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Species Trouble: The Abjection of Adolescence in E.B. White's STUART LITTLE

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Species Trouble: The Abjection of Adolescence in E.B. White's STUART LITTLE
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  Species Trouble: The Abjection of Adolescence in E. B. White’sStuart Little Gubar, Marah, 1973- The Lion and the Unicorn, Volume 27, Number 1, January 2003,pp. 98-119 (Article) Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press DOI: 10.1353/uni.2003.0004  For additional information about this article Access Provided by University of Pittsburgh at 10/27/11 3:02AM GMT http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/uni/summary/v027/27.1gubar.html  Marah Gubar98 The Lion and the Unicorn 27 (2003) 98–119 © 2003 by The Johns Hopkins University Press Species Trouble: The Abjection of Adolescencein E. B. White’s Stuart Little  Marah Gubar When E. B. White’s Stuart Little appeared in 1945, quite acontroversy ensued; as Lucien L. Agosta has recounted, various readersand critics “assailed [the work] as a tasteless venture into the monstrousand unnatural in its grotesque depiction of the birth of a mouse to ahuman mother” (29). The influential children’s librarian Anne CarrollMoore declared the book unpublishable, while White’s  New Yorker  colleague Harold Ross was so disturbed by the first chapter that he burstinto his friend’s office shouting, “God damn it, White, you should havehad him adopted!” ( qtd. in Elledge 264). White himself was troubledby the issue of his hero’s species; although he admitted to referring toStuart as a mouse during the course of the narrative, he neverthelessinsisted to his editor that the Littles’ “second son . . . obviously is not amouse,” but rather “a small guy who looks very much like a mouse”(  Letters 270). Although Stuart Little has long been accepted andindeed embraced as a children’s literature classic, the vexed issue of thetiny protagonist’s strange birth has not disappeared, as demonstrated bythe recent—and very popular—film version of the book. FollowingRoss’s advice, the movie opens in an orphanage, where Mr. and Mrs.Little discuss their decision to adopt Stuart with an extremely uneasymatron, who explains, “We try to discourage couples from adoptingchildren outside of their own . . . species.”It is my contention that such “species trouble” symbolizes and speaksto the condition of another creature caught between two categories:namely, the adolescent. 1 Even as miniature subjects like Stuart Little blurthe line between the animal and the human, they also tend to inhabit thefraught frontier of adolescence, that unsettling period during which theboundary between childhood and adulthood is constantly breached andreasserted. This is a controversial claim, since most critics associate the   Adolescence in Stuart Little99 trials and tribulations of miniature heroes with the plight of children, whomust also navigate a world built to a scale that exceeds their size.Summarizing this view in reference to Stuart Little and Mary Norton ’ s  Borrowers series, Perry Nodelman notes that, “ when these small beingsprevail over insurmountable odds, as they always do, they represent apotent version of the . . . fantasy [that] the very small can triumph overthe dangerously large, the very powerless over the exceedingly power-ful ” ( Pleasures 199). Rob Minkoff, director of the Stuart Little film,endorses this paradigm when he maintains that White ’ s narrative “ [i]s achild empowerment story ” ( qtd. in Sterngold 7). 2 Without a doubt, this interpretation pinpoints one way in which suchtexts appeal to young readers. Yet this focus on the enabling aspects of these narratives does not fully account for the frequency with which theyplunge their main characters into positions of utter abjection; in both Stuart Little and the Borrowers series, the act of expulsion, coupled withthe threat of extermination and extinction, drives the narrative. Neitherfully human nor entirely animal, the status of miniature beings is alwaysproblematic: will they be treated like vermin (hunted down, caged,killed) or like humans (incorporated into the family, nurtured, em-braced)? The radical reversals these characters undergo — from empow-erment to abjection, from autonomy to dependence — evoke the vicissi-tudes of puberty, a perilous period during which independence and powersometimes turn out to be gratifyingly real, and sometimes depressinglyillusory. In other words, the “ species trouble ” that complicates the livesof these beleaguered figures provides a metaphor for the adolescent ’ sstruggle to negotiate the gulf that separates childhood from adulthood.The opening of  Stuart Little therefore sets its hero up not only as a “ mouse-child, ” as White once called him, but also as a child-man. Inchapter one, White explains that, Unlike most babies, Stuart could walk as soon as he was born . . . Mrs.Little saw right away that the infant clothes she had provided wereunsuitable, and she set to work to make him a fine little blue worsted suitwith patch pockets in which he could keep his handkerchief, his money,and his keys. (Elledge 253; White, Stuart Little 2) Citing this passage, critics have claimed that Stuart, like Tom Thumb, is “ mature at birth . . . a miniature grown-up ” (Agosta 31). But surely themix of infantile and adult characteristics that he exhibits better matchesour concept of an adolescent; by turns capable and helpless, suave andembarrassed, Stuart is at once a “ great help ” to his family and the mosttroublesome member of the household, a youth who “ present[s] many  Marah Gubar100 problems to his parents ” (4, 9). Indeed, in