Girls Just Want to Get Mad: Female Anger in Children’s Literature

By John Dobby Boe

Girls Just Want to Get Mad: Female Anger in Children’s Literature

In the summer of 1997, I gave a lecture at a Susanville, California library as part of a state-sponsored program to bring UC faculty to remote communities. Only eight people showed up for my talk, but they seemed interested and lingered for conversation. The librarian hostess was gracious and intelligent, and I talked at length with her about children’s literature as she locked up.

A few weeks later I was informed by one of the statewide coordinators of this program why attendance had been so sparse. It seems the librarian, “a fairly conservative Mormon,” having learned of my talk’s title (the same as this essay’s), had warned “the local Christians” that they might not want to attend. I guess she thought there might be something dangerous about my implied acceptance of female anger, something threatening to traditional society. I imagined that she had expected me to be one step above an advocate for child pornography.

Male anger is more acceptable than female anger, in children’s literature as in life. Readers don’t raise an eyebrow at Tom Sawyer, who is motivated throughout Twain’s novel by anger, greed, lust, and a search for kicks. Boys will be boys, we are supposed to think, when Tom gets angry at and beats up the new boy in town. Likewise, child and adult readers accept the dog Buck in Jack London’s Call of the Wild , a dog who is of course male; the book culminates in a celebration of Buck’s continuous and justified murderous anger towards the indigenous Yeehat people. Like most of London’s work, the Call of the Wild is an example of the literature of fear. And the heroic male response to fear is supposed to be anger, leading to action.

Or consider that modern classic, Where the Wild Things Are. If it was briefly controversial when it came out in 1964, people soon accepted the honesty of Sendak’s Max, who like almost any very young child, can’t help but sometimes get mad and wild. For a small child, just as for a baby, anger can feel perfectly right, the appropriate response to frustration. (The so-called terrible twos are a normal developmental stage.) In many ways Max’s regression to primal anger is the same story as Buck’s in Call of the Wild, although Buck doesn’t get to go home at the end to a warm supper and civilization (London wrote that part of the story in White Fang). By the time my first kids were going to nursery school in the early 70s, Max had become such a cultural icon that some of the boys would regularly show up at school wearing Max costumes and insist on playing wild rumpus.

But little girls get mad too—as infants they seem to get mad just as often as do boy babies—so the little girls at the nursery school had few problems identifying with Max, joining in the wild rumpuses (even though they didn’t wear the costumes). Similarly there is female anger in children’s literature, even if this anger is not as violent, wild, or foregrounded as male anger.

Consider the fairy tale the Grimms placed first in their collection, “The Frog Prince.” The Grimm’s version of this popular tale is less well known than the versions where the princess redeems the frog with love, by kissing it. These versions have won the popular imagination, no doubt because the popular imagination likes the idea that female love can transform male beastliness (in this instance froginess). This is the traditional theme of so many books and movies: think of all those westerns where the good woman’s love civilizes the cowboy.

In the Grimms’  the princess is not so acquiescent to the frog, which is probably why this version is less well-known. As told by the Grimms, after the princess is ordered by her King father to keep her promise and take the frog up to bed with her, she puts the frog in the corner and climbs into bed. The from then insists on getting into bed with her. When she refuses, the frog says she better let him sleep with her or he’ll tell her father (who presumably will make her keep her word, which she gave in exchange for the golden ball). The frog’s threat to tell her father “made the princess extremely angry, and after she picked him up, she threw him against the wall with all her might.” Then she adds insult to injury by saying, “Now you can have your rest, you nasty frog” (4). But, amazingly, her anger transforms the frog into a handsome young prince: when the frog bounces off the wall and falls on the bed, he is transformed.

In the manuscript version and in the first edition, she thereupon immediately sleeps with the frog; in the second edition she sleeps with the frog then with her father’s approval marries him; in the third and subsequent editions, she doesn’t sleep with the prince at all, instead securing her father’s permission to make him her husband (Ellis, 124-134). While the Grimms could accept female anger in the first story in their Tales for Children and House, they  decided they weren’t ready to accept female sexuality in what had become a best-selling children’s book (that acceptance would have to wait for Judy Blume).

Still, despite the Grimms’ bowdlerizations, “The Frog Prince” does epitomize the positive transforming power of a woman’s anger. The story suggests that a woman’s feelings are more important than following patriarchal orders or keeping her word. And the woman gets the strength to rebel from anger. Once she fills with violent rage, she just says no and throws the damn frog against the wall (thus redeeming the bewitched male).

