Where the Wild Things Are | Study Guide

Maurice Sendak

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Where the Wild Things Are | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

Mischief and Punishment

The first six pages of the book are full of action. A young boy named Max runs around the house in a wolf suit causing trouble. He sets up a tent indoors using the family linen, nailing a rope to the wall. Max chases the family dog down the stairs, leaping after it with an oversized fork in hand. When his mother has had enough, she yells "WILD THING!" at Max. In response, he threatens to eat her up. She sends Max to bed without supper as punishment.

The final image in this section shows Max in his bedroom. The room appears orderly and sparsely furnished, with no toys in sight. It's a peaceful scene with a crescent moon shining through the open window. The only sign of discord is the angry expression on Max's face.

Transformation and Departure

Over the next eight pages, Max's room and world change. A forest grows in his room. The transformation starts slowly: just the vertical lines of his room change, turning objects like the doorframe and bedposts into tree trunks. Then the transformation goes further. The clean lines of the bedroom first fade into the background, so they are little more than suggestions, and the vegetation grows richer, denser and more varied. More stars are visible through the open window. As the room transforms, so does Max. His angry expression is replaced by wry amusement.

Eventually as the page borders disappear and the fantasy grows in scope and size, Max's bedroom is completely gone, and he's joyously alone in a wild world. He raises his paws above his head, dancing or clawing at the air, and enters the forest.

Where the Wild Things Are

Max sails his boat for many weeks, traveling for "almost over a year" until he arrives at the place where the wild things live. A wild thing watches Max's explorer boat touch ground, and Max isn't quite sure what to make of the beast.

As he reaches this new land, an entire group of wild things respond to his presence. They roar, gnash their teeth, roll their eyes, and display their claws. Eventually, Max shouts "BE STILL!" He then stares the wild things in the eyes without blinking. They grow quiet, raise their hands, call him "the most wild thing of all." When they make him their king, Max calls for the start of "the wild rumpus."

The Wild Rumpus

The next six pages are wordless and without margins. Images of Max and the wild things totally cover each page—all engaged in the wild rumpus. Max dances with wild things who look almost tall enough to touch the moon. He and the wild things swing from tree branches. Finally, he rides through the forest on the back of one of the wild things, raising his scepter like a king.

Max Grows Weary and Goes Home

After this extended celebration of freedom and chaos the wild rumpus winds down. In another two-page image three wild things lounge against tree trunks, their eyes closing like they're starting to doze. Max sits on a stool in the doorway of a small tent, looking exhausted and subdued from his rebellion.

As Max and the wild things become fatigued, they also become verbal again. Max tells them to stop the wild rumpus, and like his mother, he sends them to bed without supper. Max is left alone, and he's lonely and homesick, like a runaway child.

From "far away across the world," Max then smells food cooking. He gives up his position as king of the wild things to return to "where someone loved him best of all." As he prepares to leave, a group of wild things gathers behind him. They raise their arms, perhaps reaching for him, perhaps waving to him. They cry out "Oh please don't go," and tell Max they love him so much they'll "eat [him] up."

Max refuses to stay. The wild things once again roar, gnash their teeth, roll their eyes, and display their claws. Max is undaunted and steps into his boat, waves goodbye, and sails away. It takes him "over a year," but he eventually makes it back home.

When he gets there, his room is completely back to normal as it was. Max is weary, but calm and happy. He is glad to find supper waiting for him on the table in his bedroom—and it is still hot.

Analysis

The Relationship of Text and Image

Sendak's illustrations in Where the Wild Things Are exist to advance the plot, not simply to decorate the text. This means there is a complex and shifting relationship between the very few words of the text and the fully developed images throughout the narrative.

In the first six pages of the story, when Max inhabits the real world, Sendak gives roughly equal space and weight to text and image. As Max grows more frustrated in his confinement, however, his imagination starts transforming reality. Sendak gradually shifts the size ratio between text and image. The images expand, shrinking page margins. By the time Max is in his "private boat," the image encroaches onto the text page, and when he arrives at the land of the wild things the illustration stretches across both pages. The expansion of the images represents the increasing hold Max's imagination has on his perception.

Once Max has examined and conquered his anger and frustration—the wild things—Sendak reverses the size ratio between the text and images. Illustrations shrink and regain equal balance with the text. This rebalancing shows reality reasserting itself.

Rhetorical Devices

Sendak uses various rhetorical devices to tell the story in Where the Wild Things Are.

Metaphor

Max's imaginary journey to the land of the wild things is a metaphor for his creating, letting loose, and then recognizing and taming his emotions of frustration and anger at his mother.

Foreshadowing

Sendak makes use of verbal and visual foreshadowing in Where the Wild Things Are:

  • Max's mother calls him "WILD THING," and Max angrily replies "I'LL EAT YOU UP!" These foreshadow the name Max gives to the creatures created by his imagination and the wild things' plea, "We'll eat you up—we love you so!"
  • The makeshift tent and stool shown in Max's early mischief correspond to the stool and formal tent he occupies as king of the wild things.
  • As Max pursues the family dog readers see a drawing of a wild thing on the wall, even though Max has not yet gone on his imaginary journey.
  • When Max is consigned to his room the crescent moon shines through the window, foreshadowing a passage of time. During Max's imaginary journey, readers see the moon moving from one phase to another.