the course of the narrative heexperiences many classic and discomfiting adolescent moments: firstlove, first date, first car wreck, and first job, to mention a few.Furthermore, despite his deep desire to be neat, clean, and well-dressed — that is to say, adult and human — Stuart constantly finds himself soiled, wetted, and trapped like an animal. And appropriately enough, itis his family who constantly place him in these embarrassing situations.The titles of the first three chapters —“ In the Drain, ”   “ Home Prob-lems, ” and “ Washing Up ”— hint at how Stuart is pressed into assumingan abject position within the Little household. Mr. and Mrs. Little, Whitelets slip, “ had never quite recovered from the shock and surprise of having a mouse in the family, ” and their anxiety and discomfort leadthem to encourage their son to embark upon dirty and dangerousadventures that basically constitute attempts to expel this disturbinglyanimalistic presence out of the family body (9). For example, when Mrs.Little loses a ring down the bathtub drain, Mr. Little suggests they sendStuart down after it. “ How was it down there? ” asked Mr. Little, who was always curious toknow about places he had never been to. “ It was all right, ” said Stuart.But the truth was that the drain had made him very slimy, and it wasnecessary for him to take a bath and sprinkle himself with a bit of hismother ’ s violet water before he felt himself again. Everybody in thefamily thought he had been awfully good about the whole thing. (6) Nevertheless, “ everybody in the family ” constantly asks Stuart toperform similarly unpleasant duties, like retrieving stray Ping-Pong ballsfrom under furniture and remaining inside the piano while it is played topush a sticky key and make it sound. The Littles urge Stuart into onedomestic orifice after another, despite the fact that these excursions causehim to sweat, grow deaf, catch cold, and almost vomit. Tellingly, though, “ the thing that worrie[s] Mr. Little most ” about Stuart ’ s future with thefamily is that he might venture into the mousehole in the pantry:nevertheless, “ nothing had been done about stopping it up ” (11).Spruce, trim, and constantly concerned with hygiene, Stuart himself never expresses the slightest interest in exploring the secret spaces thatso fascinate Mr. Little. Rather, as Garth Williams ’ s brilliantly conceivedillustrations indicate, it is the other members of the family who want tosee him go “ down the mousehole ” and out into the world (20, 23).Underlying the Littles ’ desire to drive Stuart out of the house is anunspoken horror of the mysterious process by which Mrs. Little ’ s wombcould produce such a “ mouselike ” baby (110). Thus, although the first   Adolescence in Stuart Little101 sentence of the narrative glosses over the circumstances of Stuart ’ s birth,the story keeps returning to the scene of the birth canal. 4 Similarly,though the first paragraph finds White casually collapsing the boundarybetween man and mouse, species trouble persists throughout the story.White nonchalantly explains, “ Before [Stuart] was many days old he wasnot only looking like a mouse but acting like one, too — wearing a grayhat and carrying a small cane ” (2). But this calm conflation of animal andhuman characteristics cannot conceal the fact that Stuart ’ s hybrid identityclearly unsettles the Littles. To borrow Kristeva ’ s definition of the abject,Stuart embodies “ the in-between, the ambiguous, the composite ” ; and hisfamily shifts back and forth between embracing him as a cherished childand treating him like an unwelcome household pest (4).Chronicling the various ingenious ways that the Little family managesto incorporate Stuart into the house, White describes how they make him “ a tiny bed out of four clothespins and a cigarette box, ” and provide himwith a small hammer that enables him to turn on the faucet to brush histeeth (2). But even this whimsical description of how the family adapts totheir unusual son ’ s presence subtly foreshadows their eventual need toget rid of him; explaining that Stuart ’ s mother weighs him using “ a scalewhich was really meant for . . . letters, ” White adds that, “ At birth Stuartcould have been sent by first class mail for three cents, but his parentspreferred to keep him rather than send him away ” (2 – 3). Hoping toprevent Stuart from identifying with doomed creatures like the “ ThreeBlind Mice, ” Mr. and Mrs. Little carefully expunge all references to micefrom their conversation (and home library). Yet immediately afterchoosing this course of action, Mr. Little insists on associating Stuartwith rodents; musing about the mousehole, he remarks to his wife, “‘ After all, [Stuart] does look a good deal like a mouse . . . And I ’ venever seen a mouse yet that didn ’ t like to go into a hole ’” (11).As this episode suggests, even as the Littles strive to assimilate theirunusual son into the household, Stuart ’ s indeterminate species causesthem to identify him with indeterminate spaces, with apertures that mark the boundary between inside and outside space. Literally as well asmetaphorically, in other words, Stuart Little dramatizes the condition of being betwixt-and-between. Hovering at the margins of the household,Stuart ’ s liminal position evokes the frightening yet exhilarating predica-ment of an adolescent poised at the outer limit of the family, almost readyto make the leap into the outside world. Reading Stuart Little this wayhelps explain the Littles ’ ambivalent attitude toward their progeny;stormy relations are virtually de rigueur  for parents and teenagers infiction, if not in life. Or, to put it another way, the Littles ’ oscillations
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