The three titles of Maurice Sendak’s famous picture book trilogy, Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, and Outside Over There, name what Judith Butler calls “zones of uninhabitability,” places of abjection that form the borders of the self as both its constitutive outside and its intimate interior. These are dangerous places in the geography of childhood, places where the child’s very life and sense of self is threatened. More frightening still, they are present places, places that exist in the same time that the child inhabits, rather than the once upon a mythical time of fairy tales and legends. Hence they are places that beckon the child to trespass the boundaries of their current lived social and material landscapes and explore. What does happen where the wild things are? What goes on in the night kitchen? What fascinations lurk outside over there?
Indeed because they are the mysterious places belonging specifically to childhood, Max, Mickey, and Ida negotiate these places such that they are more comfortable and empowered within these borderlands than they are on the outside. Max becomes King of the Wild Things, Mickey is the hero of the night kitchen, and Ida rescues her sister from the goblins that inhabit “outside over there.” Even though the protagonist of each book is different, there is nonetheless the sense that this trilogy tells a developmental story, a story of the ways in which a clean and proper social body emerges or is constituted through certain exclusions, and how that which has been abjected returns in both threatening and joyful guises. Thus a reading of these stories as a developmental narrative where...
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... embodiment that must be worked through in childhood—fantasies of cannibalistic consumption, of the morph-ability of bodies, of infantile sexuality—in order to construct the lived body of adulthood. But as Sendak understands, these fantasies never completely go away, but always return to haunt or thrill the adult subject as terror and jouissance.
Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” New York: Routledge, 1993.
Kristeva, Julia. “Place Names.” Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. Ed. by Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1980.
Powers of Horror. Trans. by Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1982.
Sendak, Maurice. In the Night Kitchen. New York: Harper & Row, 1970.
Outside Over There. New York: Harper & Row, 1981.
Where the Wild Things Are. New York: Harper & Row, 1963.
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