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Course Hero. "Where the Wild Things Are Study Guide." November 16, 2017. Accessed November 14, 2018.


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Where the Wild Things Are | Themes


Facing Anger and Frustration

Many emotions that Sendak says are "an ordinary part of children's lives" are ones they "perceive as ungovernable and dangerous forces." These problematic emotions include anger, frustration, anxiety, fear, even hate. In Where the Wild Things Are Max struggles with both frustration and anger. Readers do not know the reason he is misbehaving at the outset of the narrative or how often he had done this before. However, when his mother shouts at him and orders him to his room without supper he becomes both frustrated and angry. He may not think he has done anything wrong, never mind that he has made a large hole in the living room wall. He is clearly angry at his mother for disciplining him and may believe his punishment is unfair. He is also frustrated and anxious because, despite threatening his mother, he loves and needs her. Being shouted at and punished may make him question whether she still loves him and is going to feed him this night or any other one.

Max's imaginary journey to visit the wild things allows him to face and process his overwhelming emotions. The wild things embody his anger and frustration, and his magical taming of these creatures represents his learning to control those feelings. Having a wild rumpus with the wild things shows Max there are ways to safely express his emotions. By the time he orders them to stop the rumpus and go to bed, he has worked through his anger. He may or may not recognize his mother's authority to discipline him, but because he is calm and tired and hungry and can smell her cooking, he's ready to go home without rebellion.

Imagination versus Reality

Following the confrontation with his mother, Max is confined in his room with no supper. He is frustrated and angry at this punishment and his mother's perceived abandonment. While he grows angrier, Max's imagination offers an escape by slowly transforming his surroundings into a tropical forest.

Max's imaginary realm provides freedom he doesn't have in his mother's ordered, civilized house. In his fantasy he's able to sail his own private boat and bend the logic of time, as he sails alone for "almost over a year" to reach the land of the wild things.

His imagination has created the wild things as manifestations of his frustration and anger. His ability to tame these huge creatures with a stare is a triumph over his vulnerability at home. As they name Max their king, his imagination supplies kingly details: a royal crown, scepter, tent, and stool.

With his anger still simmering, Max calls for the wild rumpus to begin. Max's fantasy realm provides a safe setting to unleash his tantrum to its fullest. When his anger has dissipated, Max's imagination shows him he can control his emotions as he would want his mother to with hers, as when he commands the wild things to stop the rumpus and go to their beds without supper. This behavior runs parallel to the earlier exchange between Max and his mother and signifies he may now understand why she disciplined him, even as he resisted it.

As Max realizes he's lonely, his imagination is ready to transition back to reality; so, he leaves the land of the wild things and sails to "the night of his very own room." Once again in the real world, he finds a hot supper waiting for him—a sign of his mother's love even in the midst of her own anger.

Sendak's illustrations convey the rise and fall of Max's imagination throughout the narrative. In the opening scenes of Max's mischief, the illustrations are fairly small, with wide white borders. These—and the first illustration in his bedroom—are reality scenes.

When Max's imagination takes hold, the drawings become gradually larger as trees and plants sprout in the bedroom until, "the walls [become] the world all around" and the illustrations spill over the page margins. As his imaginary world becomes more detailed, the images expand into two-page spreads with text relegated to the bottom margin. Sendak gives Max's imagination full rein in illustrations of the wild rumpus: six full pages of boisterous visuals showing Max and the wild things riotously dancing, parading, and swinging from the trees.

To signal Max is ready to leave fantasy behind, Sendak gradually reduces the size of his illustrations and increases the space devoted to text. When Max returns to the reality of his room, however, the drawing remains substantially larger than in the opening scenes, perhaps indicating Max has achieved emotional growth by finding a creative way to embody his frustration and anger.

Love and Forgiveness

Max struggles with his anger toward his mother, the person he loves and depends on. He also fears their argument may have destroyed her love for him.

In his time with the wild things, Max works through his anger and frustration. When he halts the wild rumpus, he takes on the disciplinary parental role and comes to see his previous mischief from his mother's perspective. This realization generates loneliness and a desire for home—the place where "someone loved him best of all." His longing for his mother's love and forgiveness leads him to renounce his crown and leave despite the pleas of the wild things.

His return journey of "over a year" is well worth it, as proof of his mother's forgiveness and love waits in his room. She had said Max would get no supper, but she has also prepared a meal for him and left it in his room. The hot supper is proof of both forgiveness and love. When Max spots the supper he is reassured, and his face breaks into a wide and grateful if impish smile.

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