Repetition

Repetition is used to advance the plot or to emphasize dramatic elements:

  • "That very night in Max's room a forest grew and grew—and grew." This line accompanies three illustrations showing the tropical forest taking over Max's room.
  • The wild things "roared their terrible roars ... gnashed their terrible teeth ... rolled their terrible eyes ... showed their terrible claws." When Sendak first uses this line, Max is arriving at the land of the wild things. As they threaten him, he sternly faces them down. The repetition of the line comes as Max happily departs in his boat. Now the wild things' display is more of a desperate bid for him to stay, but Max—having tamed the creatures—no longer feels intimidated by them.

Divided Worlds

The major division in the narrative is between the undeveloped natural land where the wild things live and the domestic environment where Max lives. The first is the domain of Max's imagination, and the second is the real world. These realms are very different in key ways.

In the real world, Max's mother is the ultimate authority. She controls where Max goes, what he does, and if and when he eats. That realm is one with clear boundaries. When his mother shuts Max in his room without food, he is completely contained. He cannot go anywhere else and can no longer engage in the mischief he so clearly enjoys.

But in the imaginary land of the wild things, mischief is not only allowed, it is celebrated. As king of the wild things Max is in charge, and can declare a "wild rumpus" which adults would not tolerate.

While Sendak does not specify the date or year the story happens, he clearly states it occurs "The night Max wore his wolf suit." That is one specific time. By contrast, when Max sails to the land of the wild things, time is far less specific—and far more fantastic. Max sails "in and out of weeks" and "almost over a year" to get to the wild things' land. This relationship to time is impossible, but Max does it almost casually because in his imaginative world, time means nothing.

When talking about how he experienced his own life, Sendak as an adult explained he had lived in two distinct worlds. Some of the time he experienced life as an adult, but other times, he experienced it through the eyes of his childhood self, who lived on in him. Part of his artistic process was maintaining contact between those two sides of himself. The night of the "wolf suit" could be any one, or one of many nights in the continuum of a child's sense of time.

It is possible to find the roots of this divided world in Sendak's childhood. His family's roots were in Europe, and events there had a powerful effect on Sendak's parents, who lost relatives to the Holocaust. His parents both told stories about life in Poland, but his father's stories were beautiful and rich with fantasy while his mother's stories were frightening tales about political oppression. In 1941, on the day of Sendak's bar mitzvah—a major Jewish ceremony to celebrate a boy's passage into adulthood at age 13—his father came home with devastating news. The Nazis had killed numerous members of their family in Europe.

The Child's Mind

In a 1993 interview, Sendak said all of his works were about "children surviving childhood." This was also his "life's concern." The darker side of Sendak's focus is more apparent in some works than others. In Where the Wild Things Are, there is darkness, but there is also intensity, fluidity, growth, and love. Sendak's editor, Ursula Nordstrom, said, "Somehow Maurice has retained a direct line to his own childhood." Sendak agreed, but didn't see childhood as innocent or easy, a mixture of overpowering or smothering love and concern, and the need for independence to face the dangers outside. He did view childhood as essential. Part of his creative process was making sure he didn't lose contact with his lonely childhood self.

Outside analysts would agree that Sendak did retain his childlike point of view. English author Francis Spufford (born in 1964) said Where the Wild Things Are is "one of the very few picture books to make an entirely deliberate, and beautiful, use of the psychoanalytic story of anger." Psychoanalyst Richard Gottlieb said Sendak's illustrations communicate intense emotion, especially emotions children cannot express or even admit, like rage at their mothers. In his book Inventing the Child (2006), children's literature professor Joseph Zornado argues Max uses fantasy to deal with this intense rage and to escape the hierarchical relationship he experiences with his mother, who essentially imprisons him without nourishment in his room. Childhood, for some, is terrifying and confusing, and many fundamentally don't understand the adults who control their worlds with both love and deprivation.

Shortly after Sendak's death, psychoanalyst Mindy Utay published the article "A Psychoanalytic Appreciation of Maurice Sendak" (2012). In it she argues Sendak—who had himself undergone extensive psychoanalysis and whose life partner worked in the field—expresses a Freudian understanding of the child's mind in Where the Wild Things Are. This Freudian understanding appears first in Max's wildness and rage. It emerges later when he masters himself and his emotions through taming the wild things. Where the Wild Things Are may be said to speak to children's unconscious minds, and gives them ways to process things they cannot otherwise express. In this sense it was a revolutionary first step in children's literature and culture, and has been recognized as such.

Where the Wild Things Are Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction

Introduction

1 Max wears his wolf suit and causes mischief.

Rising Action

2 Max's mother sends Max to his room without supper.

3 A jungle grows in Max's room.

4 Max sails away to the land where the wild things live.

5 Max becomes king of the wild things.

6 Max leads them on a wild rumpus.

Climax

7 Tired and lonely, Max steps down as king of the wild things.

Falling Action

8 Max sails home.

Resolution

9 Max finds his supper waiting; it's still hot.

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