"He [Jenny's father] was a very loving man. He was always kissin' and touchin' her and her sisters. (...) God is mysterious. He didn't turn Jenny into a bird that day [as she had requested]. Instead, he had the police say that Jenny didn't have to stay in that house no more. She went to live with her grandma.(...) Some nights, Jenny's sneaked out and come on over to my house, just 'cause she said she was scared. Scared of what? I don't know, but I think it was her grandma's dog. He was a mean dog."
— Forrest Gump, describing what he understood from Jenny's molester father.
A form of Dramatic Irony. A horrific event is understated because the narrator is very young, very naive or is intellectually disabled in some way, and doesn't really understand what took place. Alternatively, it may be obvious to the audience that something very bad has happened/is about to happen, but the narrator/character lacks the mental capacity to realize this and interprets it in a more "innocent" light.
See also Please Wake Up. A Tearful Smile may attempt to prevent a child's realizing another character's grief. Related to Unreliable Narrator.
Compare with Entendre Failure, which also involves naivete getting in the way of comprehension.
Contrast Troubling Unchildlike Behavior, the near-opposite of this trope, where a child does not display the innocence typical of his/her age.
YuYu Hakusho has the boy Yusuke died saving doing this at his funeral in the first episode.
Kafuka Fura, though whether she's naive or delusional is up for debate.
Revolutionary Girl Utena: Utena witnessed Anthy's pain at the Ends of the World when she was a child. She couldn't possibly have understood what she was seeing, and ended up forgetting all of it. She just wanted to grow up and be a cool prince just like the guy who showed her that whatever-it-was. (During this same sequence (but shown much earlier on in the series, before the realWham Episode) Touga and Saijonji found Utena and tried to save her. It made Saionji, who pretty much misunderstood the whole thing, realize that he wanted "something eternal"... which in turn led to his very misguided attempts at securing Anthy as his "eternal thing". Touga didn't get off much better, trying to emulate a suave prince despite a fundamental misunderstanding that his personality couldn't correct. It's complicated.)
This trope becomes an important plot point in Papa no Iukoto o Kikinasai!. After 3 year old Hina's parents go missing after a plane crash (and most likely died), her uncle and 2 older sisters try to avoid the subject of why her parents have been gone so long. She doesn't think about it too much until episode 12, when she starts asking why they haven't come back home yet, and upon being told the truth, she doesn't take it very well until the very end, when everyone she's met comes to watch her classmate sing, showing she still has people who care deeply about her.
One case in Detective Conan has a man kidnap the five-year-old son of a doctor, who he believed botched a surgery on his own child. Leading up to the kidnapping (and attempted murder), the man had been sending his dead child's favorite toys to the doctor, as a way to taunt him. When the son hears the man's Motive Rant, all he takes away is that this is the guy who sent him the cool toys, and thanks him for it.
Humpty Dumpty from the Batman mini-series Arkham Asylum: Living Hell who dissected his abusive grandmother and sewed her back together with bootlace in an ill-thought attempt to "fix" her.
In Watchmen, we see a drawing a young Rorschach made of his mother having sex with a client. It looks like a twisted monster, and very closely resembles both the shadow patterns throughout the book and Rorschach's own mask blots.
In "A Child's Innocence" from Black Crayons, young Annabelle Lennox witnesses events from Transformers: Dark of the Moon. When she ends up in Chicago when the Decepticons have taken over, Annabelle thinks the skeletons are Halloween decorations.
One of the characters in the film Scum is in borstal until he's old enough to go to an adult prison. During a therapy session he's told he can't leave because he killed some people, but he's too young to understand and keeps asking to go home.
Tideland is entirely about this trope. The conditions of approximately 8-year-old Jeliza Rose's upbringing are so warped (i.e. cooking up shots of heroin for her father so he can "go on vacation") that she has no understanding of concepts like death or abuse and blithely includes them in her games of pretend.
At the end, Dickens finally succeeds in defeating the "monster shark" by causing a tremendous train crash. Jeliza-Rose sees the carnage and... cheers for him, not realizing that he's just caused the deaths of countless innocent people.
A flashback in 28 Days shows the main character and her sister as children discovering that her mother has passed away. As they're being taken away by their aunt, one of the girls tells her, "Just slap her real hard, she'll wake up."
Alexandria, the five-year-old protagonist of The Fall pretty clearly had to immigrate to the United States because of a pogrom of some sort against her family—but when Roy (the adult protagonist) tries to find out more, all she says is that "angry people" were responsible.
