Study Guide

The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh Themes

By A. A. Milne

  • Language and Communication

    In Winnie-the-Pooh, communication and language are two very different things. That is, communication does not always require language, and language doesn't always communicate anything. That's why we need Shmoop to help us understand literary critics, for example. Milne is brilliant at forcing us to try and figure out what the meaning is behind verbal and non-verbal communication. But really, that's what all language is about, right? 

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. What's the difference between what the characters say and what they mean?
    2. How do the foils, who know each other very well, communicate differently than characters who are not so close? E.g. Pooh and Piglet vs. Pooh and Kanga.
    3. Is there a difference between written and spoken language in the book?                   
    4. What gives a word meaning for Milne? What about for you? What kinds of things do you associate with a word like "forest," "play," or "ther?"

    Chew on This

    Everyone has a different definition of any given word thanks to different past experiences. Milne's "bear" is different from yours, so you can't really relate to these stories as much as you want to.

    Milne's linguistic ambiguity (unfinished sentences, nonsense words, wordplay) is probably too complex for his young readers to understand. He's writing more for adults than for kids. 

  • Friendship

    <em>Winnie-the-Pooh </em>tackles the difficult task of talking about friendship even though all the characters are imaginary friends. Yikes. What this means, though, is that Milne can explore many different kinds of dynamics, and even propose a kind of "ideal" friendship. At least for kids. Keep in mind that the friends Christopher Robin wants and needs might be different from adult friendships.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. How would Milne define friendship? Do you agree? Disagree? Qualify your answer.
    2. Which relationship best represents the ideal friendship in the Pooh books?             
    3. Why don't Milne's characters ever get angry with each other? They certainly do selfish things sometimes, and create problems for each other. Why don't they get mad?                 

    Chew on This

    <em>Winnie-the-Pooh </em>shows us that friendship is all about being together. You can't be good friends unless you're actually spending time with each other.

    A young child's friendship is fundamentally different an adult's friendship. Christopher Robin had to leave the forest because the friends he had there are no longer a fit for him.

  • Foolishness and Folly

    For the most part, Foolishness and Folly are the source of humor in the <em>Winnie-the-Pooh</em> books. Who doesn't like some good slapstick, after all? Milne makes these traits oddly and profoundly endearing. Take Pooh, for example, the Bear of Very Little Brain. He's dim. He's clumsy. He's forgetful. But you can't help but love him. That's the way it is with all these characters. We love them in spite of and usually because of their foolishness. Maybe because it's so innocent, almost nostalgic. It reminds us of what children are like as they learn to navigate the serious world they live in. You can't fault them for making a few mistakes, can you?

    Questions About Foolishness and Folly

    1. Why is there so much silliness in the books? Is it just for the humor, or does Milne have a deeper message?                                 
    2. We like to think that the characters' silliness allows children to feel like they're in the know. Can you think of some examples where young readers would know more than the characters?         
    3. Milne includes both broad slapstick humor and subtle irony and wit. What functions do the different kinds of humor serve in these books?

    Chew on This

    In spite of his foolishness, Pooh is actually the wisest character in the book.

    Milne believes that being foolish is a fundamental part of being a kid. You grow out of it as you get older, or at least it becomes less acceptable.

  • Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    Amazingly, Winnie-the-Pooh includes a ton of amazing philosophical moments. And we here at Shmoop are certainly not the first ones to consider this. Along with all Pooh's David Carradine Kung Fu moments, Milne includes bushels of insight into how children begin to learn about life, consciousness and existence. In psychological research, aspects of this form a "Theory of Mind," which explains how kids learn (and they have to learn) that other people can have different thought than they do and experience the world in different ways. 

    Questions About Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    1. Pooh has a lot to say about existence and the way the world works.Does he have the innocent perspective of a child? Or the wise point of view ofa peaceful philosopher?
    2. Milne has spoken openly—albeit briefly—challenging the Christian church that dominated existential thought in his society. How do his agnostic/atheistic leanings come through in the world he creates in the Forest? 
    3. Milne writes as if Christopher Robin's imaginary play has created a very real, complex world in which he plays. Should we consider a child's fantasy play "real" or "serious?"         

    Chew on This

    Ignorance is bliss. Or, if not ignorance, being of Very Little Brain...

    Milne writes his characters as if they are who they are, and there's no changing that. His message? Know your role and stick to it. Extra credit: Was Milne influenced by the rather inflexible British class structure of his day?

