Themes and philosophical questions in Peter Rabbit
In writing this article David Kennedy's analysis printed in Analytic Teaching, vol. 13, no. 1 november 1992: "Using Peter Rabbit as a philosophical text with young children" has been a great inspiration. Hence we have adopted his basic structure and many of his points. But we have also added own thoughts and experiences. All in all we hope that this paper will inspire and instruct readers who might consider using the tale of Peter Rabbit in a group of small children.
A surface-level reading is based on two main elements:
- The story itself
It ought to be read aloud and with a poignant sense of drama (shouting and waving your arms about!)
- The illustrations in the book
Along with the text the illustrations create a narrative space corresponding to the child's vivid imagination and sense of wonder. But of course, one can do fine without showing the pictures to the children. It's up to you really.
These are the most common ways to approach this tale: one reads it aloud to the children and points at the pictures and that's it! But there's so much more to this story. Keep on reading and you'll see for yourself.
Subtextual narrative patterns (ways to read/understand the text)
This is where the exploration of the text begins. The point is to use your fantasy to uncover hidden layers in the text. This is done by focussing on certain elements of the story in order to see if some of these elements fit in with other contexts. The contexts we then reveal, become new stories—as if having discovered a story within the story. But that's exactly what we have done!
Let's illustrate. This tale is about a little rabbit-boy whose choice of actions is restricted: "don't enter the garden". But this is exactly what Peter wants to do. The trespassing is very exciting, and also rewarding, should he get a chance to nibble at Mr. McGregors vegetables. A typical 5 year-old will no doubt identify himself with Peter. Just like Peter, the average 5 year-old get to learn about himself by exploring and trying to master the world despite all explicit and implicit restrictions limiting his or hers exploration. In fact the child can only be fully aware of (internalize) the laws and regulations by actually breaking them! To develop maturity involves being familiar with the existing limits to one's actions. And to reach such a familiarity, the limits must be broken. Or must they? Let the children discuss this!
At least Peter himself breaks several rules: he enters the garden (violation of the law of private property), he gorges himself (violation of the law of temperance), he defies "the law of the jungle" as he opposes Mr. McGregor, who has the power to kill him (a power Peter knows very well that Mr. McGregor had used before, i.e. when he killed Peter's father—isn't it likely that Mr. McGregor would use his power again, and to the same purpose?).
Hence Peter risks his life to try out the limits and thereby to find out more about himself as a human being (or rather, as a rabbit!). Now, this can be said to represent a developmental narrative in the story.
But there are other ways also to interpret this text. The garden may for instance be conceived as a model of the world outside of home, a world consisting of huge, powerful, hostile (Mr. McGregor), ambiguous (the cat) or friendly (the sparrows) competitors. In the world outside there are also possible allies (like the little mouse). The trouble is, they are all too concerned with their own survival to be of any assistance. This is the social perspective of the story. So when Mrs. Rabbit tells her children not to "get into mischief", one might very well ask if this was in fact a very clever thing to tell them. For if the children, because they are obedient, never get into mischief, how then are they supposed to learn survival in a rough world of domination and injustice where there's always a chance to be eliminated by a more powerful player? Isn't it crucial for Peter to learn this "game" from scratch, learn to be tough and a little bit naughty so that he eventually perhaps will do better than his father did?
Now, as we recall, Peter escapes the gooseberry net by letting go of his clothes. Isn't it typical that a type like Mr. McGregor, i.e. the feared, and perhaps also hated, oppressor, picks up Peter's clothes only to use them as deterrent to other challengers of the system? It's as if he thereby wanted to say: "look what happens to intruders—here are the remains of the last rascal that had a go with my garden!"
A third approach to this story is the mythological. Here Peter is a hero who must go through certain ordeals in order to prove that he really is a hero. This is a usual way for children to understand Peter. A biblical reference to this is to be found in the story of David and Goliath. Peter encounters a giant who is much stronger than himself. It certainly strengthens Peter's status as a hero that he manages to outsmart Mr. McGregor (although he fails to do him in, like David did Goliath in—this was of course never an option for Peter, at least not in this story).
Finally there's a tragic aspect to this not to be forgotten. Peter escaped the danger this time, but what about next time, and the time after next? Most likely the individual, who constantly seeks to transgress the limits of the law, sooner or later will suffer defeat (in other words: Peter will end up like his father, as dinner for the McGregors). This is even more tragic because the one who is destructed, is just the one who least of all deserves to go under, i.e. the hero: the brave and the fearless, the admired, the one who lived his life to the full.
Now: these are themes that can be discussed with young or not so young children. Even the 5 year-olds. We know, because we have tried it ourselves!
Philosophical questions to the Tale of Peter Rabbit
Animals and humans
In this tale Peter has lots of human features. Also when we relate to animals, e.g. to our pets, we more or less automatically assume that they are not very different from us. We assume that they think and feel like humans. But do we actually know this? What is the difference between animals and humans?
- is Peter an animal or a human?
- is Mr. McGregor an animal or a human?
- what is similar to animals and humans and what is different?
- should animals wear clothes?
- do animals think? do animals talk? have they got feelings? can they make plans?
- what makes a thing alive?
- is the moon, the wind, the sea, a piece of your skin alive?
- can the moon, the wind, the sea, your skin die? can everything that is alive die?
- is there something that cannot die?
