I Think About This a Lot is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.
The central conceit of E.B. White’s Stuart Little has always been odd to me, even a tad perverse. It’s true that the book’s opening lines manage to elide the cruder aspects of the situation — Stuart, a two-inch-tall baby looking “very much like a mouse in every way,” simply “arrived” to take his place as second son in the Upper West Side-dwelling Little family. But even when I was an 8-year-old with a still primitive grasp of the facts of life, my mind kept wandering back to the biology of the matter, the sheer mechanics of it. A woman giving birth to a mouse — how could that come to be? What would that look like? I couldn’t, as they say, help but wonder. But even more notable to me was an episode in the book that I’ve returned to in my mind again and again over the years, ever since I first read it: the chapter in which Stuart goes on a blind date.
Part of Stuart Little’s appeal, of course, was its continual toggling between naturalizing the mouse-as-person gambit and emphasizing its weirdness. On the one hand, we had the Littles worrying, just like any regular human parents would, that their boy might have nightmares were he exposed to inappropriate nursery songs. On the other, the fear, specifically, was that these songs would be ones that belittled or menaced rodents. (“I should feel badly to have my son grow up fearing the farmer’s wife was going to cut off his tail with a carving knife,” Mr. Little frets.) But even stranger than the muddling of the border between man and mouse, I’ve always felt, was the blurring of the distinction between boy and man. From near the moment Stuart emerges from his mother’s womb, he is a fully formed mouse-person. At birth, he walks; for his infant clothing, Mrs. Little makes him “a fine little blue worsted suit with patch pockets in which he could keep his handkerchief, his money, and his keys”; and at what would be considered toddler age, he wears a hat and carries a cane.
With matters moving at such a rapid clip, could sexual maturity be far behind? Stuart Little is a children’s book and yet White managed to inject a discomfiting sense of his protagonist’s adult frustrations into the narrative. This first comes up in the young mouse’s interest in Margalo, a sickly bird passing through the Little household, who is nursed back to health by the family. Stuart’s affection for Margalo begins as concern for her safety — what if the family cat, Snowbell, were to choose her as prey? But the markers of his worry quickly emerge as not unlike those of a sexually frustrated lover: “He tossed and turned and the bedclothes got all rumpled up. He kept thinking about the bird downstairs asleep in the fern.” A not dissimilar repression figures, incidentally, for Snowbell himself; when a cat friend asks him how he can “live in the same house with a bird and a mouse and [not] do anything about it,” the miserable feline admits that he’s possibly “got too much self-control for my own good. I’ve been terribly nervous and upset lately, and I think it’s because I’m always holding myself in.”
With so many hindered passions in the Little household, it’s no surprise that Stuart makes a run for it: When Margalo leaves, fleeing Snowbell’s predatory friend, the mouse decides to hit the road to find her. This type of quest often emerges in the American imagination as a shedding of inhibitions and limitations — geographical, cultural, sexual — and Stuart too joins in this tradition. On the way, however, he stops over in the quaint town of Ames’ Crossing, where his desires are newly frustrated. The road, it turns out, is not only where you free yourself from your shackles — it’s also where you find out how oppressive they continue to be.
In Ames’ Crossing, Stuart is told by a local shopkeeper that the daughter of the town’s most prominent family, Harriet Ames, is just about his size. On hearing this, the mouse asks, coarsely, “What’s she like?… Fair, fat and forty?” But on spotting her in person and realizing that she’s young and pretty, he begins “to tremble from excitement.” Margalo is at least momentarily forgotten as Stuart writes Harriet a note, inviting her to meet him by the river. (Explaining that, like her, he is two inches tall, he clarifies boldly that “my only drawback is that I look something like a mouse. I am nicely proportioned, however. Am also muscular beyond my years.”)
After Stuart sends the letter, we bear witness to his outsize hopes and fears toward the upcoming date. He imagines how if he and Harriet were walking together, “her head would come a little higher than his shoulder.”; he plans to wear his trunks under his clothes, and envisions himself swimming in the river, bathing in Harriet’s admiring gaze (“Stuart chewed the spruce gum very rapidly as he thought of this part of the episode”). He also fears she’ll stand him up, combing his whiskers over and over again and changing his sweat-soaked shirt.
The date itself is, of course, a disaster. The tourist-shop-memento canoe that Stuart buys and refurbishes in preparation is vandalized; we get the feeling Harriet isn’t fooled by the English accent he suddenly tries to adopt; and, maybe worse of all, she doesn’t seem shaken in the least by the canoe situation, and doesn’t understand why it can’t be taken out on the water just as it is. Stuart, however, knows differently. “It wouldn’t be the same,” he says. “The same as the way it was going to be, when I was thinking about it yesterday.”
There’s more than a bit here of what would now be referred to as toxic masculinity. (“I’m afraid a woman can’t understand these things,” Stuart tells Harriet, who, quite logically, responds, “I don’t see why you have to sit here and sulk.”) And yet, whenever I’ve felt that particular, familiar tug of humiliation and longing in my own life, I’ve thought of Stuart and Harriet. This episode — the perspiring, horny, thwarted Stuart, who is, for all intents and purposes, a mouse; the impervious, unflappable, wealthy Harriet, who is, for all intents and purposes, a girl — has been inscribed on my mind for the past 30-some years as a model of what adult romance, or even what one of those complicated adult friendships, might look like. A pronounced power differential, abjection, yearning: if this sounds grim, it’s also, I’ve often found, true.