The crepuscular nihilism of E. B. White

“I’m drankful they didn’t clip Serena’s wing,” said my four-year-old at evening prayers. “Drankful” is her fusion of “grateful” and “thankful,” and Serena is the wife of Louis the Swan in The Trumpet of the Swan by E. B. White, which we’ve been reading aloud. And her whole sentiment was my signal that, no, the weirdness in the book hadn’t flown harmlessly over the kids’ heads.

The Trumpet of the Swan tells the story of Louis, a trumpeter swan born without a voice. He can’t communicate, which means he can’t live a full swan’s life. So he goes to school with a boy who befriends him, and, after some initial skepticism from the teacher, he learns to read and write, using a small slate and chalk that hang around his neck. But none of the other swans can read, and he still can’t talk to them; so his father steals a trumpet for him, and he uses it not only to vocalize like a swan, but to play human music. Burdened with the guilt of the theft, Louis leaves home to play music for humans until he earns enough money to pay back the trumpet. The trumpet also allows him to woo Serena, who is also attracted by the slate, a lifesaving medal, and a moneybag that hang around his neck along with the trumpet, setting him apart from other swans.

At one point, Serena is in danger of having her wing clipped to keep her at a zoo; but Louis, who works for the zoo, strikes a bargain: If they let Serena go, the couple will return and donate a cygnet to the zoo from time to time. 

My kids were not okay with that, and neither was I. 

This book — and E. B. White’s other books, Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little — are not the first ones to deal with the problem of sentient animals living in a human world, but I find myself repelled by how he does handle it.

Let’s switch for a moment to Charlotte’s Web, which aggressively insists that children to think about mortality and, specifically, about being killed. When Wilbur realizes he is going to be slaughtered someday, he is quite reasonably horrified. Charlotte, with her creative weaving, manages to find a way to spare him, and that’s a comfort; but every other animal on the farm, who is just as sentient and emotionally and psychologically whole as he is, will be put to use as farm animals are. Many of them will be killed and eaten. That’s just the way it is. Charlotte dies, too, but Wilbur has some comfort when a few of her children stay behind as friends for him.

As a kid, I read this book compulsively, with fear and loathing. I could see what a good story it was, and how sensitively and beautifully the story was told, but I also felt guilty and ashamed for not being moved and satisfied by how it plays out.

It’s not that I couldn’t get comfortable with the idea that everything passes. I did as well with that idea as any child or any human could be expected to do. It’s that I was angry to be presented with two contradictory realities: That animals are just like us, only we don’t realize it because we can’t understand their language; and that humans can kill and eat these animals, and that’s fine. That even extraordinary people like Fern can penetrate the wall between human and animal . . . until she grows up a little and meets a boy, and then she stops caring, and that’s fine.

That friendship and other relationships between two souls is extremely important, and are what gives life meaning — but someday this will be cut short. And that’s fine. 

It’s really not fine. It’s not just that Charlotte’s death is tough. It’s that the entire book is steeped in a kind of mild nihilism, brightened by the suggestion that sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can put off death for a while. How is this a book for children?

The same theme is present in The Trumpet of the Swan, although it’s more in the background. The central problem of the story is communication: Louis and his father both feel that Louis cannot be whole unless he can communicate. When the father swan goes literally crashing into the human world, through the plate glass window of the musical instrument store, he brings back something which allows his son not only to converse with other swans, but to enter into the world of humans as an entertainer and a businessman — which, in turn, allows him to pay back his debt, lay down the human burden of the moneybag, and return to the world of swans and live in peace with his family in the wilds of Canada. 

Except that he made that deal that sometimes he gives some children to the zoo. Dammit, E. B. White! There it is again: The reader, and specifically children, are forced to work out some kind of uneasy truce with the contradictory world he builds. We are asked to accept that swans are fully sentient, with ideals and ethics, consciences and desires, and that a wild swan living in a zoo with clipped wings is a kind of servitude so undesirable that my four-year-old recognized it as a dreadful fate. And yet this is the fate Louis proposes for an indeterminate number of his future children, and that’s fine.

White is a good and imaginative story-teller, and he could have come up with some other plot device to extricate Louis and Serena from their dilemma. But he chose to use a trope familiar to anyone who reads fairy tales: child sacrifice. This is in Rapunzel; it’s in Rumpelstiltskin; it’s in Hansel and Gretel. Heck, it’s in Iphegenia and Psyche and Andromeda. Heckity heck, it’s in the Old Testament, when Jacob lets Benjamin go to Egypt. I have no other choice. Here, take my child.

And it’s never presented as a good or reasonable solution. We may recoil in horror, or we may writhe with pity and sympathy, because we can imagine what it feels like to be in such a tight spot; but it’s unequivocally a wrong choice, or at very least a dreadful one, made with anguish. You’re really, really not supposed to sacrifice your children to save yourself. 

