The Tales of Beatrix Potter
Representation of Human Nature in Beatrix Potter’s Colourful Tales for Children
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.
Desiring Unfamiliarity or Driving Segregation? The Role of the Other in Peter and Wendy, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck
The mysterious and the unknown can be intriguing, but dangerous. The new can be compelling, but we are often wary of those not like us, whether this is due to previous experience and previously held ideals. J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy and Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit and The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck explore the notion of the other, or that which is not familiar to us, through the way that characters in the work react to one another based on their differences. Through each of these works, we see otherness balancing on a teetering scale. While the unknown is intriguing and desirable in some cases, it can also drive segregation and misunderstanding through the judgement of the other as evil. This creates an interesting dichotomy in which characters are drawn to things that are mysterious and intriguing due to their otherness, but are quick to judge those who are other in an undesirable way – but what separates the alluring other from the dubious other? To explore this dichotomy is to discover how otherness is interpreted by the characters in each narrative. For both authors, otherness is compelling to the beholder, as though the unknown has an allure that cannot be replaced with something known and familiar.
In The Tale of Peter Rabbit, the rabbits’ mother advises her children, “don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden”, as this is the place where their father met a terrible fate (Potter 5). As their mother adamantly warns the children not to enter the garden, this creates a spark within Peter, who chooses to disobey his mother. Despite his mother’s emphasis on the danger of the farm, he enters it anyway, gorging himself on the fruits and vegetables that are there (7-9). No one has explained to Peter that there will be food or anything of interest to him inside of the garden, so Peter Rabbit’s choice to enter the garden anyways proves that his motive is to investigate the intrigue of this new, forbidden space. Though Peter knows of the danger of humans, he still chooses to go into the garden, but he heeds a warning from his cousin about another animal. When he encounters the white cat, “Peter thought it best to go away without speaking to her; he had heard about cats from his cousin, little Benjamin Bunny” (21). Because Peter knows about what cats do, he does not feel the need to explore the cat, but the intrigue of the garden is in the secrets it holds, in its otherness. In The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck, we see otherness take on two appealing forms: the joys of motherhood and the compelling foxy gentleman. Despite the fact that motherhood is simply not something accessible to ducks, “because the farmer’s wife would not let her hatch her own eggs”, Jemima becomes “quite desperate” to be a mother, going to great lengths to hatch her own eggs (1,3). That motherhood is foreign to Jemima makes this desire so strong, even though Rebeccah Puddle-Duck “know[s] that Jemima would “let [the eggs] go cold” (2). Because Rebeccah seems to have knowledge of the workings of motherhood, her desire is not as strong as Jemima’s, but Jemima is so enthralled by this mysterious experience due to its otherness to her. Jemima is intrigued by another other in her story, the “foxy gentleman”, who she thinks is “mighty civil and handsome” (9). Despite the fact that she should be wary of a stranger around her babies – she does not want the “the superfluous hen” hatching her eggs, she is happy to leave her eggs in the care of this stranger, who she is drawn to due to his intrigue (10). She knows the hen, and knows about her, but would rather lay her eggs in this stranger’s shed due to his intriguing personality and the fact that he is unknown to her and the farmer who takes her eggs in the morning.
We see the other as intriguing in Peter and Wendy as well, though perhaps through a more sexual and precocious lens. At Peter and Wendy’s first meeting, “She was not alarmed to see a stranger crying on the nursery floor; she was only pleasantly interested” (Barrie 37). The first moment this strange intruder is introduced to her in the middle of the night, Wendy is not afraid, as one should be when there is a stranger in the house, in fact, this new other piques her interest – so much so that, after their interaction “She also said she would give him a kiss if he liked” (41). Despite not knowing what a kiss is, Peter wants to receive one, this attraction to the unknown persisting in both of the children during their first meeting (41). In this way, a new type of relationship presents much room for the exploration of the other in the form of someone other in gender. However, Wendy, one of the main characters of the work, despite her being “every inch a woman”, is never truly given sexual agency – while Peter sees her as “a nice motherly person”, she admits herself: “I am only a little girl. I have no real experience” (40, 107). As Wendy is the most known character, and thus the least “othered”, she is not considered sexually intriguing by the characters in the story. However, the sensuality of Tinkerbell and Tiger Lily, the two sexualized characters in the story, exists due to their otherness. The intrigue of the other is conveyed in that Tiger Lily and Tinkerbell’s sexual appeal is so intertwined with their otherness. While Tinker Bell does not conceal her sensuality, as “her figure could be seen to the best advantage”, and her bedroom is referred to as a “boudoir”, it is notable that the only character who is allowed to be so overtly sexual is othered in that she is not human (37, 113). In this story, desirability is not just limited to the inhuman, but also to the racialized other. Tiger Lily “is the most beautiful of dusky Dianas and the belle of the Piccaninnies, coquettish, cold and amorous by turns; there is not a brave who would not have the wayward thing to wife” (82). Her otherness is amplified by the racialized words used to describe her, such as “dusky” and “redskin” (82, 133). This racial caricature is taken a step further through her speech, when she says, “’Me Tiger Lily… Peter Pan save me, me his velly nice friend. Me no let pirates hurt him” (151). As she articulates this exaggerated character of an accent, the narrator refers to her as a “lovely creature” (151). As a racialized person, Tiger Lily is less of a person and more of an animal in this narrative, but is assigned sexual characteristics. Even the juxtaposition of these two words, “lovely” and “creature”, further enforces the idea that to be other is to be desirable. These two concepts, the covetable and the other, are linked so intrinsically in each of these stories, whether it is the intrigue of an unknown place, the prospect of a new purpose in life, the allure of a stranger, the draw to explore new relationships, or the sexualization of the other. If the other can be used for personal gratification, then it is considered alluring. Though otherness imparts desirability in these narratives, the unknown can also be associated with evil, perceived by the protagonist or by the reader through the narration.
