Imagination, Rejection, and Rescue:Recurrent Themes in Dr. Seuss
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 personas within one psyche. But then, whose psyche would we be considering—a child with an inner parent, an adult with an inner child, the psyche of the author himself? Each answer would further multiply perspectives within an already crowded field of possibilities. Yet we can advance even further. For example, could we broaden the meaning of parent to see the verbal text as parent to the illustrated text? Could illustration thus carry associations of [End Page 138] childlike imaginative freedom, and verbal textuality carry associations of adultlike authoritative delimitation?
Keeping in mind that the ideas in this paper illuminate the complexity of Seuss's appeal only in part, and could suggest wideranging, perhaps even contradictory, associations, let us take a closer look at Seuss's first three books, and then Green Eggs and Ham.
And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street
We need not look far to discover in Mulberry Street the three elements that form the nucleus of a recurrent theme in all four of these stories. The first page of Mulberry Street introduces a parent rejecting his child's imagination:
When I leave home to walk to school,Dad always says to me,"Marco, keep your eyelids upAnd see what you can see."
But when I tell him where I've beenAnd what I think I've seen,He looks at me and sternly says,"Your eyesight's much too keen.
Stop telling such outlandish tales.Stop turning minnows into whales."Now, what can I sayWhen I get home today?
Visually, this large passage of verse looms over a small boy in the lower right corner, almost pushing him off the page. The unbalanced composition correlates to the displacement a child feels under the weight of a parent's rejection. We might say that the parent wants to push the imagination out of Marco's head, just as the large block of text seems to want to push Marco off the paper. Thus, the reader might equate reading and adult oppression.
Several factors could reinforce this equation. First, Marco carries an uncomfortably large book under his arm, for he is going to school. Because few children enjoy going to school, and even fewer enjoy carrying heavy books, the combination further associates verval [End Page 139] text and adult oppression. Furthermore, while Marco tries to obey the adult-prescribed "keeping-up-of-eyelids," and while he dutifully walks the adult-prescribed path to the adult-prescribed destination—in other words, while he marches to the rigid beat of adult dominance—he walks from left to right, the same direction in which the child reads the verbal text. Perhaps in a Hebrew translation, the tyrannized Marco should walk from right to left, for his walk may symbolize our sense of loss and oppression when we first realize that in order to read we must forgo the freedom of letting our eyes wander around the page, and must instead accept the discipline of forcing our eyes into an orderly march along straight lines.
Yet, at the same time, this page also equates reading with pleasure, power, and rebellion. For example, the verbal text reports, in delightfully witty anapestic tetrameter, that the parent wants Marco to "keep his eyelids up," but that the parent also tells Marco that his eyesight is "much too keen." This self-contradiction lets the child reader view the parent as both unfair and stupid, but the child gains this sense of power over the parent through reading—an activity that the page composition may associate with the parent's tyranny; that is, the child gains a sense of pleasure and power through reading, because it allows him or her to participate in a rebellion against reading. Possibly, learning to read, or the act of reading itself, promotes dozens of contradictory internal responses in each of uspower/helplessness, freedom/imprisonment, oral gratification/oral repression—and perhaps Seuss's ability to evoke these oppositions generates some of the dynamic tensions that make his works so potent.1
The ambiguous attitude toward the verbal text continues on the subsequent pages of Mulberry Street, in a pattern first noted by Perry Nodelman:
As the boy, Marco, adds details to his complex story of what he saw on Mulberry Street, the pictures become more and more complex, more and more filled with detail—but always in terms of the same basic compositional patterns: the elephant is always in the same place on each spread, and so on. So the pictures build in intensity and maintain their narrative connection with each other, as the words in a story usually do; in each picture we look for new information to add to old, rather than having [End Page 140] to start from scratch about what we are seeing each time, as usually happens in picture books. . . . The result is a curious reversal, in which . . . [the] pictures strain toward the narrative qualities of text.(255, emphasis added)
Indeed, on the last spread of the parade, Seuss has reversed the situation of the first page; now the illustration overwhelms two pages, almost pushing the four short verbal phrases off the bottom. This could represent the triumph of a free and joyful imagination over the rigid tyranny of verbal textuality—and over the parent's despotic authority. Yet, if we understand Nodelman right, Seuss achieves this coup in part by making the logic of pictorial development resemble the logic of verbal textuality; thus, Seuss may channel the joyful rebelliousness that the illustration inspires toward an acceptance of the logic of verbal textuality.2
When we turn the page, we find an illustration of Marco rushing up a flight of stairs to tell his parent about the wonderful parade (fig. 6), and these stairs may suggest other levels of interpretation. For example, could going "up the stairs" symbolize a return to the superego level—or the conscious level? If so, we could read this [End Page 141] story as if it were about an adult, whose tyrannical superego, or his inner adult, attempts to control and reject the workings and imaginings of his id, or his inner child. Or, if we remember that Seuss faced much unkind rejection when he first wrote for children, we could interpret Marco as a symbol for Seuss himself—the hero who journeys into the "downstairs" of his unconscious for imaginative inspiration, and then tries to share his treasures with an unreceptive, even hostile, society. Seuss creates a text that allows these readings, and others, simultaneously, so that the next page reverberates with potential meanings. For as soon as Marco reaches his seated (enthroned?) parent, Marco decides not to share his imagination and joy with him:
There was so much to tell, I JUST COULDN'T BEGIN!Dad looked at me sharply and pulled at his chin.He frowned at me sternly from there in his seat,"Was there nothing to look at . . . no people to greet?Did nothing excite you or make your heart beat?"
"Nothing," I said, growing red as a beet,"But a plain horse and wagon on Mulberry Street."
