There are occasions when I return to books that I’ve read in the past, particularly if I recall being fond of them without actually being able to recall the details of the book. It has been some years since I’ve read this much-acclaimed work from Eric Carle, so I came with a nagging fear that it wouldn’t live up to my memory of it, as has happened before, most notably with Jamaica Inn.
Though the title implies that the book is about a caterpillar, Carle opts to open with the backstory to the main character. One might expect, in keeping with modern trends, that he might have opted to put this into the middle of the book as a sort of flashback scene. His keeping to a linear timeline certainly appeals to me, as stories which jump back and forth generally annoy me. The only work I’ve read recently which employs such nonlinearity and which didn’t bug me was The Night Circus.
So it is that we first meet an egg. The egg is anonymous, but seems to symbolise a world of promise. Most readers should be able to guess what sort of egg it is, so it comes as little surprise that we swiftly move on from envisioning a panoply of possibilities and focus down to our main character, who is unimaginatively just called a caterpillar. The caterpillar has no name nor is there any indication of a family around it. Perhaps Carle means to imply that the caterpillar is an orphan, reflecting the troubles faced by children in a society where parents are increasingly absent, living as though they were orphans, having to make their own way in the world.
As well as the issue of parentlessness, the other main theme running through it is the greed of modern society. This is expressed by the caterpillar having an insatiable greed to consume all that it encounters, though some joker in the publishing department even put holes in the pages, as though to indicate that the caterpillar had eaten through the work. It seems a juvenile gesture that detracts from this work of allegory.
At times, though, that allegory is extremely strained as we move into absurdist modes when one considers what the caterpillar eats. We begin with an apple, which is just about believable, though more suited to a maggot than to a caterpillar, but we might forgive a little artistic license here. But it soon starts to stretch plausibility when we get into distinctly non-caterpillar type foods such as a piece of chocolate cake, a slice of salami and even a sausage!
One cannot but get the impression that having started with a clear vision, Carle’s writing ran away from him and he found himself getting into such absurdist nonsense. So at this point in the novel my attention began to drift and became hard to find the motivation to turn another page. It became repetitive and formulaic so one can anticipate beforehand that the caterpillar is only going to eat something else next.
At no point is there any dialogue or other characters against which we can compare the central figure. There seems to be rationale behind his actions. It may be a stroke of genius though, as on reflection it could be seen as a parody of consumerism, whereby we are all compelled to consume, to buy to want for things without ever having a good reason to do so. In which case the caterpillar is a mirror of you and of me, wanting things that are not natural to us, that serve no good purpose but which only sate us for a short while, before we move on again.
If that is the case, then it is strange to think that Carle chose a caterpillar for such a metaphor, as a swarm of locusts might have been the more logical choice.
Eventually, though, Carle brings the story back on track by having the caterpillar eat a green leaf. This seems to be the thing that tips the balance and at last the caterpillar is full (and a little nauseated). I couldn’t help but think that this was a tamer version of the “waffer thin mint” that finished off Mr Creosote.
I shan’t spoil for you exactly how the book ends, though those of you familiar with the life cycle of the caterpillar, you might be able to guess at what happens, even if the colouring is suspiciously psychedelic.
In conclusion, it’s a muddled work with moments of great joy and some utter confusion, with an undercurrent of social commentary that cannot be avoided. Not a terribly long novel, I managed to get through it within a week. It reminded me of a children’s book I read many years ago, though I can’t recall what that one was called.