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  • Imagination, Rejection, and Rescue:Recurrent Themes in Dr. Seuss
  • Tim Wolf (bio)

Dr. Seuss's first children's book, And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937), features three elements—a rejected child, the exercise of childlike imagination, and a rejecting parent whose anger seems focused against the exercise of childlike imagination. The clever whimsical verse and exuberant illustration form a powerful tension with the potentially painful portrait of a child who wants to win the approval of a rejecting parent, and fails. In the end, Seuss attempts to solve the problem of rejection by having the child reject the parent in return. Apparently, this problem mattered deeply to Seuss, and the solution in Mulberry Street did not satisfy him, for his next work, The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins (1938), reexplores the problem with a slightly different resolution; the child succeeds in appeasing the angry parent figure and is allowed to depart in peace. This may have seemed a somewhat better answer to Seuss than the counter-rejection he proposed in Mulberry Street, but in his next book, The King's Stilts (1939), he again picks up the theme and this time seems to arrive at a perfect resolution. The parent does not really dislike the child, but rather the parent is suffering from a deep personal unhappiness that makes the parent act angry. Because the child loves the parent, the child assumes the responsibility of healing that unhappiness by reconnecting the parent to the joys of the childlike imagination, and this rescue simultaneously frees the parent to express a previously hidden love for the child.

We might note two powerful aspects of this solution. First, I think that an internalization of responsibility for their parents' behavior, and the assumption of responsibility for rescuing their parents, is a potent psychological force in many children. Second, it makes sense that the very facet of children that seems to provoke parents' wrath—the childlike imagination—is the facet that parents themselves need to reexperience in order to regain happiness; in fact, it [End Page 137] is because parents are cut off from, and longing for, a connection with their own imaginations that they resent children's access to the imagination.

Seuss manages to work out all of these possibilities in the relationships among Eric, Lord Droon, and King Birtram in The King's Stilts, and perhaps because he feels he has now truly expressed the complexity of the dilemma and discovered a satisfying resolution, he moves on to other themes. However, I suggest that Seuss returns to the motif 21 years later to write one of his best-selling books, Green Eggs and Ham (1960). Green Eggs and Ham repeats the perfect resolution to rejection that Seuss discovered in The King's Stilts, but does so within the limits of a 51-word vocabulary. This combination of potent theme and highly accessible format may account in part for the book's phenomenal appeal.

I say in part because it would be reductive to limit our understanding of the appeal of these texts to any one factor—even if the factor seems puissant, such as the theme of a rejected child internalizing responsibility for a parent's rescue. Furthermore, we need to guard against a reductive interpretation of this theme itself. For example, if such a theme does manifest itself in the texts, can we also find instances where the texts simultaneously suggest opposite currents? If so, could the tensions and ambiguities of these simultaneous opposites add to, rather than detract from, the texts' appeal? In addition, how do we define such terms as child and parent? We might take a traditional psychoanalytic approach in which certain symbols represent classic familial conflicts—either androgynous or gender-specific. However, on another level we might attempt a gestalt approach, and because the basic premise of any gestalt analysis is that all aspects of a text (or dream) represent but different aspects of one whole person, we could then view the child and parent in each story as conflicting facets of one person; that is, we could see an "inner child" and an "inner parent" as two members of a constellation of...


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