IN 1957 A BOOK containing only 220 words and some zany illustrations was published in America. Three years later The Cat in the Hat had sold one million copies, helping Dr Seuss become one of the most successful children’s authors of all time. But, as we celebrate Theodore Seuss Geisel’s 100th birthday, one question surrounding his work remains unanswered: ‘What on earth is the story all about?’
On the face of it the succinct and colourful little book tells us of Conrad and Sally Walden who are left at home alone. Then the funny feline visitor arrives to brighten up their day and the house is turned upside down. This hugely popular tale was accredited with killing off Dick and Jane (the sterile middle class creations of children’s writers in the 1950s), and creating an engaging story with which children could learn to read.
So was this just a simple tale written by a man who loved fun and nonsense and was good with a rhyme? Or did he hide a more intellectually sophisticated message in his book? One might think so considering his background. After attending Oxford and Dartmouth universities he began his career as a political cartoonist for the American publication PM. Timothy Benson, founder of The Political Cartoon Society says: "His message was antifascist. He was very much a libertarian, ridiculing racism, isolationists, and those on the right-wing."
Conspiracy theorists argue that these political views heavily influenced his later work. All kinds of political meanings and sexual connotations have been found in The Cat in the Hat. The belief that his picture book was concerned with the build up of the Vietnam War is one such suggestion. The cat (the government) is trying to persuade the kids (the American people) into playing games that will cause destruction. The Goldfish (the war protestor), who warns children about the dangers of going along with the cat’s game, is proved right in the end but gets beaten up in the process (the hippie peace movement).
Of course the notion of children’s stories carrying adult messages is not unique to Seuss. It is accepted that Peter Pan explores Freudian themes. Peter and the Lost Boys long for a mother for which Wendy is a substitute, and Peter’s victory over Hook is said be derived from Freud’s belief that every young boy wants to kill his father. It is widely acknowledged that the Magic Roundabout was full of drug references and some even think The Teletubbies’ world resembles a drug-enhanced landscape.
Some certainly see a Freudian tale unfolding in The Cat in the Hat as Conrad and Sally are urged to explore their sexuality. The fish is a moral figure warning them against unleashing such primal feelings but the cat’s mischievous companions Thing One and Two are actually male and female genitalia used to introduce the brother and sister to their libidos.
Dr Rob Maslen, a senior English lecturer at Glasgow university says: "I think anything could have a sexual meaning - Freud showed us that, so you can’t rule out the possibility that The Cat in the Hat carries these messages. As for it carrying a political message, in Geisel’s case the paranoia of the 1950s may very well have invaded his writing, albeit subconsciously."
But Benson does not subscribe to these arguments. "Although his children’s illustrations strongly resemble his earlier political creations, I don’t think there are any sublime messages within The Cat in the Hat. He was not that much of a political animal."
The way that The Cat in the Hat is open to so many interpretations could be enough to explain the phenomenon that is Dr Seuss. For many, Geisson’s cartoon characters rank alongside Peter Pan, Wendy, Doogle and Zebedee as mediums for adult messages. The feeling of exclusivity that grown-ups experience when they realise they are laughing at an intellectual context and not slapstick is integral to its popularity.
There is no question as to the mark that The Cat in the Hat made on generations of children on both sides of the Atlantic. However as to what he was trying to say with his books remains uncertain. If Ted Geisel was alive today nobody knows if he would say that his work had been over-analysed or if he would reveal exactly the message he had in mind.