Exit 13 Literary Review Volume I
The Sneetches by Dr. Suess
We were all very stupid at a certain age. Let’s be honest with ourselves here, for a large portion of our lives there was a time when we couldn’t do even the most simple of tasks such as taking three steps without falling over, riding a bike, drinking out of a cup that didn’t have a secure lid, or putting a square peg into its corresponding port of entry (Hint: it was the square one). However, after a gauntlet of trials and errors, we all did eventually come out on the other side, leaving those dark days of diapers and velcro sneakers behind us.
As we grow older, we often forget that at one point in our lives we did not have the ability to do one extremely important thing: read. Yes, reading. Whether you claim to hate reading or love it, there is no escaping the fact you do it every day. Now I know that there is a huge difference between the person you’re stalking’s Twitter timeline and War and Peace, but in its simplest terms, reading is reading.
But how did this ability to read come about? Well although it’s tough to admit now, most of us started out on a very basic level with books made of cardboard with “pages” usually consisting of one or two lines. Eventually, we managed to work our way up into what we now refer to as “children’s books” with the likes of The Cat in the Hat or The Hungry Hungry Caterpillar. And although these books may seem as though they are just simple ideas meant to entertain kindergarten-aged kids, I would go as far to say that those books have just as much, if not more, underlying meaning than any book you are required to read in a high school literature class.
It is because of this belief that we here at Exit 13 would like to introduce you to a new series of blogs where we take an in-depth look at many of the books we read as children, uncovering all of the hidden meaning behind stories we know and love. And we will start with one of my personal favorite books, The Sneetches by Dr. Seuss.
In the beginning of the story, Seuss introduces the readers to a fantastic group of beings called Sneetches. We are given little information about these creatures other than the fact that they are tall and yellow. Seuss also tells us that some of the Sneetches feature green stars on their bodies while other Sneetches are just plain yellow. Of course this leads to conflict in their town since the Star-Bellied Sneetches discriminate against the normal Sneetches.
Seeing these social struggles as a monetary opportunity, a young entrepreneur named Sylvester McMonkey McBean, operating under the false name of the “Fix-It-Up Chappie’, moves into the town with a way for the normal Sneetches to escape their oppression. For just $3 the Sneetches can go through McBean’s Star-On machine and they will immediately become the same as the Star-Bellied Sneetches.’
This of course was a big blow to the original Star-Bellied Sneetches who have now lost their only symbol of social superiority. So the wonderful Fix-It-Up Chappie, being the suave business man he is, offered the original Star-Bellied Sneetches a deal of their own. For $10 they could go through his Star-Off machine and regain their uniqueness which put them at the top of the social structure in the first place.
Eventually what happens is an infinite loop of Sneetches running between both machines trying to figure out whether it is socially advantageous to be Star-Bellied or not Star-Bellied. Seuss portrays this beautifully when he states
“…until neither the Plain nor the Star-Bellies knew whether this one was that one… or that one was this one…or which one was what one… or what one was who.”
In the aftermath of all of this, the Sneetches end up flat broke while our old friend Sylvester McMonkey McBean drives away with his newfound riches chanting “You can’t teach a Sneetch!”. However, this assertion proves to be false. The Sneetches end up realizing that despite the fact that they may have different marking, no brand of Sneetch is superior to any other and they all end up happily ever after.
Now let’s dig in deep here.
Without question Suess wrote this book with the clear intention of satirizing racial discrimination around the world. In order to do this, Seuss used a lesson that he learned from the great Victorian authors who wrote hundreds of years before him.
Because of the censoring issues of the time (censoring of course refers to the beheading they’d receive for writing anything controversial), Victorian authors could not be straightforward when dealing with complex societal issues like political criticism or sex. So in order to write about these ideas without technically writing about them they would create symbols and characters that represented these ideas such as the Vampire who could represent anything from sexual desire to the restrictive power of government.
It is in this way that Dr. Seuss portrays his views about racism. Instead of just coming out and saying “Hey, discrimination isn’t right we should stop doing that”, he uses the story of the Star-Bellied and Plain-Bellied Sneetches to accurately represent that idea in a way that’s easy for people to understand.
Another reason why writing the story in such a way makes sense is because for people who do understand the story’s deeper meaning, it makes you feel much more guilty about the current state of racism in America. If a group of mythical creatures are able to realize that maybe they aren’t so different after all, shouldn’t it be the same thing for humans?
One smaller thing worth noting is that the way Seuss marked the Sneetches was also extremely important to the story. Dr. Suess put stars on the Sneetches, as opposed to sqaures, rectangles, or circles, in an attempt to fill the reader with a subconscious reminder about the hardship that Jews faced during WWII era Germany when they were forced to wear gold stars as identification by the totalitarian Nazi state. Since Dr. Seuss, also known as Theodore Geisel, was a staunch supporter of Jewish rights this allusion did not come as a surprise.
It can also be said that the character of Sylvester McMonkey McBean was a representation of the post Civil War businessmen known as “Carpetbaggers” who would rip off recently freed slaves with cheap or otherwise useless products just to turn a quick buck.
As you may be able to tell by now, the amount of meaning and purpose in a book is by no means controlled by how many pages it makes up. In fact, you could make the argument that children’s books are a more refined form of literature based on how much an author has to fit in a confined amount of space.
Until next time this has been an Exit 13 Literary review.