The Very Hungry – and Sexy? – Caterpillar: August 24, 2016

Note: This post is directed towards high school teachers due to mature themes, but the lesson could be modified for teachers of younger grades.

I love being a high school English teacher because I can apply just about any crazy idea I come across to my teaching. Terrorist attacks can lead to debates about freedom of speech, weather patterns can lead to discussions on how scientists must find evidence to support conclusions, and we can conduct an entire class session trying to explain how a red pickle dish reveals a literary character’s marital infidelity.

However, themes involving love and sex, loneliness, betrayal, power, revenge, death, isolation, searching for meaning, overcoming obstacles, and finding hope are universally appealing and can be readily found in all types of texts. These ideas can help people explore questions about life, see that they are not alone in their thoughts, and find meaning or even answers in unexpected places – all while masquerading as an enjoyable text!

Literary analysis is an important exercise because it teaches readers to question what they read, wonder about the meanings, argue their perspectives with evidence, and find hidden clues that others might not have picked up on. Even the message of a simple text can be interpreted in infinite ways.

Before I discuss the sexy caterpillar, a little background: we are introducing the argumentative standard (Common Core W9-10.1) and I want my students to use evidence from the texts we read to support their arguments. In the past, students have had some difficulty constructing a good argument, understanding what the evidence actually meant, how it related to their argument (sometimes they used contradicting evidence in an attempt to support their position), and citing the source. So this year, I wanted to try close reading with text annotation to help them find better evidence.

Last week, I introduced the idea of annotating texts during a close reading by having the students attempt the task with only written directions. Of course, they had trouble understanding what to do.

This week, they learned about the characteristics of good annotations and contrasted them with habits that would need to be improved to reach proficiency. We looked at a four-point rubric together and I provided guidelines on the number of notes and annotation symbols required on each page of a text. Then, specifically without modeling, I instructed them to annotate. Again, they had trouble understanding the task but tried nonetheless.

Today, they completed their first annotated close reading. Again, they don’t get it. Each day, I am seeing what mistakes they are making and am attempting to correct them as they are working. Tomorrow, I will do my big demonstration to model the process and show them what a thorough close reading looks like. Guess what text I will be using with my tenth graders?

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar? Nope.

Elie Wiesel’s Night? No.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury? Absolutely not.

Something much more difficult: Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Relieved of the burden of comprehension of the actual text, all students should be able to access the deceptively simple plot.

However, just like trying to understand contemporary art, The Very Hungry Caterpillar will require imagination and reflection. The ideas outlined below may seem funny, as they probably look like some crazy English teacher’s search to find hidden meanings that don’t even exist, but the point is that you can suggest any interpretation of something as long as you have evidence to support it. 

 

In order to demonstrate to students that readers can interpret even very simple texts in many different ways, I will offer some interesting, silly, and downright outrageous ideas about possible analyses of the book. These themes are rather mature, so prepare yourself, but sometimes one must be outrageous to capture the attention of high school students.

Here they are for your entertainment:

A metaphor for perseverance in life: All of us, including caterpillars, must face obstacles, challenges, and doubts in our lives. The ultimate hope is that we come to a self-realization of our purpose in life. The book could represent the mistakes we make in our past and how they all contribute to who we become later on, and the caterpillar’s search for his natural place show his progress as he makes errors and tries new things until he figures it all out.

A story of sexuality. The caterpillar could represent various stages in sexual development. One could argue that the description of the objects in the caterpillar’s phase of indulgence could be viewed as sexual innuendoes. Another support for this idea is the structure of the story with the anticipation and suspense followed by mindless indulgence and then, inevitably, regret. Of course, the caterpillar himself could also represent insatiable human passion as he finds it difficult to control his physical urges. After initially thinking about this and determining I was out of my mind, I did find this – and other inappropriate ideas – about the book repeated online, from the The New Yorker and another (not appropriate to use in class, but hilarious for an adult to read) from Cracked.com: Horrible Children’s Books.

Marriage: What if the food symbolizes relationships? Is Carle saying that non-marital relationships are seeking to fulfill some deep need that cannot be met without a legally binding commitment? Each day could be symbolic of searching for a new type of relationship, always wanting more but never feeling satisfied. Even the caterpillar’s wild night of carousing in debauchery does not satiate his desire. Only when he finds that one simple green leaf (his spouse) to provide the single source of his sustenance does he stop seeking fulfillment elsewhere. He becomes reclusive and domestic in his cocoon and accepts his station to finally live up to his potential, symbolized in the butterfly – an insect that requires both beautiful wings to function. (Or, depending on your perspective on marriage – he is one step closer to a miserable, repetitive and meaningless existence chasing ever-fleeting dreams that eventually lead to his inevitable demise.)

Addiction: The caterpillar tries one means of satisfying his hunger, but to no avail. He must then expand his search for new and exciting ways to fulfill his uncontrollable impulses, each time risking more as he attempts more exotic and dangerous delights. Once he survives the frightening experience of his final rampage, he realizes that he must quit his habit and return to a more peaceful and simple sober existence. Does this relate to alcohol? Illicit drugs? Illegal activities? Internet addiction? Texting and driving? Cutting and self-mutilation? Surely teens would have many insights into this interpretation.

Weight struggles: If my life were a book, it would probably be A Very Hungry Caterpillar. The struggle to maintain a healthy weight is constant for me, and very closely resembles the cycle of this book. Some days I just want to have the nice green leaf, but other days I want the ice cream, cupcakes, pies, etc. I always feel bad afterwards, and I always repeat the exact same cycle. Perhaps the butterfly at the end represents accepting yourself as you are, no matter what weight? Or possibly it is the representation of one’s goal weight – beautiful to capture, but mostly out of reach, fluttering away…

Hormones and adolescence – Could the life cycle of the caterpillar also show the progression of the human life cycle? If so, the happy, simple life we all live prior to adolescence most certainly ends when hormones start to affect us, just like the increasing hunger the poor caterpillar suffers until he gorges himself just slightly before becoming a mature butterfly. The food could literally be just simply food, as many teens have insatiable appetites, but perhaps it could also symbolize the wild excesses that teens engege in to prove themselves?

Depression or Mental Illness: The dark, lonely world the caterpillar finds himself thrust into involuntarily is without love or guidance. He must rely on himself and his understanding of the world to survive. He does what he feels he must to survive, but has no other comparisons to make other than the consequences that result from his actions. There are no other characters with whom he can discuss his thoughts, and there is no one else in the same situation who can understand or relate to him. Does the warm sun equal mental health treatment that lifts the dark night of depression or other mental illness? Does the butterfly represent his acceptance of who he is?

I found several other interpretations online: Interesting Thoughts about The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and a joking, but well-argued number of interpretations listed here: Critical Readings.

Some satires also proved very funny and even thought-provoking, like this comedic analysis: Comedic Interpretation and the existential interpretation in comic form: Existential Comics. Finally, here is a wildly exaggerated interpretation of the book intended as a spoof that is actually very well-written with evidence and support: Caterpillar Spoof.

Once students read and discuss a text, any references, allusions, or satires relating to the text become more meaningful and accessible. Shakespeare may be difficult for students to even recognize in modern comedy, TV, movies, music, or social media, but satire based on The Very Hungry Caterpillar should be pretty accessible.

If you use children’t picture storybooks in your secondary classroom, won’t you please share your comments? Thank you.

 

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