Compared and contrasted with the tales of Little Red Riding Hood
|Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are Compared and Contrasted With the Traditional Tales of Little Red Riding Hood|
There are book reviews upon book reviews that explore Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Sendak’s colorful creation is “perhaps on more bookshelves than any other American picture book in history” (Shaddock), and that is nearly matched by the amount of information one can find about the book. However, the compositions about Where the Wild Things Are seem quite cut and dry. They pertain to subjects such as Maurice Sendak’s influences, psychoanalyses of the main character, or in-depth examinations of Sendak’s art. These are all valid topics to explore in association with Where the Wild Things Are, but there are topics and connections left untouched. For instance, could Maurice Sendak’s composition be a twisted version of the age-old fairytale of Little Red Riding Hood? This paper will explore the connections between the two infamous children’s stories and provide a new look into the beloved picture book, Where the Wild Things Are.
Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are only contains 384 carefully chosen words, meaning that each of them is very important to the text as a whole (Dooley). In order to create connections between Where the Wild Things Are and the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, these written words of Sendak’s work must be analyzed first.
The beginning of Where the Wild Things Are says “The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind, and another, his mother called him, ‘Wild thing!’ and Max said, ‘I’ll eat you up!’ so he was sent to bed without eating anything” (Sendak 1-5). From this line, the audience is introduced into a very complex storyline reflected by the intricate sentence. The story reveals a little boy in a wolf costume who is making mischief. His mother notices how rambunctious he is, so she calls her son a “wild thing” (Sendak 5). In defiance of his mother, Max tells her that he will “eat [her] up” (Sendak 5). He goes to bed without food, yet his fun has only begun as a fantasy world comes alive. The next lines reveal the transformation of Max’s room into a forest in which “his ceilings hung with vines and the walls became the world all around” (Sendak 11). As a continuation of Max’s spoiled attitude, he has a private boat of his own that transports him to where the wild things are (Sendak 13). The creatures have “terrible roars… teeth… eyes… [and] claws,” a resemblance to Max’s own wolf appearance (Sendak 17-18). He silences the beasts, and they make him the “king of all wild things” (Sendak 21). He allows the wild things to have a “rumpus” (Sendak 22), but he stops the uproar and sends the wild things to bed without any supper, just like his mom did to him (Sendak 29). However, Max becomes extremely lonely and just wants to be home despite his mother’s rules (Sendak 29). When he smells “good food” (Sendak 30), he gives up his power and returns home even though the wild things beg him to stay, saying “Oh please don’t go—we’ll eat you up—we love you so!”, mimicking how he treated his mom earlier (Sendak 31). He ends up back in his room where the good food that his mother would not give to him at first is waiting for him (Sendak 35).
In short, Where the Wild Things Are is a story about “a child’s desire for independence and dominance in conflict with his need for security and love…” (DeLuca 13), which all children face. “It is [a] parallel between the child’s developmental fantasies of rebellion against social codes, his indulgence in the unruly forces that he must learn to conquer, and Western culture’s fantasies of escape from civilized oppression to ‘primitive’ freedom…” (Shaddock 156).
Next, the key elements of the Little Red Riding Hood fairytale must be laid out in order to compare and contrast these two classics in children’s literature. In traditional Little Red Riding Hood tales, the main character, the protagonist, is a little girl known as “Little Red Riding Hood” (Norton 339), “Little Red Cap” (Norton 345), “Little Golden Hood” (Norton 348), “Little Polly Riding Hood” (Norton 356), or some other variant. The antagonist is either a werewolf or a wolf that goes without a name (Norton 339). These two characters have been acknowledged as symbols that represent the sun, Little Red Riding Hood, and darkness, the wolf (Norton 338-339). Two or three other characters are typically present within the story as well, including Little Red Riding Hood’s mother and grandmother and possibly a woodcutter or huntsman or a cat (Norton 339).
Despite the variation in characters, the plot of Little Red Riding Hood is typically the same throughout all versions. The mother sends Little Red Riding Hood to her grandmother’s house to take her some food, but along the way, she meets the wolf that eventually eats her grandmother and either succeeds or fails at eating Little Red Riding Hood. In “The Story of Grandmother,” which is thought to be one of the most influential folktales of Little Red Riding Hood, a cat appears as a commentator on the little girl’s actions at her grandmother’s house, calling her a slut (Norton 339). In Little Red Riding Hood tales such as Little Red Cap, a “huntsman” comes to save Little Red Cap as well as the grandmother from the wolf (Norton 347). Whether or not the little girl survives depends on the story’s purpose.
