Charles M(onroe) Schulz Robert L. Short - Essay

Robert L. Short

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Peanuts, the famous cartoon strip, often assumes the form of a modern-day, Christian parable. To illustrate how closely the parables of Peanuts can parallel the parables of the New Testament—in lessons suggested, in ways of suggesting these lessons, and in indirect method—[the cartoon showing Linus' kingdom of sand washed away by rain] is coupled with Christ's parable of "The house on the rock and the house on the sand." (p. 19)

And so there are lessons to be found in Peanuts; but just as in the parables of Christ, we are not always sure what these lessons are. Or, as Lucy would put it, also in Peanuts we have trouble "reading between the lines."…

[Mr. Schulz] has confessed … to presenting something of a religious message in Peanuts, but evidently he has not gone much further in specifying exactly what this message is. Again, why should he?… [The] job of the interpreter (whether minister, priest, professional critic, or perceptive layman) and the job of the artist should usually be kept apart. "How can you give a personal evaluation of a work of art?" was Schulz's guarded reply when one reporter attempted to force him into becoming his own critic. Both the Church and the artist must constantly beware of cheapening what they have to say by making it too accessible….

[Lessons] "to be found," if they are to be seriously appreciated when found, will always first require a corresponding amount of serious seeking. And so then, like Charlie Brown, the job of Charles Schulz probably should not be the interpretation of "prophetic literature" as much as it is the creation of it…. (p. 20)

The doctrine of Original Sin is a theme constantly being dramatized in Peanuts. And as Lucy asks Charlie Brown, after demonstrating to him how his pebble-like virtues are no match for the boulder representing his "countless faults," "Don't you think you're lucky to have me around to point up these things in such a graphic manner?" Indeed we are lucky! For as Hume maintained, one of the best ways of putting new flesh onto the bones of old and misunderstood creeds is precisely to point up these things in a graphic manner. (pp. 26-7)

The captivity of man's will is most often dramatized in Peanuts just as it is most often dramatized in men's lives—by the significant change that never takes place. In talking about the egotism and brutality of children, Schulz has said, "We grown-ups don't change so much, except on the surface, because we get along better that way." (p. 31)

The inability of the Peanuts kids to produce any radical change for the better in themselves—or in each other—is a constant Peanuts theme…. The classic Peanuts commentary on this rather pessimistic view of human nature is the running gag every year when Charlie Brown's courageous views on man's freedom and goodness are invariably brought back to earth by Lucy [when she promises not to pull the football away as Charlie Brown kicks it]…. Lucy's "bonded word" … sounds more like what theologians have called "the bondage of the will"; and Charlie Brown sounds very much like a follower of Pelagius, who also was "accustomed … to call attention to the capacity and character of human nature and to show what it is able to accomplish." (pp. 32-3)

The "children of men" of the preceding psalm could be well represented by the children of Peanuts, for in both cases all seem to have "gone astray." Even the lovable and long-suffering Charlie Brown, as Schultz has said of him, "never does anything mean, but he is weak, vain and very vulnerable…. And aren't all kids egotists?" Schulz asks. "And brutal? Children are caricatures of adults." Indeed Mr. Schulz had originally planned to call his strip Li'l Folks, and evidently was quite disappointed with the "terrible insignificance" of the "Peanuts" title, when the strip was renamed by a cartoon syndicate. (pp. 40-1)

Children can be a good symbol for the original sinfulness of man since all men originate as children and as sinners…. For this reason the children of Peanuts can be seen as a sort of comic counterpart to the kind of children found in William Golding's terrifying tract of the times, Lord of the Flies. Golding's children, along with an increasing number of young people in modern literature, help us to see the unaccommodated man—left completely free to be himself, to do what comes naturally, without gospel and in spite of law—is a savage…. Seeing the infant as a sinner, however, probably never has been nor will be a popular point of view. It may be, therefore, that the modern "cult of the child," which holds to the child's "original innocence," is partly a reaction against the doctrine of Original Sin…. Whenever they can, even the youngest Peanuts children are crafty enough to take advantage of this point of view…. This kind of "original innocence" of children, as Lucy says of it, "doesn't solve anything, but it makes us all feel better." But the innocence of the Peanuts kids is never an innocence of shallow and sinless "cuteness"; it is always an innocence with biblical or metaphysical overtones, an innocence of being "innocent but not too well informed," as Schulz has said of Linus. (pp. 41-2, 45)

All the Peanuts kids are guilty … of serving a false god; and...

(The entire section is 2257 words.)