My younger son recently found his brother's copy of Goodnight Moon. I had hoped that I'd seen the last of it. This children's classic, written by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Clement Hurd, freaks me out. I am not alone.
Based on the line "Goodnight nobody" my friend and fellow dad, Jason, describes the book as existentialist nihilism, but Camus is downright warm and fuzzy next to Goodnight Moon. Some parents have told me that they actually managed to "lose" the book several times, only to have a well-intentioned relative or friend buy them another copy. And yet some sixty years after its publication, kids all over the English-speaking world-including my son-still love it. Ostensibly, it's supposed to be a simple story about a little bunny getting ready to go to sleep by saying goodnight to the different things in his room, under the caring and watchful eye of a kindly old lady rabbit. But after reading it through several hundred times, I am starting to see things differently.
So let's examine what is really happening in Goodnight Moon. An anomic little bunny, dwarfed by a "great green room," bids adieu to the world while he tries to fight off a sleep from which it seems most likely he will never wake up. The creepy implications of the text are reinforced by subtly malevolent illustrations in a super-saturated palette that makes my fillings buzz. The unwary reader may believe that the bunny is in his own room, but this reading cannot be sustained. His fascination with the accoutrements of the room argues against it; if this was in fact his room he would take the various objects in it for granted, but quite the opposite is true. The use of the definite article, and the emphasis on the room's size: "the great green room" indicate that this is not the bunny's usual bedroom. And those with an eye for detail may remark upon the inscription of the name "Bunny" on the brush, but this is in fact a generic appellation, indicating that this room is a place designed to appeal to bunnies, in general-whichever bunny happens to have wandered by on any given night.
Furthermore, the great green room seems to have been fitted out by an expert lurer of children. The objects on which the bunny fixes his attention to stave off sleep-the little toy house, the warm woolen mittens, the fluffy kittens-cunningly appeal to a child's fantasies of safety and comfort.
I am certain, however, that two kittens in the room have been trained-no doubt through the careful administration of electric shocks or other aversive therapies-not to eat the young mouse that's in there too, so as to create the illusion of a place outside the prey/predator paradigm.
And the mittens by the fireplace clearly allude to Beatrix Potter's The Flopsy Bunnies, in which Mrs. McGregor plans to turn young rabbits-rendered insensible by the soporific aftereffects of a lettuce binge-into gloves. Note that the bunny in Goodnight Moon lies in bed under the supervision of a nameless caretaker rabbit, -let's call her the "quiet old lady"-a Madame Defarge figure whose knitting needles click away the last minutes of his life.
She shows no mercy for her young charge, despite his mounting sense that all is not well, (it takes him over an hour to fall asleep-as measured by the relentless clocks in the illustrations and demonstrated by the various positions of unease in which he is shown). The quiet old lady doesn't kiss the bunny goodnight or sing him a lullabye, and she answers his growing anxiety only with the sibilant exhortation, "Hush," the very denial or annihilation of speech.
In the room-which is otherwise neurotically well-ordered-the old lady has not cleaned up a serving of suspicious food that the bunny has refused to eat. That tells the savvy reader much: the murdered rabbits passing through this room are either being knocked out (no doubt to facilitate more horrible abuse) by means of a sedative in this weird, anti-food mush. Or else they are being served to one another in some form of ritual cannibalism. If you think cannibalism is a stretch, then answer me this. What do you see in the picture on the wall to your left in the great green room? That is a rabbit fishing in a stream. What is he using as bait? A carrot. And what has he caught? A little rabbit.
The quiet old lady is either a dupe, or more chillingly, in league with others. I suspect the three little bears who hang in awkward and exaggeratedly casual postures in a framed picture hanging over the bunny's head. The picture shows a bizarro universe composite of Goldilocks and the Three Bears and The Three Little Pigs. In this version, the bears who are still pissed off at having had their home broken into, their chair smashed and their porridge eaten are just waiting for the weary bunny to fall asleep before they creep down out of the painting and take revenge by proxy. They won't have to huff and puff to get in because their painting is, in fact, a through-the-looking-glass replica of the great green room, with the same picture on the wall. The call is coming from inside the house.
The bunny's stiflingly final "Goodnight air" alone should place this book with Poe's Nevermore in the pantheon of Gothic horror. Whatever fate awaits him, and the uncertainty just makes it worse, clearly the bunny is never going to wake up. Don't get in the bed, I want to shout to him. Don't eat the bowl full of mush. And no matter how many times the old lady whispers "Hush," DON'T CLOSE YOUR EYES.