In elementary school I remember reading a book called A Bad Case of Stripes. I am not entirely sure how the thought got to me, but upon reviewing the book, I found that there were some very profound and contemporary themes woven throughout the plot and characterization. Whether it was David Shannon’s intention or not, his book is secretly teaching children about philosophy and psychology when they read it without even knowing. So today I will be discussing and analyzing the subjects of conformity and peer-pressure, identity and existentialism, and construct of specialty.
Camilla Cream is your average student. While I am not certain whether she is in middle school or not, I will go ahead and make the assumption that she is. Camilla likes lima beans but her friends do not. The first mistake Camilla makes is conforming to her friends’ standards. Because her friends find beans repulsive, Camilla finds she must too. Middle school is a very vulnerable time. As G. Stanley Hall theorized, adolescence is a required period of time in which a child transitions from a child to an adult. During this time, individuals are malleable and easily influenced by others. Camilla thus wants to “belong” with her friends, even if it means giving up her favorite thing. The power of peer-pressure is not to be underestimated, for adolescents such as Camilla, like sheep, will blindly follow.
Camilla’s uncertainty is shown when metaphorical stripes cover Camilla’s skin head to toe. When she goes to school, Camilla finds herself the victim of countless verbal disparagements. Kids begin to shout out different colors and patterns mockingly. Bullying is a horrible thing and Camilla is left to deal with it. As the children cry out, Camilla finds her skin changing with each comment. Different patterns appear spontaneously, a metaphor demonstrating the effects of social pressuring. These patterns and stripes represent the literal patterns of society. Since she is predisposed to suggestion, she does as she is told and conforms further to the ever-increasing patterns.
The next point I’d like to make about today’s society is the idea that all doctors and specialists nowadays are seen as all-knowing and expertly qualified. Recently this idea has become more widespread. Doctors like to act as though they know everything and subsequently know what is best. Camilla’s doctor, Mr. Bumble, is unable to identify Camilla’s condition, so he calls in several “professionals.” These stereotypical scientists decked out in white coats begin to study Camilla. Each of the four doctors confirms his inability to discern her problem. Doctors can easily give the wrong diagnosis, as shown here, and most of the time they do not in fact know what is best. Instead of examining subjectively, they automatically make objective observations. Dr. Bumble then calls in two “experts.” Whatever makes these two so qualified surely does not show. Also, another problem with today’s society is how we treat and see people with disorders and disabilities. Since the 18th century, we have looked down on and treated people with problems like experiments and animals. The two experts poke and prod at Camilla, trying to find some clues. After, the two claim they will have the results in later, but really, they are just as ignorant as the doctors.
After many vain attempts, Camilla and her poor parents are confident she will never be the same. So many have tried yet so many have failed. But one person manages to successfully get Camilla to be herself again. The old lady who claims to know how to get Camilla back is symbolic, almost archetypal. If we look at Carl Jung’s theory of archetypes, we can easily identify this woman as your stereotypical wise senior. Old people are commonly characterized as being wise with age. When the old lady sees Camilla, she says somewhere along the lines of, “This is the worst case of stripes I’ve seen.” In my opinion, I am inferring that this old lady too has been a victim of conformity and has dealt with others. She reaffirms the potency of conformity, and again, the stripes represent social patterns. Now the old lady can be interpreted in many different ways. She could represent Camilla’s conscious or she could be that one friend that truly knows what is best for us. Either way, the old lady’s cure is… lima beans.
At first, Camilla is reluctant to eat the beans. She remembers how her friends reacted, so she responds with how much she despises lima beans. The old lady starts towards the door, obviously defeated, when Camilla admits that she really does like lima beans. It was part of the old lady’s plan, of course. She knew why Camilla wanted to feel like she belonged. Those seemingly insignificant lima beans are what makes Camilla Camilla. By giving up lima beans, Camilla is almost giving up on herself, on her identity. The old lady recognizes this. These lima beans are a symbol of who we are and what we value. What the book is basically saying is, as soon as you surrender your values to someone else, you become their slave in a sense. We are no longer in control. We subjugate ourselves to the herd — as Nietzsche would say — and we lose who we are as individuals. The existential part is evident now: Both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard argued against the group and always sided with the individual, and I agree. Camilla should not care about what the others think; Camilla should be herself. However, middle school is a tough time, and so I cannot blame her. One thing Camilla should never forget is the inscription at the Oracle of Delphi: Know thyself.
For further reading: A Bad Case of Stripes by David Shannon (2007)
The Psychology Book by DK (2012)
Teaching Children Philosophy