Not so in Trumpet. Louis and Serena, who love and dote on their children, who know them as individuals, who have real relationships with each other and even with their own parents, and who cherish their beautiful and peaceful life in the wild, travel across the country once a year and sometimes drop off one of their babies at the zoo, as per their agreement. And that’s it.

We don’t even have the comfort of knowing that this is fantastical world where the rules are different when magic intrudes, as we do in fairy tales. In fairy tales, everyday life and hardships smack up against supernatural rule-breaking, and it’s easier to accept some hard truths that wouldn’t play well in real life, because magic is present, and magic has rules of its own. Sometimes cleverness beats magic; sometimes humans are helpless before magic’s inexorable logic. But even when the results are weird and scary and unsettling, we can tell our children, “It doesn’t happen that way in real life. It’s just a story.” 

But E.B. White, with his clean, lucid, reporterly style, is at pains to present his world as the actual world, where there are seedy jazz clubs and spoiled campers, where Louis frets over the appropriate tip for the bellboy, and must remember to clean his trumpet’s spit valve. He’s not a magical creature, and he’s not exceptional, except that his defect propelled him to take the trouble to learn English. His creatures rejoice in the world, especially the natural world; but it is very clearly the real world. There’s no otherworldliness to reassure us that we may approach the ethics of this particular story through a modified lens. Again and again, he presents troubling questions to us, and does not answer them. 

I keep wondering, how much is White aware of the plight he’s creating for his readers? 

Sam Beaver, the boy who befriends Louis and helps rescue him from an ignominious life of muteness, has the endearing habit of writing a question in his journal every night, something to mull over and he falls asleep. In the final scene, he come across the word “crepuscular,” describing a rabbit, and he doesn’t know what it means. He falls asleep wondering what it might mean, planning to look it up later. Then the book ends.

After we finished reading, I followed the obvious prompt from the author looked it up. It means animals that are most active during twilight. 

And there it is. E.B. White is a crepuscular writer, who leads us, for reasons of his own, to live in a twilight world, where nothing is clearly one thing or the other, but we’re still expected to live our lives in the half-darkness.

Maybe it’s not nihilism; maybe it’s more like some kind of American zen buddhism. But it’s not especially well-suited for kids, either. Kids can handle the idea of death; but they can’t handle the idea of being content with semi-meaninglessness, and neither can I. 

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Some interesting responses to this essay:

from Darwin: In defense of E. B. White’s talking animals
and from Melanie Bettinelli: Children’s books in Parallax

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Well-behaved characters rarely make books (but here are some that do)

You know that irritating bumper sticker, “Well-behaved women rarely make history”? Well, poo. First, it’s not everyone’s job to make history. The world functions better for everyone when most people go to work, act decently, are thoughtful of others, and save the rebellion for emergencies.

Second, and more importantly, it depends what you mean by “well-behaved.” If you mean “The only possible way to change the world is to take your top off and scream at people,” then I’d have to demur (and so would the Virgin Mary).

It’s true, though, that well-behaved characters rarely carry books, and it’s hard to write a book full of people who are kind — by which I mean disposed toward helping and being generous toward others, preferably gently and good-naturedly. It’s possible to write such a book, but it’s rare.

Authors of children’s books, especially, tend to want to give their characters authenticity and appeal by making them sassy, prickly, bratty, rebellious, morose, or dysfunctional — or good at heart, but with a tremendous flaw to overcome. Kindness is often portrayed as weakness or naïveté, and not desirable as a dominant virtue.

Here are a few of my favorite characters who are not only basically virtuous, but who always, or almost always, show kindness to other people in the story.

First I’ll get the two wild cards out of the way: Dido Twite and Pippi Longstocking. You can argue with me if you like!

Dido just barely qualifies, because she learns kindness gradually — but it’s a trait that anchors her character. I’m rereading Joan Aiken’s Nightbirds On Nantucket and am just in love with Dido, who wants so badly to get back to London, but realizes that drippy old motherless Dutiful Penitence is more than just her ticket home.

Dido gradually takes responsibility for patiently teaching Pen to enjoy life, to become less fearful, to stand up for herself, and to practice loyalty. Dido and Pen’s characters both develop, and they ultimately escape their predicament, as Dido deliberately cultivates kindness and gentleness toward the fragile Pen.

(Joan Aiken is great at portraying kind but interesting, well-realized characters: see cheerful Nate in the stories with Dido, and also the resourceful and protective Simon (in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and Black Hearts In Battersea). To a lesser extent, Arabel of the Arabel and Mortimer series is also a kind and responsible kid, although she’s also just naturally mellow.)

Pippi Longstocking is outrageously kind, a trait is just as much a part of her character as her outrageous recklessness.

She spends her time alone cooking and packing picnics for her friends, hiding treasures, and organizing all sorts of surprises and adventures. She’s enraged only by bullies who prey on the weak; and she uses her own incredible strength only for good (and some showing off). When her teasing and storytelling confuse or upset someone, she is usually contrite. Without her kindness, her outsized personality and habits would be monstrous.

