I have a B.A. in English Literature, and in this case, B.A. stands for Bullshit Artistry. Combine that with an M.A. in English Lit, and spinning words into webs is pretty much all that I’m good at now. Academia has its highs and its lows, but I’ve been more disillusioned with it recently – sometimes it seems like nothing more than an elaborate exercise in using big words to argue… anything, as long as you stand behind what you “believe.” And it seems as though the more people “specialize,” parsing their interests down to one branch of knowledge, one author, one book that they then spend their lives dissecting and obsessing over, the less everything really means anything. Intellect unravels into excessive, infinite rhetorical capillaries that continue pumping industriously but (sometimes) unnecessarily. Despite my misgivings about the goings-on in the ivory tower, this type of literary dissection is still fun, if merely time-wasting (in my case, anyway). Whether this particular analysis means anything at all is debatable, but that’s my point: any text dissolves into myriad meanings if enough interpretative hooks pull at its flesh, and this is the interminably frustrating and exhilarating outcome of attempting a literary analysis. From this perspective, a 30-page illustrated children’s story has as much potential “worth” as a classic poet’s works, if enough cultural capital is invested in dissecting its elements and building meanings from them. Here’s my first attempt at approaching a text I love (Goodnight Moon) with these apparent “skillz” I’ve acquired.
‘Goodnight Nobody, Goodnight Mush’: Navigating the Space of Loneliness in Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon
In depicting a common childhood nighttime routine in simple yet beautiful prose, Goodnight Moon (1947), a picture book written by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Clement Hurd, also reveals how the night can transform a well-known room into a lonely, or even an alienating, place from a child’s perspective. (images provided from http://zzmmttm.vip.sina.com/yuanbangshu/GoodnightMoon/GoodnightMoon.htm)
The story presents a (non-gendered) child-bunny’s ritual of saying “Goodnight” to the objects that comprise her/his world “In the great green room,” the illustrations alternating between pan-shots of the entire bedroom
and close-ups of the objects s/he addresses.
After the initial indication of the rhymed objects in the room, the text repeats “Goodnight” to all of them, each object remaining easily discernible in the ever-darkening room.
In 100 Best Books for Children: A Parents’ Guide to Making the Right Choices for Your Young Readers, Toddler to Preteen, Anita Silvery observes that, although critics thought the book was too sentimental when it was first published, “future generations have grown to appreciate the crisp language, clear geometric forms, and bright, bold colours” (4). Silvery offers an explanation of why Goodnight Moon has become such an endearing – and enduring – bedtime classic; the story offers children a sense of familiarity, as both Brown and her mentor, the founder of Bank Street College’s School of Education, believed that “books should expose young children to the ‘here and now’ world of their home surroundings. Children need to hear about and see all the things that they feel comfortable with in their own world” (Silvery 3).
Jan Susina delves further into why this book has steadily gained popularity since the 1970s and has achieved what is likely a permanent position in guides such as Silvery’s. She observes that, while Brown subscribed to the Bank School’s theory of education, her literary mentor was Gertrude Stein (Susina 117). Impressed with and consequently influenced by modernist texts, Brown’s own writing thus simulates the popular “stream-of-consciousness” writing style espoused by these authors – and, in the case of Goodnight Moon, it predicts what a drowsy child’s imagination might latch on to in an ever-darkening bedroom.
Susina argues that Brown’s creation of this particular poetic landscape, “where every object has its proper place and everything is ritually put to bed by the bunny child” (118), allows the (often preliterate) child listening to the story to make sense of the book’s world and to participate in the bunny’s ritual of naming objects. While this book crucially turns on the themes of repetition and return, however, it also represents “a child’s farewell to the world of day and entrance into the more fearful world of night and dreams,” (119), and Susina concludes that “In repetition, in rereading, lies security” (119), and the “goodnight” is a stabilizing refrain.
Silvery repeats the typical explanation about what Goodnight Moon achieves through its appealing words and pictures, while Susina’s reading delves deeper into the child-receiver’s consciousness but arrives at a similar conclusion that the tale recreates comfort through repetition. For example, the illustrations for Goodnight Moon provide a simple, yet aesthetically pleasing, colour palette; in drawing the main figure as a bunny, Silvery notes, Hurd “achieved an otherworldly, timeless dimension” (4) for the story. The repetition of the text is echoed by these images, as all of the main images are based on one piece of colour art, gradually darkened by the printer as the bunny falls asleep, as demonstrated by the book’s the final pages:
That “the child and parent keep going back to exactly the same room, but each time a little more light has been removed” (4) is meant to be comforting, according to Silvery and Susina, but for a young, impressionable child, this may have the opposite effect—that the nighttime darkening of a room, which precedes the darkening of consciousness in sleep, seems inevitable and ominous.
