are “clockwork.
They are made with the most beautiful tiny bolts from a factory in
Malaysia, with little buttons underneath to switch them on and off” (O’Neill ch 2
“Life”). Therefore, Baby has a positive image of the place in which she lives. She
sees this with child eyes and she almost romanticizes it. However, the readers
would associate the cockroach with extreme poverty, which foreshadows the
problems that could be associated with living in an environment like this.
The outside world is also
an indication for what is coming, which is prostitution. Baby describes
Montreal with graffiti at the beginning. Those paintings illustrate, “a girl
with an oxygen mask holding a tiny baby in her arms” (O’Neill ch 1 “Life”).
This image could be seen by the readers as a representation of prostitution and
Baby. Indeed, the narrator does not use the term woman, but girl, to describe
the graffiti, which suggests a young age. At the beginning of the novel, Baby
is only eleven years old. There is therefore an association made between the
two figures. Additionally, the girl on the graffiti holds a baby in her arm. In
the context of prostitution, it could be easy for a girl child to become
pregnant, since one is not necessarily aware of the risk associated with sexual
relationships at the beginning of adolescence. It is understood when Baby says,
“I didn’t really know how you were supposed to ask guys to put a condom on, so
he didn’t use one” (O’Neill ch 3 “Playing”). The baby she holds in her
arms could therefore symbolize the risk associated with prostitution, which
could foreshadow this theme in the story even if Baby never gets pregnant
herself. Consequently, the street and the city in which she lives are important
as they help to introduce the themes of the story.
Baby’s desire to find a community outside the house
leads her to her first encounter with Alphonse who charms her with gifts; this
is significant as the man uses Baby’s innocence to slowly take control over her.
With him, she realizes some important first experiences and enter the world of adolescence.
She, among other things, loses her virginity with him and discovers what it is
to feel feminine. When Alphonse offers her a pair of white knee socks for
example, she says, “they were the first pretty things I’d ever owned. I put
them on and stood tiptoe on the toilet seat, trying to see myself in the
bathroom mirror” (O’Neill ch 3 “The devil”). She feels womanly and
attractive with these socks. The thing that she ignores, though, is that those
gifts are given to her in order to possess her and use her, which is a way for Alphonse
to introduce her to the world of prostitution.
At first, Alphonse represents for Baby a mother figure
as she is in search of love. This is significant as it highlights the child’s
naivety to choose a pimp as a mother figure. Additionally, this gesture allows
him to take control over Baby easily as she is vulnerable. Indeed, Khan writes,
“When Alphonse whispers to Baby, ‘You belong to me’ …, she is pleased … she
desperately wants to be possessed by an overwhelming love” (308). She, herself,
says that when Alphonse becomes more than a friend for her, “it strangely feels
a little bit like he is a mother figure. Every good pimp is a mother. When
Alphonse speaks to me, his voice always has the same tempo as a lullaby”
(O’Neill ch 1 “The milky way”). It is therefore clear that Alphonse
represents the love and comfort that Baby craves for since she never had a
mother and since her father is emotionally uncapable of offering her love, but
this love comes with a price.
Alphonse introduces her
to prostitution, which is a form of enslavement because it leads to her
dehumanization. One strong symbol associated with the idea of losing one’s
identity is when Baby’s name is changed. Indeed, when she has her first
experience as a prostitute, she introduces herself as being Diana because she
explains that she does not want her precious name to become associates with
dirt. Considering the fact that prostitution can be seen as a form of slavery,
as the girl is enslaved and under the control of a pimp, the concept of naming becomes
significant as it means losing one’s identity and erasing where one comes from
(Lyles-Scott 25). In Baby’s case, she erases her childhood by changing her
name and offering her body to older men. It is a strong symbol as it shows that
she loses a part of herself by doing such an act.
The sexual intercourse as a prostitute and Alphonse’s
behaviour are significant as they are related to the destruction of her innocence
and to psychological scars. The main character says, “When you’re young, sex
doesn’t mean as much, it isn’t sacred. Children make the best prostitutes”
(O’Neill ch 6 “Playing”). While the act in itself should be considered as
pure and respectful, Baby sees those moments as “happening in slow motion. Each
movement seemed more tedious and distasteful than the one before” (O’Neill ch 8
“Playing”). Alphonse therefore introduces her to the world of prostitution, but
it makes her lose the love of her body and the love of the act itself. She
becomes objectified and used. Alphonse therefore becomes the figure of the
“charming wolf who appears to be a good, kind creature, but end up
consuming the girl’s innocence” (Khan 308). When she is not prostituting
herself, she describes her intimacy with Alphonse as problematic too. She says,
“There was something monstrous about his mouth, as if he could open it wide and
I would fit all the way in” (O’Neill ch 5 “Playing”). This description
fits well with the idea of the wolf. Alphonse eats her childhood, destroys her
naivety and the relation she has with her body. This, therefore, proves that
the man is a bad influence for Baby because she starts associating sexual
intercourse with pain. It is a psychological trauma in itself.
