by Robert Wyllie
My childhood in the mid-1990s was the heyday of toys-come-to-life cinema. Toy Story launched Pixar’s animation empire, The Indian in the Cupboard was on school summer reading lists everywhere (it has since become an obvious target for cancelation), and other people even flocked to see Small Soldiers despite its P.G.-13 rating. Bliss was it in that dawn to be six. It was not until much later, naturally, that I saw Tales from the Hood, which puts a more interesting twist on the vigilante toy revenge story invented in Stephen King’s “Battleground.” In this movie, instead of toy soldiers, dolls possessed by the spirits of enslaved ancestors emerge from the floorboards to kill a contemporary racist politician. Everything I have heard about The Lego Movie suggests there is still potential in the toys-come-to-life genre, but it seems like an act of self-flagellation to pay filmmakers for a lecture on the moral deformity of grown-ups who remain too attached to their old toys. (I already know, believe me.) But the golden age of toys-come-to-life films, which continues to cast its long shadow over cinema, is impossible to imagine without a classic work of English literature that marks its centenary this year: Margery Williams Bianco’s The Velveteen Rabbit.
The Velveteen Rabbit is the crown of toys-come-to-life literature because it combines the most successful aspects of the genre’s two foundational texts from the nineteenth century: the poignancy of E.T.A. Hoffman’s story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” and the tragedy of Hans Christian Andersen’s fable “The Steadfast Tin Soldier.” The Velveteen Rabbit is a Christmas present who plays an unlikely heroic role in the life of the Boy, much like the Nutcracker does for Marie. Both stories rely upon children who bond with unlikely toys that seem down at the heel in comparison with more impressive mechanical toys. But the Rabbit’s love takes center stage in The Velveteen Rabbit, much like Andersen’s tin soldier. Fate plays a powerful role, however, that is stronger than the Rabbit’s desires, much like the love between the tin soldier and paper ballerina, who can ultimately only be united in death. As Toy Story first taught me, toys in the hands of children are the playthings, sometimes, of a cruel fate. The Velveteen Rabbit explores the disturbing story where the child is the godlike arbiter of the toy’s cruel fate. The Boy loves the Rabbit into existence and then abandons him.
Yet . . . somebody’s poisoned the waterhole! Bianconians sound like a broken record, but we have good reason to complain that her place in the history of letters is unfairly maligned. The definitive study of the genre in literature, When Toys Come Alive, written by Lois Kuznets in 1994, downplays The Velveteen Rabbit’s significance. Kuznets argues that sentient toys in these stories operate as transitional objects that mediate between the childlike and adult desires of maturing children. For example, Winnie the Pooh is a reserve of childlike wisdom and goodness for the maturing Christopher Robin, while Eeyore is a welter of his anxieties. The toy can also be more superego than id, as when the somehow more-knowing Hobbes somehow stands above Calvin’s childish love-hate relationship with Susie Derkins. The Velveteen Rabbit, however, resists Kuznets’s psychoanalytic interpretation. The Boy does not seem to share the Rabbit’s complicated desire to be real, nor does the Rabbit have any boylike or scampish characteristics, like those of Pinocchio, that interfere with his quest to be real. Kuznets argues that Bianco fumbles between the Rabbit’s initial desire to become real for the Boy, through the Boy’s love, and his later desire to become a real, wild rabbit. As a result of this supposed narrative flaw, Kuznets informs us, The Velveteen Rabbit has fallen in the estimation of its learned critics. Somehow they miss that Bianco has erected a monumental work of unremitting horror, more terrifying than her actual horror novel The Thing in the Woods, not for nothing beloved by H.P. Lovecraft and Walter de la Mare—at once the saddest and most disturbing book ever written.