Even at its most ostensible level, this passage represents a profoundly disturbing moment. At the beginning of the story we met Marco as a child who wanted very much to win the acceptance of an unhappy parent. In the middle of the story, we discovered along with Marco that the secret of happiness resides in the free exercise of the childlike imagination, for Seuss writes that "Mulberry Street runs into Bliss." Now at the end of the story, we see Marco racing up the stairs with a huge smile on his face. The smile is both an expression of Marco's love for his parent, since he envisions that his story will give the unhappy parent the gift of bliss, and a reflection of Marco's need for his parent's love, since he anticipates that his story will win his parent's acceptance. Yet when we turn the page, we find that both these expectations come to "nothing."
Within Marco's fantasy, we find clues that Marco wishes both to share this happiness with his parent and to have his imagination accepted. For example, after the parade runs into Bliss Street, Marco introduces a number of authority figures who put seals of approval on the celebration—policemen, who escort it on motorcycles, and the mayor and his alderman, who wave flags from their [End Page 142] review stand. However, Seuss introduces a more poignant symbol even earlier in the text. Just prior to having his parade "run into Bliss," Marco hitches a little trailer to the end of the procession:
A band that's so good should have someone to hear it,But it's going so fast that it's hard to keep near it.I'll put on a trailer! I know they won't mindIf a man sits and listens while hitched on behind.
The illustration for this text depicts a smiling man with a white fringed bald pate and long white beard sitting on a stool. If we remember that Marco's parade is a story that he intends to tell his father, we might see this smiling man who "sits and listens" as a wishful representation of the father that Marco hopes will listen to and approve of his story about the parade. Several elements support this association. For example, the illustration of the man resembles a prominent western archetype of the patriarch. Furthermore, when Marco later rushes to tell his real father the story about the parade, he finds him also sitting—but, unlike Marco's fantasy father, his real father is frowning.
The presence of a patriarchal archetype in the illustration compels us to consider what parts of the theme could be read as androgynous, and what parts should be read as gender specific. For example, although the text specifies a son and father, I believe that both Marco and his father could be read as either male or female. On the other hand, we would not want to overlook some of the meanings we might glean from a more gender-specific approach. For example, we might associate the son-and-father conflict with classic psychosexual complexes, or with societal gender teachings that may make a father frown on the imaginative daydreaming tendencies of a son, while he smiles on the same tendencies in a daughter.3 Or we might see the rejecting patriarch as a symbol of our phallocratie society itself and the low status it affords to the imagination.
Whether we interpret the smiling patriarch who follows the parade as an androgynous or a gender-specific fantasy of parental acceptance, the real parent whom Marco encounters at the end of the story "frowns at [him] sternly from there in his seat" and will not follow Marco's stories, either to approve of them, or to share in their joy. Marco's only recourse is to protect himself by hiding his imaginative world. His decision not to tell his parent about the [End Page 143] wonders of Mulberry Street constitutes a form of counter-rejection, and thus Seuss seems to end Mulberry Street with the problem of the rejecting parent unresolved.
The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins
Seuss continues to explore the same theme—a rejecting parent whose anger seems focused against the exercise of childlike imagination—in his next book, The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. Here, King Derwin assumes the role of the parent figure, and his rejection of the child figure, Bartholomew Cubbins, arises from the child's inability to remove his hat in the king's presence. I believe that this hat, and specifically the feather in this hat, might symbolize the imagination—for although the hat itself contains enough magic to constantly reappear on Bartholomew's head, the feather has enough magic not only to reappear, but to sprout, multiply, and grow ever more fanciful and splendid. Furthermore, if we think of the hat as thought, always present about the head, then the feather easily figures as the imagination, the aspect of thought that makes it beautiful and precious. Seuss writes that although the hat was plain, "Bartholomew liked it—especially because of the feather that always pointed straight up in the air."4 As in Mulberry Street, where the parent specifically targets Marco's imaginative stories for rejection, King Derwin specifically targets the feathered hat as his reason for rejecting Bartholomew.
In fact, the text could assume an autobiographical flavor if we remember that a feather quill is a writing implement, and that Seuss strives to express his imagination through writing. We could read Bartholomew as Seuss himself, a boylike man who cannot stop his mind from sprouting wonderful fantasies, no matter how much the ruling forces of society threaten and disapprove. Certainly, Bartholomew's self-reliant pride in his feather could assume a jaunty new light, but another aspect of the story simultaneously assumes a darker shade—Bartholomew's inferior position to the king. The story tells us that King Derwin lives at the top of a mountain, and that Bartholomew feels "mighty small" when he gazes up that hill from his house in the valley. This might translate into Seuss's sense of social inferiority to the "folks on the hill"—the ruling powers of society. If so, then the hundreds of hats that Bartholomew grows could represent Seuss's efforts to make it up the hill, or to impress [End Page 144] the folks on the hill, by penning (feathering) imaginative children's stories, while the king's repeated rejections of the hats could represent the many hostile rejections Seuss endured. In this interpretation, it would hardly be coincidental that, immediately after he had finally sold Mulberry Street, Seuss should write a story about a boy who finally grows a hat good enough to sell to a king.
Several aspects of Seuss's youth may be relevant to such an autobiographical interpretation. For example, Ruth K. MacDonald reports that Seuss felt "shame at his German heritage during World War I," that he was nicknamed "the Kaiser" and ostracized (1). Such treatment might lead a person to view himself at the bottom of the hill in society. I think it may be more relevant to note that in Seuss's youth his family suffered a reversal of fortune: during Prohibition his father lost the brewery of which he had just become president. Although the father found another job as superintendent of city parks, the family may have sustained a decline in status, suffering from what Lawrence Stone terms "relative deprivation" (18). In other words, the family may have felt further down the hill, because they had once been further up the hill. Occasionally, children in these types of families will assume an inner burden to rescue the family and restore its lost status, and such a burden would fall especially hard upon an only child, as Seuss was. Certainly the family, or at least the father, was status conscious, for when Seuss told his father that he had applied for a fellowship to Oxford, the father reported to the local newspaper that Seuss had already won a fellowship to Oxford, and when Seuss did not in fact win the fellowship "the father felt forced to send him to Oxford anyway, in order to save face" (MacDonald 3). Seuss himself admired his father, and viewed him as a major influence in his life. He recalls that his father gave him the memento of a plaster cast of a dinosaur track and Seuss interprets it thus: "He was trying to tell me, in joke form, [that] a species can disappear and still leave a track in the sand" (MacDonald 2). Could the young Seuss have unconsciously perceived that it was up to him to leave a mark for the family? If Seuss sensed that his family felt "mighty small" when they looked up the hill, he might have sworn to find a way to plant the family flag on the top, and after failing at his academic ambitions, decided that his best hope in this contest was his genius for imagination, just as Bartholomew's best hope is the magical hat that grows out of his head. The last illustration in The 500 Hats depicts Bartholomew [End Page 145] returning to his home in the valley with a sack of gold on his back—proof of his conquest of the folks on the hill, and a possible correlative to Seuss's earnings from Mulberry Street. The picture gets much of its power from the two tiny figures waving at him from the distant humble cottage—his father and his mother.
