I’ve been sick for the last week or so, with the bacteria that love to challenge me. That means I’ve been online more than normal, in between naptimes. Among other things, I found a nice guide to Interstates and iSwiff, which lets me download Flash games to play. There’s a Prince of Persia level, among others. Those distractions, amusing as they may be, are not the point of this musing. They’re just peanuts. Of course, so is the topic, just Peanuts. Even 5 years after Charles Schulz’s death, the strip still appears, as Classic reruns, in most newspapers. Upfront, I’ll state that Peanuts was never my favorite strip. I’m a Calvin and Hobbes guy through and through, and if you wanted to get me a gift the Complete three-volume set would be wonderful. Nowadays, I’d pick Get Fuzzy. While this may be interesting, I’m mostly interested in the story, a specific story that originally ran in 1969 and was repeated the last two weeks, beginning on July 18. If you weren’t reading, it’s about a moving van, taking away the family of one of Charlie Brown’s neighbors, the little red-haired girl.
Who is the little-red haired girl? Officially, she’s never been fully viewed in the strip. She did appear, as a girl named Heather, in one television program in the 1970s. However, Schulz didn’t have creative control over the TV, and didn’t approve of the First Kiss. In the printed strip, she has appeared once, in May 1998, but only in silhouette. In Schulz’s reality, in 1947, he met Donna Mae Johnson. He was an art instructor; she was a pretty redhead in the school’s accounting department. He courted her, but she turned him down, eventually marrying someone else. It’s generally acknowledged that Donna is the conceptual girl, but since we never canonically see her, her visage is one that we develop. I may have mine, which differs from yours.
Over the past two weeks, we saw Linus point out the moving truck. Charlie Brown broods, for he thought he had plenty of time, until the seventh or sixth grade, maybe even the senior prom. (One of the strange things about Peanuts is that we accept that the kids have concepts like crushes from post-puberty, even though they’re no more than eight.) He never spoke to her, the little red-haired girl. Charlie Brown just watches the van leave, then the station wagon with her family, and just screams. Linus yells at him – “All you ever do is just stand there! You drive everybody crazy, Charlie Brown!” His sister tries to entice him home with a big bowl of wishy-washy pudding. Afterwards, he remarks to Linus, “If she were here, I could tell her how much I like her, and ask her to hold my hand … and we could be friends, and do things together, and …” Linus just kicks him.
Chuck’s crush moves back a few years later, so she’s still around for plot devices. For almost 40 years, Charlie Brown pines for her; he dreams that the little red-haired girl will put a valentine in his box, or maybe she’ll introduce herself to him, or maybe he’ll make the move. Even with another girlfriend, during 1990 and 1991, he’s still torn. Some things change, like Peppermint Patty giving a correct answer (1980), or Charlie Brown hitting a home run (1993), but never the red-haired girl. She always remains off in the distance. We tend to see this as unrequited love, as timidity or fear or opportunity lost. That’s the straightforward response. Maybe it was just hallucination from falling asleep in a pile of my dirty laundry (an experience I do not recommend, no matter what cats do), but I’d like to hope that some little part of Charlie Brown’s head was thinking. Not overanalyzing Peanuts with Sartre references in a Philosophy Now approach, but realizing some facts.
That small part of Charlie Brown’s brain with great insight could be reasoning beyond timidity. It knows about the full commitment necessary for happily ever after, and knew to embark on that journey wounded would be unfair. Or maybe that part could see that the little red-haired girl wasn’t ready to undertake a romantic relationship, and pressuring her now would not work. Not everyone is ready at a given time – there’s school and family and church and other parts of a healthy life. Maybe he knew something about her which would make it extremely difficult for her to commit. Linus and the others couldn’t know, because telling would break confidence; he takes the kick as honor. Maybe he feels that the current state of the relationship is best for her, that love means not causing pain, or leading to a place that might cause pain. Yes, Charlie Brown suffers, but keeping suffering away from others, paying the cost himself, is a truly honorable position. Maybe he just wants to be a decent example of a man, to counteract crude, rough guys like the schoolyard bully.
In this argument, if I were to poll, I would suspect the vast majority of Americans would prefer Shakespeare’s motto – “better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” – instead of Charlie Brown’s. Why? What’s wrong with the blockhead? What’s wrong with dignified honor? What’s wrong with stoic bearing? (I tread carefully here, because stoic moroseness is horribly wrong. Charlie Brown still searches for happiness and joy, just taking his pains mostly privately.) In so many situations, the American impulse is to avoid challenge, to make everything comfortable and safe. Yet in romance we expect extreme aggression. It makes no sense. I won’t defend timidity, if that is the true basis of Charlie Brown. But keeping a dream, keeping the peace, keeping things understated – sometimes that’s alright. Not everything can become happily ever after.