The Pippi Longstocking books aren’t about character development, anyway — partly because they’re episodic, and partly because they’re sort of mythical, with Pippi as a preternatural figure whose inexplicable strength, cleverness, generosity, and radical independence are entirely self-sufficient. It’s impossible to imagine Pippi growing into adulthood or marrying, because she is already a complete person. She’s not depthless, though. She does weep, briefly, over a dead bird; and once, Tommy and Annika see her alone in her kitchen at night and it occurs to them, for the first time, that it’s possible for someone so strong and cheerful to be lonely. These glimpses into her private life make her kindness more believable.

Which other books portray characters who are thoroughly kind, without reducing them to dull foils for naughty kids with more spirit?

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett plays fairly close to the line, as Sara Crewe is almost overwhelmingly virtuous in every way.

But the scene where she struggles mightily with herself to turn her long-coveted bun over to an even hungrier child is very moving, and the book is saved from absolute melodrama by the strength and suspense of the plot and by the writing itself.

Burnett’s The Secret Garden, published six years after A Little Princess, is the better book and has more complex character development. The main character and her foil are both selfish, immature, and self-pitying early on, and their conversion and development are gradual and believable. But Dickon, the outdoorsman, is gloriously kind and open-hearted, as is his whole family.

Most people would include Charlotte of Charlotte’s Web in a list of kind protagonists, but I have always struggled with this book. It includes too many hard truths and not enough comfort for my tastes; and I always thought Charlotte was much too hard on little Wilbur emotionally, even though her actions saved him in practice. Of E.B. White’s books, my very favorite is The Trumpet of the Swan,

which includes the watchful, helpful, and loyal Sam Beaver.

She’s not in a chapter book, but I can’t neglect the lovely Nyasha, the good daughter in Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe.

The unforgettable illustrations go a long way to filling out her character, but her words and actions also demonstrate unflagging kindness, patience, and civility toward every single creature she meets, from her nasty, scheming sister, to the apparently needy folks she meets in the woods, even to the snake she encounters on the throne at the end.

(In the category of fairy tales, the 2015 live action movie of Cinderella explicitly praises kindness as a virtue to be pursued. Recommended!)

Mrs. Trotter of The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Peterson?

Oh, my heart. Her kindness is a little complex. She acknowledges that poor William Ernest Teague’s education need a harder edge than she can provide, and so her kindness perhaps shades into weakness; but in a throwaway line, she stands by her basic character, acknowledging dryly to the social worker that she’s well aware the world doesn’t consider her a real mother. Oh, Trotter. The truest portrayal of a good Christian I’ve ever seen in literature, period, for kids or for adults.

Strangely enough, the wild, anti-authority, sometimes brutal Roald Dahl books often have central characters who are very kind. Some of them are kind to most, but vengeful toward their parents and enemies, and this response is portrayed as delightful and just; but some wish even their enemies well, and are willing to risk their own safety for their friends. Charlie of Charlie in the Chocolate Factory is like this, and so is James of James and the Giant Peach;

and the vengeance is wrought by fate, rather than the protagonist. I haven’t read The BFG in many years, but I recall that the BFG’s main trait was kindness. In Danny the Champion of the World, the father is meant to be a kind man, but the reader of conscience can’t ignore than he is a criminal and a vengeful man.

Honorable mention goes to the very helpful Elmer Elevator of My Father’s Dragon,

who takes everyone he meets at face value, never uses more force than necessary, and even remembers to bring a birthday present home for his father.

Likewise Freddy the Pig throughout Walter R. Brooks’ extensive series of books,

who sometimes gets irritated or falls into self-pity, but is ultimately the friend everyone needs to have. The trio of cows, Mrs. Wiggins, Mrs. Wogus, and Mrs. Wurtzburger are also kind sorts, and tremendously appealing.

Finally, a recommendation from Rebecca Salazar: John Carter from A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

I haven’t read this series, but I trust Rebecca (although she warns that the series is 100 years old, and contains references to “red men” and savage Apaches and the like, and that the first three are the best).
She says: It is a cheesy pulp novel, but one of the overarching differences between John Carter and the martians is that he treats subordinates and defeated enemies with kindness, and he doesn’t just automatically kill someone because they’re an enemy.

One example of kindness in it is that the green Martian tribe Carter becomes a chieftain in have horse analogue animals that they basically subdue through force, and this they’re dangerous to their riders, but Carter treats his with kindness and tames them and the rest of the warriors are shocked by how superior his mounts are because of this.
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As you can see, my reading list needs some updating! I stand by all my recommendations, and hope that my kids will love these characters as much as I do; but I’d be happy to add to the list, especially to include newer books.
Who else in children’s literature is predominantly kind without being dull, two-dimensional, or drippy?