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Struwwelpeter or “Little Suck-a-Thumb”

November 27, 2013

struwell

Do you have any idea what it was like growing up with the name “Conrad” and having this bizarre and horrible 1840s German children’s book in the house?  Well, do you?

Profusely illustrated, Struwwelpeter (i.e. – Shock-Headed Peter, a prescient imagining of Roger Daltrey c. 1969) describes the grisly fates of a sequence of transgressive children.  There’s one who plays with matches and is incinerated to ashes in seconds, another who won’t eat his soup and we see slowly wasting away each day and is dead within a week.  And so on and so forth.

Now my German is pretty rudimentary (“ein bier, bitte”; “danke schoen”; “Neunundneunzig Luftballons lassen fliegen” etc. etc.).   Of course, it may well be that Heinrich Hoffman was an ironist of a high order and that Struwwelpeter is like Belloc’s Cautionary Tales, a parody of didactic moralism run amok.  But no English translation I’ve read manages to convey any sense of ironic overstatement.  And as a child, this book seemed like a terrifying celebration of a bizarre retributive morality that was immune to mercy or reason.

Needless to say the real trauma within the book concerned my namesake.  Conrad or “Little Suck a Thumb” is a small boy with the unfortunate habit of thumb-sucking.  This degenerate perversion proves more unfortunate than you might think.

One night, his mother goes out clubbing, leaving her small boy alone in the house.  Like a responsible parent, she tells her distraught son that if he seeks to comfort himself in his solitary despair by sucking his thumb, then a psychopathic tailor will instantly leap into the room with a pair of massive sharpened shears and neatly sever both thumbs.  Then off she pops.  The  lonely and unhappy boy immediately starts to suckle upon an offending digit and, sure enough, a psychopathic tailor leaps into the room (see illustration) and severs both thumbs.

conradchopped

When ma returns home, Conrad is still standing there, betwixt two little pools of blood with two little thumbs jutting out.  Like any good mother, she employs tough love and rather than offer any kind of medical attention, she is content to say “toldyaso”.

The ethical utility of this little fable was something I found, as an eight year old, problematic – shall we say.

Of course, it doesn’t take the most twisted and labyrinthine of perverted imaginings to recall the fact that thumb-sucking is not the only solitary vice to which boys are prone and to surmise that probably the real point of the story is to encourage boys to extrapolate from the arrival of the  thumb-severing tailor the likely penalty for any such indulgence.

I will say one thing, mind.  It’s been a long time since I sucked my thumb.  A long time.

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