I remember pleading with my mother not to read me The Velveteen Rabbit. I remember once crying myself to sleep, imagining what it would be like to be thrown in a sack and burned. Hiding under the covers only makes this worse. Even now, as I reflect on the book when I read it to my own seemingly more well-adjusted children, I am compelled by the depth of the Rabbit’s question about what it means to be real. But unlike Toni Raiten D’Antonio, the author of the surprise bestsellers The Velveteen Principles: A Guide to Becoming Real, Hidden Wisdom from a Children’s Classic and The Velveteen Principles for Women: How to Shatter the Myth of Perfection and Embrace All That You Really Are, I do not think Bianco ultimately presents us with a story of becoming real through an emotional process of painful self-acceptance. Raiten-D’Antonio does not plumb the theological depths that toys-come-to-life stories raise. The love and acceptance of other human beings is never enough, not only because it is fickle but also because it always involves wanting more for them than we can provide ourselves.
Toys are not simply neutral objects onto which children project their emotions, commodities to be analyzed by critics with a blinkered interest in developmental psychology. Walter Benjamin reminds us that there can be a vast difference between what adults understand of toys and what toys mean to children. I am told that my brother-in-law formed an inseparable attachment to his crib bumper in the way that other toddlers carry around blankies. The classic example in literature is when the Nutcracker catches Marie’s eye in “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” and is not outshone by the clockwork castle that her godfather Drosselmeyer brings for Christmas. Hoffmann’s story, published seventy-five years before Tchaikovsky’s more famous ballet version debuted in 1892, is the original of toys-come-to-life literature. The Nutcracker reflects Benjamin’s insight about how toys wink enticingly at children in ways that adults cannot always predict or sense. This separation is most obvious on Christmas morning, Benjamin argues in his essay “Old Toys,” where adults rediscover a desire to play with toys—in the classic scene, the father plays with the toy train he has bought for his son—but find they can no longer free themselves through total immersion in imaginative play. Play is the freedom to create a new order. Adults lack the strength and seriousness, G.K. Chesterton insists, to the enormous undertaking that is devoting one’s life to play.
Like the Nutcracker story, The Velveteen Rabbit begins on Christmas morning. The Rabbit is a present in the Boy’s stocking, with a sprig of holly between his paws. The Boy loves him “for at least two hours.” Then he is forgotten. The Rabbit is not like the Nutcracker, whom the seven-year-old Marie loves from the start, who will rescue her from the Mouse King, and who will teach her to love young men with good hearts even if they have oversized jaws and big heads. (Presumably, this can only be the esoteric Habsburgism of a Prussian celebrating the great coalition victory against Napoleon.) The carefully placed greenery and the Rabbit’s economical design already suggest an adult’s idea of an adorable, but disposable, Christmas decoration. At first the Rabbit seems to be precisely what the adults intend, a toy that the Boy will love for two hours on Christmas morning, until the bigger presents from other relatives are unwrapped. Since Bianco reminds us in her essay “Our Youngest Critics” that a doll “may have an existence quite apart from its material existence” for children, the alignment of the Rabbit’s existence for the adults and the Boy comes as a surprise.
The Velveteen Rabbit subverts the opening of “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” The Nutcracker also seems to be a decorative Christmas bauble—his teeth crack almost immediately when the children use him to crack nuts—but he is rescued by Marie’s special solicitude. The Rabbit is not so lucky. The Boy forgets the Rabbit for the first but not the last time. Already we are very sad, even though it is still Christmas.
The Rabbit is thrown in a toy cupboard with the Skin Horse and an assortment of mechanical toys. Bianco draws the Velveteen Rabbit and the Skin Horse from memories of her own childhood toys, those beings with whom we once shared so much of a now half-forgotten life. Dobbin was her older brother’s skin horse who had to be donated to the Children’s Hospital when her family moved from London to New York when she was nine years old. Tubby she describes as her “almost forgotten” stuffed rabbit. The toys in the story remain oblivious of their names, if these are in fact their names. Toys offer a glimpse of an enchanted world that has been left behind. Benjamin would like Tales from the Hood, I think, where the vengeful dolls represent the claims of enslaved ancestors upon the living, the proper motivation for emancipatory politics in his mind. But this is wish-fulfillment, while Benjamin’s writing on toys instead strikes a more elegiac, even Wordsworthian note. Benjamin spends his life looking at real discarded toys in the Soviet Union and the arcades of Paris, which bear silent witness to the imaginative worlds of children, now lost forever. Still, as in Bianco’s world, he thinks not all toys are equal in their poignancy.
