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.
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 tale
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-
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-
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-