Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories
by Dr. Seuss
Mack & the Proletariat
Ah yes, the bottommost turtles. Now these are an interesting bunch. And, unlike Yertle, they do grow quite significantly throughout the course of the story… and we're not just talking about vertical stacks.
Beginning: Oh ye, the faceless horde.
In the beginning, it's pretty hard to separate one turtle from another. That's because we're zoomed in on Yertle's perspective. And do you think he can tell one turtle from another? Please.
Need proof? Whenever Yertle interacts with the other turtles, they've got numbers, not names.
- "He ordered nine turtles to swim to his stone" (19).
- "And he piled them all in a nine-turtle stack" (22).
What do you think happens when turtles don't have names? Well, they're not exactly turtles per se. They're just tools that Yertle can use to get what he wants. Parents, if this reminds you of the kind of techniques Hitler and the Nazis used to dehumanize their victims, you're right on track. Though to be fair, this is often how most people see other social classes, too.
But this section is about that the horde, not Yertle, and we've got to ask a question here: why do all of those little turtles let Yertle boss them around? Can't they see that he's just one turtle? That there are so very many of them? And that all they'd have to do is turn against him and he'd be through?
Maybe. But you know power structures. When turtles are the scum of the pond, they're scared about what the people way up high can do to them. The idea of questioning the way things are is scary. It might get them hurt, and would require a whole lot of change.
Do you like sudden change? Would you like it if you came home and everything about the place you lived was suddenly different? It's hard to question the way things are, because, well, that's the way things are. Right?
Middle: Mack Gets a Name
And then, suddenly, the faceless horde isn't so silent anymore. A "plain little turtle" with the very common name of "Mack" not only dares to sigh and look up to the great heights of Yertledom, but he also has the gall to speak:
"Beg your pardon, King Yertle.
I've pains in my back and my shoulders and knees.
How long must we stand here, Your Majesty, please?" (37-39).
The masses are gaining a voice, and Yertle knows it. That's why on the next page he looks like he's exploding, and he barks back, "SILENCE!" before ranting away (40). Sure, he's ultimately successful in reasserting his power, but he's still forced to acknowledge not just that someone else is speaking, but also that that turtle has a name: Mack. Yertle lets everyone know that it's not a big deal by saying, "You're only a turtle named Mack," but just having the name come out of his snarly mouth is big stuff (41).
Still, Mack isn't quite ready to throw off the great yoke that is Yertle yet, and nor are the other turtles, who look even more scared as they climb into an even greater stack. "Whole families of turtles, with uncles and cousins" (52) offer themselves up, punishing Mack by stepping on his head.
Apparently that's what you get when you speak out.
Middle: The Mack Rebellion Grows!
Do you notice something about all of the non-Mack turtles? As miserable as they look, they're not exactly rushing to help Mack with the rebellion. And that's okay. It's not like Mack has done a good job of asking people to join in his crusade. Plus, not everybody has Mack's kind of courage. That just means we have to make sure there's always a Mack around to speak for all of the other turtles.
And, as conditions deteriorate, that's just what Mack does:
"Your Majesty please…I don't like to complain,
But down here below, we are feeling great pain.
I know, up on top you are seeing great sights,
But down at the bottom, we too, should have rights.
We turtles can't stand it. Our shelves will all crack!
Besides, we need food. We are starving!" groaned Mack. (65-70)
Actually, check out how this passage is organized. It says a lot about the responsibilities the turtles lower down in the stack bear towards those that are way high up.
Mack starts with, "Your majesty please…" That's Mack trying to show the proper respect to Yertle so he doesn't make the guy angry. Then we go to, "I don't like to complain," which is Mack anticipating Yertle's comeback and trying not to look like a whiner. Next, Mack tries his first attempt at asserting himself and letting Yertle know about his pain, before he says something very interesting indeed (indeed!):
I know, up on top you are seeing great sights. (67)
Why do you think Mack felt the need to say this? Yertle, after all, knows that he's seeing great sights, and he doesn't need some plain little turtle at the bottom of the stack to tell him so. The answer is simple: when turtles are at the bottom of the stack (read: when they have no power), they're often asked to validate the experiences and emotions of those at the top.
The thing about people on top is that, deep down, they often know how insecure their position is—that they're standing on top a very wobbly stack of turtles. That's why they need to remind everyone else all the time just how much better they are by saying things like, "I'm the king of butterflies!" (59) and by calling Mack a plain turtle. And that's why Mack has to validate Yertle's experiences up on top, even though he's probably pretty angry about it.
As he's doing all that, Mack also has to find the courage to not just say, "We're feeling great pain," but to really step up and be the voice for his fellow turtles. Notice how he says, "We turtles can't stand it" and "Our shells will crack," rather than "I" or "my"? Mack is stepping into the role of a true leader, realizing that he can speak up for both himself and his fellow turtles.
And then, in a nice little touch, he reverts to whining. "We're starving." Hey, a hungry turtle is a hungry turtle.
Contrast all of this to Yertle's barks and orders. You think he's doing the same kind of work to understand and empathize with the little turtles beneath him? Yeah. We didn't think so either. Where Mack has to be empathetic in multiple ways and has to anticipate all of Yertle's counterarguments while still finding a way to be assertive, Yertle just gets to be selfish and shouty.
The End Is Nigh: Mack Saves the Day
Finally (finally!) Mack has had enough. He no longer fears the wrath of Yertle, or if he does, he's no longer going to put Yertle's needs in front of his and the other turtles'.
Now, Seuss does something pretty cool as he builds up Mack's final rebellion. He repeats not once, not twice, not thrice, not frice but five times the term, "That plain little turtle" (13). He even calls Mack's burp a "plain little thing." Why?
Too often, when turtles are at the bottom of the stack, they look up and up and up and think, "Oh wow, to beat that, I'd need to do something bigger and grander than what that turtle at the top has got." But the truth is, it generally just takes something small to bring that tower down. Something small, something common, and something every turtle has got inside them.
You know, a burp.
So Mack and the turtle proletariat, you've come a long way. Welcome to destination: freedom.