The film has a lot of this. When Roy, is telling the Fractured Fairy Tale to Alexandria, she imagines things that are clearly not the way he intended them, for example he includes a Native American character that he simply calls the Indian. Alexandria imagines the character as someone who actually is from India. There's also a heavy subversion later: at one point Roy starts falling asleep in the middle of storytelling and Alexandria can't wake him back up. The audience thinks that it's because Roy has taken an overdose of morphine and is dead while Alexandria innocently thinks that he's just asleep, however the next day we discover that the "morphine" was just a placebo.
Used in My Name is Khan, in which the main character has Asperger's. He is mistaken for a terrorist and ends up in the equivalent of Guantanamo bay, where the guards change the temperature in his cell from extreme cold to extreme heat as a form of torture. His internal monologue: "This is a strange place. Sometimes it's too cold, sometimes it's too hot. Maybe they're having problems with the air conditioning."
The opening of Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children is narrated by the young Marlene, who simplifies things quite a bit. For example, when describing Sephiroth, the Big Bad who tried to summon Meteor to strike the planet so he could become a god, she says "he hated the planet so much, he wanted to make it go away."
In Santa Claus The Movie, this is why Patch — a Christmas elf who's never been beyond the North Pole — throws in his lot with toy manufacturer B.Z. He arrives in New York City and sees a display of B.Z.'s toys in a store window and assumes that the store employees clearing out the lot are doing so because they're popular. It's actually because they're all being recalled, as B.Z. is a Corrupt Corporate Executive and those toys are highly dangerous. When B.Z. realizes that Patch doesn't know about his corrupt ways and legal problems, he makes sure that Patch can't find out the truth.
In Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, narrator Mrs de Winter thinks that her husband, Max, is cold with her because he is still in love with his late wife, Rebecca. She feels that she can not measure up to Rebecca in Max's eyes. The truth turns out to be quite different.
Horrible example in World War Z, as befitting a Zombie Apocalypse. One interviewee was a little girl when her family was killed after the dead siege the church they and many others had looked for shelter. The ammo was running out and the dead had broken in and were chewing through the crush of people. The last she saw of her mother was as she was trying to strangle her for a Mercy Kill. She related this all in the voice of a little girl (with sound effects!) despite being a 20 something woman, because she had lived ferally for years and/or was brain-damaged by head trauma caused in that fight.
Sharon: Mrs. Randolph... was Ashley's mommy. Ashley was my friend. I asked her where was Ashley. She started to cry... Mrs. Randolph was dirty, she had red and brown on her dress.
Just as bad (if not worse) was the description from another woman who had been brought up North with her parents to hide from the zombies. They eventually formed a camp with a bunch of other people, who lived it up for about a year until they realized they were running out of food and firewood. It wasn't long before people started burning tires for warmth, and people started starving to death. Her parents desperately wanted to live, so eventually they started harvestingthe only source of meat around...
There is a Happy Land by Keith Waterhouse, in which the 10-year-old narrator finds the murdered body of a neighbour girl of the same age. She clearly had a very brutal and violent death, but he only notes her skirt being pulled up and the blood coming from her mouth. His friend "Uncle Mad," a mentally simple homeless man, is then blamed for the murder and the child doesn't seem to understand the implications of this either.
In The Cat Mummy by Jacqueline Wilson, the child heroine tries to mummify her dead pet (as she was learning about Ancient Egypt in school.) She can't understand why her family is horrified that she wanted to wrap the body in bandages and keep it in her room.
An example that spans a whole book is Take a Good Look, in which a blind girl disobeys her grandmother's instructions that she is not allowed out unattended and goes shopping alone - which leads to her getting caught up in an armed robbery. Because she is very young and can't see what is going on around her, she seems to have no idea what a dangerous situation she is in, even at the end when this is repeatedly explained to her by adults.
The main narrator ("Chaucer the Pilgrim") of The Canterbury Tales is like this with his gushing descriptions of the immoral pilgrims.
In particular, one of his neighbors says something at one point that makes the reader realize that Christopher's mother, who he had thought was dead, actually just abandoned him, something Christopher himself doesn't learn for another few chapters. When he does find out, he relates this in the same detached, emotionless style as the rest of the book.
