April 11, 2007

Velveteen Rabbit Redux

. . . B here . . . the Velveteen Rabbit quote makes me remember how disturbing this story was to me as a child, and I realize now perhaps why that is (while at the same time adults seemed to quite like it).

Clearly, the story makes you unable to ignore how the beloved toy is slowly coming apart, more or less voluntarily sacrificing itself for the love of this boy. This is, by itself, fairly hard to take. But as this quote makes so clear, what's even harder to think about is how this rabbit, in its devotion, is actually a proxy for a loving parent. The story asks you to think about the boy from that perspective: through the eyes of his parent.

To read a story from the perspective of a dying protagonist is to entertain the idea of yourself dying -- always a wrench. To read a story in which a parent dies is to think about your own parents dying. The Velveteen Rabbit story combines both of these into one perspective.

S: [sarah weighs in: let's do this conversationally!] so then, the story describes the way in which parenthood/realness are both "about" death; about the inevitability of mortality. Having children puts you in the stage of life that is closer to the reality of death.

Of course, in the novel (if I remember, it's been a long time) the rabbit is explicitly *not* the parents, who DO NOT stay with the sick child, and who are the ones who burn the bunny.]

B: Right, the rabbit is not literally the parent -- the boy has parents. But, as so often in these kinds of stories (cf. Harry Potter, Rudyard Kipling, the Dark is Rising, Weetzie Bat, and just about everything else), the literal parents are absent, unfeeling, or otherwise not worth worrying about for purposes of what's important to the story. Basically, they serve as formal placeholders, while the engine of feeling that actually drives the plot (even if those feelings are, essentially, parental feelings) is located somewhere else. That just seems to be something about how child-stories function, don't you think? They are allergic to literal parent/child relationships.**

P.S. The Rabbit doesn't get burned. His fate is stranger than that, and just as tragic but in a different way:
While awaiting the bonfire in which the Velveteen Rabbit will be burned, the Rabbit cries a real tear. This tear brings forth the Nursery Magic Fairy. The Rabbit thinks he was real before, but the fairy tells him he was only real to the boy. She flies him to the woods, where he realizes that he is a real rabbit at last and runs to join the other rabbits in the wild.

The subsequent spring, the boy sees the Rabbit hopping in the wild and thinks he looks like his old Velveteen Rabbit, but he never knows that it actually was.(wikipedia)

The rabbit is not killed, but transmuted into a different plane of existence, a different kind of story. He is still "alive", but alive in the way "real" rabbits are: they don't talk to us, let alone love us. They are not our toys. Having to realize this -- having the story lead us on a path back to the actual world in which animals are alien to us -- is one more reason never to tell this story to children!. ;-)

** One exception I can think of: Danny the Champion of the World, by Roald Dahl


sarah said...

So much interesting. Brandon, let us teach a seminar on children's literature and parenting. or julia, maybe you could????? :)

first: the "not really burned" ending is SO a purposefully false deus ex machina sort of thing. Or at least, it reads really well that way. It's like the lie the parents told (had to tell?) the child: we didn't burn your bunny! Your bunny came to life! He's happier, now, in the wilderness. You can imagine all those bunnies out there as capable of loving you!

second: I'm fascinated by your point about the dislocation of the parent-emotion. Why is that? One thing to say is that kids just really can't have the same sort of adventures while a parent is present, because one of the major jobs of parenthood is to prevent your childers from having (potentially dangerous) adventures. Another thing to say, not completely separately, is that parental empathy has to be sort of cruel. Protecting the child's body, your first job, often means being very hurtful to the child's emotions. Think about the parents burning the bunny. Think about Elliot's mom giving E.T. to the scary scientists. Parents have to be gotten out of the story because the way parents love you can hurt you.

Or, Mom! You just taught Beloved! Talk about making hard choices on behalf of your children. I think think the hardest and bravest thing about being a parent is sucking it up and letting your child be mad at you...knowing that what they perceive as a hurt can be in their best interest, and taking the fall for that experience. Which means that you might not be cast in the most favorable light in children's literature.

Third: one thing to say is that kids should never have to read this story. but clearly it made an impression! Blindness and insight, my friends.

Kati P. said...

Can I take a moment to be literal (and confessional)? I still have and find comfort in a scrap of a blanket I was given at birth. My parents toyed with the idea of stealing it, burning it, leaving it at a hotel on vacation, etc., but figured if I could deal with the shit I'd get about it from a college roommate and still find comfort in the cloth, well, hey, I deserved to keep my equivalent of the Velveteen Rabbit. Of all my possessions, this scrap is the Thing I'd save in a fire. This is the Thing that I love and associate with calm and contentment. If I had to part with my Thing, I'd rather not think about it being destroyed; I'd prefer someone else was enjoying it or that it had a life of its own. Or, even better, that the scrap-blanket fairy took it away to scrap-blanket heaven where it was waiting for me. Otherwise, what was a thing of comfort becomes a thing of loss. Who wants to curl up with loss?

I also do not read Rabbit as Parent. Simply, parents in children's books suffer from a lack of imagination.

Finally, did you know that excerpts from the Velveteen Rabbit often are read at weddings? When I was searching for readings online last spring, lots of Real Rabbit quotes came up. They left me with the feeling that people were reading the book with the moral "love is blind."

Amy E said...

I still have my blankie, too. His name is Snugs. He is here with me now. Babar doll sleeps in him in the drawer. Snugs is yellow and white gingham, about 14"x20"

Every time my mom sees me, she tries to kidnap Snugs and wash him, even though he is hole-y and can't take much more washing in his life.

My original blankie was actually a pillow called pill-ee. He was light-blue and white gingham, about 8"x11". I lost him at the mall when I was 4. That was one of the saddest days of my life.

Good thing Snugs was there to move in on the scene. Snugs was originally a blanket my mom made for my dolls.

P.S. On topic, I don't remember "The Velveteen Rabbit" fondly. I mean, a book can be sad, like "Old Yeller," or "Where the Red Fern Grows," without being creepy and weird and austere like "The Velveteen Rabbit."

Down with all these books about "real." We deal in Plastics now, babies.

TH said...

Aidan hates it when we wash his "special blankie". If anyone out there has ever read peanuts think Linus. He literally sits in the laundry room screaming at the top of his lungs during the wash cycle. He also tends to bang his head on the floor in frustration. Curiously enough drying does not bother him, maybe because he can't see it going around and around. He reacts like we are hurting his blanket.

I would never dream of throwing it away, or burning it. It is hard enough for him to get through the day, and deal with the stimuli that is totally fine for most other kids. If this helps him cope then fine. He will be taking it with him to preschool in the fall.

I threw away my yellow, and pretty pathetic looking rabbit a few years ago. I thought about keeping it for my kids, but they should be allowed to have their own transition object. I guess I have transitioned...