To further complicate things, the Grimm tale is not called “The Frog Prince,” but rather “The Frog Prince or Iron Heinrich.” Heinrich only appears in the tag of the story, as the faithful servant of the Frog Prince, who was so distressed that his master had been turned into a frog that he had wrapped his chest with three iron bands to keep his heart from breaking with grief. The story ends with three cracking noises, “the sounds of the bands snapping from Faithful Heinrich’s heart, for he knew that his master was safe and happy” (5).

At the beginning of the story, one male had been transformed into a frog and his servant had his heart wrapped in cold iron. Iron is strong and hard and is the traditional masculine metal, identified with Mars, as soft pliant copper is identified with Venus. In this story, because the girl gets mad, the hard male heart is liberated, freed in one case from cold iron bands, in the other from the bonds of a cold frog’s body. In real life too, women sometimes discover that it takes anger to stir up a cold, emotionally repressed male. Similarly, recent cultural history has seen the woman’s movement of the seventies (full of righteous anger at men) leading to the men’s movement (with men getting in touch with their feelings). Woman’s anger can liberate the male heart, for when the woman gets mad, the man can’t help but have an emotional response; it is this feeling response that is often the goal of the woman’s anger. She wants to wake him up. “The Frog Prince, Or Iron Heinrich” shows just such a situation, where female anger (and disobedience of the father’s wishes) is a good thing.

Society discourages anger in part because it discourages honesty: one shouldn’t get mad and tell the boss what you really think of him, and you shouldn’t talk back to your parents (like Max did). But sometimes it is healing to get angry, because that can be the only way to allow honesty in, to get in touch with your feelings (as we used to say in California). When you lose your temper, you say what you feel, without dissimulation.

So anger isn’t always destructive. I bet all of us have had experiences where getting angry was the right thing to do. I know I have. Once, when I was a graduate student, I played a regular Sunday morning full court basketball game. There was this older guy named Gene in the game, who was a good player who thought he was a great player. His problems were compounded by being a professor (though not at the institution I was then incarcerated in), so he felt it was his duty to criticize everyone else, especially those younger than he. He also would never pass the ball. You may infer that I didn’t like Gene.

One Sunday when Gene was on my team, I was dribbling up the court when Gene shouted at me, “Give up the ball! You can’t dribble.” If the reader could only see how well I did and do dribble, the reader would immediately understand why I suddenly became very angry. “Gene,” I yelled back, while picking up the ball, “I hate you! Everybody hates you!” The gym became suddenly silent, then Ron, another guy on our team called out supportively, “That’s right, Gene.” The game continued without further incident, but the next Sunday Gene acted like a new man: he was genial and polite, and he even passed the ball. Honest anger had transformed and/or intimidated him.

Anger probably comes easier to men. Men traditionally are allowed to express anger more freely in work and in play, while almost all societies repress female anger. One evolutionary explanation for this repression of female anger suggests that pre-civilized women could not afford to get angry because such behavior was likely to get them killed by a stronger male, in which case they so they couldn’t have or nurture children. The women who got angry easily tended to get killed and thus couldn’t pass on any tendency towards anger (either genetically or through example). Thus women who repressed their anger were evolutionarily selected. Angry men, however, were to some degree more likely to be selected for survival: in a warrior society strong males may indeed survive just because they successfully use anger in fighting.

Whatever the merits of this broadly sketched evolutionary fantasy, there is little doubt that one way or another women have been encouraged over millennia to repress their anger. And what repressed anger leads to is depression. Therefore, women are more likely to fall victim to depression than men, who get depressed, of course, but are correspondingly more likely than women to fall into rage and other violent madnesses. Psychiatrist Allan Chinen reports on an interesting study on depressed middle-aged women, which showed that they tended “to elaborate highly aggressive themes on Rorschach tests—images of bulls battling, for instance” (80). “This reflects,” Chinen concludes, “repressed aggressiveness, rather than loss or depleted energies. Unable to express their assertiveness in real life, these women turn their energy inward and become depressed.” The solution for this mid-life depression is, naturally enough to reclaim assertiveness. Contact with anger brings energy.

