Overheard in the Linguistics Student Lounge—Chesterton Wilburfors Gilchrist, IV SpecGram Vol CXCII, No 4 Contents Caedmon’s Hum—Kid & Mann

A Literary Linguistic Analysis of The Very Hungry Caterpillar

Papili O’Noidea

Eric Carle’s delightful opus The Very Hungry Caterpillar has enchanted children for generations but has rarely been the subject of serious academic analysis. This article will repair this lacuna by showing how a stylistic account uncovers layers of hitherto occluded meanings.

Prior Readings

Scholars have long suspected there was more to this tale than simple children’s entertainment. While the most recent studies have very much read the piece as an environmental talewith E. Cologist (2019) locating it in the geo-hermeneutic critique of conspicuous consumption and Green & Pace (2017) arguing for a Bourdieusian problematisation of the habitus of capitalism, through the eyes of the escaping butterflysuch readings tend to overlook internal repetition.

Indeed, earlier studies tended to view such repetition, especially the continual refrain of “he ate” as a Greek chorus of unfulfilled responsibility. Dewy, Cheatham and Howe (2001) argued for this to be tied to growing nutritional consciousness, while Stickem (1999) opted for a neo-liberal narrative in the style of Atlas Shrugged.

Why Everyone Else Is Wrong But Me

All these accounts situate their readings within external reference points and thus the œuvre becomes the anachronistic reflection of the scholar’s own internal priorities. Instead, it is important to take a more intrinsic linguistic view.

Note, for example, the large proportion of adjectives such as “nice, green leaf” or “one apple”. This density of descriptors extends throughout the work, including a veritable smörgåsbord in the second act engorgement of food and qualifiers. That this ends with “one piece of cherry pie” simply emphasises the point.

We must therefore read the book through linguistics, rather than against it, and constrain our readings, lashing them to the mast of tagged parts of speech. In this light, the meaning of the text is clear.

Carle invites us into a world where adjective dominates noun, experience hegemonises place and the ever-now leads the to-be.

The caterpillar is us.

We are hungry. We are butterflies. We are green. We are eggs in the light of the moon and emergent cocoon-dwellers. Let us then rejoice in the freedom of a world of free adjectives and restrained nouns. That is linguistics. That is life.

Overheard in the Linguistics Student LoungeChesterton Wilburfors Gilchrist, IV
Caedmon’s HumKid & Mann
SpecGram Vol CXCII, No 4 Contents