Charlie Brown in an Existential Age

November 21, 2014

As Thanksgiving approaches, I am reflecting back on nostalgic Thanksgivings, and an old t.v. favorite: Happy Thanksgiving, Charlie Brown. Now that I teach existential literature, I have a whole different interpretation of my childhood favorites, the Peanuts gang. My adult understanding of the cartoon is that Charles M. Schultz was a philosopher, and that he suffered from the same existential torment as has any hero from literature.


You know all the old Charlie Brown cartoons where Lucy tries to get C.B. to kick the football? He goes through agony trying to decide if Lucy is sincere this time--if he can trust her to leave the ball there so that he can experience one glorious kick.


Lucy always wants Charlie Brown to try, but she never allows him satisfaction. She pulls the ball away and Charlie Brown falls flat on his back--time after time.


I always found this scene odd for several reasons. For one, Lucy is never malicious. Her face is blank when she pulls away the football. The suggestion seems to be that Lucy, like the snake or the scorpion, is merely doing what is in her nature. She has to pull the ball away, because she needs to see people like Charlie Brown try and fail. She doesn't even take smug satisfaction in Charlie Brown's fall; she speaks to him calmly and walks away. For Lucy, the meaning of the universe is verified every time Charlie Brown makes his sad attempt.


For another, Charlie Brown knows what Lucy is. It isn't a matter of wondering whether or not he can trust her--he knows he cannot. Therefore, there must be something else compelling Charlie Brown to agonize over the "to kick or not to kick" decision. He is Hamlet on the ball field, and Lucy is his existential agony. For Charlie Brown, it probably doesn't matter either way. If he kicks it, he could fail. Since he is Charlie Brown, and has very little self-confidence, he most likely will fail. If she pulls it away, there is an excuse for his failure. Lucy is responsible.


Does this mean, then, that Charlie Brown NEEDS Lucy to pull the ball away, because it justifies his lack of prowess? And does Lucy, who dispenses "Psychiatric Help" for five cents a session, somehow understand this?


I often think that Lucy is too easily dismissed as a horrible person. Sure, she is a cartoon, but I find a great deal of existential truth in Charlie Brown.

The Existential Pumpkin Patch


Now on to Linus Van Pelt, one of my favorite cartoon characters; perhaps his greatest moments were those when he was anticipating the arrival of THE GREAT PUMPKIN. Not only is Linus one of the most appealing creations in all of fiction, but his simple belief in the Great Pumpkin, who would preside over the "most sincere" Pumpkin Patch on Halloween night, was the crux of the story. Linus represented the optimism that Charlie Brown could never quite muster, and there is beauty in all of Linus's speeches that are meant to make Charlie Brown take heart.


These boys are the Didi and Gogo of cartoon world, the little philosophers who show us the distance between hope and despair. Schultz's great success, I think, lay in the fact that he never condescended with his characters. The Peanuts gang spoke with wisdom, even world-weariness, and they were appealing to all ages.


When the Great Pumpkin never appears (except in the disillusioning form of Snoopy), Linus is dejected, but it is not long before he is planning for the next Halloween, and a more gloriously sincere pumpkin patch. Linus avoids the abyss because he clings to hope; Charlie Brown has been to the abyss, which is why he seeks pyschiatric help from Lucy, who doles out not Prozac, but common sense.


The heroism of the cartoon boys is similar to that of the men who wait for Godot; they may not always have the answers, but there is always hope, there is always tomorrow. Charlie Brown might actually get mail, and Linus might see something magical.


(This is  a re-post of a piece I wrote for Poe's Deadly Daughters).


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