Various interpretations of what the entire story means have been developed such as the cycle of sunrise and sunset, a play on the legend of being swallowed alive, and even the idea of darkness consuming the purity of Christian goodness (Norton 338-339). However, the Little Red Riding Hood tale is best viewed as a warning story for young girls reaching maturity (Norton 339). Imagery such as “the path of pins or the path of needles” (Norton 339) as well as the red garment that is worn by most of the girls in the tales suggest maturation by life’s work or menstruation respectively. The wolf is usually viewed as a sexual deviant who tries to seduce the little girl and lead her astray from the path that society has laid out before her. In the instances where the little girl survives her encounter with the wolf, maturation is achieved.
Just from the line-by-line analysis of Where the Wild Things Are and the exploration of the generic elements of Little Red Riding Hood, some comparisons should be easily seen. The biggest connection between the tales concerns the trials of childhood, which all children face. In general, these trials typically relate to growing up and maturing. When observing Where the Wild Things Are, one can easily see that Max’s adventure undoubtedly helps him mature. As he sails to the land of the wild things, he is on his own and must fend for himself. Max makes several important decisions along his independent journey that show signs of growing maturity. After he becomes the king of the wild things, he engages in a “rumpus,” which he ultimately decides to stop instead of relishing in forever. He also decides to “man-up” and leave the land of the wild things to return home to his mother although he often disagrees with her and her rules. The same concept also exists in traditional Little Red Riding Hood Tales. Little Red Riding Hood is first and foremost trusted by her mother to walk by herself to her grandmother’s house, something a young child would never be allowed to do. The path itself represents maturity, and reaching the end of this path without being eaten by the wolf symbolizes achievement of maturation. These traditional tales of escape often make the little girl seem very witty and intelligent, a few characteristics of maturity. This underlying theme of these stories is something that every child goes through, and it is possibly the reason why both of these stories continue to prosper throughout the generations.
Co-existing with this trial of growing up is the realization of the safety of home. Although the kids do mature within these stories, they ultimately find that they still need to be nurtured and cared for by their parents or an adult figure. In Where the Wild Things Are, Max’s adventure takes him far away to a distant land, leaving his mother behind as a brief thought. As Max revels in his glory of being a king as well as joining in all of the wild thing festivities, he finally succumbs to his human need for love and security. By the end of his adventure, all he wants is to be where “someone loved him best of all” (Sendak 29), specifically his primary caregiver, his mother. This innate need ultimately makes Max want to return home. The same stands true for traditional Little Red Riding Hood tales. In the beginning, the little girl is safe at home with her mother, but upon her departure, she comes face-to-face with the wolf that plans to eat her. This warning message seems to reinforce the idea that the domestic sphere is the most secure place for a child, especially a girl in this case. Also, in the tales in which Little Red Riding Hood escapes, she ultimately returns home to her mother.
Another similarity among the texts is the act of defiance or deviation. Both characters create some sort of conflict due to disobeying their parents. In Where the Wild Things Are, Max yells “I’ll eat you up!” (Sendak 5) to his mother that points out his unruly behavior. Because of his bad behavior, she sends him to bed without supper. This leads to Max’s big adventure to where the wild things are. The same is true in traditional Little Red Riding Hood tales. Little Red Riding Hood always puts herself in danger by defying her mother’s advice of not talking to strangers. She dismisses her mother’s words and talks to the wolf, giving him crucial information as to where she is going and what path she is taking. By doing so, the wolf beats her to her grandmother’s house, and she ultimately creates her dire situation.
