Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown, with pictures by Clement Hurd, is probably the best known book in the entire night-night genre. Recent studies have shown that seventy-three percent of households worldwide own a copy: more families share this book at bedtime than have access to clean drinking water. Its cultural significance cannot be overstated. For instance, in virtually every movie made since 1947 in which parents read bedtime stories to their children, either Goodnight Moon is shown onscreen, or alluded to in the dialogue. Another testament to its influence is historians' unanimous agreement that the pioneers of space exploration were motivated primarily by their exposure to this book directly before dreaming of hurtling beyond the Earth's atmosphere.
The book's popularity endures today, even amid competition from such sexy titles as Goodnight, Gorilla; Goodnight Sh'ma; Goodnight, Thumper; The Goodnight Train; and Goodnight Warrior: God's Mighty Warrior Bedtime Bible Stories, Devotions, & Prayers.
So, what is it that fascinates us about this book to such an extent that it remains the bestselling of its type more than sixty years after publication? Is it even fascination that we feel for it? Could it be that, as with Humpty Dumpty, we have no idea what the fuck it means or why anyone would enjoy it, but we fear that to withhold it from our children is to deny them a possibly crucial element of our cultural literacy?
I contend that in addition to the cultural pressure to make Goodnight Moon a part of our tucking-in routine, there is a discomfiting allure to this simple poem and its alternating luridly colored and starkly monochromatic illustrations that resonates with children and compels their parents to return to it night after night, child after child, and generation after generation. Goodnight Moon is to parents what Blue Velvet is to cinema buffs.
And as in the films of David Lynch, Goodnight Moon has a patina of realism that makes it more disturbing and in some ways more compelling than the completely surreal, fantastic, or absurd representations in the works of Dali, Spielberg, and Seuss. There are no flights of fancy, outrageous gestures, plot twists, or grotesque creatures to be found in this subdued bit of subversion. The text simply describes the elements of a sleepy-time setting, and then bids goodnight to most of the items described. Meanwhile the illustrations pan with Jarmuschian languor from one side to the other of the room in which all the nearly imperceptible action takes place, shifting to black-and-white closeups every third and fourth page.
In terms of the text, most of the non-sequiturs can be interpreted as a function of a child's perspective as she says (or perhaps just thinks) "goodnight" to everything she sees or conjures in her mind's eye--something most parents have witnessed with their own youngsters. And even though the tantalizingly succinct line "Goodnight mush" lends itself to much speculation as to its deeper meaning, would-be literary codebreakers are mistaking a simple dietary relic for the key to this sometimes puzzling work.
The truly disquieting line in the text is the one in which the reader is introduced to one of the only two anthropomorphic animal characters: "And a quiet old lady who was whispering "hush"." This elderly lady-rabbit is not a mother, a grandmother, an aunt, or a nanny. She's simply a watchful crone who stares the rabbit-child down from across the room while her knitting sits untouched in her lap. It's unclear whether the old lady is friendly toward the young rabbit, but her narrowed eyes and constant whispering suggest that there are potentially unpleasant consequences if the child perseverates about the kittens, mittens, brush, and mush.
|"Who am I? Oh, don't you worry about that, little bunny. Just know that I watch you every night while you sleep."|
The artwork, however, is what makes opening "Goodnight Moon" an agreement to step into a universe related to ours only to the extent that it is populated by the trappings of our daily lives. The arrangement of these mundane objects, however, is skewed enough to make us feel off-kilter, and the blocks of vivid primary colors almost vibrate despite the quiet setting. The visual and psychic incongruity is more than a little nauseating.
Although the question of why rabbits would share a human (or quasi-human) home with cats, mice, and a tiger-skin rug is beyond the scope of my argument, it is worthwhile to consider an interpretation in which the "great green room" is an actual rabbit's imagining of what a human dwelling might entail.
However, if we continue to entertain the notion that the narrative is from the rabbit-child's perspective, the setting certainly suggests that the child's world is fraught with anxiety and confusion. The great green room is anything but cozy. In fact, it is vast: an agoraphobic's nightmare in which the two human-ish characters are isolated by an oceanic area rug.
The room's ambiguous purpose and organization are jarring to the reader and, indeed, seem to intimidate the bunny to the point that it is confined to the safety of its bed. As readers, our question is "Where are we?" Is this a nursery, as the toys and nursery rhyme-based wall hangings would indicate? Or, with its fireplace and two grand windows, some sort of parlor or drawing room? It's unlikely that a child's room in the 1940s would have a telephone in it (not to mention a tiger-skin rug); so is this the parents' room? A studio apartment, perhaps? With forest green walls and tomato red carpet? It's no wonder at one point the bunny tucks its knees under its chin and seems to rock in a modified bunny-fetal position.
It's tempting to read Goodnight Moon as a comment upon the disorientation inherent in the new postwar prosperity in the United States. But a broad interpretation, disentangled from its historical bonds, better explains the universal appeal of Brown and Hurd's greatest collaboration. The juxtaposition of a chromatically jarring setting, childish ramblings, and incongruous visual details creates a vertiginous psychological landscape with sinister undertones. As such, it resembles nothing so much as childhood itself.