Favorite Fictional Characters, #143: Max
Where the Wild Things Are is such a colossal, iconic, cherished book that I hesitate to make any truly declarative observations about it. Like all great art, it means different things to different people, and I can only offer up what it means to me, and what I perceive to be at the heart of its lasting brilliance. Sendak's artwork is lush and evocative, and the Wild Things themselves suitably unnerving, but this is clearly Max's tale, and one told completely and poignantly from the perspective of the child. Max is bored, angry, active, and curious, like most children his age, and he struggles with how to deal with the boundaries adults place on his emerging world. He clashes with his mother, rages at her and threatens her, and she punishes him. He's hurt and been hurt in return. So, as children will, he flees into his imagination.
Max's imagination is a fertile place, populated with powerful beasts who possibly represent his churning emotions, and yet who respond to his commands in a way they never do in his waking life. Where the Wild Things Are, Max is King, he is in control, and he is honored and happy. Yet he cannot stay there, no more than any of us can. He has to return to the world where he isn't in charge, either of himself or his emotions, he has to submit to the demands of others, and eventually even grow up. He's conflicted about this because while he's King there, he's loved here. And as much as he clashes with the adults in his life, and rages against their control, his dinner is still hot when he gets back.
It's a sad story about childhood and fury and loss, and yet an optimistic one about the power of family and love. We all get in our boats, some of us more than others, and disappear for a while, to deal with the roiling soup of wrath and disappointment and resentment that churns inside each of us and drives us to hurt the ones we love. With any luck, when we come back, they've waited for us, and our dinner is still hot, too.