The Tale of Peter’s Self-Inflicted Pain
Written by Valeria Cori-Manocchio
for Prof. Gina Granter
“The Tale of Peter Rabbit” by Beatrix Potter is set in the genteel English countryside and follows the mischievous adventures of Peter, an anthropomorphized rabbit. This rabbit protagonist resonates with children due to his innocence and adorability. Nevertheless, Peter Rabbit personifies the non-human, but childish, archetype used to teach children about proper behavior. Beatrix Potter’s “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” expresses through allusion to biblical teachings, characterization of the protagonist, and irony that disobeying one’s parents will only bring about personal harm and unpleasant consequences.
To begin, the symbolism of the vegetables is parallel to the biblical tale of “Eve and the Forbidden Fruit”. As Eve and Peter give into their respective edible temptations, they open the figurative floodgates to unprecedented consequences, which are detrimental to their personal shame. For instance, Peter gorges on “lettuces, some French beans; and then…radishes” (81) from Mr. McGregor’s garden and Eve eats the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Life. In doing so, Peter and Eve do not feel satisfaction or contentment. Peter feels “rather sick [and] went to look for some parsley” (82) while Eve is ashamed and is forced to live a difficult life for her earlier actions: only by giving into temptation do Peter and Eve subject themselves to further punishment. A prime example occurs as Peter narrowly avoids getting baked into a pie when hiding in the shed as Mr. McGregor overturns empty flowerpots (84). Meanwhile, Eve is condemned to a laborious life followed by death. Both characters in these stories neglect to heed the word(s) of authority. Peter’s mother states, “you may go into the fields … but don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden” (79) and God behooves Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit from the Tree of Life. Furthermore, this emphasizes the common association of children, considering their parents as perfectly moral God-like figures. The said connection is validated since Peter’s mother remains a figure of comfort and security as she “put [s] him to bed, and made chamomile teas” (88): once again, similar to children’s idea of God, an omnipotent and loving parent. Although God directly casts punishment on Eve, He still maintains his role as a moral figure. This reinforces the theme of disobedience hurting the person(s) acting against authority more than anyone else. It is evident in both stories that temptation disregards authority, causing detriment to those who do not follow the rules.
Moreover, the characterization of Peter Rabbit reiterates the message of Potter’s story. Peter is immediately categorized as “very naughty” (80) compared to his siblings who are deemed “good little bunnies” (80), ultimately illustrating the contrast between bad behavior and virtue or obedience. This example of characterization alludes to the notion that Peter will be taught some type of moralistic lesson since he is “naughty” (80) and there is no evidence of external influences contributing to Peter’s disobedient streak. In addition, Peter is described as a “thief” (82) by Mr. McGregor, the antagonist of the story, further categorizing the protagonist negatively. Throughout the story, characterization demonstrates the foreseen effects of Peter’s actions and how he is the only person to endure impartial consequences from his actions.
To continue, the underlying presence of dramatic irony in Potter’s story contributes to the theme. Peter’s mother never discovers her son disobeyed her, meaning he was never punished or disciplined by his parent for his actions. A prime example occurs as Peter returns home, “His mother was busy cooking; she wondered what he had done with his clothes” (88), signifying only the audience and Peter, of course, know exactly what happened to him. There is no hint or clue of his mother or siblings uncovering the truth. In essence, Peter and the readers are fully aware of the disobedient events and how they harmed Peter, but no one else is the wiser. Despite getting away with not following the rules, Peter still faced unpleasant consequences such as “ not [feeling] very well during the evening” (88) and missing out on enjoying the milk and blackberries, which is not expected of the traditional disobedience tale highlighting punishment asserted by a parent. His punishment originates internally through his sickness, and not through a common time-out or the removal of privileges. Dramatic irony establishes Peter’s escape from persecution, yet his actions will inevitably be punished; Peter cannot remain unscathed even though he was never caught. The main act of disobedience or naughtiness had no impact on any other character but the protagonist. In other words, the obedience Peter fails to demonstrate towards parental authority did not harm the authority but, instead, his own personal safety, well-being and enjoyment.
In conclusion, “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” by Beatrix Potter thematically represents the necessity of obeying authority figures such as parents. The symbolism of the vegetables in McGregor’s garden tempting Peter lead him towards dangerous and threatening consequences, similar to the destruction Eve faces when she indulges in the forbidden fruit. Since Peter is characterized as having performed his naughty task without external influence from others, he alone must face the repercussions of his actions. Finally, dramatic irony provides a lasting memory to both Peter and the readers that it is truly impossible to relinquish bad deeds, unless the proper punishment is conducted. Peter’s misguided but endearing tale transports children from their small, defenceless place in society towards their later socially respectable, well-informed position in the adult world.
Potter, Beatrix. “The Tale of Peter Rabbit.” English 103 Course Pack. Ed. Gina Granter. Montreal: Dawson College, 2012. 78-88. Print.