One of the final comparisons that can be made between Where the Wild Things Are and traditional Little Red Riding Hood tales is the presence of a wolf character. In Where the Wild Things Are, Max, the main character, wears a wolf costume, and in Little Red Riding Hood tales, a personified wolf is the antagonist. Little Red Riding Hood’s wolf is one of the most feared characters in children’s folklore. The merciless portrayal of the wolf comes from past generations’ fear of wolves and werewolves (Hollindale 97). This is continued in Sendak’s text. There is no doubt that he even directly alludes to Little Red Riding Hood’s wolf within his text. When Max tells his mother “I’ll eat you up!” (Sendak 5), Sendak references the wolf in traditional Little Red Riding Hood tales. Also, Where the Wild Things Are even speaks of the wild things that are in the likeness of Max by naming the terrible parts of their bodies, such as their terrible claws and teeth. In “The Story of Grandmother,” the wolf’s body parts are also described like this, saying the wolf is hairy, has big nails, big shoulders, big ears, big nostrils, and a big mouth (Norton 339). The allusions are obvious within the text, and the fact that Max is dressed up as a wolf cannot just be a coincidence.
Though many similarities among the texts exist, there are differences as well. The main difference in the texts is the main character’s gender. Where the Wild Things Are focuses on a boy, and Little Red Riding Hood tales focus on a girl. Although they do both deal with trials of childhood on a surface level, they are really stories specifically about boyhood and girlhood respectively. This completely changes the functions of the stories as well. Where the Wild Things Are is simply a fantasy book for enjoyment. A rambunctious little boy goes on an adventure to escape the domestic sphere, but he realizes he wants to go back home where good food is waiting for him. He matures a little bit throughout the story and ultimately becomes civilized by realizing the importance of home and love. In opposition, though, Little Red Riding Hood’s function is a bit more serious and has more depth. The tales in which the little girl is eaten function as warning stories for all young girls. They comprehensively warn that the sweetest tongue has the sharpest tooth and urge that girls stay true to the ideals of traditional womanhood: piety, submissiveness, domesticity, and purity.
Also due to the difference in gender, the punishment of the two characters varies greatly. In Where the Wild Things Are, Max can act wild and defy his mother, yet he barely receives any punishment throughout the course of the story. The first time Max yells at his mother, she sends Max to bed without any supper. However, by the time Max is done playing in his fantasy land, he comes back home to a hot plate of food. In reality, no punishment was given. Contrasting this greatly, the little girl in Little Red Riding Hood tales typically ends up in a near-death situation due to defying her mother’s advice and ultimately society’s wishes. In the worst cases, she is eaten by the wolf as punishment.
In traditional Little Red Riding Hood tales, the stories focus on the little girl, not the wolf. In Where the Wild Things Are, though, Max who is dressed up like a wolf is the main character. This opposition creates a drastic change in the plot with one story focusing on the victim and the other story focusing on the predator. As mentioned earlier, wolves create an extremely irrational fear in humans (Hollindale 97). However, Where the Wild Things Are almost changes this idea. Because Max is still a little boy dressed up as a wolf, the fear of the wolf-figure is lessened. Also, because Max is the main character, readers get to see more than the rambunctious, wild side of him. At the end of the story, readers see that he has transformed in some way. But in the tales of Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf is often readily demonized. The readers know nothing more than the foul intentions of the wolf. In this way, the tales are opposing.
Overall, Where the Wild Things Are and the traditional tales of Little Red Riding Hood do coincide. Whether it was Sendak’s intention to do so or not, connections can be made among the works. There are differences like the ones that can be found among the hundreds of retellings of Little Red Riding Hood tales throughout the world, making Where the Wild Things Are a part of an iconic tradition that continues to flourish.
Cech, John. "Sendak's Mythic Childhood." Children's Literature 10 (1982): 178-182. Project MUSE. 25 Mar. 2009 <http://muse.jhu.edu/>. Sendak’s publications reach “our deepest longings, misgivings, fears, and beliefs” (Cech 179). “He is our childhood’s mythologist” (Cech 179). Sendak has an “unending exploration of the normal child’s burden of rage, confusion, fear of and frustration with the various uncontrollable factors in his life: adults who don’t understand, limitations that restrict and inhibit, situations beyond worth coping with… in which Sendak transforms these experiences, thus enabling his children to triumph…” (Cech 181).
DeLuca, Geraldine. "Exploring the Levels of Childhood: The Allegorical Sensibility of Maurice Sendak." Children's Literature 12 (1984): 3-24. Project MUSE. 25 Mar. 2009 <http://muse.jhu.edu/>. Maurice Sendak’s books typically pertain to “the child’s quest ‘to come to grips with the realities of life’” (DeLuca 12). Where the Wild Things Are is a story about “a child’s desire for independence and dominance in conflict with his need for security and love…” (DeLuca 13), which all children face. The quest ultimately becomes “civilizing” (DeLuca 13).
