The Story of Babar the Little Elephant: In Which Home, C’est Les Autres
Social Network Sunday features books made into networks. Characters become nodes connected by specific interactions, which, here, is direct speech; a line between characters is called an edge. How many edges a character has indicates her importance to the stability of the network, a structural centrality that doesn’t always match thematic centrality. The purpose of this feature is less interpretation than experimentation. For more on method, please see the first essay in this series.
Arguments about whether children’s books are appropriate…or, if you prefer…correct—politically, culturally, morally—generally hinge on the authority of a given interpretation. There are easy calls, that is, interpretations that have gained enough of a consensus to become something more like rules.
For the Babar series, which began in 1931, these calls came in the anniversary republications of the 1980s and were carried out by an embarrassed Laurent de Brunoff, who had continued the books after his father Jean’s early death of tuberculosis. Among the changes were deleting racist caricatures and, following protests from Toni Morrison (then an editor at Random House), pulling the entirety of Babar’s Picnic, where Babar’s children dress in their “Indian costumes” and chase a frightened boy back to his “native village”.
“What is shocking now seemed normal then during colonialism,” Laurent commented. “That was history.”
The harder calls—in fact, the hardest—are the allegorical. What does the story mean? The Story of Babar is this: a happy baby elephant’s mother is shot by a white hunter, from whom he escapes to end up in a city where a rich, elderly white lady finances and routinizes his bourgeois journey (clothes, exercise, baths, cars, education, parties), until his cousins appear and he decides to go back home with them, clothed and with his automobile. Once home, he finds that the King has just died and the elders choose him as a replacement. The book closes with his marriage to his cousin, Celeste.
When we ask whether a text, usually a beloved classic, has a bad message, what we are usually asking is: is the most problematic allegorical interpretation also the most convincing? In other words, what does the story mean more?
Is Babar more about choosing to grow up despite the loss of a parent or more about propagating the mythologies justifying French imperialism and the logic of internal rule? Or is it mostly an ironically comic critique of the latter accomplished through the former? On this point, there is very little consensus.
So do we get anything more from form? Here is the network of the first Babar:
The world of people—though rich in new experiences, in merchandise, in schedules—is tiny on the network, 3 nodes, one of which speaks only once to Babar (the elevator “boy”) and one, a group, which listens to Babar (the Old Lady’s friends).
Twice as many nodes exist in the world of the animals—much more than that if we deaggregate the packand Celeste and Arthur’s moms. While there are roughly the same amount of pages devoted to both (21 for people, 23 for elephants), people speak significantly less. They are largely invisible in the network and thus serve as background to Babar’s adventure in the book.
In fact, the most important person, other than the Old Lady, doesn’t speak at all: the hunter.
We are told that the Old Lady, “who has always been fond of little elephants” “gives him whatever he wants,” but we are also shown that there is one thing she can’t give him in her regimented, lonely urban life with other people relegated to dinner parties.
In the network, the world of people is a world of things, and the world of animals is one of family, of a sociality far beyond shopping or schooling. Networks are social maps, and the hunter’s absence marks his ultimate asociality. All Babar will miss from the world of people—of senseless killers and captivating things—is the one person who loved him in it.
And who is unhappy, herself, in the world of her own making. To be alone in Babar is to have or bring misery.
It is also to be human. In this way, Babar’s green suit and red car and crown—his difference from his people—seem neither ironic nor celebratory of capitalism and colonialism. Just somewhat honest. Its history is, not was.
Misery leaves a mark.