Nevertheless, Bartholomew's successful sale does not quite dispel some dark suggestions in this final illustration. For example, we might wonder if Seuss felt that the power structure of his society wanted to slay his imagination, and that he could survive only by imagining something so enticing that the power structure would commodify it. I find it disturbing that, whether he fails or succeeds, Bartholomew's relationship to the power structure dictates that he must eventually lose his beloved hat and feather (if he were to fail, he would wind up with no hat because he would have no head). Because the hatless Bartholomew carries the ungainly, almost burdensome, sack of money, we might wonder whether Seuss felt that he had somehow sold out when he sold Mulberry Street. Furthermore, we might conjecture that Seuss feared that he had lost some of his imaginative powers, or that he had forfeited ownership of them. Finally, since Bartholomew returns to his home in the valley, we might suspect that, even though he had been rewarded with money after selling Mulberry Street, Seuss in some ways still felt like a "mighty small" person who had not really made it up the hill. These autobiographical speculations present a disturbing picture, a picture of an artist who perceives of his imagination as something that can be killed, or bought, or sold at the whim of the rich and powerful.5
Returning from the possible autobiographical interpretation to more ostensible levels, we see that The 500 Hats goes a step further than Mulberry Street in solving the problem of the rejected child. In Mulberry Street the parent and child reach an impasse, but in The 500 Hats we see the parent and child walking arm in arm, looking upon one another with happy smiles. I think that most readers would agree that, although this illustration is somewhat gratifying, it fails to carry the emotional charge that a similar illustration would have carried in Mulberry Street. In Mulberry Street, because we have seen Marco laboring to think of ways to please his parent, and then have seen him happily running up the stairs brimming with stories to share, we deeply regret that the parent and child do not connect. But the relationship between Bartholomew and King Derwin seems [End Page 146] more distant and accidental. We are glad that King Derwin smiles upon Bartholomew in the end primarily because we are relieved at Bartholomew's safety. We might have been as glad if the king merely had decided to leave the poor boy alone.
Nevertheless, we should neither overlook that both these stories project the pattern of an unhappy, grouchy parent figure rejecting the imaginative world of a child figure nor ignore the implications of the added reconciliation at the end of The 500 Hats. When King Derwin accepts the child's imaginative world, he gains joy, just as Marco had hoped his parent would. If we do not much care about King Derwin's joy, perhaps it is because Seuss is only just beginning to solve the problem of the rejected child, and thus has done so rather imperfectly. The rescue of the parent from unhappiness nevertheless represents a step forward in Seuss's exploration, a step he explores with more success the following year in The King's Stilts.
The King's Stilts
To make the rescue of the parent from unhappiness more meaningful in The King's Stilts, Seuss not only increases our sympathy for him but also connects his rescue to the survival of the kingdom. Seuss accomplishes the simpler of the two tasks by developing a plot line in which, because of his sadness, the king can no longer protect his kingdom from a salty flood. But how can Seuss increase our sympathy for a parent who angrily rejects his own child? He does so by splitting the parent into two figures—the bad Lord Droon and the good King Birtram—each representing a different side of the parent. We cannot fail to notice the similarity between this device and the stock figure of the wicked stepmother in fairy tales, for the daughter who suffers under the wicked stepmother in fairy tales can usually remember a second mother, her real mother, an ideal loving mother—but unfortunately a mother who is dead, and thus powerless. Freudian and Jungian folklorists have long suggested that this dichotomy not only permits the child reader to vent hostility against her mother with impunity but also offers the child reader a way of explaining the mother's unacceptable behavior, that the person is not really the child's mother (Bettleheim 66-73, Von Franz 207-214).
In The King's Stilts the good parent is not dead, but he loses his power to the bad parent, and thus the child must rescue the good [End Page 147] parent from the bad parent. This scheme reveals a profound possibility about the psychology of coping with rejection. Perhaps rejected children want to reject their parents in return, as Mulberry Street encourages, and maybe they also want to appease the parents, as The 500 Hats suggests. However, perhaps they could also interpret parental rejection as a symptom of their beloved parents' unhappiness, and thus want to rescue their poor parents. Of course, children might employ wishful thinking in order to falsely believe that a loving parent is hidden and trapped within an angry rejecting parent, but children sometimes perspicuously apprehend a truth; that is, many parents do suffer daily depressions, discouragements, frustrations, tensions, or wearinesses that lead them to snap at their children, even though they love their children.6 In either case, Seuss's split parent in The King's Stilts allows us to see that rejected children not only must bear their parents' rejection, but might also assume a heartrending burden of responsibility for their parents' rejecting behavior.
