Bad on Bad

January 25, 2007


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.

Any questions?

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    { 29 comments }

    Lena January 25, 2007 at 11:18 pm

    My grandmother purchased for me a Beatrix Potter book membership when I was little. I was thrilled with the free stuffed bunny that came with it, but the tales? I still attribute my joining PETA as a teenager with these stories.

    Why all the hate, B?

    Mouse January 25, 2007 at 11:30 pm

    I got to see a great exhibit on Potter once–she had a truly horrendous childhood, germphobic mother, almost total isolation.

    That said, I LOVED Squirrel Nutkin as a child. I am not quite sure why; I went back to it years later and was horrified that it was my favorite.

    MotherBumper January 25, 2007 at 11:40 pm

    A yes, the lesser known Potter novel edited by Tarantino. Always useful at keeping those little bunnies in line.

    nomotherearth January 25, 2007 at 11:42 pm

    I never did get these stories. I wanted to like them because I thought the pictures were pretty, but I got bored in the actual reading.

    My idea of a moralistic tale was Silverstein’s “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take The Garbage Out”. Now that got my attention.

    m January 26, 2007 at 12:52 am

    I never liked Beatrix Potter either and I’m not sure why, but your explanation sounds good enough to adopt. Now as a parent, I’m struck with how terrible so many books are. Where’s the plot? Character development? Rising action? Reversals? Even a lot of the drawings are crap.

    bubandpie January 26, 2007 at 9:19 am

    As a child, my main reason for enjoying the Beatrix Potter books was their size and shape: in those days, before the ubiquity of board books, they were unique in their resemblance to grown-up chapter books.

    I’ve always felt a bit of complicity with Potter’s gleeful punishment of Peter: like his interchangeable good-girl sisters, I was always a rule-follower, someone who watched with a quite enjoyable sense of amazement as the “bad boy” broke all the rules. The adventure is with Peter, but in the end it’s his sisters who get the blackberries.

    Her Bad Mother January 26, 2007 at 9:29 am

    Bub – I always tended to empathize with rule-followers over rule-breakers, too (to an extent – I loved Harriet the Spy, and always felt that her comeuppance was too harsh.) Tho’ with Peter, there was always a vicarious thrill at his adventurousness. The thing about HIS comeuppance that rubbed the wrong way was that it seemed excessive – it alarmed me that the world might be SO dangerous that a little adventurousness might land one in a stewpot.

    (And that Fierce Bad Rabbit? Getting shot in the ass? I still haven’t worked out what, exactly, is the lesson in that book.)

    penelopeto January 26, 2007 at 9:38 am

    great post.
    never cared for ms potter as a child, but roald dahl or the gruesome grimm brothers? anyday. me and my sister were also quite fond of an illustrated history book my parents had about henry xiii and the beheading of his wives. clearly we preferred ‘bad things happen to good people’ tales.
    twisted, but way more fun that peter rabbit.

    Beck January 26, 2007 at 10:57 am

    I LIKE Beatrix Potter’s books!Perhaps it’s my agricultural roots, but I never particularily worried about the animal’s peril – this was, really, what I saw happening to them everyday.
    She like a Jane Austen for the pint-sized set, with a touch of Grand Guignol thrown in for good measure. My son still wanders around pretending to be the wicked rat Samuel Whiskers, asking for some twine and a rolling pin.

    Mad Hatter January 26, 2007 at 12:27 pm

    Me too, Beck. I love Potter for her blend of anthropomorphism and naturalism. Potter was a naturalist and that shines through in these books. The perils Peter faces ARE REAL and yet he does escape them–time and again if we note that he has lost 2 jackets in as many weeks. I love that Peter starts out all “anthro” and gradually becomes a rabbit in this book, losing first a shoe and then the rest of the vesitges of his humanity. In the end he rests well and easy knowing who he is.

    I also missed a lot of the shame and come-uppance when I read them. Sure F, M, & C enjoy the blackberries but Peter got to eat until he was sick in the garden. F, M, & C had to work while Peter had an adventure. Peter may be the bad boy, but like Satan in Paradise Lost, he is the only truly interesting character in the book.

    Now I am off to find some parsley. Burp.

    Karen January 26, 2007 at 12:30 pm

    Yep, it’s the shaming that kills me too, I just couldn’t bear it even as a little child, it was too, too sad to me that his mother wasn’t extremely relieved to have her bunny back…maybe I’d been to overexposed to Sunday School at a young age, but I knew darn well that a good parent welcomes the prodigal home and kills the fatted calf – not that bunnies eat cows…I guess Mother Rabbit is a bad mother!

    creative-type dad January 26, 2007 at 1:27 pm

    I’ve always been afraid of farmers with pitchforks, even before reading this stuff.

    Jenn January 26, 2007 at 1:41 pm

    oh dear – I loved Beatrix Potter as a child, though I admit to remembering mostly the pictures and not the stories. I actually still have a few of them and now I must go read them over before attempting to read them to the Magpie! I’m already skipping over plenty of Mother Goose … I’ll have to start making my own stories up. :P

    I have to admit, I’m a little more intruigued about the upcoming movie now…

    jennster January 26, 2007 at 1:52 pm

    i’m sure it was a very bad bunny.

