I was not, as a child, overly fond of Beatrix Potter books. I did like the witty renderings of hedgehogs in waistcoats and ducks sipping tea and rabbits losing their trousers, but the stories were, I felt, either excessively dull (Jeremy Fisher the frog is unsuccessful in catching the lunch that he has planned for his friends but it all ends well because they bring salad!) or excessively alarming (Squirrel Nutkin narrowly escapes being skinned by an owl! Peter Rabbit narrowly escapes being speared by a pitchfork!)
I didn’t usually mind being alarmed – one of my very favorite stories was the tale of Three Billy Goats’ Gruff, which is nothing if not harrowing – but there was something about Beatrix Potter’s stories that took all of the fun out of being alarmed. The moralistic finger-wagging (if you don’t listen to your mother you might end up cooked in a stew! if you’re too mouthy you might end up skinned by an owl!) was just a little too overt, a little too gleeful. Every mishap that occurred in Potter’s anthropomorphized countryside was the direct result of disobedience and deliquency. If you are a bad little bunny (or squirrel, or mouse, or, presumably, butterfly – what sin did the butterfly commit who ended up in Jeremy Fisher’s sandwich?), bad things will happen to you. Very bad things.
Now, Potter was certainly not the first to wring morals from her stories – storytelling has been used for moral education for as long as stories have been told (bad Eve for taking that apple!) I think that the thing I resented about the Potter books, as a child, was that the moral was so obvious, and so heavy-handed. See the bunny! See the bunny be bad! See the terrified bunny face death! See the terrified, exhausted bunny crawl home in shame to his mother! What was worst, in a way, was the fact that every recalcitrant little creature narrowly escaped his fate, only to be reduced to a silent, quivering, figure of shame. They didn’t escape, like Br’er Rabbit, by their wit, or by some inner strength, or through some redemptive transformation of character – they escaped by the skin of their teeth, through some accident, and survived to be ashamed. Not only will you face terrible, horrible things – death! torture! – if you are bad, you will face terrible, horrible things and then crawl home, ashamed, and be sent to bed without dinner and made to think about what you’ve done.
It isn’t quite the same thing when, in Hans Christian Anderson’s story about the girl who trod on the loaf, a vain and selfish little girl becomes the architect of her own terrible doom. It isn’t quite the same thing, in part, because the fate of the girl (becoming petrified in the loaf that she steps in to save her shoes from becoming soiled) is appropriate to her sins (vanity, selfishness, childish cruelty.) Reading the story, as a child, I recall wishing, fervently, that Inger wouldn’t be so terrible, that she would recognize the wisdom in her mother’s assertion that she will bring about her own misfortune. I can recall, too, feeling my heart contract as Inger faces the moment of her redemption, as she confronts – too late! so tragically too late! – and repents the error of her ways. The danger in the story really is moral danger – it’s the not the alarmingly banal danger of errors in judgment made in a world full of nasty owls and farmers with pitchforks. The danger in Peter Rabbit’s story is the danger that comes with not wearing a helmet on your tricycle and venturing beyond the border of your driveway – and then very nearly getting flattened by a speeding bus. It alarms more than it frightens. The danger in Inger’s story, on the other hand, is terrifying because it is clearly a danger that threatens her very soul, and a danger that she herself creates, and unwittingly embraces. I was haunted by the story, as a little girl – haunted and thrilled and deliciously, terribly, terrified.
The story of the girl who trod on a loaf and the tale of Peter Rabbit are very different kinds of stories, obviously; the tale of Peter Rabbit is, after all, a tale for the very young. But I can’t help but think, now, as a mother, that the moral lessons I wish to teach WonderBaby (that’s another post entirely) should – even in her babyhood – reach somewhat beyond bad things happen to bad bunnies!
In any case, if I do decide to pursue alarmist moral lessons, I will choose one of Potter’s lesser-known works, The Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit, which, I think you’ll agree, makes the bad-is-as-bad-does argument much more clearly:
This is a fierce bad rabbit…
…This is a man with a gun…
…This is what happens.