In addition, the split parent in The King's Stilts yields well to a gestalt reading in which we see all the seemingly separate characters and events of the story as different facets of one psyche—the child becomes an inner child, the saltwater flood an inner flood, and so forth. In the beginning of the story, Seuss presents to the reader the ideal adult in King Birtram—an adult who has achieved a perfect balance between his adult and child natures: "When he worked, he really worked . . . but when he played, he really PLAYED!" Significantly, the first view we have of the king may provide two hints of this ideal balance and unification. First, we see the king doing very adult-looking work—signing royal documents—but we see him doing so in the bathtub with a delicious pink ring (foreshadows of the mischievous Cat in the Hat!), while a wonderful fish spurts huge drops of water. Although the king signs official documents, everything around him looks playfullyjolly. Second, we see the king in the presence of both a smiling child—Eric—and a frowning adult—Lord Droon—the figures who, on the gestalt level, could represent the two sides that the king balances.
At the same time, this illustration represents a near-ideal family dynamic, for the child figure is in close, loving, and happy contact with the good side of his parent, whereas the frowning side of the parent stands aside tamed and innocuous (yet somehow still a disturbingly threatening potential). [End Page 148]
When we turn the page, we learn how much depends upon the well-being that the king maintains by balancing his child and adult natures, for we see that his land lies in a valley below the level of the seas that surround it, and that only the heavily intertwined roots of the Dike Trees growing all along the edge of the island forestall a devastating flood. Perhaps the salty sea symbolizes the tears and cares of the adult world, a world that threatens to flood and obliterate the happy kingdom (the kingdom of the self in a gestalt reading). The roots that hold back the flood, then, could represent the childlike imagination, for they weave a mysterious living web that reaches down into the fertile earth below the kingdom—a possible metaphor for a healthy connection with the unconscious. It is the joys of this connection, the bliss of the active imagination, that forestalls the woeful flood of adult cares and tears.
The king's most important task by far, we learn, is to protect these roots from the evil black Nizzard birds, who like to peck at the roots. The text associates these Nizzards with adult worries: " 'A hard day' [the king would] say, 'full of nizzardly worries.' " In other words, the myriad worries of adulthood constantly threaten to cut us off from the roots of our childlike joy and pleasure, thus allowing the salt flood of tears. King Birtram, however, creates a unique response—an army of "Patrol Cats." How fitting that cats—those most independent-minded, unmastered creatures—should guard the roots of childlike imagination! How inappropriate would have been dogs, with all their worry and obsequiousness to serve their masters. To defend our childlike imagination and joy, Seuss seems to say, we must be like cats toward society, not like dogs. (This may also look forward to the anarchistic Cat in the Hat saving two children from a dull adult-ruled afternoon.)
Finally, the stilts give the king the ability to defend the roots, for they give him his very will to live: "This was the moment King Birtram lived for. . . . 'Quick, Eric!' he'd shout. 'Quick, Eric! The stilts!' " The roots and the stilts may be a double symbol for the same thing—the childlike imagination. The stilts, which we note that the child must fetch for the king, lift the king high above the mundane surface of the earth in flights of fancy, just as the roots burrow far below the mundane surface into the rich soils of the unconscious. Furthermore, when the stilts disappear, so do the tree roots, and just as the disappearance of the stilts leads to the king's tears, the disappearance of the tree roots leads to the kingdom's immersion [End Page 149] under saltwater. Perhaps the only distinction we can make between these two symbols is that where the roots could represent the healthy state of the imagination, the stilts could represent the prescription for preserving that state—play, or the daily energetic use of the childlike imagination.
Thus, unlike Mulberry Street or The 500 Hats, which both begin with a parent's rejection of a child, and of a child's imagination, The King's Stilts begins with a parent-figure enjoying a friendly relationship with the child-figure and embracing the imagination. After we pass the beginning, however, we find The King's Stilts moving into parallel with Seuss's first two books, for we meet the rejecting side of the parent in Lord Droon. Seuss writes: "There was a man in Binn who didn't like fun. He didn't like games. He didn't like laughing. This man was a scowler. This man was Lord Droon." The illustration that accompanies this verbal text depicts Lord Droon scowling at the king's stilts, and so Seuss makes Droon fulfill half of his function—the rejection of the childlike imagination—but this bad side of the parent must reject the child as well. Thus, Seuss has Droon steal the stilts and give them to Eric with the command to bury them.
This plot device accomplishes several objectives. First, it identifies the child in the story as the keeper of the childlike imagination. After all, neither Birtram nor Droon know the location of the stilts. Second, Eric's knowledge of the stilts' location, a knowledge which is dangerous to Droon, gives Droon a reason to attack Eric himself, thus making Droon fulfill the second half of his function as the rejecting side of the parent. Third, Droon's theft of the stilts seems to fix an overserious adult facet of the persona as the culprit in grownups' lack of joy. Fourth, Eric's burial of the stilts could represent the psychological process of repression, in this case the repression of childlike qualities.
Most important, the device forces Eric to assume the burden of rescuing the good side of the parent. Because only Eric knows where the stilts are buried, only Eric can save the king from depression and thus the kingdom from the salt flood. The child reader here may find a strong correlative to his or her own burden to rescue a parent, as well as a powerful portrayal of the bad angry (side of the) parent that keeps the child from reaching the good loving (side of the) parent. Seuss presents this dilemma in a remarkable illustration. Eric runs up a flight of stairs to rescue the king, only [End Page 150] to be intercepted at the top by a scowling Lord Droon. In Mulberry Street Marco also rushes up a flight of steps to reach a good parent, only to find a disapproving parent instead. However, in The King's Stilts we have a second, hidden, good parent—a possibility that this illustration exploits to great effect, for a sad, helpless-looking King Birtram seems to grow like a ghost out of the back of the very solidlooking Lord Droon, almost making the figure resemble a Janus (fig. 7). The king's back is turned to Eric, so although Eric can see the unhappy king, and can long to give that king the gift that will save him from unhappiness, the king cannot see Eric, and Lord Droon stands guard to insure that Eric will not reach the king. In the same way, when children face an angry, rejecting parent, they may see (or think they see) behind that anger a helpless, depressed parent whom they long to rescue by sharing the secret knowledge of childhood joy, but the child may also feel that the approach to the "true" parent is always blocked by the side of the parent that is forever angrily rejecting the child.
