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Monkeys Smoking Pipes and Other Occasions of Disorderly Conduct

Student 24's picture

Curious George is a series of children’s picture books written by H. A. Rey. I will be writing about the first book of the series, titled, Curious George. The events of the book can be summarized as such: A curious monkey is kidnapped from Africa by a man with a yellow hat and is taken to a big city. Being curious and wanting to imitate the man using the telephone, George unintentionally telephones the fire station, prompting the firefighters’ swift arrival to find no fire, but only a troublesome monkey. They take him to prison, from which George manages to escape, take flight with a bunch of balloons, serendipitously land next to the man with the yellow hat, who then accordingly delivers George to his new home that is the city zoo.

First I am going to examine the story book as a child would read it. The most authentic way I can do this would be to try and recall my experience reading it, all those years ago, as a younger child. However, I remember the entire series as more a whole story, and cannot separate the memory of specifically the first book. So, I will just try and reconstruct the lens of finding the elements on which a child picks up, and to do this, I can explore themes in actions and their consequences. Oftentimes, children’s books’ goals are to teach lessons or explain social phenomenons and consequences of behaviour in every day life. The main lesson in Curious George is that being curious and acting upon that curiosity in a foreign, unfamiliar environment can lead to being trapped, punished, threatened and eventually institutionalized by the system in that environment. Of course, a child will probably not internalize the messages with that exact vocabulary, but main idea that being curious, acting upon impulse, and the inability to depend on assumed and projected innocence, can all lead to trouble with an enforced system in a pre-structured space. For example, George plays with the phone, effectively and falsely alerts the fire station of a fire, and as a consequence, is sent to prison for being a “naughty little monkey.” A huge component of what engages children in story books is the illustrations. The illustrations in this book are simple, coloured pencil drawings, but what is most notable is that throughout the book, almost all of the characters, people figures, and George are smiling. When the sailors rescue George from drowning in the sea, they and George are smiling. When the firefighters chase George, they are smiling. When people figures in the city are looking up at George floating by with balloons, they are smiling. George is smiling even when he “was frightened.” This gives the impression to child readers that the events are not really that serious and not bothersome to anyone. Not to George, not to the man with the Yellow Hat, and not to the regular passers-by and people in the urban space. Business as usual, in a sense.

When I reread this story just last week, I was shocked. There was so much disconcerting and unsettling material that I hadn’t noticed as such, because when I was a child, I suppose I simply didn’t know to look for it. Now that I’m reading and discussing the story, and its writing, in terms of the messages it conveys about one’s environment, I will divide it into three main parts: the setting and context; the conflict within George’s character and its representation; and themes of responsibility, law and order in an urban environment.

The setting begins very clearly: in Africa. “This is George. He lives in Africa.” Africa, the continent, along with the illustration of the jungle, is the only named location involved in the story. The only living beings portrayed in “Africa” are George the monkey, and the trees of the jungle. This creates the single story, single image representation of what is “Africa.” The second and main location of the story is a “big city.” For the city not to be named, and for all the people figures of the story to be concentrated in the “big city” shows that the audience/reader of the story belongs to a city and that the systems outlined by the story can belong to any functioning city. Essentially, it gives the attitude that “everyone” reading the book knows which city this is, and therefore as insiders, it does not need to be clarified amongst themselves. This urban environment is easily recognizable by and relatable to readers, therefore placing readers as insiders of the environment. The dichotomy of these settings, Africa vs. Big City, raises questions of place. If Africa is represented by a sole monkey and no humans, whereas the Big City is represented with very many white, people figures, then who is excluded? As readers? As characters? As representative figures? Which child readers can find themselves within the story? And which child readers read the story and can make no foothold within the story because no character is a relatable figure? Which child readers have access to this story based on their own cultural contexts — which, at a young age they may be unable to articulate, thus making it even more fundamentally important how setting is constructed and represented, requiring intuitive and subconscious recognition — in relation to those illustrated by the story?

The conflict of George’s character and role can be framed with the question, whom is George meant to represent? A child? A model for the child reader to follow? A model for the child reader NOT to follow? An adult? A human or non-human? A foreigner? An outsider? A victim? An explorer? This addresses even more fundamentally the questions raised by the story’s context. Location and environment by external factors is one way to contextualize the reader in relation to the story, but personal, individual, and temporal similarities and familiarities are perhaps even more crucial for a child reader to instinctively insert their self into the story. At the basic, explicit level, George is a monkey who takes interest into a white, adult, male, foreign human. George seems comfortable and interested interacting with this human, which evokes George as having some things in common with the man in the yellow hat. George is physically the size of a child, is socially and culturally clueless and innocent like a child, and has an untarnished curiosity as children do. Either George can be the point of relation with the child reader, or the monkey is something entertaining and silly. Though, the silly monkey also has elements of adulthood and maturity imposed upon him. “After a good meal and a good pipe, George felt very tired.” George smoked a pipe. Children, generally, don’t smoke pipes, nor do they generally know how. Smoking is an adult activity, and so this action creates a barrier, or at least a point of inquiry, for the child reader. If George was a child, he would be scolded for smoking. Or is the man in the yellow hat not meant to be a father/parent figure? The man never scolds George. In fact, George is scolded by firemen, prison guards - figures of institution. George is a “naughty little monkey,” which is patronizing, belittling and infantilizing. So, is George an adult-like monkey being scolded as a child for not behaving properly? Is disorderly conduct a sign of childishness? Can order be expected of children? Should it?

