Naive hero: A protagonist, generally the narrator of a work, who cannot fully comprehend the world around him or her and who thus consistently but unwittingly misinterprets events or situations. The naive hero’s naiveté often results from innocence or immaturity but may also stem from a mental defect or disability or a character trait such as insensitivity. A naive hero who also narrates the work is a type of unreliable narrator, a narrator whose opinions the reader recognizes as fallible and, therefore, untrustworthy.
Authors may use naive heroes for comic or ironic effect or to achieve pathos, often by having an innocent child relate horrifying events that he or she does not fully understand. Use of a naive hero is a common form of structural irony, creating a sustained discrepancy throughout the work between the hero’s or heroine’s perceptions and those of the reader or audience.
EXAMPLES: Lemuel Gulliver, the narrator of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1735), who is so impressed by the talking horses he meets in Houyhnhnmland that he can see none of their faults and, as a result, none of the virtues of humankind; the young chimney sweep in William Blake’s short poem “The Chimney Sweeper” (1789), who evokes pathos. Contemporary examples of naive heroes include Forrest Gump, the decidedly obtuse narrator of Winston Groom’s novel Forrest Gump (1986; adapted to film 1994); the self-absorbed English detective Christopher Banks in Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans (2000), obsessed with solving the mystery of his parents’ disappearance during his childhood in Shanghai; the autistic boy in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (2003); and the narrator of Christina Baker Kline’s historical novel Orphan Train (2013), whose story is based on the experiences of the thousands of orphans and abandoned children sent by train from the East Coast to the Midwest between 1854 and 1929 for adoption by families, many of which were seeking free labor.