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.

Surface level

A surface-level reading is based on two main elements:

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?

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?

Exercise: Are these good or bad things? Both? Neither? Why?

Coincidence

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?

Cause/effect

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?

What does it mean to steal

Peter eats Mr. McGregor's vegetables. Does he steal them?

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?

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?

Gender issues

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?

Social issues

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?

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