Sunday, April 12, 2009

And the needy, manipulative rabbit lived happily ever after…

Obviously an adult reader is going to experience a storybook intended for a child differently than the child is. But I still find myself occasionally struck by how discordant my reading is with what I assume is the intent of the author, particularly when you consider that the authors are themselves adults, and thus more likely to share the adult’s reading than the child’s. For example, MĂ©lanie Watt’s charming Scaredy Squirrel books revolve around comical exaggerations of mental disorders, and Britta Teckentrup’s Grumpy Cat was one of the saddest things I’d ever read.

One of my strongest reactions to this phenomenon of seeing something I can’t believe is really there in a kids book came a few years ago, shortly after I started this blog (and spending an awful lot of time in the library), when I came across The Rabbit’s Wedding (Harper Collins; 1958).

It’s by the late Garth Williams, a fairly prolific and beloved illustrator who has almost 100 books to his name, including Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, as well as some other books you may be familiar with (Margery Sharp’s Miss Bianca books, 1953 editions of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books, and George Selden’s The Cricket in Times Square). He’s a man who draws very good animals, ones that look quite realistic, but not to the point that they become unexciting or, more importantly, unexpressive.

Apparently, The Rabbit’s Wedding was quite a controversial book at one point, but not for the reason I thought (I didn’t know at the time I first read it that I was familiar with the artist’s work from books I’d read in my own childhood, nor did I realize how old this particular book was).
“Two little rabbits, a white rabbit, and a black rabbit, lived in a large forest,” the first page reads, and we see two rabbits in a rather long-ish shot, standing in a little patch of grass amid some yellow flowers, mist eclipsing much of the forest around them, thought the shapes of trees poke through. “Every morning they hopped out of bed, and into the early morning sunshine. They loved to spend all day playing together.”

They spend a paragraph and a two-page spread playing “Hop Skip and Jump Me,” one of the several rabbit games Williams includes, before the black rabbit suddenly sits down, grows quiet and gets incredibly sad looking.

Look at how sad Williams can make a sad rabbit look:
When the white rabbit asks what’s wrong, the black rabbit says nothing. This happens several times. They’ll play a game for a while, then the black rabbit will grow sad, and the white rabbit will ask what’s wrong.

Did you think that last sad rabbit image was the saddest sad rabbit Williams could draw? Well, it isn’t; he can go sadder:
Slowly the black rabbit reveals more and more about the nature of his sadness, until he says that thinking about his wish makes him sad.

“I just wish that I could be with you forever and always,” he finally tells the white rabbit, much to her shock. She prompts him to wish even harder and he does. “I wish you were all mine!”

So she makes his wish come true. They pick little boquets of dandelions, and then a bunch of rabbits holding hands skip over to them and dance in a circle around them, and Williams pulls back and we see them standing on a hill, surrounded by a circle of rabbits dancing on their hind legs around them, while various other forest animals watch in the foreground.

“And so the two little rabbits were wed and lived together happily in the big forest…and the little black rabbit never looked sad again.”

Now that I know this was written in the late 1950s, the fact that it implies true happiness can only come from a traditional, formal marriage doesn’t seem as odd to me, but on my first reading, I was really quite surprised.

Perhaps part of it was just how sad Williams drew the little black rabbit, or the way that the rabbit’s sadness kept intruding on his day-to-day life with the white rabbit—three or four times in the space of this single day—but it seemed pretty unhealthy to me.

The black rabbit already spent all day every day playing and eating with the white rabbit, but for some reason it just wasn’t good enough for him. He was worried that it might change some day, and thus he was unable to enjoy the time he spent with her because he was thinking about the possibility of not spending time with her. He was making himself miserable—and worrying his friend—by finding a negative where there wasn’t one.

I suppose I also felt some sympathy for the white rabbit, as we all know what it’s like to be around someone who is quite visibly upset by something, but refuses to share the problem, and the white rabbit is left in the frustrating limbo of knowing something is wrong with her friend but not what. The black rabbit wants her to know that he’s upset, but not why he’s upset, or what she can do about it.

Not for a while, anyway.

It all ends happily enough for the two rabbits of course, but if Now wasn’t good enough for the black rabbit, and he needed Forever as well, should the white rabbit be in this relationship? (It seems to me that it was just as likely that the black rabbit was afraid of being alone as much as he wanted to be with the white rabbit). And if she was completely unaware of the black rabbit’s feelings, does she really reciprocate them? (And what if the white rabbit only liked the black one as a friend?!)

And, forgetting the rabbits for a moment, is a loving relationship somehow lesser than if it’s not sanctified by the rite of marriage, which here means dandelions and dancing rabbits? Is marriage really a route to never being sad again, as the ending implies?

After I finished the book, I searched online to find out more about it and see if perhaps others had discussed the unhealthy relationship in it, when I found at that it was a “controversial” story. Not because of any imbalance in the rabbits’ relationship or Williams’ implied messages about marriage, but because one of the rabbits is black and the other is white.

If one were so inclined, one could interpret it as an interracial love story, which was illegal in 19 states at the time. A Wikipedia page on Williams quotes The Encyclopedia of Censorship:

The Rabbit's Wedding, by Garth Williams, was transferred from the open shelves to the reserved shelves at the Montgomery (Alabama) Public Library in 1959 because an illustration shows a black buck rabbit with a white doe rabbit. Such miscegenation, stated an editor in Orlando, was "brainwashing . . . as soon as you pick up the book and open its pages you realize these rabbits are integrated." The Montgomery Home News added that the book was integrationist propaganda obviously aimed at children in their formative years.

People are fucking insane.

The book is mostly black and white, with only touches of yellow in it, so the colors of the rabbits seem like they were merely the best choices for distinguishing them from one another. I suppose Williams could have called them “the white rabbit” and “the yellow rabbit,” but then, rabbits aren’t yellow. When the wedding rabbits all show up at the end, they’re the same shade of gray, and are indistinguishable from one another; there’s a white rabbit, a black rabbit, and every other rabbit.

It’s strange how much times have changed though. Some thought Williams was attacking and devaluing marriage back in the day by encouraging different “races” to marry, whereas my reaction reading it in 2009 was that he was attacking other types of relationships and overvaluing marriage.


Mory said...

Wow, you seem to be genuinely offended by the idea that someone could be sad he's not married. I wonder what that says about you.

Persephone said...

Thank you. I have an inner 'black rabbit' and sometimes (happily rarely these days but still) find myself behaving like this and have been working on making it STOP!

I dislike how it effects those I love.

Today was a bad Black Rabbit day and I went searching for pictures of Sad Bunnies and found this instead and it -helped-.

The other commenter has obviously completely missed the point of your post. <.<