The expensive and mechanical toys snub the Rabbit because he is made of cheap materials: velveteen and sawdust. They speak in technical jargon. Bianco seems to share Charles Baudelaire’s negative assessment of mechanical toys, for ships and clockwork toys represent the increasing discredit into which the natural world is falling in the minds of children. The notions of the mechanical toys form the dominant opinions to which even the non-mechanical toys conform. The jointed wooden lion, who is made by disabled soldiers and thus sets the story in the aftermath of the First World War, “should have had broader views, [but] put on airs and pretended he was connected with the Government.” Toy Story explores the same social dynamic among toys, when Buzz Lightyear’s gizmos attract the admiration of his fellow toys. There is something especially disenchanting about toys who are themselves oblivious to everything that is special about play.
Since the mechanical toys are aware they are the models of real things, they are content with simply pretending to be real. These mechanical toys are models of uncuriosity first and foremost. I am afraid they remind me of my social science colleagues who are content with models of the world, and constantly prescind from philosophical questions about what is actually real. Ultimately Bianco’s mechanical toys are unlike Buzz Lightyear, then, who is at least capable of the tragic recognition (or misrecognition) that he is a mere toy. It is left to Pixar to explore the interiority of the mechanical toy, and—this would have horrified Baudelaire—to open up the spiritual dimension of the man integrated with the machine.
None of the toys in The Velveteen Rabbit have a human form. Since they might interrupt the reader’s identification with the Rabbit, the world of Bianco’s nursery is like the Industrial Revolution come to the 100 Aker Wood. The boy has no toy soldiers, for example. Even a famous pacifist like H.G. Wells could publish a rulebook for playing with toy soldiers, Little Wars, in 1913. After the Great War, however, boys playing with toy soldiers seems to have become disreputable in certain circles. Chesterton points to the heroic dignity of Andersen’s one-legged soldier, who remains loyal and heroic despite his smallness and helplessness, against the “prigs” who would banish toy soldiers from the nursery. In 1919, Saki could satirize this attitude in his story “The Toys of Peace,” about an uncle who is pressured into gifting his nephews figurines of John Stuart Mill and sanitation inspectors of toy soldiers, and a municipal dust-bin instead of a fort, only to see them put to sanguinary uses anyway. It brings me some professional discomfort, as a teacher of political economy, to remember a child who is presented with a figurine of Mill is indeed likely to simply ask, “Why?”
“What is REAL?” The first line spoken in the book is the Rabbit’s philosophical question to the Skin Horse. Since all we have to go on is a philosophical dialogue between two stuffed animals, it is difficult to parse what exactly real means. Real does not simply mean self-conscious. That would create a paradox: how could the Rabbit unconsciously pose the question of consciousness? Some strange liminal dream-space of toy-consciousness mediates between our conscious world and the world of inanimate matter. This is the child’s world. In Plato’s Symposium, Diotima argues that children are naturally philosophizers and take for granted that they are in between knowing and not-knowing beautiful things. She calls this love in regard to the beautiful eros. The Rabbit’s approach to the Real has this childlike purity, towards which the Lord commands us to be turned in the Gospel of Matthew.
