In 1952, H.A. Rey released the third installment of the Curious George series: Curious George Rides a Bike. While on the surface Rey’s text appears an innocent exploration into the forays of a happy-go-lucky monkey, under the surface much darker themes lurk.
One such theme would be that of responsibility to society. Dostoevsky touched down on this theme in Crime & Punishment, but ultimately his 500+ page treatise on the subject is dwarfed by Rey’s unflinching exploration of the sociopathic mind in Curious George Rides a Bike.
In Rey’s text, Curious George acquires a new responsibility after disobeying the man in the yellow hat. Upon riding his bike outside the parameters established by the man, he is asked to deliver newspapers to local residents. Here we see Ray’s exploration of a dystopian society, not unlike our own, in which violating basic rules goes not only unpunished, but shares a positive correlation with reward. Such a twisted system is the precursor to the sociopathic personality which surfaces in Curious George.
But not all is lost. The plot seems to suggest that if and when a society reaches such a deplorable state, karma, or natural order, will set things right. This is a rare circumstance in which nature is depicted as a mechanism of control rather than a mechanism of liberation and potential chaos. George takes the newspapers from the boy, excited about his new task. But he quickly deviates from the parameters given to him yet again, and he crafts the newspapers into paper boats to float downstream. It is then that George is finally given his first taste of repercussion. As he follows the boats downstream, he runs into an obstacle to great for him to tackle, and his bike is destroyed.
George tries to ride the bike to no avail, sending a potent and counterintuitive message about social deviance and social mobility. George’s crimes result in immobility and loss of opportunity. This differs from classical works like Crime and Punishment, where upward mobility acts as the incentive for a crime. But Rey’s text requires a dynamic between man and environment that is more complex, for George is a monkey who seemingly has no motive for his crimes. He is deviant for the mere sake of deviance. The fact that his actions are attributed to curiosity is a testament to the ignorance of society, and their inability to see past the facade of a criminal mastermind. Upon closer inspection, one can see that George is actually child literature’s equivalent to Hannibal Lector, showing no remorse for his actions. But in a dystopian society where crime is rewarded, can we truly hold George accountable? How much agency can we attribute to our young protagonist’s actions? The answer comes only through self-exploration. And when looking in the mirror proves too painful, we can explore our primitive urges and darkest desires guised as an innocent monkey. We can laugh at our destructive impulses and eradicate all semblance of accountability. Each time we do, we must remember to thank Rey for his contribution to literature.