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Alienation and neoliberal dispossession in “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”

Happy April Fools’ Day! You are reading an article written for our April Fools’ edition of the newspaper, The Deceiver. This is a work of satire.

Is there a limit to one’s capacity for greed? Eric Carle explores this question in his pathbreaking book, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.” The novel follows the misadventures of an unnamed protagonist as he literally consumes the world around him, eating out a place within our material-consumer culture.

Despite the somewhat repetitive plot and unassuming prose, Carle presents us with a shocking ending. Rather than criticizing the worst excesses of twenty-first century neoliberalism, marked especially by the destruction of the natural world, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” celebrates unrestrained avarice, as the caterpillar is rewarded for his overconsumption, transmogrifying at the tale’s conclusion into an iridescent creature from above, casting off its earthly tethers.

Importantly, the condition for this transformation is the depletion of nature, suggested by his endless ingestion of fruits and vegetables, which slowly evolves into more processed goods. This evolution mirrors man’s increasing dependence on novelty goods with absolutely no recognition of who provided those products.

The caterpillar’s final apotheosis frees it from the land, signifying the bourgeois’ purely parasitic relationship to agricultural laborers. This transformation brings the story full circle, arriving back at the Universal Egg. The protagonist, once again, is alone on its little leaf; this suggests alienation, the fundamental condition of civil society in which others are recognized not for their full humanity but only as means to the fulfillment of self-interest. This privileging of selfishness and free consumption is the tragic state of modern capitalism.

Similarly, the butterfly’s ability to fly suggests final liberation from material conditions, demonstrating the fact that the rich have no need to busy themselves with prosaic concerns such as food, water and shelter. However, the caterpillar’s hunger represents the displacement of other desires not met by civil society, namely the desire for meaningful social interaction.

Known only by his masculine pronouns and phallic appearance, the caterpillar’s conspicuous male identity indicates the absence of roles for women in a capitalist world, encouraging us to ask, “What transformation might a female caterpillar expect if she were to attempt such voracious consumption?” The caterpillar’s transformation also suggests the mutability of masculine social roles: men always have access to upward mobility, which is only further fueled by their consumption.

And of course, we cannot ignore the obvious messianic parallels pervading the tale. The caterpillar’s genesis, free from any physical paternal presence, on Sunday no less, clearly marks him as a Christ-like figure. The novel’s conclusion is an obvious allusion to the beatific bliss promised by entry into heaven. Indeed, it is only upon the caterpillar’s transformation into a butterfly — its entry into heaven after the suffering, characteristic of the vale of tears — that he no longer feels compelled to eat. There, God is his nourishment.

Further, the conclusion of the novel in media res suggests the second coming of Christ — his story is not over. In this way, it is much like modernist author James Joyce’s  final opus, “Finnegans Wake,” whose closing sentence serves as a transition back into the novel’s opening sentence.

Although popular narratives of the American Dream and teleological understandings of historical change would have us see the caterpillar’s ascension as a genuine possibility or an inevitability, the fact that the story ends in media res sends readers back to the permanent earthly condition of dearth and alienation with which the novel begins. We cannot escape our terrestrial hunger.

Overall, Carle develops a compelling argument and reminds us of the importance of multi-modal literature in commenting upon a complex society. His subtle reminders of the wake that capitalism leaves upon us ground readers in their own consumptive habits and the reality of their destiny. After reading “A Very Hungry Caterpillar,” one cannot help but feel the crushing weight of their neoliberal manacles.