Her return to innocence is symbolized by Xavier and by
the insects in the narrative. Xavier is a young boy who is quite naïve. He is
not fully mature yet as he still acts like a child. He is important though,
because he helps Baby to return to her childhood. When she kisses the boy for
example, she says, “We were addicted to kissing each other. … We would kiss
like cockroaches headed for the cracks” (O’Neill ch 6 “Playing”). The symbol
of the cockroach comes back here, but it is associated with something positive.
Instead of emphasizing the poverty in which she lives, the insect becomes
associated with pure love between two adolescents. The description is also very
childish, which shows that Xavier brings back her innocence.
Additionally, when she is with
him, she can learn what it is to feel intimate. It is symbolized by the snail.
The bug is described when she is playing with the boy. She writes, “I realized
that … I had totally forgotten how much I liked snails (O’Neill ch 4
“Playing). She continues by saying, “We sat there waiting for the snail to come
out of its shell. … It felt as if we were sitting there naked. It felt very
intimate” (O’Neill ch 4 “Playing”). The snail allows her to find her
innocence back. She rediscovers what it means to feel intimate with someone
without feeling violated. The insects are therefore significant as they
symbolize Baby’s return to innocence.
Xavier allows her to
gain back the possession of her body too, which is symbolized by the respect in
their sexual intercourse. Indeed, sex is described much less violently with him
than with Alphonse or the other men. She says, “I always found sex painful physically.
I kept hoping it would stop hurting, but it didn’t. It wasn’t that way when I
was cuddling with Xavier. Fooling around with Xavier was like climbing into a
hot bath” (O’Neill ch 5 “Playing”). This sentence summarizes her
experience as a prostitute. Sex is violent and painful, but with Xavier, she
can find peace. She is not a doll anymore. She can gain back her identity.
The fact that she becomes a full human being again
leads her to having a desire to kill Alphonse. The image of the cockroach comes
back once again. She says, “This one night, I pushed the bed aside and drew a
pentagram on the floor with a piece of cockroach chalk and wrote his initials
in the middle of it” (O’Neill ch 1 “Christmas”). The pentagram could be
associated with Satan in this case, which is a strong image. Since Baby asks
Satan to kill Alphonse, she knows that her pimp is a bad figure. After all, who
would force a child to become a prostitute? Khan writes that the drawing shows,
“Baby’s lack of agency and her reliance on (supernatural) male intervention to
assist her” (311). On the other hand, this act could also be seen as gaining one’s
agency because by drawing this image on the floor with a cockroach chalk, Baby
rejects her pimp and she rejects what is oppressing her. The cockroach
therefore symbolizes the possibility of gaining agency, which is positive.
last significant symbol of the story is the doll, which summarizes, in itself,
Baby’s loss and return to innocence. Indeed, the apartment in which Baby lives is
described as “a dollhouse” (O’Neill ch 1 “The devil”). This description,
which is very childish, highlights the child’s naivety, but since she does not
like the place where she is living and since it is not secure, she goes outside
to find her home, which leads to her loss of innocence. The image of the doll
comes back later when she talks of a clown that Jules broke and tried to
repair. She says, “with his foot pointing the wrong way, he became more
precious to me. All of a sudden that doll had personality” (O’Neill ch 1
“the last time”). In a way, this image of the broken doll could be associated
with Baby as prostitution destroys her innocence and a part of her identity.
The image of the doll is finally used at the end when Jules talks of Baby’s
mother and says, “Yes, my God! She loved you. She treated you like a doll”
(O’Neill ch 1 “Christmas”). These sentences are important as Baby finally
understands that she was loved by her mother and it is what she needed to feel
like home. It could consequently be linked to the return of innocence or to the
return to a more normal and stable life.
the themes of prostitution and innocence are central in O’Neill’s novel and are
emphasized by the use of different symbols. The first theme is foreshadowed at
the beginning due to the environment of poverty in which the main character
lives. Additionally, Baby’s first encounter with Alphonse leads her to
experience the life of a prostitute and makes her lose her child naivety. It is
only when she meets Xavier that she can know what real love is and what real
intimacy is. She can start appropriating her body again.