Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories
Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories Meaning
What is this book really about?
Yertle the Turtle
Yep. This Dr. Seuss book is about Hitler.
Look, the thing about Seuss stories is that they're never just Seuss stories. They're always about something more. And Yertle is not exception. It's your one stop shop for everything you need to know about the worst part of human nature—about fascism, totalitarianism, power structures, oppression, and selfishness. And turtle stacking.
Sound like a tempting dish you can't wait to sink those teeth into? Us too.
No-good bullies and the stupid, horrible, no-good things they do.
Even if your child can't relate to the bigger themes on display here, they will definitely feel visceral anger about Yertle's behavior. Because Yertle isn't fair. He takes what he wants when he wants it, and all of the other turtles are too scared to do anything about it… until one of them isn't.
This is pretty classic playground bullying dynamics. Everyone's just going around minding their own business, enjoying their lives, and suddenly some kid has declared himself king and is telling everyone else what to do.
It stinks, but hopefully Mack's rebellion will inspire your kid to fight for their right to party. Party!
Fascism and Hitler. You know, the light stuff.
Always wanted to learn a little bit more about fascism? Well today is your lucky day, because we can't really discuss what's really going on in "Yertle the Turtle" without a brief lesson in the F-Bomb.
So what is fascism? We thought you'd never ask. Fascism is a type of governance that operates without pesky things like "The Senate" and "The House of Representatives" and "Voter Choice," swapping these things instead for a small group of dudes making decisions for everyone else.
Just take a second to imagine what this would mean on your kid's playground. That's the difference between everyone deciding what to play during recess, and three guys getting up on the slide and shouting, "From now on, we will only play, 'Get us three guys chocolate milk from the cafeteria. Go!" Not very fair, right? In the mind of fascists it sure is, because what's good for them is what's good for everyone else.
That's the other thing you should know about fascists: they're super-duper big fans of revolution, but they don't think of it as the kind of thing that comes from the bottom and shakes the top (unlike Mack, who we'll discuss in a bit). They think revolution starts from above with a Supreme Leader, who reorganizes a society through the power of dictatorship.
Enter Yertle, who wants to assert his dominance over the weaker members of his own race. You see, for Yertle, it doesn't really matter that he's got to climb on top of all of the other turtles to see such great things, because:
(1) He's a fascist, so he believes anything that's good for the guy at the top (who conveniently happens to be him) will be good for everyone else.
(2) All the turtles that are lower down than him have flaws or are simply weaker than him, so it'd probably be better if they died out anyway. Since they're not real turtles unless they're strong turtles, Yertle feels he has no obligation to treat them humanely.
Phew! That's a lot to digest. But don't worry. Everything else that this book is really about comes out of this whole fascist Hitler thing. Read on, Shmoopers.
The cunning use of flags. Or: power is just an illusion.
If you haven't seen this Eddie Izzard clip or if, GASP!, you haven't heard of Eddie Izzard, stop. Watch this video. Come back to us when it's done.
Back? Great. We asked you to view that because (1) Eddie Izzard is hilarious and right about everything, and (2) we think the section about Britain taking over India with the cunning use of flags really applies to Yertle:
"You can't do that," the people say. "There are ten million of us here."
"But do you have a flag? No flag no country. These are the rules that I have just made up."
If that doesn't remind you of Yertle and Hitler, we're not sure what will. It all goes back to a simple point: Sometimes the powerful are the most powerful because they're not afraid to make up rules and shout 'em over everything anyone else has to say. Sometimes the powerful are the most powerful because they're the loudest, rudest ones in the pond.
All of that also says something about the turtles that are a little bit lower down on the totem pole. Specifically, that if they want to have rights, they can't let jerks like Yertle boss them around. They have to be like Mack and stick up for their rights.
Because, ultimately, a fair and free society isn't one where everyone is stacked up high just so the turtle on top can see great sights. It's one where everyone is down in the mud together. So says Seuss, at least.
Capitalism Is Kind of Harsh
There's another thing all of this dictator and fascism talk should be reminding you of: capitalism. Because, as in most Dr. Seuss stories, the focus isn't so much one system of government so much as it is hierarchical power structures in general. And that, after all, is pretty much what capitalism is. It's a system in which some people can see great heights, but not without the help of everyone below them that can't.
In 1975, Dr. Seuss drew an illustration that really drove his thoughts home. He called it "The Economic Situation Clarified", and it shows pretty much what we see here in Yertle. For every furry creature that gets to walk up the grade (we here in Shmoopville call that "upward mobility"), a bunch of depressed furry creatures must walk down. Unless, of course, we're all there in the mud together. Yes, it's all about the mud for Dr. Seuss.
Capitalism bothers Seuss not just because of the inequalities it creates, but because it forces us to rely on external things for our happiness. We actually look up to a guy like Yertle, who has more things than everyone else. We reward that, by letting him (or several people like him) rule.