  • Innocence and Youth

    Winnie-the-Pooh has its own interpretation of what youth is all about. For the most part, Milne attributes a whole lot of purity, innocence, and sentimentality to his son's childhood. In Winnie-the-Pooh, children are free to roam, free from worry, free from responsibility. Granted, it's a pretty idealistic picture of childhood. There are plenty of other books that show youth as a difficult period in life, but the Pooh books make us focus on the positive. Milne gets some things very right, too, and within his halcyon view of youth, he also shows a deep understanding for how children learn, and great respect for each stage of development. 

    Questions About Innocence and Youth

    1. Do you think Milne's portrayal of childhood is an accurate one?
    2. Who is the "youngest" of the animals in the book? The "oldest?" How can you tell?          
    3. A lot of adults wish they could be like children again. Modernist art (i.e. Picasso, Cezanne) was based on the idea of returning to a childlike freedom with perspective and materials. Using Milne's Forest as a starting ground, what is it about youth that adults are trying to access emotionally? Intellectually?       

    Chew on This

    Christopher Robin's leadership and independent actions show us that kids are just little adults. They think and feel the same way, but know less.

    Childhood isn't all fun and games. Remember teasing? Crying over the wrong-flavored popsicle? Not having any control over where you go and what you do? Being a kid STNKS.

  • Coming of Age

    It's not until <em>The House at Pooh Corner</em> that the coming of age theme arrives in full force. And Milne lets us know this from the very start. Of course, this is not your typical coming of age story, which usually involves girls becoming women, boys becoming men. Check out some of Shmoop's YA books for good examples. Milne shows us a very different transformation by having his Christopher Robin evolve from young child to school-aged child. We don't often think of this as a big shift, but for someone with a keen eye for the unique stages of childhood, there is a large difference between pre- and primary-school age life. Especially back in Milne's day when preschoolers weren't scheduled with all sorts of activities, when young children had plenty of time to do "nothing."

    Questions About Coming of Age

    1. What does Milne demonstrate to be the big difference betweenpre-school and school-age? Why is it such a significant transformation?
    2. How does Christopher Robin's story relate to other coming of age tales, which are typically about adolescents?
    3. The whole structure of the Pooh books is episodic—there's not much for overarching narrative. Why do you think Milne attached this bigger theme to his playful children's stories?    

    Chew on This

    Christopher Robin is excited about growing up, even if he is a bit sentimental about leaving his childhood toys and fantasies.

    You're wrong, Shmoop. Winnie-the-Pooh is NOT a coming-of-age story. 

  • Art and Culture

    It's hard to ignore how <em>Winnie-the-Pooh </em>depicts what art, particularly poetry and song, is supposed to be about. And especially the process by which it is made. Milne has given us a protagonist in Pooh who's a veritable artist-in-residence. Nary a chapter goes by without a poem, song, or hum to accompany the action. Milne's point of view? Art is pleasant. It marks an occasion, be it a heroic effort or a run-of-the-mill visit to a friend. And most importantly, it's something that just comes to you. Much like the Pooh series is inspired by his own child's play, Pooh's pieces are always inspired. He's not one for editing, more of a stream-of-consciousness kind of writer. Again, pretty much in line with the modernism of his day.

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. Milne uses Pooh to outline a particularly improvisational view of art. Can you think of some other works that share a similar aesthetic?
    2. In spite of the emphasis on inspiration and spontaneity, we're pretty sure Milne spent a lot of time planning and editing his books. Can you find some evidence in the text that might suggest more planning that he lets on?               
    3. Can you find any differences among the "hums," "songs" and "poems" that Pooh makes up? What makes a piece of art one or the other?                 

    Chew on This

    Pooh's art is the prettiest art of all the art.

    Sure, this kind of playfulness is all fine and good for kids, but adults need something more complex. Heavier. More soul-shatteringly cynical.

  • Education

    In <em>Winnie-the-Pooh</em>, Milne has a pretty suspicious view of formal education. Just think about it. Christopher Robin's journey from the innocent, youthful world of the Forest to the world beyond it is driven by his shift to primary school years. His interest in play is replaced by academic demands. Milne is not necessarily saying that education is bad, but he certainly likes his satire. 

    Questions About Education

    1. Pedagogy has changed a lot in the last 90 years. Is Milne's depiction of Christopher Robin's education applicable to today's kids?
    2. Milne is a proponent of education and literacy (a big Duh statement, we know), but at the same time he uses Owl to satirize stuffy academics. How do you reconcile these seemingly opposing points of view?
    3. Milne essentially makes a distinction between book smarts and street smarts. Which characters represent each side of this coin? Is there anyone who has both?

    Chew on This

    Take a look at the kind of formal education that Christopher Robin is starting to get. Turns out, it's all about testing and drilling.

    Education is power. Get as many degrees as you can. Take it from Milne, A. A., MA, PhD, MFA, BS, MBA, PsyD, TM, Co., TMI, OMG.