Bunnies, ducks, piglets, mice, squirrels, frogs, foxes, kittens – just a few examples from those bunch of animals which are demonstrated as leading characters in Beatrix Potter’s colourfully imagined, naturalistic tales for children. In these stories, with the comprehensive help of the artist’s own illustrations for her books, the writer reconsiders most of the existing borders between domesticated and wild animals as well as real people by using the peculiar presentation of their similarities as an effective tool. All living creatures lined up together throughout Potter’s partly fictitious world are introduced as equally important habitants of a rural environment, although some of them come from a lower social state rather than a higher one, no matter their kind, and they are also ranked on the basis of our sympathy towards them. Since the author created her animal protagonists and felons as if they were successfully keeping their own animalistic attributes while living exactly in a way like humans, their features and habits resemble to ours so much so that they can easily stand as an eye-opener representation of the true nature of humans.
To get an overall view from these examples about several stereotypical personality types and real behaviour schemes, which are brought closer to us by animals, clearly we have to list some aspects of Potter’s usage of instruments in representing her main characters as similar as possible to human beings. First of all, one of the most important observations has to be cleared in connection with the author’s attitude towards her characters, whether they are genuinely good or typically bad, which is that for her they are definitely not referred to like “animals” but instead “people”. “I have made many books about well-behaved people. Now, for a change, I am going to make a story about two disagreeable people” (Potter, The Tale of Mr. Tod). Apart from this, her protagonists just partly behave and look like humans, for example in The Tale of Peter Rabbit “Peter’s chubby figure, hand gestures, and upright posture are humanlike” (Golden 20), on the other hand “the light brown fur, white underside, and almond-shaped eyes of her storybook rabbits, Peter and Benjamin, identify them as Potter’s two pet Belgian rabbits” (Golden 18). Another thing has to be stated at the beginning, that everyone from the leading figures of the tales, on purpose, are got into some kind of a trouble coming from a simple mischief or suddenly face with an individually important matter that they have to solve by themselves or with the help of others. Therefore, these characters are emotionally challenged and living their lives as “not man and beast, not species, but selves” (Harris 63), which notion shows us the grandiosity of these stories in pointing to substantial feelings of both animals and men.
For example, the extremely naïve and simple Jemima Puddle-Duck, who desperately wishes for keeping her eggs and hatching them by herself, seeks after a suitable and peaceful place for nesting, if possible, far away from the farm where the owners always take the eggs away from her. However, she eventually finds a hidden clearing, its resident a “gentleman with sandy whiskers” (Potter, The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck) harnesses her and at the end of the story she is “escorted home in tears” (Potter, The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck) after losing her almost hatched eggs. Another feature throughout the whole collection of tales that can be detected connecting to this, is the importance of putting not really common animals into leading positions. However they “do not seem likely choices for storybook characters -or pets- but Potter was unusual in her ability to realize the charms of nearly all animal behavior” (Golden 19) and to expansively adopt those into the human world. Adding to this observation, it should also be mentioned here that dogs do not play main roles in any of the books by Beatrix Potter, they are only strong supporting characters, whose interference can change some parts of the stories. For instance, Jemima’s collie friend, Kep from simple helpfulness ruins all of the duck’s resting eggs, since those foxhounds which are asked by him for chasing the sly fox away “gobbled up all the eggs before he could stop them” (Potter, The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck). Having unconditional good faith in others does not often lead to a proper path, as it can be concluded as a lesson from Jemima’s sad story, being a bit more suspicious can save us from unforeseen consequences.