At one point he nearly gets hit by the Underground train after going down to the tracks to pick up his pet rat. After narrowly escaping, he gets confused by everyone's frightened reactions, and never becomes aware of the danger he was in. He is actually more upset by the fact that strangers are trying to talk to him and doesn't seem to pay much attention to what they're actually saying (one woman is actually asking if he's okay,) and he informs them (not threatening, just informing) that he has a small saw blade on his Swiss army knife with which he could cut off their fingers. What he leaves out is that he's uncomfortable (at best) around strangers, so the other people take this as a threat and leave him alone, not because "he's fine on his own," but because "this kid is messed up."
When his father starts getting physical with his much older neighbour i.e. laying his head inside/on top of her breasts, this flies completely over Christopher's head. Most readers will get the implication, but to him it's just what happened. He didn't see the romantic/sexual connotations of that particular choice.
In The Lovely Bones the heroine, Susie, is raped and murdered at the age of 14. She spends most of the book watching her family from the afterlife. Because she was so young when she died, she does not see the obvious clues that her parents' marriage is breaking down and her mother is having an affair, and is in fact totally shocked when the mother then walks out on the family.
Young Stephen from Spies by Michael Frayn does this at times.
The start and end of Flowers for Algernon. The middle may count as well, as it's unclear how much his intelligence affected his naiveté.
At the beginning of The Secret Garden, the 10-year-old Mary Lennox lives through a cholera outbreak in India. She wakes to find herself alone but despite the unsettling signs all around does not realize the whole household has died.
The novel The Dead Father's Club rewrites Hamlet as the story of a modern teenage boy who sees the ghost of his recently deceased father. The narrator seems to think it is all some kind of game, and reacts perfectly calmly when ordered by the ghost to kill his uncle.
In Being There, the mentally challenged Chance the Gardener goes through a lot of this. He understands that the Old Man (master of the house) has died, but doesn't realize that this means that the house is being closed and that he no longer has anyone to take care of him. He also does not realize, once he's met Eve Rand, that she and the other powerful people he encounters from that point on do not know what he actually is; they think he's a Purity Sue of sorts, which has results ( among them, being put forward as a presidential candidate) that can be downright alarming to readers...well, not to every reader. In the movie version, this is taken further with the long sequence in which Chance walks out into the world outside the house for the first time - and into the poorer neighborhoods of Washington, D.C.
In The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, an eight year old named Bruno has a father who is very high up and important. His father works for the Fury (Fuhrer), and is forced to leave his old home in Berlin with the rest of the family. They move to a place named Out-With (Auschwitz) wherein he isn't really happy. He never understands why his mother starts taking so many medicinal sherries and long naps, and why the young but cruel Lt. Kotler seems to be around so much. (She's having an affair with him.) He retains his naiveté even after meeting and speaking regularly with someone from the other side of the fence, "Shmuel".
The eight-year-old protagonist of The Orchard on Fire is the daughter of parents running a failing tea-shop. She is forced to sit and have tea with the only regular patron in order to keep him coming back, not realising that he is a paedophile who visits for the sole purpose of "grooming" her for sex.
The protagonist of Milkweed is a young boy during the occupation of Poland by Nazis. At first, because he is orphaned and poor and uneducated, he has no idea who or what he is, even saluting and admiring the Nazis as they arrive. At first, the invasion doesn't do much to change his life one way or the other, except make it harder to steal.
Etgar Keret's short story "Siren" begins on Holocaust Memorial Day, with the teenage protagonist sitting through a lecture at school by an Auschwitz survivor. Afterwards, the boy has no idea why the janitor is crying like a baby, and at the explanation "I was also in the Sonderkommando," he simply wonders what sort of commando unit would take such a skinny fellow. (This is a plot point—a fellow student has just taken the entrance examination to become a naval commando, and to celebrate passing the test he steals the janitor's bike for a joyride. The protagonist reports his action out of outrage that one commando would steal from another.)
A not so horrific example is used in the Warrior Cats novel Crookedstar's Promise. As a kit, Crookedstar sees two warriors in the midst of a forbidden relationship right before they have sex, but assumes that they are on a secret mission.
Half the fun of Henry James' What Maisie Knew is watching Maisie grow from Innocent Inaccurate to Wise Beyond Her Years.
Played for Laughs in Jeeves and Wooster now and then. In one story, shortly after Jeeves expresses hatred for Bertie's new vase, he comes in late when Bertie rings for him and claims that he's been busy "dusting" it. It's heavily implied that he's actually been destroying it, but Bertie himself doesn't pick up on this.
