"Vilde khaye!": Maurice Sendak's not-so-cautionary tale

Written by:
Ilan Stavans
Fall 2010 / 5771
Part of issue number:
Author illustrator Maurice Sendak. Photo by James Keyser, Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Maurice Sendak’s famous children’s book Where the Wild Things Are is an astonishing exploration of otherness that resonates far beyond its intended audience. Sendak, who published it in 1963 at the age of 35 (although he started it several years before), once said, “You cannot write for children. They’re much too complicated. You can only write books that are of interest to them.”

The theme of Wild Things is difficult to summarize. Is it the search for individual freedom? The fright that comes with internalizing one’s ghosts? The longing for comfort and a good hot meal after a temper tantrum? Conversely, the arithmetic of the volume is easy to grasp: 37 unnumbered pages, 18 color illustrations (excluding the cover and title page), 338 words, and 10 full sentences – not much for a picture book whose influence has proved immeasurable.

Narrated in the past tense, the plot is about an imaginative little boy named Max who one night makes mischief dressed up as a wolf. In the first section Max hangs a rope, constructs a tent, climbs on books, and scares his dog. Exasperated, Max’s mother calls him “WILD THING!” (The dialogue between Max and his mother, sparse and pointed, is always in capital letters.) He retorts, “I’LL EAT YOU UP,” and she sends him to his room without dinner. The setting for the adventures that follow is Max’s empty stomach.

From here on the action takes place in Max’s room, which transmogrifies before his eyes. Upset by his punishment, Max perceives a forest (looking very much like a theatrical set) growing around him, and he giggles at the sight until “the walls became the world all around.” An ocean appears and Max, on his private boat “Max,” sails through time and space for several weeks, almost a year, until he reaches the place where the wild things are.

This place may well be Sendak’s most stunning creation: a dream-like but threatening land where creatures “roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws.” But Max doesn’t fall prey to these creatures. Instead, he commands: “BE STILL!” and by staring at their yellow eyes without blinking tames them. Max has magical powers.

Sendak presents monsters and wild things as synonymous. The distinctive creatures look somewhat endearing, their features juxtaposing elements from diverse species. Several display recognizable human hands and feet. One has a bull head, another a bizarre rooster’s head. A third displays a chest that appears to be indelibly wearing pajamas. The unifying characteristic of all the monsters is their upright position and their big yellow eyes. Soon the wild things make Max their king and he presides over them with a golden crown and a scepter. But although he becomes their ruler, he isn’t a tyrant. He plays with them: they all bow to the moon, swing on tree branches, and carry Max on their backs. The monsters honor him by calling him “the most wild thing of all.”

In a move that echoes the early section of the book, Max eventually gets tired of the rumpus and sends the monsters off to bed without supper. Then the little boy becomes lonely. He smells good things to eat and feels hungry. He wants to be where “someone loves him best of all”; as a result, he gives up being king.

The monsters don’t want him to go, so they threaten to eat him up, just as Max threatened his mother earlier in the plot. Confusing destruction with devotion, they warn that they’ll eat him because “We love you so much!” Max refuses to stay and the monsters again exhibit their terrible roars, teeth, and claws. But the boy perseveres. He sails back through time and space until he finds himself in his own room, looking just as it always did. And, of course, his supper is waiting for him, still hot. The ending of the book asserts a mother’s triumphant love.

Sendak was born in Brooklyn to Polish immigrants. His father was a tailor who told his children biblical stories in dramatically embellished form. His mother was psychologically unstable. His parents; the experience of watching Walt Disney’s Fantasia at an early age; and the presence, visible and invisible, of relatives whose lives had been touched by the Holocaust defined the young Sendak’s world view. The parents spoke Yiddish to him. They often sent him to his room. And his mother called him vilde khaye, wild beast.

Some read Wild Things as a tale about innocence and courage, manliness, or even the rite of passage of a child seeking to define his limits in a world he doesn’t yet understand. Others seek a psychoanalytic explanation, looking at the disparity between the authority of the outside world and Max’s subconscious desires. A third interpretation, tangentially inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, approaches the plot through the prism of colonialism and abandonment. Like Prospero the magician, Max is exiled in a distant land surrounded by the sea. He becomes the ruler of the natives, subduing them, until he decides to leave them behind. Whatever interpretation one chooses (to me, they all seem forced), the book’s memorable title invites us to understand Max’s otherness at home and abroad.

The volume forms a triptych with Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen and Outside Over There. Wild Things has been adapted as opera and recast as a musical as well as a film (with a screenplay by Dave Eggers and Spike Jonze, and directed by Jonze). None of these variations comes remotely close to the power of the original.

Apparently, the first draft of Wild Things featured horses instead of monsters. Sendak’s editor at Harper & Row, Ursula Nordstrom, realizing that the author couldn’t draw horses very well (the original title was Where the Wild Horses Are), asked him to change the characters into creatures he could ably depict. Sendak opted for lovable monsters that, in his own words, resembled the immigrant aunts, uncles, and cousins who visited his childhood home in Brooklyn and for whom he felt both affection and disdain. He saw them as rowdy and impolite: they “could eat you up.” In the opera, these monsters have names: Tzippy, Moishe, Aaron, Emile, and Bernard.

In the realm of children’s literature, Sendak’s method is revolutionary. He shows only what Max experiences and refrains from moralizing or reflecting on the events. Jewishness is implied: although no reference is explicitly made to it, the entire book is permeated with Jewish sensibility. Max inhabits his own universe; he resists outside authority; he arrives in alien lands but assimilates the inhabitants’ culture so well that he becomes a leader. Most of all, he longs for a return to his origins, the only place he feels truly at home.

Upon publication, Wild Things received negative reviews and was considered inappropriate for young readers. Librarians often put it out of children’s reach. Parents objected to Max’s mother as mean, and disapproved of the way he defied her. But Sendak knows that we are all beasts inside. In children’s literature he found a humble, modest genre and made it explode. In a 2004 interview, Sendak said, “People often ask, ‘What happens to Max?’ It’s such a coy question. ‘Well, he’s in therapy forever,’ I reply, ‘and has to wear a straitjacket.’”

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. His latest books are: With All Thine Heart (Rutgers), a series of conversations on love and the Bible with Mordecai Drache; and The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature (W. W. Norton), which he edited. The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which Stavans also edited, will be out in spring 2011.