Good and bad
The tale of Peter Rabbit is also a tale of the battle between good and bad where Peter represents the good chap and Mr. McGregor the powerful and bad. But is it really that simple? Wasn't Peter slightly bad when he didn't obey his mother and when he stole vegetables in the garden? And what about the mouse that refused to help Peter? Was she a bad little mouse or wasn't she?
- what does it really mean to be bad and to "get into mischief"? are you necessarly bad if you get into mischief?
- is Peter bad? is the mouse bad? the cat? the birds who eat Mr. McGregor's seeds? is Mr. McGregor bad since he ate Peter's father?
- how do you think Mr. and Mrs. McGregor would answer to these questions?
- what makes you call a thing or a person "good"?
- can it be too much/too many of a good thing?
- can something good come out of something bad and vice versa?
- can something be good and bad at the same time?
Exercise: Are these good or bad things? Both? Neither? Why?
- a doll
- a human being
- an icecream
- a thought
- a day
- a word
- a year
Peter's mother warns him and tells him that his father had an accident. That his father was caught, killed and eaten was then, according to Mrs. Rabbit, more of a coincidence, something that can't be helped. Children have, however a tendency to perceive actions as expressing an underlying will or intention. In that case nothing is purely coincidental. So: do coincidences occur or don't they?
- was it a coincidence that Peter's father died?
- was it a coincidence that Peter went to Mr. McGregor's garden? that he lost his clothes?
- did Peter go into the garden on purpose?
- would Peter's mother have called it a coincidence also if Peter had been caught and eaten by Mr. McGregor?
- how can you tell if something happens coincidentally?
- how can you tell if something happens on purpose or not?
- what sort of things happen on purpose?
- does the sun shine on purpose?
- do people become angry on purpose?
- is the doctor hurting you on purpose if he pricks you with a needle?
- who/what has a will? trees, clouds, sun, a mouse, a child, a grown-up? why/why not?
Is it difficult to imagine that there is something that is not caused by anything else? Is it perhaps easier to imagine that everything that happens has a cause? But how can we know what is the cause in each case? What's causing the actions that take place in the tale of Peter Rabbit?
- If two events occur simultaneously, is the one event then the cause of the other? Does Peter run because Mr. McGregor runs after him? Does Peter run because Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-tail pick blackberries? How can we know for certain that one event causes another event to happen?
- Is it possible to imagine that Peter would not have run even though Mr. McGregor came running after him? Can one event be the cause of another event although the two events happen on different places and at different times? Examples?
What does it mean to steal
Peter eats Mr. McGregor's vegetables. Does he steal them?
- does the mouse "steal" peas?
- did Peter steal from Mr. McGregor?
- how do you know when something is a theft?
- do you steal if you taste a grape at the supermarket?
- what does it mean to own something?
- do you own your bed? your parent's car? the moon? your thoughts? your dog and your cat?
What is dangerous?
Peter puts his life at risk by entering the garden. Many children have also experienced dangerous situations. But how do we know when something is dangerous? Can it only be felt? Must something be at stake to be thought of as dangerous? Would Peter have taken any risks by not entering the garden?
- have you ever been in danger?
- is Mr. McGregor dangerous to Peter?
- is Mr. McGregor dangerous to you?
- is Peter dangerous to Mr. McGregor?
- is Peter dangerous to the cat?
- is the mouse dangerous to anyone at all?
- are you dangerous yourself sometimes?
The relation between children and grown-ups
Peter doesn't pay attention to his mother's warnings. He is disobedient. Why do always the grown-ups decide what is allowed to do? Do the children actually need the grown-ups to tell them what to do? What have children and grown-ups got in common? Is it possible to tell when you become a grown-up?
- do you have to do what the grown-ups tell you to do? why/why not?
- why are grown-ups authorities while children are not? do children have rights? do children have some rights that the grown-ups don't have?
- what is the same and what is different between children and grown-ups?
- is Peter a child? how can you know for certain?
- will you still be you when you grow up? what will be the same, what will be different?
- are there grown-ups and children among the animals and the plants too?
- what would the world be like without grown-ups? and without children?
- what would the world be like if the children were to take care of the grown-ups and tell them what to do? if one was born big as an adult and then started becoming smaller and smaller?
Peter's siblings are well-behaved and do certainly not "get into mischief". Is it characteristic for a boy (like for instance Peter) to venture a dangerous mission while it is characteristic for a girl to be submissive and docile and to obey her mother who tells her to stay where it's safe? By the way: are we sure that Peter's siblings in this story are in fact his sisters? Is this indicated at all in the tale?
- if boys and girls dressed alike and did their hair the same way, how could you tell them apart?
- in what way are boys and girls similar, in what way are they different?
- what decides whether you are born as a girl or a boy?
- when boys and girls grow up, will they become different? or are they perhaps different even before they grow up?
- why are there boys and girls in the first place?
- what do the boys do and what do the girls do: run, cry, laugh, beat, sleep, play with dolls, play with cars, get into mischief?
Peter walks alone into the garden. But in this garden there lives many other animals. Wouldn't it be sensible for all the animals to get together so that they could support each other in the fight against the common oppressor? How does Peter relate to the animals he runs into?
- do all animals live "in their own world" with no ability or will to help each other (i.e. other species)?
- is the world divided into classes: humans and animals (i.e. rulers and the oppressed)? if so,why is there no solidarity between Peter and the other animals?
- what do you think is Peter's opinion about his mother and the values she represent? does she represent a sort of safety with which Peter cannot identify?
Page created: 27.09.06. Page last modified: 10.10.06 14:00.