Why Does Velveteen Rabbit Make Us Cry?

The Velveteen Rabbit: In Which Realness Is Unrecognizable

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.

Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit: Or, How Toys Become Real is primarily famous as a piece of moving literature: the story of a toy bunny who, at first rejected, becomes a prized possession of a young boy, and then, because of the boy’s love, a real rabbit.

Komako Sakai

In the penultimate scene, the now real bunny springs and jumps and whirls with the wild rabbits, overcome with joy.  The accompanying picture in the original is titled, triumphantly:  “At last! At last!”

William Nicholson

If this were a hero’s journey or a fairy-tale, the book would stop here. But it is neither of those things, really, and the tone for which the book is famous comes from the final scene.

Maurice Sendak

Several seasons past what could have been the happy ending, the Boy catches a glance of the Rabbit he used to own and sees “something familiar.” The last lines: “But he never knew that it really was his own Bunny, come back to look at the child who had first helped him to be Real.” “The truth is,” David Foster Wallace once said of this ending, “I don’t think I’ve ever found anything as purely ‘moving.’”

Purely moving retains a kind of critical distance. I’ll be blunter. The Velveteen Rabbit is a consummate tear-jerker. A pint-sized weepie which combines two motifs generally kept separate—the bittersweet “toy story” where toys have speech but will at some point be left behind, e.g. Winnie the Pooh, and the tragic “animal story,” where an animal is loved and let go, almost always through death (often at the hands of the children who loved them), e.g. Old Yeller. But unlike these two traditions, the animal does not die at the end, nor is the toy left behind. In fact, it’s the opposite: the toy is given life, set free.

Nicholson
Sakai

There’s no great mystery, though, to what is sad about being real and free in the narrative. The one who brought about these joyous states can no longer recognize the living and free rabbit he loved into existence—or, still sadder, almost recognizes him in such a way that his affection for the toy bunny is confirmed in the very moment it is lost to the animal bunny.

 

A real loss, which at first glance, the network seems to confirm quite starkly:

Here a great gulf between the Boy and the Velveteen Rabbit is created by the fact that there is no dialogue between the two. Although we are told, in a paragraph, that the Boy talks to the toy, that there are whispers after Nana turns the lights out, there is actually no direct address linking them at any moment in the book. Even the boy’s final words–“Why, he looks just like my old Bunny that was lost when I had scarlet fever”—are to himself.

I have not seen any adaptations to other forms which preserve this network: all add a moment of direct address between the Boy and the Rabbit. Even a short cartoon from 1985 that manages a faithful interpretation throughout ends up adding direct address in the very last scene. None of the adaptations gained anywhere near the popularity of the book though.

The Velveteen Rabbit 1985

Perhaps this lack of popularity is not unrelated to the addition of direct address, especially in the way it changes the final scene: changing the moment designated the most moving in a piece of moving literature would seem likely to render a piece less effectively tear-jearky. When the Boy speaks to the Rabbit in animated versions’ finales, the missed connection seems more explicit, less inherent. As the cartoon child begs the Rabbit to “come here,” we are presented not with recognition (does Boy know Rabbit?) but intention (will Rabbit stay?). This direct speech creates a new relationship between the Boy and Rabbit, where the bunny is a subject, that can be spoken with, rather than an object, to be spoken about. What the network shows us is that this missed connection is not a momentary one that occurs in the final scene, but a continued separation maintained throughout the book. It defines the relationship between the boy and the rabbit.

What is “purely moving,” then, about the final scene in the book is a kind of magic trick which allows that moment to feel like a loss—the Rabbit is no longer known—what is an impossibility—the Rabbit could never actually be known.  To see cause and effect—and thus, control—where there is only ontology.

 

* Illustrations note: The two best illustrated versions of The Velveteen Rabbit are the original by William Nicholson and Japanese artist Komako Sakai’s 1990 version.  (In addition to illustrations, Sakai has also written books, of particular note Emily’s Balloon.)  Maurice Sendak’s is good–it is still Sendak–but less…heart-wrenching.

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