Wild Things with Baby Faces, part 5: The Monster with Human Feet.

11 Oct

5. The monster with human feet.

Sendak uses his clean, simple-faced alter ego to feed his childhood desires. In feeding his inner child’s narcissism, he offers readers the chance to indulge in their own. Max is the id, the untroubled pleasure seeker who can only be induced to return home by a simpler, but no less gratifying, pleasure, the security of a mother’s love and a hot meal.

This reading of the story offers one answer to its enduring popularity; Max gets to live the childhood the rest of us missed out on.

Max is a Peter Pan figure, a child who gets to become ruler of a faraway world. He is Tarzan without the tragedy and without the civilizing presence of his Victorian breeding. He is Mowgli, loose in the forests of time. He is the untamable thing in the human mind, imagination and its discontents. This type of character has an intense allure, and it is this aspect of the book that accounts for its popularity with adults.

The story allows Max to sail across the world, conquer the monsters, and return home unscathed. It’s a straightforward twist of a timeless, ancient storyline, as ingrained into our collective consciousness as Gilgamesh or Beowulf. Sendak, with this simple little story, harkens back over 2,000 years of recorded history, following almost exactly Joseph Campbell’s classic hero’s journey. Max is the monster killer, Captain Ahab in a wolf suit.

This reading of the book—that the story’s timelessness appeals to some deep, innate sense of narrative symmetry we carry inside—offers another answer to the question of the book’s appeal.

The simplicity of Max’s face, the blank contours of his body, pulls the reader into Max’s wild fling into the far reaches of his self-indulgent imagination. The beautiful backgrounds, recognizable and concrete, add to this reader projection. This idea, that we push ourselves into Max because his face is a universal symbol of everyman’s face, offers yet another explanation to the book’s appeal.

And yet, this approach too—of seeing the book in terms of psychic reader projection—misses an essential piece of the story’s power.

There’s an undeniable melancholy about the book, a streak of loneliness and desperation. Max is alone. He sees no other people, and must spend his evening in the comfort of fictional beings. On page 9, when Max is standing angry in his room, there are no toys, no pictures, no signs of life save for a single plant. The plant has no flowers. Behind the plant, the chalky outline of the dead moon. Max looks at the closed door. And beneath the doorknob, there’s a locking mechanism that locks on the outside. It’s a subtle image, full of the lurking menace of loneliness, and Max standing in the unadorned locked room is a great record of a child growing up in isolation. It’s a hidden melancholy, a little dash of existentialism.

The cover illustration highlights this point, with a lonely, horned giant, sleeping with a slight grin (or is it a grimace?), with large human feet, sitting at the shore by an empty boat. (And why is it empty?) He is waiting for Max to return, but Max is gone, and probably gone forever. The giant is surrounded by an unearthly paradise, but all he can do is sleep. He, too, is alone, and all the beautiful wildness in the world cannot make up for this fact.

The

Combining the loneliness of a little boy with the brash adventures of an epic hero, Sendak merges his artwork, writing style, and plot into a cohesive, balanced story, reveling in the best and worst of youth. But it is the hidden melancholy that sticks with the reader. Sendak snatches the true eternal fire—the human capacity for loneliness, the endless manifestations of sadness—showing that the wildest things live not outside the world but rightly in it.

Sources:

Bangs, Molly. Picture This: How Pictures Work. Chronicle Books, San Francisco. 2000.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. MJF Books, New York. 1949.

Marcus, Leonard. Minders of Make Believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs, and the Shaping of American Children’s Literature. Houghton Mifflin, Boston. 2008.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. Kitchen Sink Press, New York. 1993.

Paul, Pamela. “Rules Meant To Be Broken.” New York Times Book Review, Sept. 18, 2011.

Sendak, Maurice. Where the Wild Things Are. Harper Collins Publishers, New York. 1991.

(All images belong to the Maurice Sendak estate; I have used them here for review purposes.)

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