The next illustration, though not as remarkable, develops the theme further, for we see that Droon has locked Eric into a prison house under the false pretext that Eric is being quarantined for measles. This may represent the child reader's feeling that she has been locked up by her parent's mistaken opinion of her, an opinion, propagated by the bad side of the parent, that the child is somehow sick. Or, on the gestalt level, the imprisoned child could represent locked up or repressed childlike qualities within a person, qualities that the overserious inner parent mistakenly condemns as sick. Measles' association as a specifically childhood disease supports either interpretation.
The poor child, then, has been condemned as sick, locked into a prison, and separated from the good parent by a bad parent that stands eternal guard. How will the child rescue the parent? The answer is richly suggestive: Eric fools Lord Droon by disguising himself in adult clothes! On the familial level, a child feels that he must maintain a token facade of acceptable grown-up behavior if he wishes to get past, or appease, his parent's anger, and thus have an opportunity both to receive the parent's approval and to share the hidden secrets of childhood joy—the blissful imagination. Or, on the gestalt level, we could see an individual who feels that she can express her childlike qualities and drives only if she somehow disguises them as acceptable adult behaviors (we certainly see [End Page 151]
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enough of this type of sublimation around us). Or, on an autobiographical level, could we not see here a symbol for Seuss himself—the hero who masquerades as a respectable adult, when within he is actually a child smuggling childhood imagination and joy to an over-Nizzarded world?
In any case, when Eric sneaks past Droon to return the stilts to the king, the king regains his will to live, rallies his patrol cats, and drives off the Nizzards from the Dike Tree roots, thus saving the kingdom from a flood. At the end of the story, the despotic adultfigure is locked up, and we see the king and Eric happily playing together on their stilts. The child has vanquished the bad (side of the) parent by returning the joys of the childlike imagination to the good (side of the) parent, and this rescue has freed the parent to once again express his or her blocked and hidden love for the child. The elements of love and rescue make this a more compelling solution to the dilemma of the rejected child than Seuss found in either Mulberry Street or The 500 Hats, and perhaps because he has discovered this satisfying resolution, Seuss abandons for a time the theme that he has pursued so single-mindedly; however, he returns to it again 21 years later to write one of his best-sellers—Green Eggs and Ham.
Green Eggs and Ham
Within the 51-word vocabulary of Green Eggs and Ham, Seuss reintroduces the most important aspects of his first three books—the grouchy rejecting parent and the happy accepting parent, the rejected child and the child's mission to rescue the parent, the healing power of the childlike imagination and the association of the imagination with childhood libidinal drives—perhaps even a subversion and simultaneous reinforcement of the reading process. As with the other three books, we will treat the text's illustrations as "illuminations"—to borrow a term from Maurice Sendak—to notice how they tell more than the verbal text and relate stories of their own.7
One aspect of Green Eggs and Ham that sets it apart from the other three stories is the androgyny of the child protagonist, Sam. Sam has no physical characteristics that mark him or her as either male or female, and Seuss never uses a gender-specific pronoun when referring to Sam. Thus, although I believe females could read beyond the specifically male characters in Seuss's first three books to make [End Page 153] an androgynous identification with the overall parent-child relationship, the readers of Green Eggs and Ham are even more free to view Sam as male or female or both. I have not had to look far to be convinced that females often do view Sam as female. For example, one of novelist Pat Cadigan's female protagonists, Samantha, goes by the nickname of Sam-I-Am. Even closer to home, a Samantha in one of my children's literature classes went by the nickname Sam, and has a picture of Sam and the motto "Sam-I-Am" tattooed on her ankle (I use this example with kind permission). These examples not only bespeak Sam's androgynous nature but also suggest the almost cultlike devotion the book has inspired in several generations of readers.
I have more difficulty viewing the grouch as androgynous, even though Seuss never associates the grouch with a gender-specific pronoun. First, the grouch wears a tall top hat, which in our society usually carries masculine association. Second, the grouch sits in an easy chair reading a newspaper, which has almost become a stereotype in our society for the tired father who comes home from work and doesn't want to be disturbed—the famous "missing American father." (Unfortunately, part of this stereotype probably developed because the tired mother came home from work and then went into the kitchen to cook supper for everyone else!) Nevertheless, I will attempt grammatically to portray both the grouch's and Sam's androgyny by referring to them alternately as male and female.
Green Eggs and Ham begins with an illustration of a small smiling creature dashing around a corner while standing on the back of a smiling beast. (This illustration on page 3 and the last illustration, on page 62, are the only single-page illustrations. Every other illustration comprises a two-page spread.) In her right hand the small creature holds a hat, and in the left a sign proclaiming, "I am Sam." Beginning readers are at this moment teaching their eyes to move from left to right along the verbal text so that they can read these words, and Seuss reinforces the reading process by making the words themselves part of the sign dashing across the page from left to right. Furthermore, the child reading the words identifies with the small creature riding the beast, and because Sam's riding seems effortless and joyful, the reading seems effortless and joyful as well. Reading, just like the smiling friendly beast, will take the reader for a pleasure ride. However, the beast resembles a dog, a subservient creature that obeys authority with good cheer, and this [End Page 154] begins to hint that the reinforcement of reading may not go entirely unchallenged by other opposing elements of the text.
For example, when we turn the page (4-5), we meet a bigger creature—the parent figure—sitting in an easy chair reading a newspaper. He looks tired and unhappy, and I suggest that children see adults this way more often than adults might like to think. Seuss makes the unhappy parent's newspaper seem dry and lifeless, and by thus associating reading with dull joyless activities and grouchy people (shades of Mulberry Street), Seuss may encourage rebellion against the same reading process that he seemed to privilege on the previous page. In fact, if we look carefully, we can see that the grouch's dull, depressing newspaper is actually a beginning reader, an alphabet book with "A, B, C, D, E, F, G" written across the top. In addition, this illustration already hints of parental rejection, for the introduction of the unhappy parent seems to push Sam halfway off the page—an unusual but effective compositional decision. In some ways, this illustration could represent the temporary defeat of happiness, because the grouch frowns and we can no longer see the smiles of either Sam or the beast.
