Literature Research paper
Feminism and the Pumpkin Eater
For the longest of times, nursey rhymes have been used to teach children about society and structure. Gaines has suggested that rhetoric influences a person’s character and attitude CITATION Gai79 p 65 l 16393 (Gaines 65). However, if the rhetoric that influences children through rhymes such as Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater teaches them the oppression of woman kind, the question is this: what good is our education? And secondly, has there been any research conducted on whether what this rhetoric teaches is in direct accordance to our society’s values and beliefs?
In simple words, Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater is an outrageous poem. The thought that a man would take a wife and then keep her prisoner, and then take another in her stead would anger any self-respecting woman from any century. Furthermore, the poem’s lines clearly depict that Peter was not capable of keeping his wife happy, thus absolving her of any blame whatsoever. What, then, gives Peter the right to keep his wife prisoner? What gives him the right to take another wife? What does this say about the relationships of today?
What is noteworthy about Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater is that apart from being so evidently patriarchal, it is one poem that triggers the imagination to formulate many questions. The use of possessive terms in the poem is both repetitive and outrageous to a feminine mind: Peter wants to ‘keep’ his wife, and not be her partner. Additionally, it appears that he did not even love his wife. When he ‘took another’ wife, he didn’t love her either. It is also possible that this woman may have been his mistress, and he could have imprisoned his wife to marry her CITATION Mot74 l 16393 (Mother Goose rhymes and riddles (Hallmark children’s editions)).
The patriarchal tones resound further with the poem’s glaringly obvious ignorance of Peter’s shortcomings. Despite being misogynistic in wanting to keep his wife, he was clearly not very capable of either. When that fails, he imprisons his wife in a pumpkin shell: it just so could have happened that his wife could have been better than he was. She could have been more independent and clever than he, and thus intimidated his pride. That is also why it is possible that he did not love his wife. The theme, furthermore, is not novel when looked at from a twenty-first-century perspective: it is the classic male ego being threatened by the smart and ambitious woman.
The imprisonment itself is symbolic: in an Encyclopaedia of Feminist Literature, Snodgrass talks about confinement in feminist literature and calls it a common theme occurring in the form of Persephone’s imprisonment, to the poem, to even Disney’s Rapunzel. It represents the long persisting double standard in the society. By imprisoning the woman, the society declares that it is the man who has the power of speech, action and expression, and can act of his volition. Women, on the other hand, are expected to conform to certain ethical, emotional, moral and physical standards defined by society. The shackling and confinement of the woman also directly represents the age-old idea: the man will decide what the woman does when she does it, where she does it, and how she goes about it CITATION Sno l 16393 (Snodgrass).
Both ideas sit perfectly with the poem. Where Peter’s wife is shackled and her freedom restricted, Peter is free to go about and take a new wife. Here, it was Peter who decided the imprisonment of his wife, and his taking of a new one, thus cementing the idea of the world being a male dominated society. This, too, finds itself resonated in the structural threads of the contemporary world. Women of today find themselves shackled to a mentally, emotionally, and often physically absent partner. They are the victims of cheating, violence, and often abuse, and are still expected often to stay with their partners.
The question that arises, and is most important, is this: why, after being so obviously anti-feminist, is the poem still considered a nursery rhyme, when the common objective for them is to educate children and cultivate in them a sense of society. It is through literature that children acquaint themselves with societal structure and expectations. Glazer said that through activities based in content and theme, literature allows a child to strengthen his concepts of self-development and self-esteem CITATION Gla91 p 208 l 16393 (Glazer 208). Like Glazer, Luckens said that words chosen with skill and artistry allow children to understand themselves and others CITATION Luc82 p 9 l 16393 (Luckens 9). However, Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater does neither.
Thus, as adults, we should realize the growing need for eliminating such literature as demeans the standard of women in the society, as the poem so evidently does. If anything, it should be seen as a universal acceptance of the fact that men, in general, are unable of handling or even accepting the idea of strong women, which is why they prefer to use brute force to get their way. Thus, if used in schools to teach children the definition and meaning of the relationship between a man and a woman, the discourse should turn both ways: whether the abuse of women in society is fair, and whether men are so mentally and emotionally emasculated that they feel the need to exert superiority by physically restraining a woman.
BIBLIOGRAPHY Gaines, R. N. “Doing by saying: Toward a theory of perlocution.” he Quarterly Journal of Speech 207.17 (1979): 65. Print.
Glazer, J. I. Literature for young children. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1991. Print.
Luckens, R. J. A critical handbook of children’s literature. Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1982. Print.
Mother Goose rhymes and riddles (Hallmark children’s editions). Kansas City, Missouri : Hallmark Cards, Inc., 1974. Print .
Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. Encyclopedia of Feminist Literature. Infobase Learning, 2015. Web.