This is what happens from reading The Velveteen Rabbit to my child

I've been thinking a lot about children and animals lately due to interest and circumstance.  I wrote this a while back and it probably needs a good update, but I thought I'd post it here because I like it, and I want to think more about it all.  It started off as an essay on representations of child-animal relations in a few strands of the following sets of discourses:  popular culture, developmental psychology and psychoanalytic theory, and feminist, gender, and/or queer theory.  It ended up being mostly a close reading of The Velveteen Rabbit.


velveteen rabbit.jpg

    This short essay will traverse a range of cultural texts and discourses which portray children and animals in relationship, but will focus primarily on the treatment of child-animal relations in the theoretical work of Kathryn Bond Stockton and the 1922 children's book The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams.  Inasmuch as both the figure of the child and the animal have been overdetermined in Western popular culture, I have focused on texts which reveal a movement between and among the child and animal and their binary opposites, the adult and/or the human.  Rather than suggesting any purposeful growth or trajectory, these texts describe a triangulation of child/animal/adult associated with the queering of heteronormative development.  My intention is not to provide an extensive analysis of any single text, but to highlight a pattern of movement which is mediated by the animal.

    That childhood is a cultural construction centering on notions of innocence, particularly around gender and sexuality, has been well-established by scholars of childhood studies (see, for example, Allison James and Henry Jenkins).  In popular culture, child-animal relationships are often idealized, each used as a backdrop to construct and and naturalize the other.  The popular notion of an essential kinship between human and animals was also undergirded by Freudian theory.  Freud imagined a totemic, preoriginary space where human and animal were not yet differentiated.  At least three of Freud's most famous case studies, Little Hans, the Rat Man, and the Wolf Man, involved childhood preoccupations with animals.  In Totem and Taboo, Freud described a "great resemblance between the relationships of children and of primitive men toward animals" (126).  Unlike "civilized men," children “have no scruples in allowing to rank animals as their full equals.  Uninhibited as they are in the avowal of their bodily needs, they no doubt feel themselves more akin to animals than to their elders, who may well be a puzzle to them” (126-27).  Without getting too deep into Freud, since he appears here merely as a straw man to our queer child, it is important to note that he positions adulthood within a civilizing discourse, which as we know of Freud also includes heterosexual development.

    On the other hand, as children are not yet fully hailed into the social order, they continually mark the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable behavior (James 6).  Childhood studies has focused on the ways in which children expose the fragility and vulnerability of social norms.  Popular constructions of childhood are in many cases supported by animal narratives, but also undercut by alternate possibilities.  For example, the "animal snuff" children's literature and film genre of the early 20th century, including such works as John Steinbeck's The Red Pony and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' The Yearling, presumably indoctrinated children into their place and the place of animals in the symbolic order.  Yet Jonathan Burt has noted how animals in film serve to puncture the diegetic and leave trauma unresolved (Burt 121).  Further, the place of each text within child-animal relations must be historicized; as literary scholar Jennifer Mason convincingly argued, animal literature at the turn of the century constructed masculinity on different terms than in the Victorian era.  All of these are complex questions that merely serve as a backdrop to my discussion of texts which position the animal as bardo, or transitional figure, which interrupts normative development.

    A lens for reading the figure of the animal in relation to the child, and for understanding this movement in and around child-animal relations, is provided by queer theory.  In No Future:  Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Lee Edelman is not ostensibly concerned with animals, but he argues that the figure of the Child has been constructed as a symbol of what he called "reproductive futurism."  As political battles have been waged over the terrain of childhood, a reproductive imperative has been disseminated throughout American society, and threatens to effectively silence all opposition.  His dense, psychoanalytically-based theory provides no real alternative, because to look for a solution would be to give in to futurity.  Yet in his final chapter, which provides a close reading of Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 film The Birds, he reads the menacing crows (with their predilection for children) as "the arbitrary, future-negating force of a brutal and mindless drive" (127).  Not exactly harbingers of hope, but heroically apocalyptic, the birds threaten the process by which aggression, sexuality, and death are all redeemed in the figure of the Child.  Edelman does not draw attention to any categorical workings of animal figures in the dismantling of futurity, or elaborate on material child-animal relationships, but Kathryn Bond Stockton takes up where he leaves off.