My heart warmed to the fellow. If there's one person I like, it's the chap who is not too proud to admit it when he's in the wrong. No actual statement to that effect had passed his lips, of course, but we Woosters can read between the lines. I could see that he was learning to love the vase
Adrian Mole does this in his teenage diaries. Examples include not realising his mother's affair with the neighbor, that his father is obviously the father of Doreen Slater's baby, not getting the endless and blatant hints that his mother is pregnant (her receiving a call from the Pregnancy Advisory Service, whose acronym he didn't recognize; him finding a pregnancy test called "Predictor" which he mistook for something related to "the occult" and thinking that his mother's questions about whether he'd rather have a brother or sister meant they were planning on adopting) and his references to Auntie Susan and her "friend" Gloria.
Lampshaded in The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole, where an older Adrian notes that he noticed nothing of his parents' extramarital affairs when they were going on and his diary of that period only records "childish fourteen-year-old thoughts and preoccupations. I wonder, did Jack the Ripper's wife innocently write:
10.30 p.m. Jack late home. Perhaps he is kept late at the office.
12.10 a.m. Jack home covered in blood; an offal cart knocked him down.
Little Bunny Whistler attempts this in A Brother's Price, but when she voices her belief that Daddy has "gone away"; Jerin gently tells her that no, sweetie, Daddy died.
Professor Mmaa's Lecture: Serious termite scientist thoroughly research a house of a homo specimen. In their report, they off-handedly mention finding a fresh, horizontal homo in the ground and a small piece of metal embedded within its heart.
Room is narrated by a very young boy who happily lives with his mother and their "roommates", IE Lamp, Blanket, and Book in the shed where his teenage mother's kidnapper/rapist imprisoned them. They get rescued but that just makes him confused and scared.
Parsons in 1984 is very good at never finding fault with the Party. To be fair, this seems to be the only way to survive in Oceania. Not that it saves him...
'There I was, working away, trying to do my bit - never knew I had any bad stuff in my mind at all. And then I started talking in my sleep. Do you know what they heard me saying? ... "Down with Big Brother!" Yes, I said that! ...'
'Who denounced you?' said Winston.
'It was my little daughter,' said Parsons with a sort of doleful pride. 'She listened at the keyhole. Heard what I was saying, and nipped off to the patrols the very next day. Pretty smart for a nipper of seven, eh?'
Five-year-old Danny in The Shining is telepathic, and accidentally hears an elderly female hotel guest thinking about how she'd like to 'get into [the] pants' of a young, attractive male bellhop. This leads Danny to wonder if she's cold, and if so, why doesn't she put some pants of her own on?
In The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin, Lucky (a juvenile dragon) reports that one character was "petting" another. His similarly-juvenile master (human), misses the implications of this until they are pointed out by another character.
In Come Back, Lucy by Pamela Sykes, Lucy is a lonely 10-year-old orphan girl adopted by distant relations. She befriends Alice, the ghost of a Victorian girl who lived in the house a hundred years previously; but then finds that she can travel back in time to visit Alice. Because she is so young, she misses the obvious signs that Alice is becoming obsessed with her (eventually leading Alice to attempt to drown Lucy so they can stay together) and does not understand why her family is so concerned that she frequently disappears without telling them, especially at night.
Live Action TV
Jam had several sketches like this. A notable one used Black Comedy with a mentally disturbed woman asking a plumber to "repair" her dead child, who, she believes, was made of pipes like a household appliance.
A psychic girl was used by CIA to track one terrorist in 7Days understated about the enemy because she's still a kid.
On Community, Troy fails to understand what Pierce's "secret gym" is actually for.
Jon Stewart, returning after 9/11, recalled that he was in school when Martin Luther King was shot, and "they shut the lights off, and we got to sit under our desks, and we thought that was really cool."
Inverted and Played for Laughs at the end of an early episode of Boy Meets World. Morgan ends up stranded on the kitchen counter while the rest of her family has an impromptu water fight in the backyard. She eventually dials 911, tells the operator that she's stuck and can't get down while her parents are fighting outside, then holds the phone toward the open door so the operator can hear all the hooting and hollering. When Feeny gets squirted after complaining that the water fight is drowning his flowers, Morgan adds, "They just shot the neighbor!"
In 30 Rock, Kenneth is so innocent that he still believes the stuff he was told as a kid. In one episode, he mentions his "mother's friend Ron" on several occasions. It's totally obvious his mother and Ron had a sexual relationship, but Kenneth remains oblivious.
