Confabulations 19:
A Book Report on "Peter Rabbit"

Adam Blatner, Imagination-ologist

June 13, 2012

Note: In 2009 I played the role of Linus in our Sun City Texas Theatre Club production of the 1969 Off- Broadway musical, You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, based on the cartoon strip, Peanuts. I played Linus, and in the play several of us were asked to do a "Book Report" on the story of Peter Rabbit. Linus, being the intellectual one, came up with this:

     In examining a work such as Peter Rabbit, it is important that the superficial characteristics of its deceptively simple plot should not be allowed to blind the reader to the more substantial fabric of its deeper motivation. In this report I plan to discuss the sociological implications of family pressures so great as to drive an otherwise moral rabbit to perform acts of theivery, which he consciously knew were against the law.

I also hope to explore the personality of Mister Macgregor, in his conflicting roles as farmer and humanitarian.  (♬ ♬ ♬ ♬ ♬..[Charlie Brown comes in:] . .  If I start writing now.....) (I continue, murmuring: Peter Rabbit is established from the start as a benevolent hero, and it is only with the increase of social pressures that the seams of his moral fabric begin to unravel...)
    (That part was in the script.)  During the rehearsal, I was taken with the idea of critiquing the underlying meaning of simple stories, as Sally shows above, and so I continued the analysis:

The Rest of Linus’ Book Report

The underlying paradox of this book hinges on the dual nature of the rabbit, also known in its neotenous, quasi-anthropomorphized form as a “bunny” (as in the Easter Bunny). The dual nature of the rabbit as an agricultural parasite or vermin and as a transitional object embodied in a child’s stuffed toy—though not as versatile as a blanket, in my opinion—thus generates a sense of cognitive dissonance in children. This leads to a subtle double-bind, a mental conundrum that evokes a kind of surrender, a hypnotic trance that allows children to relax what little capacity they have for critical thinking and further suspend disbelief, heighten their credulity, and be a bit more ready to absorb unconsciously the underlying moralistic nature of this story.

At another level, the story expresses a redemptive potential: The hero’s (Peter’s) loss of his new blue jacket with its shiny gold buttons should be appreciated an occasion for grief. Perhaps it was (or should be) in the childhoods of grandparents, for whom clothes were special. In today’s affluent world, where jackets and the like are left at school and on playgrounds as a matter of course, this device holds little compelling force. If it were Peter Rabbits iPod, perhaps, or cellphone, or some other currently fashionable and expensive electronic device, it might be more believable—but a jacket? Nevertheless, the loss of a supposedly expensive and thus treasured item is responded to with what a parent would wish, appropriate grief and regret—this is the guilt that then allows for forgiveness—the whole dynamic seeking to replay the ideal that parents can instill morality in the errors of their children. Does it work in contemporary society? Questionable.

As a slight aside—not as radical an aside as the allusion to the story of Robin Hood, to be sure—but still an associated story: the three little kittens who lost their mittens—we again see the theme of childish carelessness, repentance (“they began to cry”), proper subservience and shame (“Oh, mother dear—as if kids spoke that way! Ha!—we fear, we fear our mittens we have lost!”), and the ultimate happy ending, all reinforce the hoped for trajectory of socialization by parents: error, guilt, forgiveness, reconciliation. 

Yet in terms of contemporary trends in postmodernist literary criticism, the genre of children’s literature in the early 20th century carries over the power structures inherent in Western culture, and with it the currents of hierarchy and oppression. This superimposition of materialistic values, challenged by the free spirit of the adventuresome Peter, is symbolized by Mr. MacGregor’s rake—clearly an agricultural device that masks its not-too-obscure symbolism for a cross. The cultural trope of Christ’s sacrifice, the way Peter almost got “hung” on the wire in his attempt to escape, all reinforce this book’s underlying cultural agenda and propagandistic nature. Admittedly, to paraphrase Freud’s response to a criticism that his chronic cigarillo (Schimmelpfennig brand) addiction might reflect his fixation on the phallus and its sociological significance—that “sometimes a cigar is only a cigar,” we may say that it is possible that sometimes a rake is only a rake. But then, why bother asking for this book report if not wishing to engage in the challenge of stimulating critical thinking in the student’s mind?

Admittedly, I may have gone over my 100 word limit, but I found this book to offer a wealth of symbols and associations that speak also to the unspoken authoritarian relationship not only between parent and child, but by association, between teacher and pupil. The prerogative of those in loco parentis to dictate what should be read, apart from following the child’s own interests, might become more widely recognized in a century or so, perhaps when Maria Montessori’s approach to pedagogy gains more influence. For now, I will appear to submit, and though you have the required paper in your hands, dear teacher, I still retain the freedom of my mind.   Sincerely, Linus.          

Comment by Adam: Motto: If ya can't dazzle them with data, baffle them with bullsh*t. (Giggle)