The Rabbit already seems more real than the mechanical toys because he is self-conscious of his unique existence, while they understand themselves as replica models. From the beginning, we learn that the Rabbit “didn’t know that real rabbits existed; he thought they were all stuffed with sawdust like himself.” The Rabbit wants to know what Real means because he is already self-conscious of his own unique reality, and he is trying to understand this word—“real”—as it emerges in the common opinions of the model boat and the other mechanical toys. The mechanical toys seem absolutely uninterested in the meaning of the word Real, but they are too condescending to speak to the Rabbit anyway. Only the worn Skin Horse, a beloved toy of the Boy’s uncle, will speak to him. According to the Skin Horse, to become Real requires a child to recognize the toy’s unique existence, to “REALLY” love the toy. Once the Rabbit becomes Real in this sense, he experiences a crisis when the wild rabbits do not recognize him as Real. The mechanical toys could not experience a similar crisis. The Rabbit’s crisis is only possible because he does not accept the fact that he is a replica from the beginning.
The Rabbit asks the Skin Horse about the nature of reality, because the Skin Horse is the only “person” who is kind to him at all. Real is “a thing that happens to you,” the Skin Horse explains, when you are loved for a long time. The sufferings of the Skin Horse suggest why the jointed wooden lion should have had broader notions than the other mechanical toys, because at least he was made by soldiers who had suffered in the war. But according to the Skin Horse, real persons must actually experience suffering personally. According to the Skin Horse, the process of realization takes time, and it can be painful. He is a terrifying Saint Bartholomew figure, old and wise, a victim of torture: “most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces.” He is the equine version of the stump in Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, which is another very sad story. The Skin Horse is wise in nursery magic, the “magic called Real.”
The Velveteen Rabbit is reunited with the Boy by pure accident one evening, when Nana cannot find the china dog he usually sleeps with. That the Boy insists on sleeping with a porcelain dog reminds us that children bond with toys in unexpected ways. And abandon them. Ominously, the china dog is not mentioned again in the story. Instead, the Boy bonds with the Rabbit. The pain that the Skin Horse describes is present, but gradually the Rabbit’s discomfort in being smothered gives way to the happiness in snuggling with the boy. When Nana grumbles about finding the Rabbit after he is left outside, the boy pronounces him Real. Evidently, nursery magic requires the Boy, who loves the Rabbit, to pronounce him to be Real.
The Skin Horse is correct, or at least halfcorrect, that love makes things Real. In the story, after the Boy insists the Rabbit is Real, Nana notices the next morning he has a look of “wisdom and beauty.” Outside the story, love can make us Real as well. In The Death of Virgil, Hermann Broch imagines the great poet reflecting upon what transcends all art—love that is the readiness for creation—with the memorable line: “Love stands at the forecourt of the real.” It is true that love beckons us to make things real, our children and our friends, our neighbors whom we dare to love suddenly become real to us. And even outside the realm of human beings and animals, Christians believe that God loved the world into reality. The Skin Horse is confident that his doctrines will endure beyond the fashionable opinions of the mechanical toys. If we can infer a theology of creation from the Skin Horse, then, the Boy is God.
Philosophy seems to appear in The Velveteen Rabbit in the uncomfortable position in which it first appeared in the world, when many people were too sensible to believe that philosophical knowledge was possible. The Skin Horse’s opinion that one can become real by enduring suffering for the sake of love is more noble than the opinions of the mechanical toys, who simply assume they model or replicate a world that is more real. Yet the Skin Horse is still a toy, loved once by the Boy’s uncle, and now abandoned to the cupboard. He recalls the deflationary judgment about philosophy from Heraclitus’ famous fragment: “human opinions are toys for children.” The theology of the Skin Horse is tragic. Just as ancient Greeks composed theogonies and wrote that their gods came into existence and passed away, in the manner of a Götterdämmerung, so too children grow out of being God. They create a world that they share with their toys, and then abandon it. This is as far as Raiten D’Antonio’s self-help books based on The Velveteen Rabbit take us, but Bianco shows us one important step further.
