The Impossible Choice in The Very Hungry Caterpillar

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The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric CarleThe primary responsibility of the storyteller at the beginning of a text to establish why this entity, whether it be person, place, bowl of mush, or caterpillar, is distinguished from all other entities and/or all other examples of said entity or members of the community with which said entity identifies. Mr. Carle wastes no time in doing so using an adjective and an adverb in the title to distinguish this caterpillar as a protagonist from all other caterpillars that are not protagonists. As with any act of distinction, Mr. Carle implies as much about the rest of the population of potential protagonists as he states about the chosen one. Because this particular caterpillar is not merely “hungry” but “very hungry,” we see that the state of hunger is common yet not universal. To put this another way, our hero is not distinguished by a fundamental difference but by a degree of some other more common trait.

Given the ultimate conclusion of the text, one has to wonder if Carle is attempting a grander statement about the natures of genius and greatness or perhaps about the ability of distinction to replaced or superseded by the mere intensification of itself, but as we shall see, there is much to question in the intensifying “very” or perhaps even in the more fundamental “hungry,” a questioning that ultimately leads to a vital, yet impossible choice.

Two Pears from The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric CarleAs with the title, the diction of the text shifts importance away from nouns and verbs onto the more utilitarian adjectives and prepositions. It’s clear then, as we continue our examination, that the most important word in The Very Hungry Caterpillar is not “hungry” or “ate” or even “caterpillar” but “through.” On Monday it does not eat one apple but “through one apple.” Tuesday follows likewise with not two pears being eaten, but two pears being eaten “through.” The visuals accompanying the text leave no ambiguity as to the amount of each item uneaten. Since it is eating “through” the food, while leaving so much behind, one has to wonder if it is “hungry” at all, let alone “very hungry” as the title suggests. It isn’t until we reach Saturday and the climax of the first act of this two act story where we see any true gluttony, but even still, that is a gluttony of sampling. (Which naturally roots the caterpillar firmly in the postmodern tradition of sampling, DJing, and curation. This rooting in postmodernism, we shall see, is vital, as it is in the free play of postmodernism that a text is able to create an “or” that is fundamentally an “and.”)

In many ways, this larvae acts more like a cat, playing with its food, only consuming a bit and then leaving the rest behind as a testament to its ability. Hunger itself, then, is not the primary motivating factor. Rather than eating, as with a cat, the caterpillar demonstrates the ability to eat. It is no coincidence that the caterpillar eats right through the very core of all it encounters.

Page from The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric CarleAfter a sensible green leaf on Sunday (Carle clearly playing off the relationship between the sin on Saturday and the confession on Sunday), the caterpillar transforms, an oddly sudden transformation given the way food usually affects the body, and Sunday’s still svelte caterpillar is page-turned into a bulbous football-shaped horror. It is a startling image and one that further undercuts the idea of the preceding items being “food” in any traditional sense. It is almost as if the caterpillar’s body was suddenly reminded of its consumption and rushes to confess its hedonism to the world through its sudden engorgement. This confession is followed by the metamorphosis readers have been expecting, and, as expected, the primary engine is the caterpillar’s ability to consume. (We should note again that the term is not “ate” or “bit” or even "chewed" but “nibbled” calling into question again the fundamental hunger of this entity.) Another page turn takes us from a cocoon to a butterfly.

The text stops abruptly, freezing the protagonist after the moment of transformation. The final verb is not “flew” or “perched” or “fluttered” or even “escaped,” but “was.” The butterfly at the end is inactive; it is simply frozen in a moment of being, almost as though it were a monument to the past consumption, a pillar of color and grace commemorating the preceding tour of gluttony, a testament to the transformative power of amalgamated hedonism. Given the relentless progress that preceded, it is a disarming final image, one with implications that ripple back and forth throughout the text calling into question the ability of static media to communicate motion and growth at all. (It is no wonder that Nabokov, the great master of the contradictions of prose and text, was also a lepidopterist.) The butterfly, of course, is beautiful, but in Carle’s text it does nothing more than exist.

It’s clear, then, that given the tension between consumption and waste, between stasis and action, between verb and preposition, between animal and monument, that the text is something of a Schroedinger’s Box, existing in a tense stasis between a series of opposed relationships which can collapse backward into a single question posed by the text to the reader as they consider the nature of beauty, growth, transformation, and interpretation; a simple choice that is, ultimately, rendered impossible to make. What is the true art: “cat or pillar?”