True, the naming and renaming of objects in the green room echo the narrow and repetitive world of the child hearing the story. But what about the world outside of this lulling womb of a room? The more tangible and knowable the room, the more frightening the expansive world outside – and the moon, shining in at the window, provides the only link between the child-bunny and this endless and unknowable field of snow:
In “Half-Opened Being,” Andrew Metcalfe and Lucinda Ferguson expound on the temporal and spatial aspects of Goodnight Moon, reaching a more abstract conclusion than either Silvery or Susina. Their paragraph on the “infant” bunny’s relationship with the room and the moon is worth quoting at length:
Because of the door, this air can fill the bedroom and also escape from there to produce a cosmos. It is important, then, that the moon is outside the closed room so that it can return inside, bringing to life and filling with love the air and world between. The moon and infant are not one, any more than the mother and child are. But they hold each other, regard each other, and belong to each other. … We live in this cosmos through substantial illusions: sometimes we see air and sometimes stars, sometimes foreground and sometimes background. No-body and nothing are the infinitely tender horizon that bring every thing to life… (253)
This interpretation, however, is still too complete, too positive, as it avoids understanding the darkness or emptiness of the room as a potentially alienating place. Obviously the intent of Goodnight Moon is not to frighten any child hearing the story right before bedtime, but the sense of loneliness creeps in around the edges of the room. The gradual winding down of the day into night, a transition intended to be made easier by the “goodnight” mantra of the bedtime story, leads to a place of loneliness. This is nothing so traumatizing as abandonment or neglect – we know the great green room is a safe and nurturing environment – but hints at the loneliness that children feel but often have no way of articulating.
The climax of this sense of emptiness is in the pages
The mush, left uneaten and by now cold, symbolizes the dregs of the day that remain even after the child has bid goodnight to the objects that comprise his waking world – the remnants of the day that will become the fodder for his dreams, on his solo venture into his unconscious. The “quiet old lady who was whispering ‘hush’” has vanished from the rocking chair by the book’s conclusion (see final page), and the sleeping bunny is left in the company of only his paintings, the sleeping kittens, and the mouse, who stares out at the faithful moon. But the bunny-child is far away from the room and the other living creatures in it by now, in some undefinable blank space of the dream world that cannot be delineated by a red balloon or a painting.
The farewell to the mush, significantly, is paired with a blank space that says only, “Goodnight nobody.” This indicates that the bunny is aware of himself as existing as a separate being – an “I” – and the objects that fill his room are the “Its” with which he interacts. Philosopher Martin Buber’s I and Thou describes the human relationship to the world in such terms: “As experience, the world belongs to the primary I-It. The primary word I-Thou establishes the world of relation” (13). The bunny’s pleasure in naming the objects that represent the “Not-I” in his limited world will soon give way to an anxiety about his attachment to these daytime objects that become unreachable – even though they remain within close physical proximity – at night.
Brown described a good children’s story as “a dream that is true for more than one child or that can suggest his own dream to him, or start him dreaming” (qtd. in Susina 117). Goodnight Moon presents a calm transition into this dreaming state for the child reading the story, but it also foregrounds the ultimate solitude of these nocturnal journeys into the mind.
Brown, Margaret Wise. Goodnight Moon. Harper & Row, 1947. Print.
Buber, Martin. I and Thou. 1937. London: Continuum, 2004. Print.
Metcalfe, Andrew, and Lucinda Ferguson. “Half-Opened Being.” TimeSpace: Geographies of Temporality. Ed. John May and Nigel Thrift. London: Routledge, 2001. 240-61. Print.
Silvery, Anita. 100 Best Books for Children: A Parents’ Guide to Making the Right Choices for Your Young Readers, Toddler to Preteen. New York: Houghton, 2003. 3-5. Print.
Susina, Jan. “Children’s Reading, Repetition, and Rereading: Gertrude Stein, Margaret Wise Brown, and Goodnight Moon.” Second Thoughts: A Focus on Rereading. Ed. David Galef. Detroit, MI: Wayne State UP, 1998. 115-25. Print.