Since readers identify with the Rabbit, we are put in a position to ponder whether we too are God’s toys. This is why Kuznets’s easy identification of Real with being a self-consciously powerful subject falls short. Greek tragedy affords this disconcerting thought that for all our reason and power, we are playthings of fate. The Athenian Stranger in Plato’s Laws claims the human being is a puppet of the gods, suspended by the cords of reason and the passions, perhaps as a mere toy for their amusement. Gloucester in King Lear offers a similar perspective on the lives of men: “As flies to wanton boys / they kill us for their sport.” The vicissitudes of fate constantly overpower Andersen’s one-legged tin soldier, but he still remains steadfast in love for the paper ballerina. Chesterton commends this lesson of “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” that we are called to a heroic part despite our cosmic smallness. Bianco, meanwhile, admires Andersen’s story for its sadness and lack of sentimentality. The Rabbit is likewise a dutiful victim of fate, but even a sadder case than Andersen’s soldier, because his love for the Boy is ultimately unrequited.
There is a dignity, still, in being God’s playthings. Even reason, Eugen Fink responds to the Athenian Stranger, is creative activity and a way of playing before God. And, Fink insists, God plays back, and dances with us. In Man at Play, Father Hugo Rahner, S.J. reminds us that Divine Wisdom delights in and dances with God in the process of Creation in Proverbs 8:27-31. Here the child’s perspective on the toy reveals something about God. Just as children see the life of their toys, God recognizes something about our reality that others cannot. Saint Maximus the Confessor writes that the cosmos ought to be understood as a children’s game played by God. Catholics defend their religious practices as childlike innocence, William James observes closer to our own time, while Protestants dismiss them as childish falsehoods. Even if children cannot remain children forever, God can remain the Child on Christmas morning. Or so the Christian must insist to Benjamin. We do not believe this world is lost forever and irrevocably. The love of the immortal Child beckons us across the forecourt of the Real. The Rabbit’s hope is ours.
The only philosopher to appreciate the basic positive argument of The Velveteen Rabbit, as far as I know, is Paul Weithman, in a 2009 article in The Journal of Religious Ethics. God’s love makes us real. This means God endows us, or tries to endow us, with distinctively human capacities and vulnerabilities. Weithman uses The Velveteen Rabbit to teach Nicholas Wolterstorff, the Reformed philosopher of religion, how God confers worth upon human beings in a way that is, in certain respects, bound up with our capacities and vulnerabilities. Using Bianco’s story as an allegory, Weithman explains that our capacities and vulnerabilities enable us to bond with God. We must at least have the capacities and vulnerabilities to love God and be loved by Him in return, for this is how human beings and God are in play.
Then comes the horrifying turn, which makes The Velveteen Rabbit, written in the aftermath of the Spanish Flu, so familiar to us as post-pandemic literature. The Boy is stricken with scarlet fever. The Rabbit has some pre-conceptual awareness that others wish to take him from the Boy’s side, and hides underneath the covers so they are not separated. This act of self-sacrifice seals his doom. The doctor commands that all of the Boy’s toys and picture books be burned. Nana, who has glimpsed something of the realness of the Rabbit to the Boy, makes a special plea for the Rabbit. She is overruled. The doctor can only see the Rabbit as a vector of contagion, not as anything Real. The Boy who has made the Rabbit real cannot save him from annihilation. God is dead. As Byung-Chul Han reminds us, Nietzsche’s Last Man makes health the last goddess after the death of God. The Rabbit’s corporal work of mercy becomes a capital offense under the dispensation of this new goddess. The Boy is powerless. The Rabbit’s creator cannot save him.
After some brief internet research, which no doubt qualifies as sound medical knowledge, I confidently conclude that the immolation order was unnecessary. Public health experts, with their characteristic precision, declare that scarlet fever germs can live on inanimate objects for as long as three days or six-and-a-half months. The Rabbit could have been socially distanced for a quarantine period, then, before reuniting with the Boy. Perhaps, who knows, he could have been washed in hot water. But this is only to quibble with the authoritative priest-kings of the last goddess.
