The Velveteen Rabbit: Questionable Classic

As the mother of two girls, I treasure each and every chance to share books with them. But there is one book I will probably make them wait to read until they are much, much older: Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit: Or How Toys Became Real

I realize it is tantamount to children’s literature heresy in some circles, but I consider The Velveteen Rabbit one of the most deplorable works of fiction ever to come off the presses. I’ve hated it for as long as I can remember. The following excerpt is the portion that stands out most in my mind (and apparently in the minds of others – a brief search revealed that it is among the most popular readings at weddings):

The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches and showed the seams underneath, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces. He was wise, for he had seen a long succession of mechanical toys arrive to boast and swagger, and by-and-by break their mainsprings and pass away, and he knew that they were only toys, and would never turn into anything else. For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it.

“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.”

Here we have the Skin Horse – who has obviously been at the receiving end of a great deal of abuse at the hands of his young charge – providing sage advice to the Rabbit protaganist about becoming real – a painful process that requires being “loved” until you are used up and “shabby”. The Rabbit takes the Skin Horse’s advice to heart, and after his brief life as an abused and (later) discarded toy, he is transformed by the “nursery magic Fairy” into a real rabbit and allowed to live the remainder of his days in “Rabbit-land” (I kid you not, that’s what it’s called).

For some reason, this sadistic tale, which promotes martyrdom as the one true path to a higher plane of existence, is lauded as a classic and considered an indispensable tome to share with impressionable youngsters.

While I’m not one for unbridled egoism, the idea that you are not “real” until you have abandoned your identity and someone has loved you to pieces (literally, in the case of the Velveteen Rabbit), is just plain sick. Apparently, I am alone in feeling this way.

Margery Williams’ classic tale of a rabbit who allows himself to be worn to death in the name of “love” is rather reminiscent of Shel Silverstein’s loathsome The Giving Tree, but far more reprehensible. You will recall that in Silverstein’s tale, a tree gives herself to a young boy until all that remains of her is a stump, which he then uses as a stool. If Silverstein’s story was truly about a tree, it wouldn’t be too dreadful (though mother nature certainly gets the short end of the stick!), but even a child can tell that the story is meant as some sort of allegory for self-sacrificing maternal love.

Oddly enough, Silverstein’s story has been at the receiving end of far more vitriol than William’s book. Roughly 1/5 of the Amazon reviews are in the one star range, and many readers highlight its disturbingly anti-feminist/abusive undertones. But even when viewed as allegory, Silverstein’s misogynist tale is still superior to The Velveteen Rabbit, because at least the intended audience (children) is meant to identify with the self-indulgent child, not the tree. Furthermore, most kids are, at the very least, surprised and annoyed by the boy’s selfishness.

In sharp contrast to the criticism launched at The Giving Tree, surprisingly few readers seem to find anything wrong with The Velveteen Rabbit. Yet, in The Velveteen Rabbit, the child-reader is drawn deep into the psyche of the rabbit, and manipulated into believing that maturity is about putting up with abuse at the hands of those you “love,” in the hopes that their abuse will somehow make you “real.” While the backlash against Silverstein’s book has been rather pronounced, William’s tale has enjoyed such consistent popularity that its disturbing message has even spawned a self-help book, entitled The Velveteen Principles (Limited Holiday Edition): A Guide to Becoming Real, Hidden Wisdom from a Children’s Classic. As with most self-help books, this work chooses to focus on becoming “real” as a process of authentication, in which one stops worrying about the superficial world and becoming more spiritually minded. Most adults seem to approach the book from a similar standpoint, preferring to gloss over or minimize the significance of the Rabbit sacrificing his life for a rather ungrateful and decidedly unworthy figure to whom he has attached his entire sense of self-worth (this is made all the worse by the fact that, as previously mentioned, the Rabbit has a very child-like perspective and is clearly meant to be a character that children will personally identify with).

Apparently generations of parents and caregivers have decided that it’s perfectly acceptable to celebrate the idea that love means having “most of your hair…loved off…your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.” I can understand giving your life for someone you love, but it’s not a “sacrifice” that you make to some greedy bugger that makes your life miserable and then tosses you in a rubbish heap.

I realize that many of you will think I’m too sensitive about the book, but I think that’s the key problem: children take what they read very seriously! They read and re-read them dozens of times. The books we love as children significantly influence our worldview. I adore children’s literature, but this is one book I don’t plan on sharing with my kids until they’re old enough to apply some critical thinking skills to the subject.

5 thoughts on “The Velveteen Rabbit: Questionable Classic

  1. Interesting analysis! I never saw it this way. This story is one of my favorites, as I always saw it not as a story about being abused into falling apart, but of living a full life into old age. Everything grows old, and trying to remain pristine and avoid getting dirty only deprives us of beautiful life experiences; eventually, both the “real” rabbit and the flawlessly preserved display toys will be thrown away, but which has had a life worth living? Rabbit-land is a metaphor for Heaven, which is a little religious for my tastes, but it’s not uncommon in children’s books of a certain era to try and force religion down kids’ throats. Overall I can see your point though and very interesting comparison to The Giving Tree, which I always found abhorrent as it was so one-sided. The Giving Tree is ignored and taken for granted. At least the Velveteen Rabbit is loved in return.

  2. Interesting, indeed! We are doing this play and I think I’ll just have to bash on despite seeing your thought. Surprised I missed it as I gree with you about The Giving Tree!

    • You’ll have to elaborate! I loved it when I was a kid, perhaps it appealed to the overachiever in me – produce something extraordinary, or you’ll end up dinner. I guess it was a bit freaky, now that I think about it.