Kantian Ethics for the Very Young: Antimoral and Anthropomorphism in I Want My Hat Back
|(You can find Klassen's book here and at your local library. You can learn more about Jon Klassen and his work here)|
KANTIAN ETHICS FOR THE VERY YOUNG:
Antimoral and Anthropomorphism in I Want My Hat Back
It was past her bedtime. My husband and I heard the fridge slam shut and our three-year-old daughter scuffle upstairs, down the hall to her bedroom. “Charlotte?” my husband called. She opened our door a crack. “What were you doing downstairs?”
“Nothing,” she said, beaming like the morning sun. “I don’t have pie in my bed.”
Discipline requires a somber disposition, which can be difficult for a parent who finds an entire pie hidden under a pillow. My response to Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back, where an adorable bear gobbles up an adorable rabbit out of revenge and then gets away with it, included shock, maniacal laughter, and the urgent need to share the book with someone as cynical as myself. This was an anti-fable—it mocked the idea of a moral. In it, Klassen, like his bear, circumvents the conventional justice owed to fallen heroes and plot criminals alike; moreover, through the employment of an anti-moral, craftily cloaked in repetition, anthropomorphism, and irony, he emancipates the ethical from the moral, in fact clarifying for his readers the choice between right and wrong.
I Want My Hat Back begins with a bear who wants his hat back. Because of his impeccable manners, and because he helps a turtle onto a rock, we identify the bear as “the good guy.” The plot thickens when the bear meets a rabbit wearing a bright red1 conical hat. “Have you seen my hat?” the bear asks. “No,” says the rabbit. “I would not steal a hat” (8).
The rabbit lies. Later, the bear confronts the hat-wearing rabbit. The following page features the bear wearing the hat, with no rabbit in sight. The bear is delightfully simplistic here: “I love my hat” (28). Did the bear really eat the rabbit?2 Does he feel no remorse? Through statements of denial, we confirm our suspicions when a squirrel comes by looking for the rabbit. “Excuse me,” he says, “have you seen a rabbit wearing a hat?” The bear lies: “No... I would not eat a rabbit” (30). We infer through the repetition that the bear has devoured the rabbit. He has gone from victim to culprit, but no consequence falls from heaven.
The protagonists in most picture books, especially Aesopic fables with proverbial morals, follow more predictable character arcs. For example, we may see the “bad guy does the wrong thing and is punished” storyline,3 or the “good guy does the wrong thing and is punished storyline.”4 We may find the softer “good guy does the wrong thing and is punished but then forgiven” plot5, or the “bad guy does the right thing and is rewarded” one.6 Finally, the token favorite for superheroes, epic champions, pure maidens, and satisfying resolutions, is the “good guy does the right thing and is rewarded” plot7. All these storylines have something in common; namely, good deeds are rewarded and bad ones punished. What we don’t often find is “good guy does the wrong thing, but is not punished”—the category in which Klassen’s book belongs. There, the moral of the story is conspicuously absent—the bear is contentedly loving his hat, and we wonder, “so, is dishonesty okay?”
But we like our new hat. In her essay, “Innocence lost: picturebook narratives of depravity,” Katarzyyna Smyczynska warns us about the ending:
“[I Want My Hat Back] uncritically sanctions violence inflicted on others in revenge. Klassen may have been inspired by the convention of animal fables or cautionary tales, but his work does not resemble either of these in one important aspect: the presence of the moral behind the story. In this book, there is no hope or way out of the moral swamp, where amorality is contagious” (66).
Is Klassen tricking us into trying the amoral hat on, and letting the depraved state of modern culture do the rest? Smyczynska also purports that the book “creates an overwhelming vision of the triumph and impunity of the powerful” (61). But animals eat one another all the time, don’t they?8 Perhaps Klassen draws an imaginary line between nature and civilization?9 It would be a convenient argument out of Smyczynska’s alleged moral swamp, but Klassen’s use of anthropomorphism implies human rules; for example, he employs details such as talking beasts, ownership of clothing, public spaces, revenge, polite social expressions, and the conspicuous fact there is only one word, namely “rabbit,” that identifies any of the characters as animals in the first place. Klassen isn’t hiding his message; this is no hat trick.
Have we arrived at a barren wasteland devoid of all that is good? I agree with Smyczynska that the moral is not present, and yet I disagree that the result is amorality. Using an antimoral, Klassen is helping us see ethical choices more clearly without morality there to complicate things. This new view reflects the individualism of the world, just as the bear makes the choice to eat the rabbit. Why bother with portraying justice when that is no longer the way we see the world operate?10
So we are may be in the moral swamp, but Klassen doesn’t abandon us there; he uses dead-pan humor to point the way to Kantian ethics. He uses dramatic irony when the bear fails to grasp that the rabbit has seen the hat, verbal irony within the lies, and situational irony when the reader mistakenly expects the outcome of justice at the end. We laugh, and then know we do not want to be the fool in the fable.11 Thus in a reductio ad absurdum, we are moved to the ethical to avoid the ridiculous.
Klassen emancipates the ethical from the moral by dispensing with punishment. In life, if not literature, the penal system is messy.12 Luckily, it is not the rabbit’s corrupting lesson we take with us, but our own surprise. Within the unexpectedness of the ending, Klassen invokes Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative,13 showing us the disintegration of society should we choose to lie, and providing motivation to tell the truth. The bear prepares us for a world in which ethics can exist without a moral to the story.
Am I brave enough to dare imitate this? I’m still hiding pies in my bed, and I have too much to learn about the rules before I start breaking them and gobbling up rabbits; however, I deeply respect the courage of Klassen’s work, its elegant simplicity, and the way he surprises us, brave and unencumbered.
Klassen, Jon. I Want My Hat Back. Candlewick Press, 2011.
Smyczynska, Katarzyna. “Innocence lost: picturebook narratives of depravity.” Text & Image in Children’s Literature, Vol. 19, No.1 (2018), pp.61-72.
1 In line with his minimalist style, Klassen color-codes the text. The rabbit’s font is red, like the hat, whereas every other animal’s font matches their physical appearance, green for the frog, rust for the fox, etc. It’s as if, upon telling a lie about the red hat, the rabbit has become the lie.
2 I asked my children what happened. Gabriel, age 7, said “he sat on the rabbit. Maybe he scared him away.” Atticus, age 10, found the inference easy: “he ate the rabbit.” Charlotte, age 12, responded cautiously, “the rabbit was there, and now he’s not.”
3 Aesop’s “The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing”
4 Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit or Mary Howitt’s The Spider and the Fly,
5 David Shannon’s No, David!
6 Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant
7 Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hatches the Egg
8 “The bear ate the rabbit because that’s what they do” (Gabriel).
“If a hamburger stole my hat, I would eat the hamburger” (Charlotte).
9 “It’s up for grabs in the wild” (Atticus).
“If this is the wild, then why does the bear own a hat?” (Anita).
11 The illustrations reflect this intentionality by depicting the hat as a conical one. It is a dunce cap.
12 “The rabbit should be punished” (Charlotte). “I would steal that hat back” (Gabriel). “The bear is a good guy because he ate a bad rabbit” (Gabriel). “What if he had eaten a good rabbit?” (Anita). “If your crime is equivalent to their crime, it’s okay” (Atticus). “So it’s okay to murder someone if they murder you?” (Anita).
13 “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (Kant, Immanuel (1993) . Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals. Translated by Ellington, James W. (3rded.). Hackett. p.30
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