Working Out Aggression in Sendak’s 'Where The Wild Things Are' - an essay
Maurice Sendak’s picture book Where the Wild Things Are is rich with cultural and social ideologies and has been the focus of close analysis by theorists, authors and critics alike since its release in 1963. One such interpretation is that of John Clement Ball, who’s analysis of Sendak’s book suggests the story is one of empowerment and reassurance for young children, and acts as a platform for working through feelings of anxiety and aggression. Through Max’s monstrous fantasy, he confronts his fears and expresses his aggressive desires, discovering the value of home and family along the way.
Ball argues that Where the Wild Things Are is a cathartic piece of literature through which young readers can escape the rigidity and frustrations of childhood by exploring their more primitive desires through fantasy. “The book’s narrative of rage and aggression exorcised through an empowering dream-journey is typically seen to offer a positive, reassuring message”, he says. This is demonstrated in the book through Max as he transcends the boundaries of his prison (his bedroom) by imagining a world of reckless abandon and primitive desires. In this new imaginary world an aggressive Max connects with his wild side and his fears, which are represented by the monsters. Many of the creatures Max encounters have physical human attributes and reflect aspects of his nature, such as mimicking Max’s threat to his mother to “eat you up”. Max ultimately masters the beasts by becoming the king of all wild things, and thus learns to control his more aggressive desires.
Using the imagination as a form of release for frustrations and a safe means of exploring desires, Where the Wild Things Are encourages the reader to share in Max’s adventure through a similar process of escapism. The beginning of the book portrays a familiar childhood scenario of being sent to bed after doing something mischievous. Max, dressed in a wolf suit, is called a “wild thing” by his mother and sent to bed without any dinner as punishment for his aggressive retort: “I’ll eat you up!” Using this somewhat familiar scenario to engage the child reader, Sendak guides the reader through Max’s grisly journey and sees him safely navigated home to a place where he belongs. In this way the reader is persuaded to share Max’s feeling of empowerment and security, and feel reassured that they too could conquer their fears through imaginative outlets.
Ball, J.C.1997, 'Max's colonial fantasy: rereading Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are'", Ariel, 28, pp. 167-179.
Sendak, M. 2000, Where the Wild Things Are, Red Fox, London.