Symbolism, Innocence and Child Prostitution in Lullabies for Little CriminalsLullabiesfor Little Criminals, writtenby Heather O’Neill, is about Baby, a young eleven year old girl, who evolves ina hostile environment, which is also described by some critiques as, theunderground Montreal or as a “space of fractured surfaces” (Beneventi 263).Set in this universe of poverty, the novel addresses many issues such asaddiction, abuses and mental health problems. The theme of prostitution is alsopresent in the novel.
This theme is significant as it is foreshadowed at thebeginning of the story by the description of the environment; additionally, itis linked to the ideas of loss and return to innocence, which are two processesin which Baby goes through, due to the characters of Alphonse and Xavier, and whichare symbolized in the novel by the insects, the mother figure, the socks, thechange of name, the (dis)respect during sexual intercourse and the dolls. Baby lives in many different places throughout thenovel due to her father’s decisions of moving, which does not allow the maincharacter to find roots and stability; this is significant as the lack ofstability forces her to go outside the house to meet people that would offerher a false feeling of security. Beneventi says, “the house represents thepsychological 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 andoff” (O’Neill ch 1 “Life”). She also says that the previous tenants leftbehind 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 tracesof the previous tenants are still there, it shows that the environment isunsafe. Her father Jules is, at the same time, consuming drugs in theseapartments with other men.
It is understood with the sentence, “Kent halfopened his eyes and smiled. … Once you smiled on heroin, your smile couldlast a whole hour” (O’Neill ch 2 “Life”). Therefore, the house is not asecure place for Baby. Beneventi says that she is “living in a spaceconstantly being violated by outside forces” (266). Since she cannot find ahome inside the house, she has to go outside.
The poverty in which Baby lives is emphasized by thesymbol of the cockroach, which acts as a foreshadowing for the rest of thestory. 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 bugstend to live in dirty areas (“Cockroaches” para 29). In the novel, Babysees the bugs quite beautifully though, which emphasizes her innocence. Shedescribes the walls of the apartment as having cockroaches that are “clockwork.
They are made with the most beautiful tiny bolts from a factory inMalaysia, 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. Shesees this with child eyes and she almost romanticizes it. However, the readerswould associate the cockroach with extreme poverty, which foreshadows theproblems that could be associated with living in an environment like this. The outside world is alsoan indication for what is coming, which is prostitution. Baby describesMontreal with graffiti at the beginning. Those paintings illustrate, “a girlwith 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 andBaby. Indeed, the narrator does not use the term woman, but girl, to describethe graffiti, which suggests a young age. At the beginning of the novel, Babyis only eleven years old. There is therefore an association made between thetwo figures.
Additionally, the girl on the graffiti holds a baby in her arm. Inthe context of prostitution, it could be easy for a girl child to becomepregnant, since one is not necessarily aware of the risk associated with sexualrelationships 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, sohe didn’t use one” (O’Neill ch 3 “Playing”). The baby she holds in herarms could therefore symbolize the risk associated with prostitution, whichcould foreshadow this theme in the story even if Baby never gets pregnantherself. Consequently, the street and the city in which she lives are importantas they help to introduce the themes of the story. Baby’s desire to find a community outside the houseleads her to her first encounter with Alphonse who charms her with gifts; thisis 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 isto feel feminine.
When Alphonse offers her a pair of white knee socks forexample, she says, “they were the first pretty things I’d ever owned. I putthem on and stood tiptoe on the toilet seat, trying to see myself in thebathroom mirror” (O’Neill ch 3 “The devil”). She feels womanly andattractive with these socks. The thing that she ignores, though, is that thosegifts are given to her in order to possess her and use her, which is a way for Alphonseto introduce her to the world of prostitution. At first, Alphonse represents for Baby a mother figureas she is in search of love. This is significant as it highlights the child’snaivety to choose a pimp as a mother figure. Additionally, this gesture allowshim 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 … shedesperately wants to be possessed by an overwhelming love” (308). She, herself,says that when Alphonse becomes more than a friend for her, “it strangely feelsa little bit like he is a mother figure. Every good pimp is a mother. WhenAlphonse 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 Alphonserepresents the love and comfort that Baby craves for since she never had amother and since her father is emotionally uncapable of offering her love, butthis love comes with a price. Alphonse introduces herto prostitution, which is a form of enslavement because it leads to herdehumanization.