    Stockton's article, which appears in the anthology Curiouser:  On the Queerness of Children, is titled "Growing Sideways, or Versions of the Queer Child:  The Ghost, the Homosexual, the Freudian, the Innocent, and the Interval of Animal."  Stockton links the queer child with the animal through the concept of "sideways growth."  She insists, “We are going to see that concepts of the queer child demand that we talk in terms of growing sideways” (279).  Rather than simple movement, growth denotes an expansion in meaning.  Like metaphors, sideways growth is often the result of juxtaposing different sorts of people and things.  Like metaphors, sideways growth requires an interval, however slight, in which meanings are suspended and have a chance to coalesce and grow into each other.  Stockton's quintessential vehicle for the child's sideways growth is the animal.  Taking up the figure of the family dog, she explains:

the dog is living, growing metaphor for the child itself, as we are going to see, and for the child’s own propensities to wander into sideways growth. The dog is a vehicle to the child’s strangeness. It is the child’s companion in queerness. As a recipient of the child’s attentions (its often bent devotions) and a living screen for the child’s self-projections (its mysterious bad-dog postures of sexual expression), the dog is a figure for the child beside itself, engaged in a growing quite aside from growing up. (280)

This ani/metaphor is what she calls an "interval of animal."   It is not specific to the dog, but can be ushered in by other animals and other queers as well.  It can happen on the threshold of adulthood and interrupt "developmental models based on one's steady progress toward genital maturity and one's 'growing up' to reproductive goals" (281).

    For Stockton, the animal is an abstract principle - specifically, a time machine - which affords the child a pause on the brink of adulthood.  This ability to collapse time has to do with the inability of the animal to "grow up" according to human standards.  Moving deftly among novels, films, and children and animals, Stockton shows that if a child can "be dog," for a time, imaginative possibilities come into play which are impossible in real time (300).  In this way, like Hitchcock's birds, the animal is a privileged figure in thwarting, or at least forestalling, reproductive futurity.

    Up until this point, however, these theorists seem concerned with the animal insofar as it can aid the child.  But what of the animal side of the relationship?  Is the relationship described by these theorists devoid of mutuality?  Stockton acknowledges that animals are material presences, metaphors that children can reach out and touch, but the animal is more valuable in her framework for what it can do or be for children.  Is her characterization of the animal based in the same sort of imperatives she is looking to overturn in relation to childhood?  While the animal may figure as a playmate or ally in resistance during the interval, it is still a player in human drama, a one-dimensional wet nurse, and seemingly a fleeting presence.

    Stockton turns to the evocative concept of becoming-animal to elucidate the workings of the animal interval.  In A Thousand Plateaus, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari confess, “We believe in the existence of very special becomings-animal traversing human beings and sweeping them away, affecting the animal no less than the human” (237).  Deleuze and Guattari explain that if one is able to endow their own existence with the relations of movement and rest, they will become an assemblage of affect and drive rather than a subject.  Such "unnatural participations" are made up of elements which continually come together and separate.  This movement is not constituted by a metaphor or a resemblance, but elides the subject-object binary.  Deleuze and Guattari insist that “Becoming produces nothing other than itself.  We fall into a false alternative if we say that you either imitate or you are.  What is real is the becoming itself” (238).

    Although less evident than in Edelman, Deleuze and Guattari are also motivated by political concerns (Deleuze 292).  These becomings, which include “becoming-woman,” “becoming-imperceptible” and “becoming-minoritarian” all work toward the dismantling of a humanist discourse of stable identities which undergirds structures of oppression.  Further, Deleuze and Guattari insist that the other not be constituted through identification or projection in the psychoanalytic sense, for so doing would deny its very otherness (Deleuze 259).  Deleuze and Guattari are not particularly concerned with the status of children, but they suggest that children are susceptible to becoming-animal, and continually undergo becomings (286).  

    Unlike Stockton, Deleuze and Guattari insist that metaphor is anathema to becoming - to think of becoming animal in terms of resemblances or analogies is to fail at becoming, and to fold the animal and human back onto themselves.  And although they do not go into great detail on the becoming of the animal, they insist that the animal is also drawn into the assemblage and changed by the process of becoming (285).  Stockton's interval is also more suggestive of an openness to sexual possibilities, enabled by the animal but with other humans, than with any symbiosis of human and animal.  But we still have yet to see an animal actor.

