29 January, 2011

Notes toward a Literary Analysis of Beatrix Potter's "A Fierce, Bad Rabbit"

Intended to amuse, and to mildly satirize those literary critics who actually do bother with such things.

Beatrix Potter's brief tale of A Fierce, Bad Rabbit may come off as a simplistic moralizing story, in which the bad guy gets his comeuppance and the good guy is vindicated. And certainly that comic-book morality is at least superficially present in this war of two rabbits. Their differing ethical statuses seem to lead inevitably to their respective ends: the unjustifiably rude “Bad Rabbit” is paid back in deus ex machina fashion by a wandering hunter to the benefit of the good rabbit. But take a closer look at the story and several serious issues begin to raise their metaphorical heads. Firstly, why such a strident condemnation for what is merely a breach of manners (if an inexcusably unprovoked one)? Given her propensity for depicting villains of truly sinister dimensions (the Fox in Jemima Puddle-Duck plans to eat Jemima; Mr. Samuel Whiskers even more horrifyingly makes Tom Kitten into a pie before the unlucky chap is rescued), one may wonder why Potter designates only this schoolyard-bully-esque carrot thief as “fierce” and “bad.” It seems, oddly enough, that this deplorable character's only offense is being unmannerly: in Potter's own words, the height of his offense is that “he doesn't say 'Please.' He takes it!” In sharp contrast to the visceral dangers of her other books, the threat posed by this villain seems perfectly suited to a Jane Austen novel. The second issue one can hardly help noticing upon careful reading is the disjoint between cause and effect involved in the Bad Rabbit's punishment. In the narrative framework most pleasing to authors who intend to moralize, the bad guy is ultimately brought down either by his own evil actions (see Dante's Commedia or Edward Lear's children's verses) or by an adversarial reaction against his dastardly deeds. Yet the cleverly-aimed shot that manages to take off both the tail and whiskers of the Bad Rabbit without harming him is not fired by some good rabbit rising in rebellion against the tyranny of carrot-thieves, nor does the Bad Rabbit try to steal an incendiary device in an excess of cupidity and harm himself in the process. These would be two fine examples of poetic justice, to which parents could point, as they might to the fable of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” and say “see children: if you do X then Y will happen to you.” Where in fact is Potter's ethical subtext in this story? Could it be—but it is!—that the Bad Rabbit is worsted by mere happenstance? By the mere fact that this hunter is apparently more than a little near-sighted despite his uncanny skill in aiming and so thinks the Bad Rabbit “a very funny bird”? The good rabbit witnesses his humiliated foe fleeing the field, yet no retribution, properly speaking, has been meted out. Potter seems, I would argue, to be pushing young children to doubt the most basic elements of the moralizing tale, if only subconsciously, in this fascinatingly subversive tale of bad manners and random acts of an indifferent higher power.


c said...

I would be interested in using this post as a 'preface' to an ebook version of Fierce bad Rabbit.


Therese said...

That would be fine!