But the tide of battle changes with the turn of the page (6-7). Here Sam comes dashing back into the picture, but with several important transformations (fig. 8). First, he no longer rides a dog, but rather a large cat, an animal that Seuss always associates with anarchy and the imagination. Second, Sam no longer rides from left to right, but rather from right to left, thus introducing a note of rebellion against the reading process. Third, Sam's sign no longer reads, "I am Sam," but rather inverts the syntax to "Sam I am," reinforcing the subversion. Although these elements combine to challenge the gloomy mood of the previous illustration, we should also note that the friendly smile that Sam offers the startled parent injects an element of invitation into the challenge—"I am here to disrupt, and I invite you to join in the fun." The grouch seems temporarily unnerved, and the dull alphabet letters on his newspaper seem to have transformed themselves into the name Marco. Could the assertive Sam-I-Am represent the triumphant return of the previously timid and defeated Marco?
When we turn the page (8-9), we find that Sam has partially effected his subversion against reading, for as the result of his rightto-left passage across the page, the newspaper now lies scattered on the floor. Nevertheless, the parent here reclaims some of her [End Page 155] lost authority. Her countenance glares, and her fist slams the easy chair, as she cries, "That Sam-I-Am! / That Sam-I-Am! / I do not like / that Sam-I-am!" At long last, Seuss no longer equivocates about the rejecting parent; we could not ask for a simpler, more direct statement of rejection. I suggest that many children have experienced almost identical situations. For example we can picture a young child named Sam jockeying for attention by running back and forth in front of a parent who is reading the newspaper, only to have the parent yell at her to go away. Even if the parent says something nonpersonal—"I've been working all day! Can't I have a moment's peace?"—I submit that Sam may hear "That Sam! That Sam! I do not like that Sam!"
At this point, then, I believe that children hold their breaths as they turn the page (10-11). The parent has come right out and said it—"I do not like Sam!" The statement hangs like a cloud. What will happen next? How will Sam cope with the rejection? What will he do? What will he say?
He says, "Do you like green eggs and ham?"
The key to my reading of this story lies in the gap created by this non sequitur response, for the gap forces the child reader to transfer [End Page 156] the anxiety about whether the parent will learn to like Sam, to whether the parent will learn to like green eggs and ham. In other words, throughout the rest of the text, every time that Sam asks, "Would you eat them in a house, with a mouse, in a box, with a fox," and so forth, the child hears herself ask, "Please like me, parent," and every time that the grouch responds, "I do not like them, Sam-I-Am," the child hears her parent respond, "I do not like you."
Because Seuss transfers the parent's rejection to the green eggs and ham, we should consider this strange dish carefully. For example, why are the eggs green? Perhaps their unrealistic color highlights their function as an imaginary food, and thus encourages us to see them as a representation of Sam's imaginative world. Furthermore, in order to persuade the parent to like the green eggs and ham, Sam takes him on an increasingly imaginative ride, and thus we come to associate the green eggs and ham with a celebration of the imagination.
In addition, we might also acknowledge the orality of eggs and ham. They promise a tangible pleasure to the mouth, a pleasure that Seuss on one level ties to the oral pleasure of reading the text, especially since the eggs and ham move from left to right. On the other hand, the entrance of the eggs and ham causes the parent's newspaper to blow away, thus intimating that Sam wishes the more tangible oral gratification of eating to replace the dry orality of reading.8 We have seen this tense ambiguity toward reading before in Seuss's texts, and it increases as Green Eggs and Ham progresses.9
However, the defeat of the parent's newspaper on page 9 may represent other things in addition to the oral gratification of eating; that is, it could represent the beginning of the child's rescue of the parent, especially through restoring to the parent the joys of the imagination. I have suggested already that children may be highly empathetic to the sadness that they sense (or think they sense) behind the irritable moods of their parents, and we have seen Seuss symbolize this in an angry Lord Droon facing Eric, while a sad King who needs Eric's help is hidden behind Droon. Similarly, in the four illustrations of the parent up to this point in Green Eggs and Ham, Seuss makes him look angry only in one, and depressed in the others. As the newspaper, and the dry unimaginative factual world that it symbolizes, seemed to make the parent unhappy, part of Sam's rescue is to get rid of the newspaper and to offer the parent a better alternative. Sam offers this alternative on a long hand [End Page 157] that he reels out of a fishing rod. Not only is the child fishing for the parent's attention, she is reaching out to him, and the alternative that she offers mixes into a potent brew ingredients such as the gratification of libidinal drives, a rebellion against reading and other authoritarian processes, a celebration of the imagination, and an acceptance of the child.
I think we can see this complex of associations operating in several other parts of the text, such as the train. For example, as the child reader sees the train rushing powerfully along its track from left to right, he can associate the train with the reading process, linking elements as a sentence does. At first, this association seems to equate reading with the pleasures of the imagination—libidinal and otherwise. Yet, as the joy and anarchy of the ride increase, the left-to-right track becomes less straight and stable, finally ending in a midair terminus that tosses the train and its inhabitants into chaotic positions (44-50). Significantly, the parent will not eat the green eggs and ham until the train is off the track, and everyone is floating haphazardly in the water. This may link oral gratification and the celebration of the imagination to a chaotic state that rebels against the fixed track of verbal text, especially as Seuss puts the illustration in which the parent finally samples the green eggs and ham onto the only page in the book without verbal text.