One strong symbol associated with the idea of losing one’sidentity is when Baby’s name is changed. Indeed, when she has her firstexperience as a prostitute, she introduces herself as being Diana because sheexplains that she does not want her precious name to become associates withdirt. 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 becomessignificant 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 hername and offering her body to older men. It is a strong symbol as it shows thatshe loses a part of herself by doing such an act. The sexual intercourse as a prostitute and Alphonse’sbehaviour are significant as they are related to the destruction of her innocenceand to psychological scars.
The main character says, “When you’re young, sexdoesn’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 aspure and respectful, Baby sees those moments as “happening in slow motion. Eachmovement seemed more tedious and distasteful than the one before” (O’Neill ch 8″Playing”). Alphonse therefore introduces her to the world of prostitution, butit makes her lose the love of her body and the love of the act itself. Shebecomes objectified and used. Alphonse therefore becomes the figure of the”charming wolf who appears to be a good, kind creature, but end upconsuming the girl’s innocence” (Khan 308).
When she is not prostitutingherself, 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 andI would fit all the way in” (O’Neill ch 5 “Playing”). This descriptionfits well with the idea of the wolf. Alphonse eats her childhood, destroys hernaivety and the relation she has with her body. This, therefore, proves thatthe man is a bad influence for Baby because she starts associating sexualintercourse with pain. It is a psychological trauma in itself. Her return to innocence is symbolized by Xavier and bythe insects in the narrative. Xavier is a young boy who is quite naïve.
He isnot 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 forexample, she says, “We were addicted to kissing each other. … We would kisslike cockroaches headed for the cracks” (O’Neill ch 6 “Playing”).
The symbolof the cockroach comes back here, but it is associated with something positive.Instead of emphasizing the poverty in which she lives, the insect becomesassociated with pure love between two adolescents. The description is also verychildish, which shows that Xavier brings back her innocence. Additionally, when she is withhim, 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 realizedthat … 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 comeout of its shell. … It felt as if we were sitting there naked.
It felt veryintimate” (O’Neill ch 4 “Playing”). The snail allows her to find herinnocence back. She rediscovers what it means to feel intimate with someonewithout feeling violated. The insects are therefore significant as theysymbolize Baby’s return to innocence.
Xavier allows her togain back the possession of her body too, which is symbolized by the respect intheir sexual intercourse. Indeed, sex is described much less violently with himthan 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 Iwas cuddling with Xavier. Fooling around with Xavier was like climbing into ahot bath” (O’Neill ch 5 “Playing”).
This sentence summarizes herexperience as a prostitute. Sex is violent and painful, but with Xavier, shecan find peace. She is not a doll anymore. She can gain back her identity. The fact that she becomes a full human being againleads her to having a desire to kill Alphonse. The image of the cockroach comesback once again.
She says, “This one night, I pushed the bed aside and drew apentagram on the floor with a piece of cockroach chalk and wrote his initialsin the middle of it” (O’Neill ch 1 “Christmas”). The pentagram could beassociated with Satan in this case, which is a strong image. Since Baby asksSatan to kill Alphonse, she knows that her pimp is a bad figure. After all, whowould 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 toassist her” (311). On the other hand, this act could also be seen as gaining one’sagency because by drawing this image on the floor with a cockroach chalk, Babyrejects her pimp and she rejects what is oppressing her. The cockroachtherefore symbolizes the possibility of gaining agency, which is positive. Thelast 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 isdescribed as “a dollhouse” (O’Neill ch 1 “The devil”).
This description,which is very childish, highlights the child’s naivety, but since she does notlike the place where she is living and since it is not secure, she goes outsideto find her home, which leads to her loss of innocence. The image of the dollcomes back later when she talks of a clown that Jules broke and tried torepair. She says, “with his foot pointing the wrong way, he became moreprecious 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 associatedwith 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’smother 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 finallyunderstands that she was loved by her mother and it is what she needed to feellike home.
It could consequently be linked to the return of innocence or to thereturn to a more normal and stable life. Hence,the themes of prostitution and innocence are central in O’Neill’s novel and areemphasized by the use of different symbols. The first theme is foreshadowed atthe beginning due to the environment of poverty in which the main characterlives. Additionally, Baby’s first encounter with Alphonse leads her toexperience the life of a prostitute and makes her lose her child naivety. It isonly when she meets Xavier that she can know what real love is and what realintimacy is.
She can start appropriating her body again.