Opinion: Why Curious George is literature’s best examination into the human condition

By Doctor Almanzo

It’s a typical Monday night, and I’m in my room reading my fish a story before bedtime as he swims around his tank. Tonight’s book is Curious George, a childhood favorite of mine. As I revisit this classic tale, I am reminded of why it brought such joy to my childhood: the bright illustrations, the loveable characters and the radical exploration about human existence and how all living creatures ultimately lack free will. 

The titular chimpanzee, referred to erroneously as a monkey, is characterized on the first page as being a curious creature living in Africa. His whole life changes when he meets the Man with the Yellow Hat, who takes him to America. The yellow hat was always aesthetically pleasing to me as a child, partially because it’s the color of Big Bird and macaroni, and partially because it represents divine intervention, or in a secular sense, external forces of nature that can’t be controlled.  

Throughout the book, the Man with the Yellow Hat’s motives seem unclear. He first kidnaps George against his will but eventually takes on a very dear and paternal role in George’s life. As I now read this book to my heir, Percy the fish, I contemplate my role in his life as his captor and his savior. The man who keeps him in a cage but also gives him nourishment. I, too, once had Men with Yellow Hats in my life: my father, my mother, My ex-wife Laura. Now as an independent adult, I don’t rely on anyone to reward or punish me accordingly, but am I yet free? Or have my earthly masters been replaced by an abstract Man in the Yellow Hat known as life. The Man in the Yellow Hat is both a source of suffering and joy to young George, not unlike the suffering and joy daily life brings on all humans.  

After George arrives in New York, he gets into trouble almost immediately by accidentally calling the fire department, causing a false panic. The police arrest him and he’s sent to jail briefly before managing to escape. He then steals balloons from a vendor and is wisked off in the wind by the helium filled spheres. He soars high over the city, which was my favorite part as a child. I would marvel at the cheerful depictions of George looking down upon the tiny people and buildings far below, and I would contemplate how miniscule our society is in the grand scheme of the universe, rendering everything and everyone we care about meaningless. 

He continues to sail through the sky until he lands on a traffic light, where he is found by the Man in the Yellow Hat. The man pays the vendor for all the balloons and brings George to his new home, the zoo. The story ends with George and all the other zoo animals each happily enjoying a balloon of their own. Though this might be the last page of the print, it was never the end for my younger self, as I would always flip back to the beginning and read it again, set on discovering new details in H.A. Ray’s illustrations and solidifying my interpretation of Margaret Ray’s deterministic views she’s incorporated deep in the subtext.  

Did George ever make any choice in the story, or did he simply live out the narrative crafted for him? His relocation to America was of course the doing of the Man in the Yellow Hat, but what about his other actions? He commits a crime by steal balloons, but can he be blamed for that? After all, he was raised in the jungles where he was never taught concepts such as property and theft. He creates a panic with his false alarm to the fire department, but can he be blamed for playing with the phone? After all, he’s curious by nature, it’s in his name. In psychology, we are taught that behavior is based on nature and nurture, you are who you are based on your genetics and your upbringing/environment. George didn’t choose to be curious nor did he choose to be raised in a jungle just like you and I didn’t choose what genes we received or what external forces shaped our formative years. 

Of course, a person can work on themselves to have fewer vices, just as George could try to be less curious, but even then, it’s up to willpower which is still determined by your chemical makeup. And going back to the Man with the Yellow Hat, yellow is also the color of the third chakra in Tantric religions, the Solar Plexus. The Solar Plexus represents an individual’s ego and willpower and should lie in their breastbone. What does it mean that this yellow presence is represented not as part of the protagonist, but as a separate and independent being? Could it mean that willpower and ego are not under our control? We, thinking beings, always assume we control our brain, but what if our brain controls us? What if we are just the emotion filled puppets, carrying out the commands of our cerebral puppeteer? What if consciousness is an illusion, and life is only a brief glitch in eternal death? These are all riveting questions my four-year-old self as well as children all over the world have conjured while reading R. A. and Margaret Ray’s charming tale. For 80 years, parents have been able to soothe their children into slumber with the story’s comforting themes of adventure and accepting one’s own mortality. Just as Curious George found bliss after accepting his destiny to live in the zoo, so, too, can we find peace knowing that no matter what actions we do in life, whether it be by so-called “freewill” or predetermined coding, we will eventually die all the same. Curious George is an absolute classic that I recommend to all parents of children ages 2 to 6, along with the beloved Communist Manifesto allegory, Clifford the Big Red Dog