In Chrono Trigger, Marle's father relates the story of her mother's funeral, which she was too young to remember. She didn't understand what was going on, and thought that it was wonderful fun having all these people in the castle.
In Justice for All'', Regina Berry's circus upbringing has left her with a rather distorted, idyllic view of the world — she does not seem to grasp the true finality of her own father's death, and believes he's "become a star in the sky." Moe takes her to Max's trial specifically to give her a dose of reality.
In an earlier case, it's apparent in the testimony of the seven-year-old Cody Hackins that he doesn't realize what he actually witnessed was murder (well, a killing at any rate). He just thought it was a superhero and villain fighting.
Phoenix tries to invoke this in Case 1-4, when he asks Miles Edgeworth if he was aware, at age nine, that the gun he threw would potentially have gone off. Subverted, since Edgeworth at least knew enough about the gun to know it was dangerous.
In Dual Destinies, the robot Ponco is also a victim of this. Having limited understanding of humans, and a very specific recognition system (that allows her to determine who people are by their ID tags), Ponco sees a scene of Athena hugging her mother. In reality, Athena is stabbing someone wearing her mother's jacket.
In Deadly Premonition, the innocent Ingram twins discover the corpse of murder victim Anna crucified to a tree and believe her to be "a goddess of the forest".
In Hatoful Boyfriend, Oko San is a throwback to nonsapient pigeons and doesn't seem to understand death. This comes up in the Bad Boys Love route, when the heroine and Yuuya are gone, and he asks when the survivors are going to go find them.
In BioShock, we have the Little Sisters, who have not only been engineered to produce ADAM but also been tampered with in the perception department. In one segment in the second game where we see though the eyes of a Little Sister, the decayed and broken corridors of Rapture appear to be shiny golden hallways of some fabulous palace.
Ib: Averted for the nine-year-old protagonist for the most part, however, some story paths show that she's still too young to fully comprehend death. Two of the endings involve Garry making a Heroic Sacrifice for her, and examining his body after the fact give the message "Garry is sleeping...". In addition, there's a more downplayed example where words that a nine year old wouldn't understand are written as "???" unless Garry is with her. This leads to a humorous moment where Ib reads a book that says "??? by the ???, I ??? my finger over her beautiful ??? ... With her ??? she...", only for Garry to take it away and say that she should wait until she's older.
The Sand Man includes a Flashback where a much younger Sophie explains to a friend why her mother's no longer around, referencing a "Ban Crobber".
This was the main shtick about Fnar in the webcomic Jack. His absolute innocence was the only thing that let him wander around Hell unharmed, but because he wandered too much around Hell so unharmed, he tended to have a warped understatement about the dangerousness of the place and its inhabits, to put it mildly.
The title character of Sabrina Online has tried to hide the fact that she works at a porn studio from her kid sister Tabitha, but at one point had to introduce Tabitha to her boss Zig Zag. As soon as Tabitha got internet access, she Googled Zig Zag, much to the horror of the family. Her response to seeing the pictures she found was "She sure likes to hug people with her clothes off."
Phillipe: Lie Bot, what is the saddest thing? Lie Bot: The saddest thing is a retarded man who is crying and promising a broken egg that it will still be a chicken someday. (beat) Lie Bot: And that they'll play together in a field when it gets better. Phillipe:Noooo!
In Sinfest, the Enlightened Illuminati drones don't realize that Home Sweet Home is not heaven but Satan's lair, or understand why Satan wants to get rid of them.
In Freefall, Florence has her moments of this. For instance, she thinks people behave better around her after she explains that she is a wolf, not a dog, because many more people have been injured by dogs than by wolves. Later on, she has a momentary miscommunication when a human scientist underestimates how bad something is when she calls it "mosquito dangerous", before she points out that mosquitoes still kill thousands of people a year when large predators like sharks, etc barely kill a hundred. It seems to be caused by her being a naturally predatory animal uplifted to human-level sapience ; she doesn't quite get some human emotions because she doesn't have the distant prey animal instincts that humans do, so all she can do is base her understanding off of logic and her own predatory instincts. Her "egghead" type personality doesn't help, though.
In one episode of Arthur, DW discovers her pet bird, Spanky, has passed away. When her father tells her he believes Spanky to be dead, DW responds with, "Well, when is he going to stop being dead?"
The infamous murder of Rachel Nickell, committed in front of her two-year-old son. The police were confused by the piece of paper stuck to her forehead, until they realized the little boy had put it there because it was the closest he could find to a Band-Aid...