This essayist decided to answer question two on the paper assignment. Notice the clear thesis statement (final sentence of the introductory paragraph), and observe that each paragraph has a topic sentence at or near its beginning, backs up its claims with examples, and takes care to tie claim (topic sentence) to the evidence it presents.


Dr. Seuss's Political Education:
Transforming the Quest from Bartholomew to The Lorax
 
by Ann A. Student

         During a career that spanned much of the last century, Dr. Seuss wrote over forty books, many of which involve a young protagonist on a quest. The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins (1937), Bartholomew and the Oobleck (1949), Scrambled Eggs Super! (1953), Horton Hears a Who! (1954), I Had Trouble in Getting To Solla Sollew (1965), The Lorax (1971), and Oh, the Places You Go! (1991) all present versions of an episodic narrative, in which the main character strives towards a goal -- be it the perfect dish of scrambled eggs in Scrambled Eggs Super!, or stopping dangerous pollution in The Lorax and Bartholomew and the Oobleck. As the previous sentence suggests, the implications of this journey change during the 50-odd years that Seuss wrote books for children. Taking three of these tales as representative, we can see that the changing nature of the "quest" narrative in Dr. Seuss's work shows an increasingly political engagement with real-world issues: from a fairly mild indictment of a temporarily unjust king, Seuss's concerns grow to include threats of annihilation and environmental catastrophe.

         The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins represents an early stage in Seuss's interests in quests, and the moral of this particular tale does address power, but fairly gingerly, without much substance to its lesson. On the way to its message, the book presents two quests: Bartholomew's journey to prove his innocence and King Derwin's goal to remove Bartholomew's hat. Though a dictator, the King behaves in a way that is more misguided than mean. Early in the book, he stares out over the Kingdom of Didd, his nose in the air and an armed guard at his side, an image which reinforces his power and privilege. Yet, when Grand Duke Wilfred, a boy of about Bartholomew's age, suggests that the King cut off Bartholomew's head, the monarch's expression has changed to mild puzzlement. Eyebrows raised as his sneering nephew Wilfred whispers to him, the King's response to the idea that he "chop off his [Bartholomew's] head" indicates that he has grown confused and, really, is not dangerous. "A dreadful thought," he says while "biting his lip." Though he proceeds with the execution (which, of course, fails), the King's character implies that un-elected leaders are fallible human beings who, ultimately, will see their error.

         Bartholomew's response to the King reinforces the sense that neither he nor any of the citizens of Didd are in any immediate danger from their ruler. As the Captain of the King's Own Guards travels with Bartholomew to the palace, Bartholomew feels "terribly frightened" only for "a moment." He soon realizes that "the King can do nothing dreadful to punish me, because I really haven't done anything wrong." The soft lines of these cartoon-style illustrations emphasizes this absence of real danger, and the bright red hats cascading behind him convey more a spirit of adventure than impending doom. At the end of the quest, the King pays Bartholomew 500 pieces of gold for the fanciest hat on his head, which locates Derwin in the role of a benevolent patron. Bartholomew goes home with a sack of gold, a reward for his good luck and an implicit prize for his being a nice fellow throughout the story. The morals at the end of the quest, then, seem to be: the unjustly accused will not suffer, and, at heart, even non-democratic leaders can be trusted to do the right thing.

         However, when Bartholomew and King Derwin appear 12 years later, a World War has transformed the world in which Dr. Seuss lives, and his ideas about power appear to have changed, too. Like its predecessor, Bartholomew and the Oobleck invokes the form of the "quest"; however, unlike 500 Hats, this newer story manifests a much deeper distrust of rulers who wield dictatorial control. Foreshadowing the character of Yertle (from Yertle the Turtle, 1958), Oobleck's King Derwin wishes to "rule the sky" and proves his will by ordering his magicians to make oobleck, which turns out to be a toxic, gooey substance that covers people, animals, farm equipment, and everything in sight. Though still illustrated in Seuss's soft, cartoonish style, the King who orders this ecological disaster appears erratic, petulant, dictatorial. Unlike the version of Derwin in 500 Hats, Seuss depicts this Derwin as striding around the castle, beating his chest, closely resembling a child throwing a tantrum. Even when covered in Oobleck, he waves his arms, while the narrator compares him to an infant: "There he sat . . . Old King Derwin, proud and mighty ruler of the Kingdom of Didd, trembling, shaking, helpless as a baby." Not only is this Derwin a dangerous character, but he appears too immature to handle the responsibility of governing.