This brings me to the next part: themes of responsibility, law and order in an urban environment. George has experiences with the fire department and with the prison system. These two institutions operate quickly and effectively, until George - “lucky to be a monkey” - escapes from his cell, only because he is a non-human locked into a human institution. In the illustrations, the characters are smiling. Even George is smiling. This just gives the impression of overall fun, senseless absurdity; that after all, life is just a game and a system of rules. The civil servants within the urban environment system have a responsibility to perform their duty, whose ultimate purpose is to maintain order and facilitate the smooth operation of life in the city — at least, for those who are cooperating and whose order deserves to be maintained in the first place. This is important, because it indicates that George, an outsider being brought into this unfamiliar environment, does not deserve to have his order maintained, which is hugely ironic given that George’s natural curiosity is what is leading him to explore and interact with this exciting new environment. Is George being punished for wanting to learn, interact, and engage? For wanting to educate himself? (Yikes.) Apart from the environment’s disciplinary system, there is also a snapshot exposed of the city’s market system. Outside of the prison, George watches a girl purchase a balloon for her younger brother, from an older man selling balloons. These children are the first and only children figures in the story, and they are also the first who seem to be engaging in supply and demand of goods; acting upon the need to satisfy needs and wants. Here is a sister paying money to purchase a good to satisfy her younger brother’s desire. Is a sister the provider-figure in a family? Does a sister generate income in order to participate in consumption in the market? The children are not smiling in the illustration, unlike most of all the other illustrated figures. The children are serious. Are they being responsible? Is the story inviting child readers to identify with these child figures? Are they even child figures in this case? And what about the man in the yellow hat? He does also act responsibly - in terms of ethical market economic participation - by paying the balloon man for the balloons George accidentally stole. The man is making a purchase, or paying a cost, on George’s behalf, as a parent figure might for their dependent child.

In the end, though, the man happily places George into the new home of the zoo: “What a nice place for George to live!” By this action, order is restored, or created, by confining the monkey in the appropriate institution. George and all the animals are smiling because all is well. The zoo is the appropriate space for the monkeys and non-city animals that find themselves in, or are brought to, cities. Prison, on the other hand, clearly was not the appropriate place. This leads into the question of George’s placement in prison - was this unjust or unneccesary punishment? A monkey is not a human, therefore it is not just to judge and punish one in the same way; however, it is just and appropriate for a monkey to be placed in a zoo because that is a designated institution for animals. And George is, after all, an animal. Because of these conflicting events, the story demonstrates the confusion caused by the entrance of a being that doesn’t immediately fit into the already established system of an urban environment. What does an environment do with uninvited new members? Who gets to decide whom to bring in, whom to keep out, and how to deal with both groups of beings? Is George trying to escape from a system to which he doesn’t belong in the first place? Does George know he doesn’t belong? Does George even know there is a system? George does want to know things — he is curious. Children are entertained by his curiosity; they also identify with it. But do they feel the clashes between curiosity and pre-existing, structures and social institutions? Is this how children learn about their social environment? By bumping into its edges, its limits, and its confinements and learning by negative reinforcement that curiosity must be limited by the rigidity of orderly conduct? Who is Curious George?

Rey, H. A. Curious George. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969. Print.


jccohen's picture

re-reading Curious George


What a revelatory, multifaceted analysis of Curious George from several, differently aged perspectives!


Early on, in seeking out the lessons the text might be implicitly trying to teach children, you note, “The main lesson in Curious George is that being curious and acting upon that curiosity in a foreign, unfamiliar environment can lead to being trapped, punished, threatened and eventually institutionalized by the system in that environment.”  Your language here is (appropriately) harsh, and I’m compelled by the literal truth of your analysis.  And yet, as you note, the book purports to a light-hearted, humorous tone, and I wonder whether there are two kinds of lessons going on – the one you name above and also a teaching about a “monkey” (of ambiguous identity, to be sure) who is being taken care of by a white, American male, even as he’s also trapped and punished...


The meat of your paper is in your analysis of setting, character, and “law and order” --an astute and disturbing analysis!  This question of George’s ambiguous identity is a fascinating one:  Is he child? adult? “other”?  Ultimately, you note that he is an animal whose “place” is in the zoo.  And here the threads of your analysis come together, with the zoo as “appropriate” and thus a means of instilling order and predictability – such a different scenario from the “urban wildscapes” that support unpredictability and risk.  (And what about Africa, the simplified continent that we never hear of again?)


Your transition from the child’s to the adult’s reading response is key:  “When I reread this story just last week, I was shocked. There was so much disconcerting and unsettling material that I hadn’t noticed as such, because when I was a child, I suppose I simply didn’t know to look for it.”  So true, and also so unsettling… what does this suggest?  That we should be teaching kids, even young kids, to take a more critical position?  That parents/adults should be limiting kids’ access to books with overly problematic messages?  You raise difficult questions about education:  “Is George being punished for wanting to learn, interact, and engage? For wanting to educate himself?”  And later:  “Is this how children learn about their social environment? … Who is Curious George?”  I’d love to hear more about how we might read/”teach” this book to children.  I could imagine a kind of re-teaching of the book to 5th graders, for example, in the context of a study of Africa, or…?