However, the most significant aspect of Sam's journey with the parent involves the celebratory happiness of Sam's imaginative world, for we must remember that in Seuss the child seeks the parent's acceptance not only in order to fulfill the child's own need for love, but in order to rescue the parent from unhappiness, and that this rescue can only be effected by returning the parent to the joys of the childlike imagination. In Green Eggs and Ham the child's ride of the imagination leads to bliss, just as in Mulberry Street the child's parade of the imagination runs into Bliss Street—but this time the child does not fail to share that bliss with the parent. We can easily sense the blissful quality of Sam's imaginative world, for every denizen of that world wears an expression that Jonathan Cott calls "blissed out," or that Karla Kuskin describes as "a smile you might find on the Mona Lisa after her first martini" (Cott 9). The mouse smiles in a house. The fox smiles in a box. The goat smiles in a car. The people in the train smile even while the train is flipping upside down into the smokestack of a boat. In fact, the captain of the ruined boat bestows a friendly smile on the fox, even as he is [End Page 158] thrown off his boat by the crash (47). In the illustration on pages 48 and 49, everyone is flying everywhere into the water, some upside down, but the only person not smiling serenely is the parent—who has still not eaten the green eggs and ham, and thus has not yet gained the secret bliss of Sam's anarchic childlike imagination.
Much is at stake, then, when the child reader turns to pages 54 and 55 to see the sad-looking parent reaching toward Sam and saying, "Sam! / If you will let me be, /I will try them. / You will see." I think many a child has heard similar weary responses when he has tried to get his parent to play with him: "All right, Sam. I will play with you if you will leave me alone afterwards." For the child who has been fishing for attention, this is the moment when the parent "bites." But will the parent in Green Eggs and Ham bite? The child reader turns the page (56-57) to see the characters all holding their breaths as the sad parent eyes a green egg on his fork. The pages contain no verbal text, but the child reader holds her breath along with Sam's friends, for she pictures her own parent putting aside his newspaper grudgingly to give her a few minutes of attention. If only her parent realized that she is trying to give something precious to him—a return to his lost bliss.
When we turn the page (58-59), we see that the parent has eaten the whole egg and is now smiling for the first time. In subsequent pictures, Seuss reduces the number of lines around the parent's mouth and eyes so that he looks increasingly younger and less weary. I suggest that every time the grump in Green Eggs and Ham eats the egg, somewhere a tired, grumpy parent puts down his or her newspaper to grudgingly give his or her son or daughter a few minutes of play time, and starts feeling genuine happiness and contentment for the first time that day. Every time the grump eats the egg, somewhere a child's heart feels gladness as she sees sadness, worry, weariness, and years fall away from the face of the parent she loves. Somewhere, if only in the child reader's imagination, a parent stops being angry with his child, and starts to like her instead. For as the child reads Green Eggs and Ham, she takes a blissful imaginative journey into a realm where her parents embrace her imagination, thus sharing her joy, and loving her in the realm where she truly thinks, feels, and lives.
We see, then, that every act of reading Green Eggs and Ham might relate to two or three levels of a celebration of the childlike imagination. First, the theme of the text itself celebrates the childlike [End Page 159] imagination, not only by privileging it as the dominant dynamic within the text, but by positing it as the only force that could restore a parent's happiness and heal the depression that makes the parent seem to reject the child. Second, while children read this text about the imagination, they go on blissful imaginative journeys of their own in which they see themselves sharing the bliss of imagination with their parents, thus making their grouchy, depressed parents happy and receiving the love the depression was blocking. The bliss of imagination can make a parent love a child, even if only in the child reader's blissful imagination. This, of course, suggests the third possible level of blissful imagination that the text may encourage. Although it may be true that a parent's love is hidden or blocked by weariness or depression, it also may be true that the parent simply does not love his or her child; thus, the third level of blissful imagination that the text might encourage is not simply the imaginative act of releasing a parent's hidden or blocked love, but the wish-projection of hidden or blocked love where there is none. Either of the last two possibilities might explain the almost cultlike devotion Green Eggs and Ham has inspired.
As the book ends, Seuss has the parent repeat every particular of Sam's ride, and affirm that she would eat green eggs in all of the places Sam has taken her:
And I would eat them in a boat.And I would eat them with a goat. . .And I will eat them in the rain.And in the dark. And on a train.And in a car. And in a tree.They are so good, so good, you see!So I will eat them in a box.And I will eat them with a fox.And I will eat them in a house.And I will eat them with a mouse.And I will eat them here and there.Say! I will eat them ANYWHERE!(59-61)
In this way, Seuss makes sure that we understand that the parent has not only eaten the egg, but that she has joyfully accepted Sam's entire imaginative world.
Finally, on the last page, the platter is empty, the parent is serenely happy, and the child receives the gratitude of the rescued parent [End Page 160] (fig. 9): "I do so like / green eggs and ham! / Thank you! / Thank you, / Sam-I-am!" (62). Seuss illustrates both characters with their eyes closed, to show not only serenity, but to make their happiness seem dreamlike, and parallel to the happiness that the child reader is experiencing as he daydreams about a resolution with his own parent through the vehicle of the text.
And, most important, although the verbal text of this last page states that the parent has learned to like green eggs and ham, the child reader knows that the parent has actually learned to like something far more wonderful. In the illustration, the parent's arm is now around Sam.
Tim Wolf, assistant professor of children's literature at Middle Tennessee State University, has published two children's novels, In Search of Perlas Grandes (1985) and The Indian's Ruby (1986), and serves as chair for the Conference on Modern Critical Approaches to Children's Literature.
1. Peter Neumeyer ascribes Seuss's potency to a "sense of anarchy" (Lamb A18), whereas Loreene Lovette On suggests that Seuss moves from order to anarchy and then back to order for the purpose of giving the child the pleasure of "secure suspense"; that is, the child may experience the thrilling anxieties of anarchy, while [End Page 161] feeling secure that order will prevail in the end (135-37). I would add that the texts not only move sequentially from order to anarchy and back to order, but also that many parts of the texts incubate order and chaos, and other hierarchical oppositions, simultaneously.
