Yertle the turtle is the main turtle in this story, but only because he's decided so. Here's our nice little breakdown of how he's a jerk, why he's a jerk, and what this says about the big bad world we live in.
As we've said, Yertle is a fascist. And he isn't any old fascist; he's Hitler. We know because this book came out as the world was still trying to process just what had happened in Europe during WWII, and because, well, Dr. Seuss came out and said so many times over.
Like Hitler, Yertle takes over his little country, and he has no qualms about bossing everyone around so that he can sit at the top. We can see it both in what Yertle says, and in how he's described. He orders "nine turtles to swim to his stone" (19). He makes "each turtle stand on another's back" (21). He barks at Mack to be silent (40) and tells him that he must, "Sit in your place while I sit here and rule" (42).
Sounds like a big sense of entitlement with a nice dollop of denial, which we see written all over Yertle when he says things like, "I'm ruler" (9), as if a simple title means he deserves more than anyone else. Not enough for you? Try these on for size:
The list goes on. Yertle just loves using his possessions to let everyone else know how much better he is than them. Oh, all while completely ignoring just how he came to possess those possessions.
Pretty messed up, right?
Like Hitler (always a good way to start a sentence, eh?), Yertle has a voracious appetite for ruling everything that isn't already his—including but not limited to the cow, the mule, the house, the blueberry bush, the cat, and so on. Every time he sees something that's greater than him (that insufferable moon), he gets royally miffed and goes on a destructive rampage just so that he can rule over that, too.
To Yertle, his fellow turtles exist solely to get him higher in life. Because, you know, if you're not Yertle, you're not really the turtle, and you don't really have rights. Yertle feels like he has a mandate to take what he wants, when he wants it.
Yes, Yertle is so much like Hitler that he not only rules in exactly the same way and for exactly the same reasons, but he's also destroyed for the same reasons, too.
(1) His appetite for power (read: ambition). As terrifying a prospect as it may be, Yertle probably could have ruled forever if he had just been satisfied with his pond. But much like Hitler when he overextended himself in Russia, Yertle spreads himself too thin, reaching so high that his tower of power crumbles, shakes, and falls.
It's no accident, after all, that it's right when Yertle is lifting his hand and starting to "order and give the command" to expand upward that Mack, "the plain little turtle below in the stack" burps his big burps and topples the whole Yertle dynasty (84-87).
(2) His poor treatment of his fellow turtles. This is, of course, just a little bit ironic. After all, being an all-around jerk is what gets Yertle into a position of power in the first place. But this is also what makes Mack mad down below until he just so happens to burp Hitler—ahem, Yertle—from his turtle throne.
That's why Mack says his most famous line, '"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'" (65 – 68). And that's why, in the end, Mack "decided he'd taken enough" and burps his great burp (88).
Because, Shmoopers, how many times can we say it? Yertle is a jerk.
In a Shmoop-style character analysis, we usually like to track for you how a character changes and grows throughout the story. But Yertle himself doesn't really grow. If anything, he becomes more who he was at the beginning as the story continues. The only thing that grows is his appetite for power. And when he's finally toppled from his throne, does he apologize and change his ways? Nope. He just sits in the mud looking miserable.
But come on, Shmoopers. Is it any surprise? When a turtle cares about how the things around him make him better than everyone else, and then everything around him is taken away, how could he possibly learn what it means to be happy on the inside?