But does Yertle actually seem happy to you? Nah. Because happiness comes from the inside. No matter how high a turtle may rise, he's no more free than the turtles stacked beneath him.
The Power of Kids
(Once again, we couldn't do what we do without some master Seussologists like Henry Jenkins, Tara McPherson, and Jane Shattuc and the rest of their Seusspert friends.)
Dr. Seuss is a big fan of depicting kids rationally and adults like psychos. We're kind of okay with that.
For the Doctor, kids are the ones who care about the collective good, and they're the ones who are closest to expressing themselves freely, caring little about the power structure. And Dr. Seuss pretty much wanted kids to stay like that, rather than developing into the kind of monstrous adults who take over Germany, or um… care more about buying that new espresso machine than helping out the homeless guy around the block.
Now, there aren't kids in this story like there are in other Seuss narratives. But the turtles down below are a pretty good stand-in. They're just swimming around playing, after all, when the turtle in charge (the adult) tells them what to do. And it's Mack's immature potty humor or, uh, "free expression" that topples Yertle's regime.
So… Fascism, Hitler, flags, hierarchy, power structures, capitalism, kids. What is this story really about? Certainly not just a bunch of turtles.
While "Gertrude McFuzz" doesn't reach Hitler levels of complexity, there is definitely more here than meets the eye. But first…what meets the eye.
The obvious moral of the story here is that Gertrude McFuzz was just fine how she was from the very beginning. Sure, all she had was a scraggly little tail, but life is about more than just looks; in fact, it's not really about the external stuff at all.
Gertrude, you're beautiful, just the way you are.
Forget the Corporate, Mass-Marketed Ideal of Beauty
Dr. Seuss was a philosopher. How do we know? Because the Seussperts have put together an entire book called Dr. Seuss and Philosophy, to which we owe a lot of credit for our thoughts in this section.
We may not know how Gertrude felt before Lolla-Lee-Lou came flapping around, but we do know she's pretty miserable when she compares herself to her. Yeah, that's because, as we just discussed, self-acceptance can only come from inside and Lolla-Lee-Lou is decidedly on the outside.
But Lolla-Lee-Lou probably is a stand-in for something bigger: those fancy-pants models in the magazine. That kind of unattainable beauty that some big corporation decides is the ideal so the everyday bird feels so bad about herself she works herself up into a panic and flaps off after a remedy… one they just so happen to be selling.
Hey, what can we say? Seuss really didn't like capitalism.
The Dangers of Self-Medication
Alright, so maybe this isn't the deepest deep of themes, but we can't gloss over Gertrude's pill-berry binge here. She seems to think she knows better than the doctor, chowing down as she pleases.
But is this really surprising? When this story came out, we were just starting to enter the era when all sorts of pills would become available to fix the outer symptoms of inner problems.
Gertrude is the forebear of many woes to come. Um…hooray?
When It's Time to Tell the Truth
There's one more thing this book is really about, but it's more of a side issue. Remember Gertrude's kindly uncle Dake? Yeah, Gertrude kind of put him into a bind. Because, see, she is kind of plain. But to tell her so would be cruel.
And here we have an interesting ethical dilemma all kids will inevitably face: when do you tell the truth because something is true, and when do you hold back to spare someone's feelings?
The Big Brag
It's no surprise: "The Big Brag" is about why bragging stinks.
We know, we know, that's a big shocker, but we had to break the truth to you at some point. But hey, do you want to hang out with either the rabbit or the bear? No more than your child will want to hang out with that kid who's always bragging about how he got not one, not two, but three of the coolest toys for his birthday. Bragging stinks, plain and simple.
For the last time, be happy with what you've got.
Just like Yertle and Gertrude before them, the rabbit and the bear just aren't happy with what they've got.
Now wait just a second, you're probably saying. Both the rabbit and the bear seem pretty smug and self-satisfied. That's why they're bragging after all.
Sure, but who do you know who's truly happy and yet still has to remind everybody about how happy they are? These two are as dissatisfied as can be. In fact, they're struggling to be something other than what they are (source). They only feel good when they compare themselves, and they're pretty worried once someone else threatens their place on top. That's not happiness. That's (here it comes again!) being obsessed with superficial external stuff you can't control.
The power of the little guy to bring down the big.
Yep, the little guy is back again. But this time he's not a turtle with a gas problems. This time he's a wily old worm with a great sense of humor.
In the end, this is a classic brains over brawns story, structured much more in the vein of David and Goliath and other folktales than "Yertle." Because the thing about the people on the top is that they're often so obsessed with (1) doing whatever they can to stay on top, and (2) injecting themselves with external validation to fill an internal hole that will never be filled with external validation…
And so, these folks become totally blind to what's happening beneath them. They don't care much about how they might be oppressing or simply annoying the little guy. And they'll also fail to see that destruction comes from below—not above.