BY Sean Walsh
America after the Great War was full of economic prosperity and social upheaval. Margaret Wise Brown, renowned children’s book author, made it her life’s goal to both comfort the youth of the era and expose the flaws of human advancement through her didactic work. In Goodnight Moon, Brown explores the relationship between a young bunny and his material possessions set against the backdrop of the Cold War. The book was met with critical and commercial success. Margaret Wise Brown’s work, which has been translated into countless languages and has sold over 40 million copies, still resonates with children’s librarians and counter-culture revolutionaries for its duality as good-natured poetry and allegory of human alienation.
A bunny says goodnight to the moon and other things.
The book opens as a young bunny prepares for sleep in his bedroom. The first half of Brown’s magnum opus is entirely devoted to the contents of “the great green room.” As symbolic items such as a “balloon” and a “telephone” are described, our protagonist bunny, oppressively tucked into bed, resists the confines of sleep. Brown gives particular attention to a large number of animals that populate the room: “two kittens with mittens” and a “little mouse.” The room also contains a picture of a “cow jumping over a moon” and “bears on chairs.” Here, Brown twists our preconceptions of settings—where the internal now is wild, but the external (“the moon” and “the stars”) serene. The room full of raging wildlife mirrors the little bunny’s desire to throw off his sheets and play.
At the midpoint of her Homeric epic, an antagonist is revealed: “a quiet old lady whispering hush.” The bunny, first enthralled by the items, now must face an authority figure desiring quiet in the wild. Succumbing to his Oedipal desire to please his maternal figure, the bunny starts to settle and go to bed. Then, in a process of self-actualization, the young bunny says goodnight to everything both in and out of the room. The climax is realized when the bunny says goodnight to the “old woman who says hush,” thereby making his amends and completing his quixotic journey to rid himself of his surroundings. In the denouement, the bunny turns his attention to the outer world in ways not unlike Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. At peace with the loss of his maternal authority figure, the young bunny says goodnight to the moon, whose presence loomed throughout the narrative.
Materialism in American Culture — Post-WWII economic boom figures heavily in Brown’s sharp critique of our newfound prosperity. A careful Marxist examination might suggest a strong anti-capitalist sentiment. She carefully chooses to set the story in a “green room.” While surely the overly materialized room of the bunny excites and overwhelms his senses and severs his relationships, Brown finds fault more in our inability to extricate ourselves from the clutches of capitalism—(think Thoreau)—then in the systemic trappings of the American economic system. [See note on Red Balloon.] However, the title of the book put in the context of the impending space race gives credence to Brown’s polemic warning that we—perhaps both Russians and Americans—should say “goodnight moon” and focus our attention on rebuilding relationships.
Search for the Masculine Self — As in many other bildungsromans, i.e. The Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace, Brown adopts the voice of a young male protagonist trying to find himself. While lacking the acerbic wit of Holden Caulfield and the taut homoeroticism of Finny and Gene, the young bunny’s voice is, at the same time, quite powerful. He is dismissive of the world. His complete nihilism and rejection of his parents are ripe precursors to the era to come (1950s).
The Moon — The moon in this piece acts as a traditionally feminine sign. Here, the bunny’s final “goodnight moon” demonstrates his completion of his rite of passage and his development into a full man bunny. The moon, which visually appears on every page, grows larger and more pronounced—it is a chanting feminine voice, haunting and disturbing his world. Just as he must overcome his sexual desire for the woman who says “hush,” the bunny must resist the impending femininity outside of his safe confines. In Queer Theory, the bunny’s final admonishment—"goodnight noises everywhere"—represents his full on embrace of a heteronormative lifestyle and a rejection of his “deviant” thoughts, probably about the kittens with the mittens.
The Red Balloon — A subtle, yet appropriate reference to communism. The bunny’s desire to rid himself of the balloon’s presence by saying goodnight enforces Brown’s ardent McCarthy-era beliefs. This symbol is only more fully realized in the unwatchable film of the same name and in the hit song “99 Luft Balloons” by Nena.
Possible Essay Questions
1) Analyze the scene in which the bunny says goodnight to the lighthouse in relationship with the rest of the book. Cite textual evidence whenever possible.
2) Compare and contrast Goodnight Moon with The Sun Also Rises. Whose sentences are simpler: Brown’s or Hemingway’s?
3) What have you said goodnight to you? Analyze what that says about you. Try not to cry.
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