Otherness can be perceived as evil in both Peter and Wendy and the Potter works. It is easier for characters in the story not to dissect the motives of those that are different to them, as it is too difficult for these characters to understand the point of view of the other. In this fashion, characters attempt to distance themselves from those of other races, species, and backgrounds by further emphasizing their differences. In The Tale of Peter Rabbit, the other is a source of danger from many directions. The first mention of another species is by Peter’s mother, who explains that his father had been put into a pie by the human Mrs. MacGregor (Potter 3). Peter spies a cat, but has heard from his cousin that cats as a species are dangerous, and decides not to talk to this member of another species (21). Even Peter’s perceived negligence of the mouse, whose mouth is so full that “she [can] not answer” Peter’s question, shows any species other than the Rabbit to be unhelpful, and thus, not good (20). In fact, Peter does not have one positive interaction with any member of another species throughout his entire journey – thus reinforcing the idea that the other is to be seen as antagonistic in relation to the main character. This is reinforced further in The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck, in which Jemima is untrusting of all other species (save for the wily fox, who the reader sees as untrustworthy through the narration). The first sentence of the tale, “What a funny sight it is to see a brood of ducklings with a hen!” seeks to emphasize the divide between species (1). Jemima thinks the hen is “superfluous” and would not like the hen to hatch her eggs for her (10). Even when speaking to Kep, Jemima is in “awe of the collie” (18), further showing her wariness other species and emphasizing their differences. One might argue that because Jemima is so trusting of the fox, he is not an other and therefore not considered suspicious, however, the narrator’s treatment of the fox exhibits nevertheless the same propensity to perceive the other as a threat, calling Jemima a “simpleton” for not noticing the dubiousness of the foxy man (17). The obvious way in which the narrator mocks Jemima for being so naive as to not be wary of the other serves to reiterate the idea that the other is something to be wary of, no matter how charming it may be. The narrative serves to reiterate differences between a character and the other in order to justify that any difference that is not useful to the self is to be feared.
In Peter and Wendy, “the black pirate” Captain Hook is posited as the primary villain of the story (Barrie 187). While he is indeed a terrible man, and has committed many atrocities against not only the inhabitants of Neverland but his own pirates as well, much of the imagery used to describe his evilness has to do with how dark he is physically. While we see Wendy mistaken by the lost boys for “A great white bird” (92) and Peter referred to by the tribes as “the Great White Father” (150), and Tinker Bell exuding light, we see the evil Hook described as a “’Dark and sinister man’”, setting forth the differences in colour between the good and the evil (228). Not only is Hook dark in behaviour, but he is also dark in colour: he is “blackavised, and his hair was dressed in long curls, which at a little distance looked like black candles, and gave a singularly threatening expression to his handsome countenance” (80). When he emerges from the water, Wendy sees his “ his evil swarthy face” (131). Barrie uses negative connotations of dark colour and dark skin and hair to other Hook and associate him further with evil. Hook’s otherness in colour serves to contrast from the children, their whiteness symbolizing innocence and his darkness symbolizing evil. The blackness of Hook is used in descriptions of his ugliness. In creating this greater divide between light and dark, good and evil, Barrie achieves the same result as Potter, in that characters are wary of othering characteristics when these characteristics do not fulfil a purpose which is useful to the character.
The link between otherness, intrigue, and evil is not merely a coincidence, but a commentary. These works show that the dichotomy of otherness can be broken down in that in the cases where otherness is desirable, (such as the intrigue of a garden full of possible treats, the idea of the joys of motherhood, the exploration of a blooming relationship, or the sexualization of the exotic) it is commodifiable in the eyes of a character. Otherness is only desirable when it can be exploited such that a character can gain something from it. When a character stands to gain nothing from the other in a situation, they look at the other as an antagonist, and seek to separate themselves from the other. For example, while Tiger Lily’s “dusky” skin makes her alluring and sensual, Hook’s dark face is portrayed as evil. Whether it is due to their species or the colour of their skin, these differences will be emphasized such that the characters can segregate themselves from the other.
Barrie, James Matthew. (2008). Peter and Wendy. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved from https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/26654. Potter, Beatrix. (2005). The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved from https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/14814. Potter, Beatrix. (2005). The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved from https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/14838.