    My reading of The Velveteen Rabbit, Or How Toys Become Real by Margery Williams, is intended to supplement and extend Stockton's examples of queer childhood, which as she acknowledged, were by no means exhaustive.  She also provides a working hypothesis in her statement, “Queers, one observes, trail children behind them or alongside them, as if they are wedded, one to another, in unforeseen ways.  This interests me.  But so does the seeming flip side of this axiom.  Scratch a child, you will find a queer.” (278)  How the child-animal relation is always, in some sense, queer, may yet become more apparent.

    In The Velveteen Rabbit, we have an animal protagonist, Rabbit, who is given as a gift to a boy one Christmas, only to linger and be forgotten in the toy cupboard.  He learns from another toy of the possibility of a different type of existence:

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen 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.” (8-9)

    One evening, when the Boy couldn't find his favorite china dog, his Nana gave him the Velveteen Rabbit in frustration.  At first the Rabbit was uncomfortable sleeping with the boy, but he grew to like it, and as time went on he was very happy as the Boy's constant companion.  Then, when the Boy left the Rabbit out in the garden, and Nana grumbled about running after his old toy, the Boy proclaimed that the Rabbit was REAL, and the Rabbit knew it was true.  Even though his velveteen had worn away, a look of wisdom and beauty shone in his boot-button eyes, so much so that Nana said "I declare if that old Bunny hasn't got quite a knowing expression!" (13).

    In the nearby woods, the Rabbit had an encounter with real rabbits (rather than stuffed rabbits who had become Real), and was impressed.  He thought, "They must have been very well made, for their seams didn't show at all, and they changed shape in a queer way when they moved" (16).  Even though he protested that he was Real, he realized that he couldn't hop or play, and that his hind legs were different.  When the Boy became very ill with scarlet fever, the Rabbit was tossed out for being contaminated.  Alone in the trash heap to be burned, the Rabbit became so sad that he cried a real tear.  Then a nursery magic Fairy appeared and made the Rabbit Real to the rest of the world.

    Likely, the Velveteen Rabbit story was intended as an allegory, where the child is intended to identify with the Rabbit, and thereby learn to take good care of toys and to feel kindly toward small creatures.  Despite the various becomings, one reading of the story still culminates in a predictable Oedipal trajectory in which the Boy is required to renounce the Rabbit for a more proper object of desire.  The Rabbit also accedes to his own proper place in the woods - away from boys and their beds.  The anthropomorphized Rabbit and the Fairy-ex-machina both work to absolve the Boy of any guilt or blame for the natural order.  Yet if we scratch the surface of this story, we find a queering of this dialectic through traces of the animal interval and becomings.

    In this diegesis, it is the Rabbit rather than a child who is placed in a growth trajectory.  The movement from stuffed animal to Real stuffed animal is occasioned by the Boy, and as we know from the Skin Horse, children are the purveyors of the nursery magic.  As the Skin Horse forewarned, the process of becoming involves physical discomfort.  The narrator recounts, "That night, and for many nights after, the Velveteen Rabbit slept in the Boy's bed.  At first, he found it rather uncomfortable, for the Boy hugged him very tight, and sometimes he rolled over on him, and sometimes he pushed him so far under the pillow that the Rabbit could scarcely breathe" (9-10).  Moreover, although we are told that the Rabbit doesn't notice or mind, the author describes in detail how, in becoming Real, the Rabbit's beautiful velveteen has worn away, the tail become unsewn, and "all the pink rubbed off his nose where the Boy had kissed him" (12).  It is difficult not to hear a hint of sexual coming-of-age in the Rabbit's becoming.  The reader is given to imagine other acts, not described outright but that seem likely in spaces of childhood, and which may have contributed to the Rabbit's becoming-Real.  These acts may have at least initially disturbed the Rabbit, who was not only quite sensitive, but a fearful, prey animal at that.

    There is also something slightly queer about the author's focus on Rabbit's physical degradation.  The decline of a physical self which coincides with the growth of an "interior" beauty or wisdom may be a common enough narrative theme, the Boy's affections are nevertheless rapacious.  As we know from the Skin Horse, becoming Real only happens to those who are sturdy and don't mind being hurt.  Further, the Boy is oblivious to the Rabbit throughout much of the story.  Although the mise-en-scène centers on the Rabbit, he is still clearly on the periphery of meaningful activity which is the domain of the human.  He exists at the whim of the child.  The interval of the child, while it no doubt affords growth to the Rabbit, is not entirely pleasant or kind.