    Emmie (Better Make It A Double) January 26, 2007 at 3:00 pm

    You make such very good points – yet.. I just re-read a few of these, and it was a lovely trip back into the fanciful, anthopomorhized world of squirrels, geese, and rabbits that inhabited my early childhood. Somehow, all the moralistic crap escaped me, and BP’s tales created a sort of parallel universe full of possibilities that existed under hedges, in tree holes, and inside the walls of our house. Between the ages of 3 and 6, I honestly wouldn’t have been shocked to find Peter’s little blue coat hanging on a thorn in our garden. I’m hoping I can share that part with my boys somehow.

    Her Bad Mother January 26, 2007 at 5:11 pm

    Ah, Beck – you may well convert me! If one approaches it as, if only in part, Grand Guignol, with something of an Jane Austen sensibility (yes, I’m flipping your read), and take the heavy-handed moralism with a grain of salt (or, as colour in the Guignol flourish…) then it suddenly becomes more compelling. (And, Mad, Peter is indeed the most interesting – which is precisely why the shaming nagged at me. Tho’ Peter does persist, as you point out. Squirrel Nutkin, on the hand, is silenced by his comeuppance – made *less* interesting…)

    Nothing like good old fashioned lit crit to distract me from anxiety…

    Jenny January 26, 2007 at 5:18 pm

    Wow, how very, um, 24. Senseless violence happens. Deal with it, dear reader.

    We’re currently reading The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Why you should feel, and why you should love. Can’t get better morals than that, IMO. http://www.edwardtulane.com/

    Karissa, Brad & Rowyn January 26, 2007 at 5:30 pm

    Help me out? I came across your blog by accident and have loved reading your posts about Baby and life. Originally found the post when I search “getting off the swaddle”. I laughed and nodded my way through your swaddle rants. How did you end up getting Baby off the swaddle? I lost track of the posts with the swaddle and am DYING to know? Message back?

    Mocha January 26, 2007 at 5:49 pm

    I expect the bunnies somehow deserved it. Like they had done something wrong and very, very bad to warrant such a bloodshow. Right?

    Didn’t Beatrix do crack? That’s what I heard. I gotta get my stories right.

    ewe are here January 26, 2007 at 6:09 pm

    I always liked Peter Rabbit, naughty little bunny. But, thinking back, you’re right. Never really got into most of the other stories.

    I do own the collections now for MF; they were all gifts. Will have to see how they go over. I’m thinking he won’t be overly excited about them, either. So much more exciting, adventurous stuff out there!

    Her Bad Mother January 26, 2007 at 6:12 pm

    K, B & R – Judging by the google search hits I get for swaddle issues, I should probably do an update post one of these days. But you could just e-mail and we could chat about it. We did break free of the swaddle; it just seemed so anti-climactic that I never wrote about it.

    Bennie January 27, 2007 at 12:52 pm

    Thanks for the great ending, HBM! I hated those books. I’m so glad you brought up the artwork issues as well. Perhaps I already had a rebellious nature way back when to have preffered Dr. Suess’s abstract world to Beatrix’s narrow-minded subjective renderings.

    Oh yeah, I hate rabbits.

    T. January 27, 2007 at 1:21 pm

    Too busy laughing my ass off to comment intelligently about the Bad Bunny.

    Never was a fan of Potter, and never bought the books for my children. However, Harriet the Spy, that was my bible at age eight thru ten. I have crammed it down my daughter’s throat more times than naught too.

    Kyla January 27, 2007 at 4:58 pm

    I can’t believe that story!! Oh man!

    And the moral is:
    Don’t take your friend’s snack or you will be shot.

    Niiiiiice.

    Anonymous January 27, 2007 at 10:27 pm

    hi catherine as a mother i love beatrix potter stories.and the beautiful illusrtations.my children have all sat wide eyed and quiet whilst being read those beloved stories of a bygone era.
    LAVENDULA

    bubandpie January 28, 2007 at 12:11 am

    Back again to catch up with the discussion. Whenever I teach PR, I ask my students if it’s a cautionary tale or a celebration of boyhood adventure, and the answers are always very mixed – as we’ve seen here, some readers firmly believe that Peter has all the fun, while others say he gets the comeuppance he deserves.

    This post has reminded me of a book I love called Listening Valley which has a chapter near the beginning called “The Worst Boy in the School.” Somehow you just know that this bad little boy is just the right kind – and sure enough, 15 years later he’s flying missions over Germany and saving the world (and marrying the heroine, of course). It’s the most basic possible case, really, for the value of the energies that that generation labelled “boyish.”

    kittenpie January 28, 2007 at 5:30 pm

    Oh, thank god, I thought I was the only one who didn’t love Beatrix Potter! (bad children’s librarian, bad!) I do lie the Tailor of Gloucester one, though, in which kindness is returned with kindness, much more my kind of moral.

    Veronica Mitchell January 28, 2007 at 11:31 pm

    I think you are right that Potter’s moralism is pretty empty compared to Anderson’s. I have not read the particular Anderson story you mention, but I vividly recall from childhood a George MacDonald fairy tale with similar scenes and themes.

    But what I am struck by over and over when I read Potter’s books is how zoologically accurate they are. The narratives seem almost a veneer on the real lives of animals, like the clothes with fur or quills sticking through.

    Her morals are clunky and unwieldy perhaps not only because they lack the presence of redemption or forgiveness, but also because they are forced on the natural lives of animals.

    Damselfly February 1, 2007 at 1:44 pm

    I think morals are OK in stories if they’re not too obvious. The telling of a story is what’s important. That’s why we read books. After pulling out old Beatrix Potter books to read to my baby, I realized all but one of the books of hers we have are pretty stupid stories that have sloppy endings. I won’t be reading them anymore because there are so many more better-told stories in books for children.

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