The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Bartholomew Cubbins's hat is not only chic and stylish—it's also symbolic. Is it an important symbol? Obviously the answer there is yes since Dr. Seuss took the time to either draw or mention the thing in every paragraph/picture of the book. But why is it important to the story? Now that is a more complicated answer.
Magical McGuffin #2289
The cap of one Bartholomew Cubbins could symbolize Bartholomew Cubbins. Crazy we know, but hear us out. The cap is first described to us like this:
an old one that belonged to his father and his father's father before him. It was probably the oldest and the plainest hat in the whole Kingdom of Didd, [...] [b]ut Bartholomew liked it—especially because of the feather that always pointed straight up in the air. (1)
Bartholomew reminds us a lot of this hat. Like the upright feather, he walks the straight and narrow path of his principles, speaking honestly and obeying the rules. He's also a particularly plain boy who, like his father before him, works as a farmer. And like Bartholomew, the hat isn't looked upon as anything special by anyone else. Wilfred scoffs meanly "[t]hat hat won't come off" (79), the italics implying he doesn't find the hat anything worthy of his interest, and as we see later, he thinks even less of its owner.
Yep, the hat is totally Bartholomew. But like young Cubbins, there is more to the hat than appears on the surface. At the story's end, the hat transforms into a beautiful bit of chic, and the King wants it enough to pay 500 gold pieces. And "[a]rm in arm, the King and Bartholomew went down to the counting room to count out the gold" (146). In seeing the value of the hat, the King finally treats Bartholomew like a human being. His subject, to be sure, but a human being at the very least.
This symbolic reading connects to a long history of other such symbols children's literary. Cinderella's pumpkin is just an ordinary pumpkin until it transforms into a glorious carriage. Aladdin's plain oil lamp houses a powerful genie. The ordinary object that houses extraordinariness comes to symbolizes the ordinary person who also houses something extraordinary about them.
You Say You Want a Revolution
But that's not the only possible explanation for the hat's symbolism. We have crafted another, and we're sure there are more explanations that we'd haven't even considered. The hat is one of those kinds of symbols, it seems.
Our second symbolism reading centers on the fact that the hat is red. In the original print, the redness of the hat was the only color to be seen on the page. Even in the 75th anniversary edition, the cap is the predominant use of red in the whole book.
We believe it's possible to link this shade choice to the "liberty cap." See, during the French Revolution, revolutionaries wore red Phrygian hats as a symbol of their liberty (source). And like the French revolutionaries, Bartholomew's cap seems bound and determined to fight the rules and will of a King who's more concerned about being King than doing much of anything else.
As we mention in our "Meaning" section, the absurdity of rules and authority is a major concern in the story. Linking Bartholomew's cap with the liberty cap, we can read the multiplying of the hats as an attack by liberty against that authority. The cap becomes revolution—whether it be an act of revolution against an unfair King or a child against parental authority.
Now, this reading does come with a huge obstacle: the ending. At the end of the story, Derwin buys the 500th, fanciful version of the cap, and Bartholomew finally removes his hat for the King and gets him some money. If the red hat really is a symbol of revolt, then what's going on here?
Perhaps the book is suggesting that all revolutions (and childhoods) meet their end in one of two ways: they are either bought out or the get tossed off a turret. That's a heavy ending in any story, but to find it in a children's book? Yowza.
On the other hand, Seuss isn't exactly known for following the rules. The Lorax, The Sneetches, and The Butter Battle Book all deal with some pretty intense subjects for children's books. Perhaps Bartholomew's cap belongs among those great Seuss symbols like the thneed, stars upon thars, and well-buttered bread.