In the modern world, tendencies to angry violence by men or to depression by women are not the good strategies they once might have been. My wife figured out that depression was a bad strategy shortly after she married me. When we first married and therefore had fights, often she would cry. I grew up with older sisters, and so had been somewhat inured to the power of female tears: when they cried, I had won and would not modify my offending behavior. But when they got angry, they were formidable adversaries. My wife was an only child, but if she had had brothers, she would have known from the start the utility of anger in cohabitation with a male. My wife proved a quick learner, however, for soon instead of crying (which generally induced me, cold S.O.B. that I could be, to walk away), she would get angry. This was a more effective strategy for changing my behavior. In the war between the sexes, a woman does better to stand up and fight—as long as the man in the fight is not a potentially violent cave man (and there are still a fair number of these about).

If you have a genuine relationship with any unrepressed female, you will discover that she is capable of a healthy anger. Lewis Carroll knew little girls very well (some say too well), and so even if his fantasy Alice is polite and controlled (as was the real Alice), she also proves capable of sudden anger. Although she is frightened to tears and annoyed to petulance a number of times in her Adventures, it is only in the very last wonderland scene that she first becomes angry enough to act on her anger and thus rescue herself from the seemingly real dangers of wonderland.

In this scene, Alice finds herself giving testimony at the Knave of Hearts trial. When she objects to having the sentence first and then the verdict, the Red Queen becomes angry enough to turn purple and shout “at the top of her voice,” “Off with her head!”

Understandably, this sentence upsets Alice, who proclaims, “Who cares for you?” (187). (If you read this aloud emphasizing the italicized “you,” you can hear the unmistakable music of a child’s anger.) Immediately after this outburst, we are told, parenthetically that “she had grown to her full size by this time”—at which point Alice exclaims, “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” The narrator continues: “At this the whole pack rose up into the air, and came flying down upon her; she gave a little scream, half of fright and half of anger, and tried to beat them off, and found herself lying on the bank, with her head in the lap of her sister. . . “ (188).

As in the first fairy tale in the Grimm’s collection, so in the first great children’s fantasy book, the theme is sounded: sometimes a girl needs to get mad. Anger saves Alice from the threatening Red Queen (a psychologically real threat, even if a fantasy). Anger not only defeats the Red Queen, it wakes Alice up, literally bringing her to consciousness.

Alice is my personal touchstone for behavior in a bureaucratic institution (Charles Dodgson was a lecturer in mathematics at Christ Church, Oxford, and I am a lecturer in English at XXX). Most of the people in any institution are sane and helpful (as they are in mine), but there are exceptions, and sometimes these exceptions are in positions of power. In such circumstances Alice (dealing with mad figures like the Red Queen and the Mad Hatter) is my role model. She tries to figure out the logic in the mad world she is in, has the courage to point out when the authority figures are making no sense, remains unfailingly polite, and is as often amused as frustrated. But if she is pushed too far, if she feels threatened, she will get angry.

I agree with W. H. Auden who argued that Alice (like other such gifted eleven- and twelve-year-old  children) is “an adequate symbol for what every human being should try to be like”:

No longer a baby, she has learned self-control, acquired a sense of her identity, and can think logically without ceasing to be imaginative. . . .

But one cannot meet a girl or a boy of this kind without feeling that what she or he is—by luck and momentarily—is what, after many years and countless follies and errors, one would like, in the end, to become. (293)

Alice is a role model. Bright, polite, funny, and agile in negotiating her way through a crazy world, she is also capable of the response that world sometimes demands: anger.

As if to underscore the liberating power of anger, Carroll uses it in an identical way at the end of his sequel, Through the Looking Glass. There, hungry Alice is frustrated by a talking leg of mutton, the white queen’s dissolution into the soup, and the soup ladle’s peremptory demand for her own chair, and she finally reaches her limit: “‘I ca’n’t stand this any longer!’ she cried, as she jumped up and seized the tablecloth with both hands: one good pull, and plates, dishes, guests, and candles came crashing down together in a heap on the floor” (212). Alice continues in an almost berserker rage: ‘And as for you’,” she went on, turning fiercely upon the Red Queen”—”‘And as for you’,” she repeats as if possessed. Then she grabs the suddenly doll-sized Red Queen in both her hands, announcing, “‘I’ll shake you into a kitten. That I will!” And so she does, waking up. Once Alice gets angry, she becomes the one in power; as Alice comes to consciousness, the seemingly grown-up Red Queen shrinks away. Anger provides the energy for waking up.

