Grover and Roland Barthes (Part I)

As a parent, there are a few books that you almost always steer your child toward. This is because nine out of ten children’s books are excruciating to read more than once (as an aside, if you were read to as a child, you should call your parents right now and thank them: reading the same inane story 100 times might be the best test of a parent’s love). For myself, we have a few classics that I enjoyed as a child–Where the Wild Things Are, most of the Dr. Seuss library–and some newly found standards. 

Though it’s older, one of these standards is The Monster at the End of This Book (TMATEOTB).

To the uninitiated, let me summarize: Grover, your lovable pal from Sesame Street, is on the title page with a thought bubble above his head. This is a boring page, he thinks. On the next page, however, he realizes what he missed: there will be a monster at the end of the book (you can read it following the link above).

The intervening pages entail Grover trying to convince you, the reader, not to turn the page. He ties pages together, builds a brick wall, and does his best pleading. In the end, of course, Grover is the monster at the end of the book (sorry for giving it away).

It’s a fun read (if you have a rapt pre-schooler).

The book was released in 1971 and is the best selling Sesame Street title of all time. And I would argue that it is books like this (along with video games and a host of other influences), that helped usher in post-structuralism and postmodernism to popular America.

But we’ll get to that later. First, how is the book post-structuralist?

For one, it invites thousands of readers (young children) to participate with the text. This is a hallmark of post-structuralist thought–texts are participatory, not simply produced by the author and then the same meaning is inherent to every reader.

But don’t just take my word for it. Roland Barthes, who became a leading post-structuralist, writes in his classic, S/Z: “the goal of literary work (of literature as work) is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text.” Later, he continues: “Reading is not a parasitical act…It is a form of work.” In this classic of post-structuralist thought, we have the essential element of TMATEOTB, which is that the reader is participating with the text.

Quite literally, the child is creating and giving meaning to the text as he or she reads it.

Second, we have various entrances to the text itself (Barthes asserts that an ideal text has no real beginning). This happens all the time in texts–we’re unsure where they actually begin, or they have multiple beginnings (the Bible, with its second creation account in Genesis 2, would be a prime example). Notably, in our model text, Grover appears on the title page–does the text begin here? Does it begin on the front cover itself? Does it begin when Grover addresses the reader directly?

Most importantly, once the beginning becomes muddled, you can see how the narrative chronology is no longer as important. What’s important is the play between the reader and the text, between Grover directly addressing the reader and the reader responding by turning the page. The sequence of events (does he build a brick wall or tie pages together first in order to stop the reader?) is not the thing.

Such a move, while not new with post-structuralism, became another essential of the movement.

Perhaps most significantly, however (at least according to Barthes in S/Z) is the use of connotation and denotation. Here’s Barthes again:

Connotation is the way into the polysemy (multiple meanings) of the classic text….Connotation makes possible a (limited) dissemination of meanings, spread like gold dust on the apparent surface of the text (meaning is golden).

Two notes. First, you can see, with the use of parenthetical comments, why reading Barthes is fun (it’s almost like he is so aware of the reader that he wants you to participate). Second, to what he’s actually writing: connotation provides us with multiple meanings of a text.

This is important because in TMATEOTB, the central problem is one of connotation and denotation. Grover believes a monster is awaiting him at the end of the book (connoted to be strange or horrible, but other connotations await). The text is telling us that “monster” does not, in fact, have one meaning. It doesn’t refer to one item or truth specifically. Rather, the seven letters that make up “monster” receive meaning from the other words around it.

We can’t overstate the importance of this. If a word’s meaning is dependent on the other words around it, meaning becomes slippery. It’s not fixed. You might say, like another philosopher:

Words differently arranged have a different meaning, and meanings differently arranged have different effects.

Blaise Pascal predated Barthes by 300 years, but made some similar moves. Pascal also, incidentally, noted the importance of others. Here, he’s talking about how the text was produced, but it’s a short jump (over 300 years) to Barthes’ words about how important the reader’s understanding is:

Certain authors, speaking of their works, say, “My book,” “My commentary,” “My history,” etc. They resemble middle-class people who have a house of their own, and always have “My house” on their tongue. They would do better to say, “Our book,” “Our commentary,” “Our history,” etc., because there is in them usually more of other people’s than their own.

(As an aside, the U.S. president was lambasted for a similar statement.)

But, back to words themselves: the slipperiness of meaning, the play of words: this is central to the post-structural concept. It’s important to note that texts have various meanings independent of what the author intended–but this also doesn’t imply that any meaning is possible. Words are defined culturally (we all tacitly agree that these group of sounds signify something beyond them), and meanings are only possible within that framework.

Finally, the logic of the book falls apart on itself–another hallmark of postmodern critique. It’s the time-travel conundrum of the Terminator movies (where John Connor is conceived by the man he sends back from the future to…conceive him?). It’s the same thing here: the title (monster at the end) creates all the drama of the book (Grover trying to stop us from getting to the end), which then leads us to the end. Really, it’s a massive statement about fate, isn’t it? But is it saying that we can’t stop fate or that we create fate?

Perhaps both.

Ultimately, millions of children grew up reading this book, priming them for postmodern ways of looking at the world.

Next time: Implications of millions of children reading this book…and others like it.

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