Continuing the list, one of the most visible human-like feature of Potter’s animals is simply that they are wearing all kinds of clothes like it was as natural for them as it is for us and some characters even have more than one outfits differentiated between casual and elegant. As an example for that, in The Tale of Peter Rabbit “Peter’s mother wears a housecoat and an apron when she cooks; when she goes shopping her ensemble includes a more formal dress, cloak, bonnet, and umbrella” (Harris 70) and from this exchange of clothes when someone steps out from the home, the clear consciousness towards the presence of a civilised culture can be recognized. When Mrs Rabbit scolds Peter after he returns home without his new clothes, she is probably angry because with this Peter somehow lost his social manifestation, or in other words one part of his self. “Whether I like or detest the coat, it is, in some sense, a part of me. It informs me; it tells me who I am, in the sense that it supplies a shred of the sparse but hungered-for who-I-am-to-others” (Harris 72). Adding to this interesting notion, various social groups are also represented in many of the books, mainly by their appearance and possessions. In The Tale of Samuel Whiskers the wealthy cat family has “an old, old house, full of cupboards and passages” (Potter, The Tale of Samuel Whiskers (The Roly-Poly Pudding)) and the mother, Mrs Tabitha wears pompously ornamented clothes and often invites her cousins and friends for a tea or dinner. As a counterpart for that, when her son, Tom Kitten plays hide and seek he accidentally fells on some “very dirty rags” (Potter, The Tale of Samuel Whiskers (The Roly-Poly Pudding)), which belong to Samuel Whiskers’ and his wife’s, whose place is “a very small stuffy fusty room, with boards, and rafters, and cobwebs, and lath and plaster” (Potter, The Tale of Samuel Whiskers (The Roly-Poly Pudding)). The two opposite sides, the rich and the poor are not just separated by living space and conditions but by the fact that the rats are also the immoral and bloodthirsty residents of the community, since they want to eat poor naughty Tom Kitten up on the attic. There’s another action from them which is highly significant not just because of the deed that rats are indicated as dishonest people in the book but before the moment of their escape, they also lived in the village where the writer herself lives, which incredible recognition comes after we get to know that they stole Potter’s wheelbarrow. The author even uses first person singular while writing about this accident, which understandably made her furious at the two impudent rats. “I saw Samuel Whiskers and his wife on the run, with big bundles on a little wheelbarrow, which looked very like mine. (…) I am sure I never gave her leave to borrow my wheelbarrow!” (Potter, The Tale of Samuel Whiskers (The Roly-Poly Pudding)). This open acknowledgement of equality between animals and humans gives Potter’s stories an even more elevated harmony and atmosphere that can cause a burst of sympathy or aversion towards her characters.
There is one last significant thing left, which needs mentioning here that is the two-sidedness of the fundamental, inner behaviour patterns in human nature and those effects on the audience, represented by different types of animal characters in Beatrix Potter’s books. According to her perception, almost all of those meat-eating species, whether they are pets or sylvan animals, who are revealed by her, broaden the group of villains, together with any human figure also, thereby they must provoke feelings like fear, anger, grudge and shyness from the readers. These felons are spoiled by their constant hunger for pure flesh, annoyed by animals smaller and simpler than them and sometimes they are even sly, greedy or just vicious. For example, the above-mentioned Samuel Whiskers or the fox, who tricked Jemima and simply wanted to make roasted duck from her and omelette from her eggs, are one of the wickedest creatures of these tales. Another figure like them is Old Brown, an owl from The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, who being fed up with Nutkin’s singing and teasing “held him up by the tail, intending to skin him; but Nutkin pulled so very hard that his tail broke in two, and he dashed up the staircase and escaped out of the attic window” (Potter, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin). The remark of the broken tail shows a deterrent for the readers and little Nutkin also, who eventually learned a lesson that he should better not to behave annoyingly with someone who eats squirrels.
In connection with bad human nature, the most iconic villain is simply the man itself, more precisely, Mr McGregor, who is presented in all of the tales dealing with bunnies, since his garden is located near to the rabbits’ woods and they sometimes go there and filch some vegetables. The pure fact that Peter is half-orphan thanks to Mr McGregor already provokes antipathy from the readers towards this savage man, whose wife is another person driven by the promise of meat. “(…) don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden: your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor” (Potter, The Tale of Peter Rabbit). In The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies they are even more emphasized as villains when their hunger for killing almost becomes appeased. Benjamin Bunny and his children, after eating lettuces from Mr McGregor’s rubbish heap, fall asleep, so eventually the farmer can collect the babies to a sack. Although, with the help of Mrs Tittlemouse, they escape and exchange the rabbits with trash, but before realizing this trick Mr McGregor and his wife carry on an argument about what to do with them at home. “Not fit to eat; but the skins will do fine to line my old cloak, (…), I shall skin them and cut off their heads” (Potter, The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies). As a conclusion, Beatrix Potter’s main characters may look like and partly behave like animals but they are intentionally portrayed as half human featured figures for the sake of bringing them closer to the audience, whether they are children or adults. However, there are many mean people in the tales, in contrast with them, farm animals or plant-eaters, and more specifically the tailor of Gloucester, are represented in a highly appreciated way. Moreover, their attitude to life shall stand as exemplary, although their chosen paths towards happiness must be considered more carefully by us if we want to follow them.
Golden, Catherine. “Beatrix Potter: Naturalist Artist.” Woman’s Art Journal 11.1 (Spring-Summer 1990): 16-20
Harris, W. C. “Undifferentiated Bunnies: Setting Psychic Boundaries in the Animal Stories of Beatrix Potter, Jack London, and Ernest Seton.” Victorian Review 23.1 (Summer 1997): 62-113
Potter, Beatrix. Ultimate Collection – 22 Children’s Books with Complete Original Illustrations. e-book, e-artnow, 2016.