L. Frank Baum, who wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in part under the Influence of Alice in Wonderland, probably didn’t know little girls as well as Carroll; although he was a father, he had only boys. But Baum certainly knew women, including, I imagine, righteously angry women—his wife was the feminist daughter of Matilda Gage, an influential leader of the woman’s movement (Baum makes sympathetic fun of this movement with Jinjur and her army of girls in The Land of Oz). Anger is not typical of Oz. Throughout the series, Dorothy is pleasingly, even unrealistically genial, and indeed so is the whole of Oz; that is the charm of Oz, of Dorothy, and most of all of Ozma. Ozma is totally non-violent and non-aggressive: she’d prefer to let her enemies defeat her than fight them. Ozma is the benevolent goddess, the archetypal model for Dorothy herself (as some of the illustrations make clear). She is Oz’s good mother: Oz Ma.

But even Dorothy is healthy enough to be capable of instinctive anger, for instance when the Lion first encounters her and Toto, he opens his mouth to bite the dog: “. . . Dorothy, fearing Toto would be killed, and heedless of danger, rushed forward and slapped the Lion upon his nose as hard as she could, while she cried out: ‘Don’t you dare to bite Toto!’” (67). This instinctive anger is immediately effective, as the lion proves himself to be a coward.

At the end of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz that Dorothy most effectively uses her anger, and she uses it just as Alice does, defeating a threat (for Dorothy the Wicked Witch and her monkeys rather than the Red Queen and her minions). Just about everybody knows the movie version, but in the book, the witch trips Dorothy with an invisible iron bar, and when Dorothy falls one of her Silver Shoes comes off, which the Witch steals. Dorothy demands her shoe and when the witch refuses, Dorothy starts to lose her temper:

“You are a wicked creature!” cried Dorothy. “You have no right to take my shoe from me.”

“I shall keep it, just the same,” said the Witch, laughing at her.

This made Dorothy so very angry that she picked up the bucket of water that stood near and dashed it over the Witch, wetting her from head to foot.

Instantly the wicked woman gave a loud cry of fear; and then, as Dorothy looked at her in wonder, the Witch began to shrink and fall away. (153-4)

Dorothy could never have been clever enough to figure out that water, a typical Oz non-violent weapon, would melt the witch. She found her way to effective action irrationally, using anger to intuit how to make the witch shrink and melt away (just as Alice had used anger to intuit how to make the Red Queen shrink and melt away). So even Dorothy, one of the nicest of all children’s literature heroines, triumphs not through niceness and love, but through anger and thoughtlessness. And of course readers applaud Dorothy for her angry action: little girls ought to get mad when a witch or anyone else tries to steal their shoes or hurt their dog.

If male fantasy writers like Carroll and Baum dramatize the importance of anger in their girl heroines, fiction by women (especially more realistic fiction) even more explicitly acknowledges girl anger; after all, if you have been a little girl yourself, you surely know that girls sometimes get mad.

My favorite angry girl in children’s literature is Mary Lennox in Francis Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. For much of the first part of the book, she’s unpleasant and contrary (earning the nickname “Mistress Mary, Quite Contrary”). She is understandably if indefensibly unpleasant, growing up unloved as a spoiled rich English child in India, then suddenly becoming an orphan when everyone except her dies of cholera, then being unceremoniously dumped at Misselthwaite Manor.

There she discovers the secret garden and, with, the help of Dickon the nature boy, begins renewing both the garden and herself. Like much of children’s literature and like all of the works discussed in this essay, The Secret Garden is a pastoral. As is so often the case, the pastoral movement suggests a psychological/spiritual renewal through contact with nature. Mary first works with Dickon in the garden, learning about her own animal nature: “Us is near bein’ wild things ourselves,” Dickon instructs her (160). Mary also meets her sick cousin Colin, a boy even more ill-tempered than she. (That Burnett names her heroes Colin and Dickon is an explicit allusion to the pastoral nature of her novel; these English country names go back in pastoral literature at least to Edmund Spenser, whose Shepheard’s Calendar features a Colin and a Diggon).

One day when Colin gets angry at Mary for not visiting him, she explains that she was working with Dickon in the garden. Colin petulantly threatens to send Dickon away if she visits him instead of Colin. Consequently, the narrator tells us, “Mary flew into a fine passion” (165). After a big fight, Colin throws her out of his room, and Mary says she’ll leave but won’t be coming back.