         Just as Derwin represents a much more harmful leader, Bartholomew's quest in this book has grown much more serious than it was in 500 Hats. There, he had to prove his own innocence; here, he has both to save an entire kingdom from environmental catastrophe and to convince a tyrannical king to change his mind. Underscoring the earlier book's relative lack of danger, each of the stops on Bartholomew's journey in 500 Hats occur at a leisurely pace: the Yeoman of the Bowmen fails to remove his hat, the magicians fail to charm away his hat, and the executioner cannot chop off Bartholomew's head because he "can't execute anyone with his hat on." The speed of the narrative is relatively unhurried: after all, a hat that will not come off does not represent a grave danger. By contrast, in Oobleck, Bartholomew races from royal bell ringer, to royal trumpeter, to Captain of the Guards, all with an increasing sense of urgency. As Oobleck rains down, he embarks upon a mission to warn the people and, if he can, stop the oobleck before everyone is "hopelessly caught in the goo." Seuss emphasizes Bartholomew's haste by showing him always in motion, running up stairs, running to open a door, running to warn people. Finally, unable to "hold his tongue [any] longer," Barthelme rebukes the King and tells him to apologize; when King Derwin does, the oobleck "simply, quietly melted away." The success of Bartholomew's quest and the perils that Didd's citizens face sends the message that it is important to stand up to an unjust political regime and that un-elected leaders may not be merely misguided human beings, but could pose a danger to the lives and welfare of their citizens.

         The Lorax, which in many ways represents a further development of the environmental themes introduced in Bartholomew and the Oobleck, takes the message of its quest a step further than either of the two Bartholomew books. Looking back from a gray, present-day world of urban decay, Seuss's narrative presents two parallel quests: the narrator's desire to solve the mystery of the Lorax, and the Once-ler's ambition to become a successful entrepreneur. As the Once-ler speaks and our narrator listens, Seuss's use of color underscores the moral of environmental conservation. In the present-day world, our narrator walks across a muddy gray landscape, populated only by "old crows," scraggly black "grickle-grass," and the dilapidated residence of the Once-ler. But, prior to the success of the Once-ler's Thneed industry, Seuss invites us to experience a land full of bright green grass, brilliant blue skies, and bright pink, orange and purple "Truffula Trees." The change in color is striking: this pre-industrial world is almost blinding in its Technicolor magnificence. After experiencing the dull, drab world of the present, Seuss's shock of splashy colors inspires a deep nostalgia for this earlier, healthier world. As the Once-ler describes how his business practices destroyed nature, the colors grow progressively darker and more bleak, until it looks much as it does in the present day. The stark difference between the beautiful, colorful, natural world and the colorless post-industrial world emphasizes the need to preserve and maintain the former.

         The changing nature of the quest from The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins to The Lorax shows an increasing wariness towards those with power and a growing desire to deliver a political education to the children who read these books. Depending on the goals of the teacher, the developing prominence of Seuss's ideological commitment will have different implications for the classroom. An instructor who, perhaps, sees the Lorax as anti-business, may wish to stick to Green Eggs and Ham (1960), One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish (1960), Hop on Pop (1963), and other of Seuss's "Beginner Books." However, an elementary school teacher who shares Seuss's goals might use these less explicitly political books as an introduction to more activist works like Bartholomew and the Oobleck, The Lorax, Yertle the Turtle, and even the controversial Butter Battle Book (1984). If Horton Hears a Who! teaches us that "a person's a person, no matter how small," Dr. Seuss teaches us that children are never too young to become active citizens of the world in which they live. His work reminds us that the quest to make a better world for ourselves and our children should begin when we are still children.

 


Works Cited

 

Seuss, Dr. Bartholomew and the Oobleck. 1949. New York: Random House, 1977.

---. The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. 1937. New York: Random House, 1964.

---. Horton Hears a Who! 1954. New York: Random House, 1982.

---. The Lorax. New York: Random House, 1971.

---. The Sneetches and Other Stories. New York: Random House, 1961.

 


Phil Nel's Homepage | Courses | Crockett Johnson Homepage | Don DeLillo Society | Links | Self-Promotion
Department of English | Kansas State University

Copyright © 2000 Philip Nel. All Rights Reserved. Please read the Disclaimer.
This page was last updated on 4 September 2000