Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams

From the favourer: "I am in the 'This is my favourite book in the history of the world, ever, and no better book will ever be written, ever' category, except that I would add: 'of this type.'"*

One Christmas, a Boy is given a Velveteen Rabbit as a present. He's a lovely rabbit, 'fat and bunchy, as a rabbit should be', and while the Boy plays with him for a while, he's quickly forgotten in favour of more modern and complicated toys, and spends most of his time in the cupboard. There he chats to the Skin Horse, the oldest toy in the nursery (with an excellently creepy name) about being 'Real':

"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"

"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."

"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.

"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."

"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"

"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

When the Boy loses the toy he usually sleeps with, his Nana grabs the Rabbit out of the cupboard, and from that moment the Rabbit and the Boy are inseparable. The Rabbit doesn't notice that he's getting shabbier and worn out, he's too busy being loved and having fun with the boy. Nana admonishes the Boy:

"You must have your old Bunny!" she said. "Fancy all that fuss for a toy!"

The Boy sat up in bed and stretched out his hands.

"Give me my Bunny!" he said. "You mustn't say that. He isn't a toy. He's REAL!"

The Rabbit is delighted to hear this, but when he meets some actual rabbits in the woods, he discovers they think he isn't quite as Real as he could be. Despite his love for the Boy, the Velveteen Rabbit is drawn to the live rabbits, and when they abandon him because he smells funny, the Rabbit waits in vain for a long time, 'hoping they would come back.'

Then the Boy becomes ill, and his loyal bunny sees him through scarlet fever. But as the Boy recovers, the Rabbit finds himself whisked away with all the other 'contaminated' items to be burnt. 'Of what use was it to be loved and lose one's beauty and become Real if it all ended like this?' thinks the Rabbit. But as he cries a 'real tear', the 'nursery magic' that the Skin Horse spoke to him about is invoked, and the Velveteen Rabbit is rewarded with a new sort of Real-ness.

I found this copy of The Velveteen Rabbit in Alice's Bookshop, sticking out of a box of well-chewed picture books. The version I've read is the one with new illustrations by Donna Green, but I've since had a look at the original pictures, and though Green's oil paintings are beautiful, I much prefer the character of William Nicholson's original 1922 illustrations:

Donna Green's cover


Original William Nicholson cover


Donna Green's fairy

William Nicholson's fairy


Donna Green's rabbits


William Nicholson's rabbits

While my opinionated old copy of Who's Who in Children's Literature dismisses the conversations between the Rabbit and the Skin Horse as 'mawkish', my sentimental-clap-trap-antenna didn't quiver at all as I read the story, in fact I had a bit of a cry several times. Perhaps having a baby has made me go soft, or perhaps the line between sentiment and sentimentality is allowed to be blurry. I think part of it is that as a child I always tried very hard to convince myself that my own soft toys were real, and loved any story that suggested they got active every time I left the room (my favourite was a Scholastic title called Doll Hospital).

I did find the Rabbit's interactions with the live rabbits an interesting inclusion, and one that isn't really resolved - he is torn at that moment between wanting to be with the Boy and wanting to be with the live rabbits, and never really gets to choose between them (his decision is made for him by 'nursery magic'). This tension between the desire for love and the desire for independence has been analysed from a Kleinian perspective by Steven Daniels: ‘as the story never acknowledges the Rabbit’s desire to grow away from the object of his attachment, and hence never acknowledges the basis for his entry into the depressive position, it cannot credit him with working through it.’ Lois Kuznets' commentary on Daniels' essay puts it more plainly: 'If the Rabbit rather than the Boy is supposed to be undergoing important psychological development, then he fails, for Rabbit, who both longs to remain with the Boy and to go with the wild rabbits, does not resolve these ambivalent feelings in the course of the story.' Bit hard on the bunny. Kuznets has a sense of humour about the analysis though, remarking that perhaps the Rabbit 'himself needs a transitional object' to resolve this tension. Tee hee.

In her essay 'The Play of Toys', Kuznets also finds the Rabbit's conversion by 'nursery magic' problematic as it 'swerves away from an understanding that a metamorphosis into flesh and blood means mortality and inevitable death'. While this is true, in this book to be 'Real' doesn't necessitate being 'alive'. Whether he knows it or not, the toy Rabbit is 'Real' long before he becomes an actual live rabbit, and what may happen to him once he is made mortal (for magic is magic after all, maybe magically converted toy rabbits have a different lifespan) isn't the focus of the story.

If I seem to be tying myself in knots a bit here, it may be because I've got a 6-month-old boy sitting on my lap (who we often refer to as 'the Boy', but whose favourite toy is not a rabbit, but a plush octopus named Saki) and it's hard to think clearly when you're being periodically whacked in the face with a drooly fist.

But I think the most interesting question for children reading The Velveteen Rabbit is this notion of 'what does it mean to be Real?' - and that most children would agree with the Boy - that we make things Real by investing them with that property ourselves.


*I've had to quote the original general email from the person who nominated this book as a loved one, because he is slack and hasn't sent me a more specific sentence about why The Velveteen Rabbit is one of his favourites.

2 comments:

hwc said...

Why have I remembered this rabbit being blue or green? Am I getting confused with another toy rabbit story or just my association with velveteen fabric?

Anna said...

Ummm...velveteen rhymes with green?