Mary acts so tough, mean, and mad in this scene that Colin’s nurse breaks into laughter, declaring, “It’s the best thing that could happen to the sickly pampered thing to have some one to stand up to him that’s as spoiled as himself

. . . . If he’d had a young vixen of sister to fight with it would have been the saving of him” (167). I know from personal experience how fighting with a sister can toughen you up (for this I would like to thank especially my older sister Karen). Children more easily act like animals than do adults, so the vixen metaphor the nurse uses seems very apt, especially because while the first meaning of vixen is a female fox, the second meaning is an ill-tempered quarrelsome woman. The girl who is able to quarrel with a boy may be acting out of healthy animal instinct.

That night Colin has a hysterical tantrum. Awakened by his sobbing screams in the middle of the night, Mary “hated them so and was so terrified by them that suddenly they began to make her angry and she felt as if she should like to fly into a tantrum herself and frighten him as he was frightening her” (171). Conscious of her own desire to get angry, she storms into his room and makes an even bigger scene with Colin this time: “You stop!” she almost shouts. “You stop! I hate you! Everybody hates you!” When I yelled this same thing at Gene on the basketball court in the 1970s, I had yet to read The Secret Garden; it’s just the kind of thing you say when you are really really mad, when you are full of deep and strong anger (as opposed to a whiny bitchiness such as Mary had at the beginning of the book). At such a moment you say the impolite truth, which in Mary’s case includes an extended wish Colin that were dead—an effective rhetorical touch, more often employed in children’s anger than adults’. The narrator comments:

A nice sympathetic child could never have thought nor have said such things, but it just happened that the shock of hearing them was the best possible thing for this hysterical boy whom no one had ever dared to restrain or contradict. (172)

This is the first crucial moment in Colin’s transformation, and it is a girl’s anger that transforms him, just as it is a girl’s anger that transforms the frog into a prince. From then on, he gains strength, renounces his hypochondria. Even in a world where there is a renewing pastoral paradise, transformation can’t be effected just by love; sometimes anger is required.

In the pastoral journey, getting in touch with nature coincides with getting in touch with your nature. Thus in Mary’s version of the pastoral, her trip to the secret garden is followed by the liberating expression of healing anger. (A similar voyage to anger comes from the pastoral journeys to Wonderland, to Oz, and even to the well of the Frog Prince.) Mary, as we used to say, gets in touch with her anger; as Carl Jung used to say, she expresses her shadow side.

She also eventually gets in touch with her physical nature as an athlete: the revelatory last scene in the book, where the newly buffed-up Colin literally runs into his father, begins with a footrace between Mary and Colin. I love how Mary frequently stresses that her goal as an athlete is to be “fat.” She could be a spokesperson in the fight against anorexia, glorying in having her full muscle, what she joyously calls “fat.” Alison Lurie in Don’t Tell the Grownups: Subversive Children’s Literature stresses how revolutionary Burnett’s themes were in 1911: “Another new concept is that of the healing power of nature, of fresh air and outdoor exercise. Today we take ideas like this for granted, but Mrs. Burnett grew up in an age when the only exercise permitted to middle-class women was going for walks” (143). The year 1911 is early for a writer to suggest that girls ought to be athletes, that girls ought to be tough. Mary Lennox is a little rich girl who wouldn’t have to do physical labor for a living, who wouldn’t have to be strong as would a working girl. But the point is that the kind of physical work the lower classes do is good for you. This is a familiar pastoral theme, where peasants (such as shepherds, such as Dickon and his family, such as the gardener Ben Weatherstaff in The Secret Garden) are idealized. Thus Mary’s pastoral regression brings her to be a healthy animal, just as it gives her the energy and anger to help transform Colin into a healthy animal.

Burnett’s labeling Colin a “hysteric” is also as ahead of her time, for before World War I, hysteria was still primarily thought of as a female malady. As you would expect of someone who seems so modern about gender, Francis Hodgson Burnett was herself a strong woman. One of five children, her father died when she was three. The family fell into poverty and when Burnett was fifteen and they moved from England to Tennessee, the situation seemed pretty hopeless. Burnett decided to write her way out of poverty. When she sent her first story to a second-rate women’s magazine, she wrote in her cover letter: “My object is remuneration.” Like Jack London, she was motivated by poverty to write books people liked, and she was tough and talented enough to become extremely successful by her early twenties.

