Thursday, September 19, 2013

Powerful Shadows, part 2

So when we left off talking about Where the Wild Things Are, I'm sure you were left with a burning question: "Why would anyone write in this dry, dense, academic language?" No, ha-ha, (eyes shift nervously), I'm sure that wasn't it. I'm sure you were actually wondering, "Yes, but how does Sendak attend to both a child and adult audience?"

Of course the book appeals to kids--I mean, big monsters, a wild rumpus, and lush illustrations, what's not to love? Plus, Max isn't exactly a model child, and rebellion is fun. On top of that, he's in control. What kid doesn't want to be in control?
Sure, when Max begins “making mischief of one kind and another” he finds himself facing unwanted and restricting social control (Gross, 146), being sent to his room "without eating anything." 

At first Max scowls at the door, but in the next illustration he takes charge, as shown by his closed eyes, his contemplative (but still willful) expression, and the trees sprouting around his room. Finally, smiling, he sails away. So he may have to obey his mother and physically stay in his room, but he refuses to remain restricted and uses his imagination to assert his agency.

When he gets to the land of the wild things, he becomes even more powerful. He faces monsters and takes over, directing the fun and leaving when he wants to.

Finally, there's the comforting ending--Max doesn't have to be strong and independent all the time. After the adventure he returns home to a hot meal, where all is forgiven. But it's low key and doesn't dissolve into mushiness.

So all this appeals to kids, and you could say it appeals to adults by reaching the kid inside us. Because even grown-up we can delight in imagination. We still relate to unwanted restrictions, the need for fun, the need to feel powerful, the need to feel cared for.

But it's more than that. According to Melissa Gross, Wild Things continues to be a top seller fifty years after publication partly because, despite Max's willfulness, the book has “something to say to children that adults and the culture at large feel they need to hear” (145).

("Where the Wild Things Are" author Maurice Sendak, from

For one thing, Sendak  affirms two opposite and very grown-up values: (1) the humanity of the individual in the face of social control and (2) the need to work within social bounds. Through the story he offers two tools to make those opposites work—imagination and persuasion.

At the beginning Max is all about destruction and threats, and he gets the expected consequence, at which he pouts. The only options he's using are "violence or silence." Not what you'd call socially acceptable or productive.

But then he gets to work practicing his skills as a social being. For one, he uses up all his violent, anarchic energy in imagination.

And during his adventures, Max experiments with persuasion--at his own level, of course. When he meets the monsters who “roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws,” Max counters this threatening violence, not with more violence, but with negotiation. He says, “BE STILL!” and uses non-verbal discourse through his “magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once.” Here is an argument the wild things can respond to, and they make “him king of all wild things.”

Then he finds common ground as he declares “let the wild rumpus start!” So even though the wild things are frightened at Max’s powerful rhetoric, they're willing to build a relationship with him, and at the end declare “we love you so.” When Max wants to return home, he has to renegotiate. While the wild things use threats (“we’ll eat you up”) and their usual violence, again Max responds with words (“but Max said no!”) and non-verbal rhetoric (he “stepped into his private boat and waved goodbye”).

Now Max is ready to return to the land of people, to a quiet home life, where "someone loves him best of all." He even pushes back the hood of his wolf suit, stepping away from his own wild persona. At least for now.

Gilead, Sarah. “Magic Abjured: Closure in Children’s Fantasy Fiction.” PLMA 106 (1991): 277-293.
Gross, Melissa. “Why Children Come Back: The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Where the Wild Things Are.” Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit. Ed. Margaret Mackey. Lanham, Maryland: Children’s Literature Association, 2002. 145-158.


Missa said...

Thanks for this post. It's interesting that as both children and adults we need both to feel in control, independent and cared for. It's a balance that I think everyone is striving for in life. And one of the reasons why marriage and family are so important. The family should let each person have independent experiences, but provide a safe haven for them as well. A good marriage does the same. Both partners have roles and responsibilities that they need to carry out. But they also are each others primary nurturers.

Jen said...

I fully agree, Missa--thanks for that insight, taking it to the next level in applying it to how a family can/should work!