Reprint of a Review Article Published in the Fall 2005 Bean Home Newsletter
"Why a Sunbonnet and Curls?"
One of Freddy's most noteworthy and amusing characteristics is his donning of disguises, from the shawl and painted-on spectacles of Florida to "Peppy" Talcum's sailor suit in Dragon. (I have published a compendium of Freddy's disguises on my site in FAQ #24, and if I have missed anything, do let me know.) Though it seems Mr. Brooks had Freddy costumed like a woman quite frequently, a simple tally and reckoning reveal that incidents of such dressing up comprise much fewer than half of the 40 or so occurrences of Freddy's putting on human attire. But such humdrum observations and elementary mathematics are hardly interesting. Of more import is the fact that 56% of those who responded to the "Favorite Freddy Disguises and Get-Ups" section on the Freddy maillist survey (2003) indicated a preference for Freddy's female disguises. I will not presume to account for that preference, but in this article I will present several possible approaches (and no certain answers) to understanding why Mr. Brooks dressed Freddy up as a woman to the extent he did.
I suppose an answer to "Why a Sunbonnet and Curls?" depends generally upon one's methods of reading literature. As many of you know, I am just a Centerboro High School class of 1939 graduate, but I enjoy reading enough to have done some post-grad research into different ways of interpreting the books I read--fiction, I mean, of course. What follows is a short examination of methods based on what I can make of literary analysis and criticism. If you want a lengthier, more intellectual discussion of the meaning of Freddy's sunbonnet and curls, I recommend that you post a query at the Freddy the Pig maillist. It's possible that you'll get a response from some of the over 200 current members. (Click here to subscribe to the list.)
To begin then, you might take a biographical or historical approach to the Freddy books, in which case you'll see just about everything in them (including the various disguises and costumes Freddy wears) as reflections of Mr. Brooks's own personal life and his times, or, I guess, of the Freddy characters' lives and times). For example, to understand why Freddy disguises himself as the wealthy Mrs. J. Perkins Vandertwiggen in Pied Piper, you'd have to discover which circumstances of Mr. Brooks's life and the social context of his era lend themselves to that particular disguise. Perhaps if Mr. Brooks's biography is ever published, this will become a fruitful venture, but right now I think the effort would cost way too much mental energy for the undoubtedly scanty results.
If you think literature is (or should be) all about teaching morality and probing the perennial philosophical issues, then you'll probably view a Freddy costume as some kind of moral or philosophical remark. Personally, I don't see much evidence in the series for that view. The treatment of moral issues in the Freddy books strikes me as sketchy and shallow for the most part. Do the Freddy canon's themes and conflicts correspond to the small and large events of the real world? Do the Freddy books comprise a series of moral observations and prescriptions? Is their intent to demonstrate how people ought to act when sorting out moral dilemmas? To some extent, clearly yes, but superficially so. I believe if moral commentary were an intention of Mr. Brooks, it comes in a far second to his intention to entertain and amuse.
Do you believe that you should be able to interpret the Freddy books by what you can find within them without reference to outside information about the history, politics, or society of the times or to the particulars of Mr. Brooks's life? Do you relish the thought of dismantling a text and examining all the cogs and wheels--like figurative language, irony, paradox, symbolism, and structural aspects? Well, if that's your bent, you'd probably employ a formalistic approach to the Freddy books and involve yourself in a super-close, nit-picking reading of them. Will your exertions produce insights into the subject of the brass curtain rings Freddy uses for earrings? I don't know. Maybe Freddy's penchant for dressing up is symbolic of something or other. But maybe it isn't.
Of course, if a formalistic approach doesn't suit you, you could try to fashion some kind of Freudian or Jungian analysis of Freddy's character or of Walter Brooks as an author. What would motivate Freddy to "dress up"? What would motivate Mr. Brooks to create a character whose idea of disguise is to put on a garden party dress? Perhaps there is some deep mythological or archetypal thingy underlying the image of Freddy in lace mitts. Does an image of Freddy in a thin dress with big flowers on it and high-heeled shoes evoke some kind of universal response? Is the "poor widdy woman" Mrs. O'Halloran some kind of pattern emerging from the "collective unconscious"? Pretty far-fetched, if you ask me!
If you are a feminist, then perhaps you'll see Freddy's putting on Mrs. Bean's old gingham dress as some kind of criticism of patriarchal culture. Maybe Mr. Brooks was representing some kind of entrenched, subconscious male fear or anxiety in Freddy's girly disguises, but maybe a feminist reading of the Freddy series is just too political or revisionist. Do you really think Mr. Brooks was concerned with gender issues when he created the domineering Lorna the Leopard Woman guise for Freddy? I doubt it, too.
Another course you might follow is to develop a recondite poststructuralist discourse upon Freddy's disguises and gender politics using the assumptions and terms of deconstruction. But that kind of twaddle is best left to French intellectuals, or to college English majors, or to academicians who don't know how to do or produce anything else. I'm sure they'd have plenty to say about Freddy as Zelda Field, gypsy wife of Jasper in Saucer Plans, but ho, hum---who would have the endurance to wade through all that balderdash?
The final possibility I will suggest is for you to take a look at your own role in creating the meanings of the characters and plots of the Freddy series. In other words, until you reflect mindfully on your reading of a Freddy book, it won't mean anything at all! The elements of your personal identity will pretty much determine your reactions to Freddy stories (or any of Freddy's get-ups) and what they mean to you. I think that this is the most sensible approach to enjoying the Freddy series as entertaining fiction written ostensibly for a juvenile audience, but with enduring appeal for its adult fans. I don't believe that there's anything necessarily wrong-headed about more critical approaches; however, when I think of Kurt Wiese's illustration of Freddy's masquerading as a salesgirl in the Busy Bee, pinning his wig up, yanking off his cowboy's rat-tail mustache, rouging his cheeks, and making an "enormous Cupid's bow mouth...with lipstick," I am content to lay criticism and analysis aside and just have a good laugh--and I daresay Freddy would be of the same mind.