A woman who has learned in her own growing up the use of strength and the righteousness of anger will create her heroines accordingly. Consider, for one more example, Cassie Logan in Mildred Taylor’s Newbery Prize winning Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Mildred Taylor as a child felt the anger that comes with growing up black in a racist society, so she understandably made anger an important and valuable character trait of her heroine. Unlike so many other heroines of children’s literature, Cassie not only gets mad, she beats up the person she is mad at (like a stereotypical boy, like Tom Sawyer). Early in the book Cassie’s flashing anger is counter-productive (as it would have been in reality), because 1930’s Mississippi racist society will punish African-American girls (and their parents) if they openly express anger. But in a trickster-like way Cassie figures out how to act out her anger. When a little racist girl named “Miss Lillian” publicly humiliates her, Cassie with determined and cold anger hatches a plot that eventually allows her the revenge of beating up the girl with impunity.

It should come as no surprise that children’s stories reflect what real children are like and so portray female anger. Such stories might be especially beneficial for young female readers, who can see verification in literature that sometimes girls just want to get mad—even if society often seems to be saying that girls should always be sugar and spice and everything nice (and go easy on the spice).

I have seen many children make psychological use of finding their emotional situations mirrored in literature. Beginning in 1979, I was for several years a consultant at the McAuley Neuropsychiatric Institute of St. Mary’s Hospital and Medical Center of San Francisco. Using my expertise in storytelling and children’s literature, we developed a program on the children’s psychiatric ward of using stories as therapy; at times we personalized this therapy, matching the specific motifs of a child’s fantasies (revealed in sandtray therapy) with the motifs of a story to be read or told to them ( (Miller and XXX).

Perhaps the most popular fairy tale on the ward was “The Magic Orange Tree,” from Diane Wolkstein’s wonderful collection of Haitian Folktales. A Haitian version of Cinderella, the story is like the Grimm’s (rather than Perrault’s) Cinderella: rather than a fairy godmother, there is the spirit of a tree under which the heroine’s dead mother is buried. In the Haitian story, the girl is helped by a magic orange tree that miraculously grows at her mother’s grave. Fleeing to this grave after her stepmother beats her for eating three oranges (the stepmother both starves and beats the girl), the girl sings to the orange seed that falls out of her skirt and thereby transforms it into a bountiful orange tree: “Magic Orange Tree, Grow and Grow and Grow, Magic Orange Tree, Stepmother is not a Good Mother, Orange Tree.” (Out of distaste for excessive stepmother bashing, I usually transformed the song, singing, may Diane forgive me, “This Mother is not a Good Mother.”)

Through this song, the girl expresses her anger at an abusive parent. And finally this anger leads to action, when at the end of the story the greedy stepmother climbs the tree to gather up all the oranges and the girl sings “Break, Orange Tree, Break,” thereby killing the mean mother once and for all. It is easy to imagine why these disturbed children, perhaps all of whom had themselves been abused, so liked this song (and sang it joyfully). Often a blocking point in their therapy came in admitting that a parent had indeed abused them. There can be strong psychological pressure not to admit that you have a bad parent, so a crucial first step in therapy can be consciousness as to what has happened. And with such consciousness comes the angry truth: This parent is not a good parent.

From any child’s point of view, abused or not, there are times when a parent is not quite a good parent. Children do get righteously angry at their parents. In E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, eight year-old Fern’s best moment comes in the first chapter, when she gets mad at her father for wanting to kill the runt of a litter of pigs. She grabs the ax in her father’s hand and cries and screams at him: “‘But it’s unfair. . . .The pig couldn’t help being born small, could it? If I had been very small at birth, would you have killed me?’” (3). The reader is on Fern’s side from the beginning, and even her farmer father is soon convinced. Fern, in this sort of prologue to the novel itself, angrily defends the rights of small mammals, heroically defeats patriarchal power, and is rewarded with a pet pig.

But it is not Fern’s story, so she soon takes a literal back seat, sitting in the barn watching and listening to the drama of Charlotte and Wilbur and the other farm animals. At first she is a kind of Alice, a dreaming child whose sensitivity and imagination allow us readers to enter into a world where animals talk. Fern functions like such a girl muse or a fictional anima, the girl whose presence seems to help some male writers (like Carroll, Baum, and White) enter into a fantasy world. (The earliest and still one of the best English language works using this literary/psychological device is the medieval poem The Pearl.)

The reader can’t help but admiring Fern (when the narrator calls attention to her), this girl who, the first half of the book assures us, is more open and sensitive than the adults or than her brother, this girl who lets us readers have the dreaming child’s access to Charlotte and Wilbur’s version of wonderland. Although after her angry first scene, Fern is no longer the narrative focus of the story, she remains for the first half of the book admirable in her introversion.