Worse than the Boy’s impotence is that he forgets about the Rabbit in his excitement to go to the seaside for his convalescence. This abandonment is appalling, because the Rabbit has hidden under the covers to remain with the Boy, and burned with the heat of his fever. The Boy abandons his most faithful friend and servant. This is not a whimsical act of childlike cruelty, as in the end of Andersen’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” when one of the little boys throws the soldier into the fire after all his travails, seemingly at random. The tragic turn in The Velveteen Rabbit is more personal and has disturbing theological implications. The Boy should remember his most steadfast friend but does not. The Boy’s impotence is frightening enough. His indifference, however, fills the reader with unremitting horror and indignation. Are we the playthings of a loving God who tires of us? Could God make us real, love us, and then abandon us? Who could make Psalm XXII and the last words of Christ into a children’s story?
The Rabbit is thrown into a sack to be burned behind the fowl-house. He sheds a “real tear,” from which a “mysterious flower” grows, and the nursery magic Fairy emerges to make him real. She explains to the Rabbit that he was real to the Boy, because the Boy loved him, but now he will be real to everyone. The nursery magic Fairy takes the Rabbit to live among the wild rabbits who earlier spurned him and questioned his reality.
The nursery magic Fairy is no deus ex machina tacked on to the end of the story to provide a happy ending, because the Rabbit’s desire to be real has always exceeded mere recognition from the Boy. The Rabbit has a more profound desire to be real from the time he encounters the wild rabbits, before the Boy is stricken with scarlet fever. This is a supposedly second desire to be real that Kuznets believes overburdens the narrative economy of the story. It is not secondary, however, because love always points beyond itself. We do not wish merely to be loved but to be really lovely. The Rabbit does not merely wish to be loved; he also loves the Boy deeply. This is why, even before he is magically transformed into a wild rabbit, he sheds a “real tear.” We do not merely wish to preserve our loved ones from illness and death but to delight in their company forever. Diotima understands how eros, which truly desires the beautiful and is more than will to power, points beyond capricious and childish pagan gods who come into and go out of existence. The Skin Horse is a sophist who knows some partial truths. Love, however, beckons us further into the Real.
The Skin Horse does not have the last word on the meaning of the Real, and the Rabbit becomes more real than the Skin Horse in the end. The Skin Horse, who has perhaps never seen a real horse, seems to lack any desire to trot in a paddock. Yet the Rabbit wishes to hop and dance like the wild rabbits, not only to be a toy whom the Boy regards as real, but a pet. The nursery magic Fairy, or perhaps really the self-sacrificial love that wrings the tear from the Rabbit, initiates the Rabbit into a higher level of reality.
The Velveteen Rabbit has some cautionary lessons, however, for those who are eager to recast life and liturgy as play with God, as Rahner—the aforementioned elder brother of the more famous theologian—was in the mid-1960s. Play is difficult even for children to sustain. Adults who are self-conscious at playing, like fathers on Christmas morning, only play at play. Only great contemplatives glimpse how Divine Wisdom plays all the time throughout the world, in the way that Saint Thomas Aquinas links play and contemplation. We would need the leisure of children, not simply idleness, to be receptive to even some of the ways that the sweet play of life coils around us, as Hölderlin put it. The play by which love beckons us into the Real is much more serious than any work to fulfill our earthly ends.
The Velveteen Rabbit does not have a happy ending. The Boy partially recognizes the Rabbit, noticing that his markings are similar to his Velveteen Rabbit who was “lost” during the time of his scarlet fever. The Rabbit does not return to the Boy, nor does the Boy register a sense of loss. There is no true resolution: the Rabbit remains wild, not a pet. The Boy, like any adult, remains half-forgetful of the life he shared with his toy. In “Our Youngest Critics,” Bianco considers how, just as in the case of a toy, adults and children may have different expectations for a children’s story. She argues that children have a keen sense of justice. For this reason, it seems the nursery magic Fairy must appear to reward the Rabbit. Yet she steers clear of sentimentalism and writes a story that outstrips even Andersen’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” in its devastating sadness. The result is a matter-of-fact story that reveals what the God in Whom we must place our hopes must be like, and the terrifying alternatives.
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