    The Rabbit's initial becoming is something of a sideways growth, but in quite a different sense than described by Stockton.  Despite being Real, he is physically immobilized.  He cannot play or dance with the wild rabbits, although he longs to.  Full of emotion, hopes and fears, he is powerless to leave the garden, the woods, or the trash heap, without human or fairy intervention.  Despite being happy, he does not seem to experience freedom and alternative possibilities during the interval of the child, but only frustration.  His happiness is dependent on stasis - that his physical disintegration holds off, that he continues to receive the Boy's affections - and that the Boy does not grow up.  This project is futile, as evidenced by the Rabbit's expulsion from the Boy's bed when he is deemed a contaminant, and therefore incompatible with childhood.  In this sense, the interval of the child is merely a homologue of the animal interval rather than a true reversal; despite the animal's growth and participation, he remains unchanged.

    It is not until the Rabbit's second becoming - when the flower Fairy makes him a Real rabbit - that the Rabbit grows "up."  Although the child facilitated this transformation as well, since it is limited to stuffed animals who have undergone nursery magic, there was also a drop of the Rabbit's own agency.  The tear he shed was Rabbit's first physical act (albeit an involuntary one), and from it, the Fairy flower sprouted and released the Rabbit from the snare of the human world.  The Rabbit will no longer be full-frame in this story, but his becoming is complete with an entrée into rabbit society, and presumably the reproductive possibilities that come with it.  Unlike the animal described by Stockton, the Rabbit is now neither anti-generational nor purely symbolic.

    Moreover, rhetorical details and structural devices mimetically perform the theme of becoming.  Even the signifiers assigned to the Rabbit and the Boy, with the use of unique identifiers ("the" instead of "a") and capitalization but without proper names, gesture toward a child-sized universe and not-yet-formed identities.  As subject and object status are continually deployed in relation to both children and animals, the Rabbit traces that ambivalent path of growth toward fully-developed subjectivity.  Simultaneously object and subject, the Rabbit is a metaphor for the developmental phases in a child.  The Rabbit-in-process metaphorizes the use of stuffed animals as tools for navigating internal and external reality.  As with D.W. Winnicott's "transitional objects," the Rabbit is gradually decathected (Winnicott 14).  The narrative movement from stuffed, to stuffed-Real, to Real, is also a play on concepts of the material and semiotic.  Indeed, the Rabbit's dingy ears and fraying seams can be read as the Rabbit's own meconnaisance as a stage in becoming-Real, particularly when looking at the wild rabbits who were so like him, yet so different.  Their cleverly disguised seams mark the trace of the material animal in the semiotic, and the semiotic in the material.

    The notion of queerness being fostered through child-animal alliances seems quite Real, and yet any analysis becomes difficult when the concepts of "child," "animal" and "queer" are almost endlessly polysemic.  Stockton's claim that "all children are Q" (280) spills outward onto a tangle of cultural logics worthy of cat's cradle.  As I hope is apparent from my queer reading of The Velveteen Rabbit, the theoretical concepts of the "animal interval" and "becoming-animal" come to life as they are reiterated and varied within cultural texts.  I had intended to treat a number of other texts in this essay, including Uncle Remus, feral children, and Donnie Darko, each of which would add elements to the discussion of queer dances of children with animals.  But I'll stop for now and leave this conclusion as a palimpsest, suggestive of lines of flight that could take shape at another time.


Works Cited

Burt, Jonathan. Animals in Film. London:  Reaktion, 2002.

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari.  A Thousand Plateaus:  Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi.  Minneapolis:  U of Minnesota P, 2004.

Edelman, Lee. No Future:  Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham:  Duke UP, 2004.

Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo.  Trans. and Ed. James Strachey.  1912-13.  New York:  Norton, 1999.

James, Allison, Chris Jenks and Allen Prout.  Theorizing Childhood.  New York:  Teachers College Press, 1998.

Mason, Jennifer. Civilized Creatures.  Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins UP, 2005.

Stockton, Kathryn Bond.  "Growing Sideways, or Versions of the Queer Child:  The Ghost, the Homosexual, the Freudian, the Innocent, and the Interval of Animal."  Curiouser.  Eds. Steven Bruhm and Natasha Hurley.  Minneapolis:  U of Minnesota P, 2004.  277-315.

Williams, Margery with William Nicholson. The Velveteen Rabbit, Or How Toys Become Real. 1922.  New York:  Doubleday, 1999.

Winnicott, Donald Woods. Playing and Reality.  1971.  New York:  Routledge, 2005.

Posted on May 18, 2018 and filed under childhood, animals, academia.