Near the end of the book, though, White for some reason has Fern abandon Wilbur just at his life-saving moment of glory (winning a prize at the state fair). White removes eight-year-old Fern from the scene, instead making her fall for the unattractively named Henry Fussey. So when Wilbur is winning his prize, Fern is riding the Ferris Wheel with this Henry Fussey. No doubt White had his literary reasons for getting rid of Fern at that point and in this way. Perhaps he wanted the girl imaginer to drop away so the reader could more fully appreciate and admire Charlotte’s lonely and courageous death; perhaps White was putting the literary spotlight where it should be at this moment, squarely on Charlotte, the heroine of the book, the heroine who teaches Wilbur how to be a hero.

Or perhaps White sends Fern off onto the Ferris Wheel with Henry Fussey to underscore a “theme”—frequently a tricky business for a fiction writer. In this case, the themes are what Roger Sale, the best critic of Charlotte’s Web , identifies as the two “messages” of Charlotte’s Web: “things change” and “remember the best things, treasure them” (267). Fern illustrates the first theme in abandoning Wilbur, and she sounds the second theme near the end of the book when as Christmas approaches her brother says, “Coasting is the most fun there is.” “The most fun there is,” retorts Fern, “is when the Ferris wheel stops and Henry and I are in the top car and Henry makes the car swing and we can see everything for miles and miles” (173). This same theme is sounded again, more beautifully this time, in the book’s final paragraph, which begins “Wilbur never forgot Charlotte.”

Well and good, and I love this book, but the thought of eight-year-old Fern preferring Henry Fussey to Wilbur makes my blood boil. It’s as if White has forgotten Fern is eight and suddenly thinks she is fourteen. Whenever I read the book, I want my imagination to make Fern behave like a character in Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, for Fern to get mad like she did in the first scene, for Fern to insist, screaming and crying: “No! it’s unfair. I am not going on the Ferris Wheel with Henry Fussey or with any other boy. I am going to see Wilbur win his prize.” Almost any real eight-year-old girl (even in California) would not abandon her adored pig in favor of a boy. A real eight-year-old girl, certainly one as sensitive as Fern has shown herself to be, would want to see the pig she’s loved in its moment of glory, just as the lucky reader gets to do, just as even her brother gets to do—and he has never cared for Wilbur at all. (This last is clearly NO FAIR.)

Of course real children can be fickle, but if Fern is to fall so suddenly in love, as anyone who knows young girls at all knows, she would most likely fall in love with a girl: Fern would get a girl friend! I hope this language doesn’t offend the conservative or religious; I just mean that for most girls there is a time when they make a special friend, a special girl friend—just as most eight-year-old boys other than Georgie Porgie would scream if you suggested they should get mushy with a girl on the Ferris Wheel. So if Fern were 14 and not 8, or if she abandoned Wilbur for a Henrietta Fussey, White’s plot twist wouldn’t make me so mad.

If Fern’s love interest were a Henrietta Fussey, White would get to sound his very same themes (about memory and about change). The paranoid-feminist explanation as to why White makes Fern behave so wrongly would argue that White was unwilling to portray girl/girl love because of some socially-constructed neurotic fear of lesbianism; that instead he wanted to push his rigidly heterosexual agenda so much that he gives an eight year old girl a boyfriend. (I didn’t bring this idea up in Susanville.)

The second explanation is simpler, that White didn’t know very much about little girls. Having read Charlotte’s Web more than ten times, I think that White does seem to know more about pigs than about little girls (and even more about writing). After all he did have real life experience raising both pigs and sons (he had no daughters), and he spent his most intense moments writing.

I have three daughters, so I know that real girls get angry sometimes. This fact is brought home most frequently when they are very young and are thus unable or unwilling to repress their anger. My daughter Jenny (who read, wrote, and drew precociously early) drew and wrote her anger for/at her mother and me when she was four. She is pictured in a rage, with the caption: “I AM MAD I AM MAD I AM MAD.” This picture still hangs in our house, and when I see it I smile. Of course you are mad, I feel rather than think, and good for you.

