Deep-diving into one of the most well-known children’s books… with more experienced eyes
The page feels thick under my fingers, and when I turn it, dynamic illustrations greet me with bright colours. I have entered a parallel dimension: the world of children’s books, far away from the logic of drab academia. Yet, I cannot help but feel admiration for the literary skill displayed by Dr. Seuss, with very few, and simple words, he creates humorous and driven narratives. With a firm brush stroke and a couple of colours, blue and red especially, he depicts a domestic universe of frenzy and action.
By using only a small range of simple vocabulary, Dr. Seuss decides to dive into the depths of language through other means. He mobilises incredible syntactic resources to keep his poetic prose as fresh and creative as possible. Repetition and rhymes are central in this book. They can be taken as constitutive elements of the plot. Indeed, the incongruity of the plot can lead us to believe that Dr. Seuss came up with his rhymes before he came up with the plot, and the plot becomes subservient to these rhymes, accommodating the most inane events for the sake of sonority. This can especially be seen with the cat’s vivid monologue. Dr. Seuss’ choice of using only a few simple words, and a handful of colours, highlight his immense skill as both an illustrator and a writer. At times, these two roles blend together when he makes spatial use of the page…
This singular book operates in a constant flux of meaning. There is a clear tension between the meaning a child will derive from it, and the meaning an adult will derive from it. A further tension emerges when we seek authorial intention in this polysemic nexus. At least, adults can read it without getting bored, and Dr. Seuss caters to both crowds, in an understanding that it is a book to be read aloud to a child.
Without the humour and playfulness brought about by the plethora of rhymes and onomatopoeia, the narrative itself would appear deeply problematic for a child’s book: a stranger knocks at the door, and subsequently abuses the trust of two poor children by wreaking havoc in their home. The stage where two, literally objectified children, Thing One and Thing Two, emerge from a crate that the stranger has brought, only heightens the parallax that enables these events to pass as acceptable and even canonical.
All the things going wrong seem to point to the traditional moralising message “Don’t trust strangers”, yet this is frustrated when the cat in the hat returns just in time to clean up his own mess! A clear interpretation would be hard to come by, but several questions might just tickle our imagination. Is the cat in the hat actually just a pet that the children use as an excuse for the mess they make? Maybe the cat represents the children’s id (desires and instincts), and the fish their superego (social norms of good behaviour). Social norms, and “should nots” are emphasised by a change in font, so it would be difficult to completely discredit the idea of a pedagogical message.
Maybe Thing One and Thing Two are doppelgangers for the children, the Hyde to their Jekyll. And following this, the children finally capturing them to put them back in the box, could mean that they have mastered their id and developed a good conscience. The moral messages are plentiful and ambivalent. Dr. Seuss ends with a flourish, by inviting the children reading the story into the moral dilemmas at play in it: “What would you do, if your mother asked you?”