Curious George
H.A. (and Margret) Rey
1941

Curious George – that crazy little monkey whose ADD-like hijinks always got him into trouble. There’s alot of them, and as a kid I loved them all, and still can’t stop myself from flipping through when I come across one. But, as with many such series, it’s the first one that is the stand-out for our purposes here, that introduces the character that becomes iconic, the idea that lasts. The original Curious George – the one in which George comes to live with his great friend, the Man in the Yellow Hat. It’s quite the story to reflect upon and reconsider so many years later.

Man in Yellow Hat leaves America with his big gun to go shoot animals across the world. During his little fun-with-a-gun, Man with the Yellow Hat catches a monkey in a big cage and decides to take it home as a living trophy. George gets caged. George gets shipped across the Atlantic in a journey that is not unlike the slave passages to the Americas in terms of his complete disorientation and terror. But on the other end? Freedom. No, not freedom as in freedom to just keep living where he was happy. Not freedom as in freedom to grow and explore. Not freedom as in the ability to decide his own fate. Not freedom as in autonomy. But Freedom with a capital “F” – Freedom American-style. Freedom to be a pet. Freedom to be owned. And Freedom to experience way more than you can possibly understand.

And in every successive story, the basic premise is the same. George wants to get away, George wants to be free, George cannot negotiate so-called civilization, George cannot sustain himself in this foreign environment, George is re-captured, George thanks his master for providing him food and shelter and the only security he knows in this jungle that is industrial America. George goes to the zoo, and decides it’s the closest thing he can find to home, and doesn’t want to leave. George breaks out of the house whenever the Man with the Yellow Hat is away, only to be scared into gratitude when he either encounters some new civilized terror or begins to starve. George sees something reminiscent of a tall tree, tries to escape up it, and is pursued by cops, firefighters, or other uniformed agents of the state who put him back into his proper, caged place. Man with Yellow Hat arrives, chuckles with amusement at George’s continuing reluctance to accept captivity, and kindly reminds the little monkey that the sooner he accepts his lot as property, the safer and happier he’ll be.

Wow. Never really thought about it before. The whole series is really about George’s ongoing yearning for freedom and a return to a less alienating physical environment, his constant struggles with work and subsistence and the ever-present but so-often-hidden power of the state, his complex relationship with captivity as represented by the Man with the Yellow Hat – the owner who he tries constantly to escape and yet who also provides subsistence and security in this strange new world. Do I fight for my freedom, with all the risks? Or do I submit to captivity in exchange for the banana and the television screen? If my natural autonomy is out of reach, is it better to struggle alone in this alien world or accept the safe paternalism of the master? This is George’s great and ongoing crisis. And kids get it, cause kids live it every day.

The original book lists H.A. Rey as sole author. In actual fact, H.A. drew the pictures – his wife, Margret, wrote the books, but they opted to have the man as sole name on the cover, apparently to mark their book as different from the other kids’ books out there, which were predominantly authored by women, and help generate an audience of young boys.

I don’t expect H.A. and Magret Rey intended any of what I’ve read into the story above. I don’t think they were consciously making any commentary about human slavery, animals in captivity, or the contradictions of market freedom. But it’s funny how the world around us seeps into everything we do, how we can see the conflicts of capitalism, democracy and the civilizing mission reflected in the seemingly-frivolous. But then again….Hans Augusto and Margret Reyersbach certainly had their share of experiences with the state, with the problem of freedom, with the promise of democracy and the reality of twentieth century capitalism. The original George manuscript was tucked away in their bags as they jumped on bicycles to flee the march of fascism across Europe, to Brazil and finally to the very centre of buy-your-way democracy that was New York. Maybe not so accidental after all.

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