Dooley, Patricia. ""Fantasy is the Core..." - Sendak." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 1.3 (1976): 1-4. Project MUSE. 25 Mar. 2009 <http://muse.jhu.edu/>. “Fantsay is the core of all writing for children” (Dooley 1). Sendak’s illustrations and words have equal importance in his books. Where the Wild Things Are evolved through several first rough drafts.
Hollindale, Peter. “Why the Wolves Are Running.” The Lion and the Unicorn 23.1 (1999): 97-115. Project Muse 08 Feb. 2009 <http://muse.jhu.edu.ezproxy.memphis.edu/ journals/ lion_and_the_unicorn/v023/23.1hollindale.html>. Hollindale’s article explores the childhood fear of the wolf or werewolf and how the view of the wolf has manifested. He says, “… all the stories show wolves as a unique presence in the human mind, as creatures of special significance…,” especially in children’s literature.
“Little Red Riding Hood”. The Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature. Ed. Jack Zipes, Lissa Paul, Lynne Vallone, Peter Hunt, Gillian Avery. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2005. 338-368. These texts will be used to create an archetypal idea of what Little Red Riding Hood tales encompass in order to compare and contrast with Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.
MacCann, Donnarae and Olga Richard. "The Art Of Maurice Sendak (review)." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 6.4 (1981): 11-17. Project MUSE. 25 Mar. 2009 <http://muse.jhu.edu/>. The first drafts of Where the Wild Things Are were “an unfocused jumble of magical phenomena” (MacCann 15). Sendak scratched internal rhyme and “detail that interfered with mythic quality” (MacCann 15) in order to sort out “symbolic features of childhood” (MacCann 15). Sendak believes that this book can be perceived as one-dimensional and is often considered “confusing [to] the childlike and childish” (MacCann 15).
Sendak, Maurice. Where the Wild Things Are. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1991. This text will be used to compare and contrast with Little Red Riding Hood tales in order to connect the stories is some ways.
Shaddock, Jennifer. "Where the Wild Things Are: Sendak's Journey into the Heart of Darkness." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 22.4 (1997): 155-159. Project MUSE. 25 Mar. 2009 <http://muse.jhu.edu/>. In Where the Wild Things Are, conflict “is founded upon the restraints of the domesticated world” (Shaddock 156) in which the “desire for the freedoms of the uncivilized” (Shaddock 156) equates to adventure. When Max escapes from his mother (domesticity) into the land of the wild things (freedom), “it is [a] parallel between the child’s developmental fantasies of rebellion against social codes, his indulgence in the unruly forces that he must learn to conquer, and Western culture’s fantasies of escape from civilized oppression to ‘primitive’ freedom…” (Shaddock 156).
Stanton, Joseph. "Maurice Sendak's Urban Landscapes." Children's Literature 28 (2000): 132-146. Project MUSE. 25 Mar. 2009 <http://muse.jhu.edu/>. Sendak typically uses urban landscapes, such as New York City, in his works. However, Where the Wild Things are goes against this.
Steig, Michael. "The Archetypal Sendak." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 22.1 (1997): 43-45. Project MUSE. 25 Mar. 2009 <http://muse.jhu.edu/>. Sendak created an image of what is known as “the Sendak child” (Stieg 43) which is used as a standard for most of his books featuring a child. Where the Wild Things Are “‘opened up the fantasies of a young child and let the monsters out’” (Stieg 43).
Waller, Jennifer. "Maurice Sendak and the Blakean Vision of Childhood." Children's Literature 6 (1977): 130-140. Project MUSE. 25 Mar. 2009 <http://muse.jhu.edu/>. William Blake influenced Sendak’s work. Blake saw childhood as “ignorance of destructive reason and the processes of the adult’s self-conscious rationalization and self-justification… when the human imagination was most potent” (Waller 130). The Divine existed in man because man had a powerful imagination Blake believed. Sendak takes Blake’s belief and use of the imagination to “represent the liberation of his creativity” (Waller 130).