2. These simultaneous oppositions may be more prevalent in Seuss's work than has been generally realized. For example, Michael Steig takes exception to / Wish That I Had Duck Feet, a book illustrated by Barney Toby, and written by Seuss under the name Theo. LeSieg, a play upon Seuss's real name—Theodore Seuss Geisel. Steig claims that the ending, in which the boy throws the items of his wild daydreams into a garbage can, makes the book function as a cautionary tale against nonconformity, and even against the use of the imagination (140). Although Steig has done well to notice in a Seuss text something that many would never attribute to Seussa rejection of the imagination—we might also notice elements of the text that hold both subversion and privileging of the imagination in unresolved tension. For example, to name but one simple element, a garbage can carries negative connotations on only one side of its hierarchical ordering. On another, it could represent a place of treasures and fascinations, especially to children.
3. For a time Seuss attempted to pursue the life of an academic at Oxford, an occupation that, in Seuss's own words, was filled with "astonishing irrelevance" and ran counter to the grain of his imaginative impulses, as is witnessed by the fact that his notebooks from this attempt are filled with doodles rather than notes. Relevant to a consideration of gender-specific attitudes toward the imagination is the fact that Seuss's father provided the impetus for this venture, whereas Seuss's mother expressed relief and encouragement when Seuss finally abandoned this attempt and dropped out to pursue his creative instincts. In Seuss's own words, she "said she was so happy that I would never be a stuffed shirt." It was partially the urgings of another female, Seuss's future wife, Helen Palmer, that gave Seuss the courage to "follow his natural inclinations away from academia" (MacDonald 9-10).
4. Some readers may wish to consider the theoretical psychosexual implications of a father-figure who is threatened by something on the son-figure that "always pointed straight up in the air." The bigger Bartholomew's hats get, the more abundantly the feathers seem to spurt out of the top, while King Derwin's angry response is to shoot "huge arrows" at the hat, a solution that, although realistically improbable, could be symbolically consistent with a phallic duel. Also consistent within such a theoretical framework is the father-figure's decision to solve the problem by cutting off Bartholomew's head, a suggestion of castration and Oedipal revenge. In fact, the very first picture of King Derwin not only shows him high up on a hill—the parent, or even the superego, position we remember from the stairs before the parent in Mulberry Street—but also depicts him standing below a huge ax, thus from the beginning associating him with either the threat of Oedipal revenge, or with the censoring power of the superego.
Those who subscribe to such a theoretical framework could thus read a classic Oedipal challenge into Bartholomew's unruly hat, or in a different interpretation might even consider the possibility of a homosexual presentation toward the father, with a longing for the father's acceptance and the fear of the father's angry rejection of the phallus.
On the other hand, a slight rereading of classic psychoanalytic theory could allow us to acknowledge the possibility of psychosexual imagery in the upright feather without forcing any of the above conclusions. For example, the feather could conceivably be seen as a symbol of the libido in a wider sense than sexuality, as a symbol of a person's life forces, the deepest sense of a person's identity. If we can justify associating the upright feather with both the beauty of the imagination and with the libido, we might see within this story a suggestion that the act of imagining is [End Page 162] a part of our libido, that it is one of the several primal urges that fuel our will to live and constitute the deepest roots of our sense of self. Within this framework, we might reinterpret the possible suggestions of castration in the story as a correlative to the psychic mutilation that our phallocratic society effects upon its males when its narrow conception of masculinity drives them to cut off the imaginative impulses of their being.
5. For a more optimistic reading of this last illustration see Mavis Reimer's interpretation of Bartholomew's trials as a journey of growth, and therefore the gold as a symbol of spiritual wealth: "The roads the child Bartholomew travels are paths of exploration rather than streets of possession. . . . And it seems to me that, in front of the silhouetted figures of his parents, there is the faint suggestion of a path meandering past the house and on into the fields beyond" (141). This reading reveals Seuss's extraordinary ability to suggest powerful oppositions within a seemingly simple framework.
6. For any who doubt a child's ability to arrive at such a perspicuous apprehension, I recommend Gareth B. Matthews's Philosophy and the Young Child, especially the section on children's reasoning ability (23-36).
7. Maurice Sendak is quoted as having said: "There are basically two types of illustration. First, there is the direct no-nonsense approach that puts the facts of the case into simple, down-to-earth images: Miss Muffet, her tuffet, curds, whey, spider and all. Then there is, for want of a better term, illumination. As with a poem set to song, in which every shade and nuance is given greater meaning by music, so pictures can interpret texts" (Lanes 109).
8. Of course, the green eggs and ham are not the only edible-looking elements of the text. Part of Seuss's genius is that he appeals to children's orality throughout his books by giving many of his objects soft, rounded "gummable" textures. In addition, he may appeal to children's anality (witness the squishy tree tops) or even their sexuality (witness the trains and tunnels and smokestacks). In all of these cases, the appeal sets up a tension between a physical gratification that is preferable to reading, and the attainment of these pleasures on an imaginative level as part of the pleasures of reading.
9. Readers who wish to pursue the possible gender-specific psychosexual implications suggested in note 4 on Bartholomew's feather might see the piece of ham with an egg on either side as a phallic symbol. Within such a theoretical framework, the hats of the son and father figure might be analyzed for suggestions of a phallic duel. For example, does the father's hat seem to wilt on page 6 when Sam presents his challenge? Does it tend to regain height when the father-figure regains authority on page 9? Could the odd compositional arrangement of page 5 that removes Sam's head from the page suggest castration? Conversely, could Sam's presentation of the green eggs and ham be interpreted as a homosexual invitation? If so, how might the father's posture on page 27 be interpreted? However, as I mentioned in note 4, it may be possible to view the eggs and ham as a sexual symbol (perhaps even as a suggestion of the uterus and ovaries) without having to accede to the possibilities of classic psychosexual complexes. A sexual symbol here might be seen as Seuss's way of associating the imagination with the child's libidinal drives, not only making us want the imagination to triumph, but causing us to associate the imagination with the will to live and with the deepest roots of personal identity. Perhaps in Seuss, the parent's acceptance of the child, of the child's sexuality, and of the child's imagination become indistinguishable. [End Page 163]