For me, Marie-Louise von Franz, best explains women’s anger (which she calls “nastiness”):

Women . . . have a way of reacting to disagreeable situations by being downright nasty. Instead of being thought-out, or just punishment, nastiness is a kind of overflowing of a mood and is not, in all circumstances, unjustified; in certain situations, just to be nasty is the right answer. The vixen who bites the cub at a certain age does the right thing. By that she puts it on its own, which is how mothers sometimes can shake off children who cling too much to them; they just get like the animal mother, and kick! At bottom that is the revengefulness of nature in a positive aspect, though seen from the outside it is ugly. If the woman is in Tao and functioning according to the inner laws of her being, she can afford that kind of feminine nastiness and it is not animus. The animal who wants to be fed by its mother too long gets the nasty mother in revenge. The functioning of this feminine rule is not recognized in our patriarchal civilization, and therefore we think things must be ‘just’.

I love the fact that von Franz embraces the same animal metaphor as Burnett did: woman as vixen, and vixen as a positive model—as opposed to the negative meaning of vixen promulgated by our patriarchal civilization: vixen (like shrew) as ill-tempered female. For a female as well as for a male, anger is an instinctive reaction that is sometimes called for. You don’t need to gather more evidence and take time for logical consideration; you need to act right now with no further thinking thank you: sentence first and evidence later, as the angry Red Queen puts it.

Unlike the mother archetype, the mother stereotype includes only the good mother, the loving mother. But real animal mothers, like vixens and women, sometimes need to be nasty, even to their own children (though of course there are abusive mothers, just as there is destructive anger).

A mother’s anger can be frightening but it can have a kind of beauty (especially in retrospect). I think of my mother, who was a great woman and a great mother (and I’m not the only one who thinks so). But my mother had a temper, an anger that was one of the most frightening emotional realities I have ever encountered (and I encountered it a whole bunch of times). She never laid a hand on us, but when she would raise her voice so that it pierced my soul, I would wish that she would just hit me and be done with it. There was a purity to her anger, a be-mad-now quality that brooked no discussion. We are not talking about justice, thank you, we are talking about an instinctive animal anger, the vixen’s anger. Sentence first! evidence later! At such times, it is best not to mess with mother.

For most of us, mother anger is our first experience of female anger. And for most of us this experience, even if somewhat traumatic, is a good and necessary one. I know now, as I knew then, that angry or not, my mother was always right. In my house, that was by definition: she would frequently tell us we could be right when it was our house and we were older than she was; since she’s dead, perhaps I can now finally be right, but I’d prefer not to be. I’d prefer the moral correction of righteous mother anger, the emotional power in the shadow side of mother love.

I was boycotted by some folks in Susanville because patriarchal society is afraid of the nasty mother; the idea of female anger is dangerous because it contradicts our patriarchal bias for women as care-giving and love-giving mothers. It also contradicts our patriarchal fantasy that rational justice is always the appropriate response; rational justice may be the best response on a social level, but emotional response (including anger) is sometimes best on a personal level.

Children’s literature compensates for the culture’s onesideness, over and over showing that female anger is healthy, teaching little girls and little boys about the vixen. Nastiness and anger are part of the mother archetype, are part of the feminine, are part of the whole personalities of women and of little girls. If these parts are accepted, they are not necessarily bad. The message creeps again and again into children’s literature: Sometimes girls just want to get mad.

Works Cited

Auden, W. H. “Lewis Carroll,” in Forewords and Afterwards. New York: Vintage, 1974.

Burnett, Francis Hodgson. The Secret Garden. New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1986.

Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1992.

Chinen, Allan. B. Once Upon a Midlife: Classic Stories and Mythic Tales to Illuminate the Middle Years. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., 1992.

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Trans. and Ed. Jack Zipes. New York: Bantam, 1987.

Ellis, John M.One Fairy Story Too Many: The Brothers Grimm and Their Tales. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1983.

Lurie, Alison. Don’t Tell the Grownups: Subversive Children’s Literature . Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1990.

Miller, Carol  and  XXXXX. “Tears Into Diamonds: Transformation of Child Psychic Trauma Through Sandplay and Storytelling.” The Arts in Psychotherapy: An International Journal, Fall 1990.

Sale, Roger. Fairy Tales and After: From Snow White to E. B. White. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1978.

von Franz, MarieLouise. The Feminine in Fairytales. Dallas: Spring Publications,  1972.

White, E.B. Charlotte’s Web. New York: HarperCollins, 1952.

Wolkstein, Diana. The Magic Orange Tree and Other Haitian Folktales. New York: Schocken, 1980.

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