At first glance, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle appears to be simply an amusing tale for children about the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly by means of beautiful, yet simple illustrations. The whole setup makes the process of reading fun for children beginning to read and learning to count. However, this conceals a rather different agenda that requires closer inspection. Behind the thick cardboard pages of the book is a tool to indoctrinate children with the tenants of our consumerist culture.
The story begins with the protagonist, the very hungry caterpillar, engaging in the standard literary plot of the hero’s quest as he explores his world in search of food to sate his hunger. In this adventure, the caterpillar begins to change much in the way that caterpillars do and goes into a cocoon, later becoming a butterfly. On the surface, this is a simple story meant to teach children about numbers, as well as explain that there are certain creatures in this world that go through stages of growth.
However, there is another, darker meaning behind this story. Children are taught that they must consume constantly in order to sate their various “hungers,” whether they be literal or representing the constant want of consumer goods. The caterpillar consumes and consumes and consumes until he is tired, giving a vague hope that there is rest from the infinite desires that a capitalist market-driven world instills in us if we just consume enough.
When the caterpillar emerges from rest as a beautiful butterfly, this correlates with a message that if someone consumes enough, they too will be “beautiful” or “fulfilled” or whatever meaningless promises Madison Avenue wants to shill out along with its overpriced wares.
Reviewers have spoken very highly of the book and have said that it is an amazing book for new readers. Its few pages teach a surprisingly large number of things in a mirthfully illustrated way, but that is why “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” is so sinister. No longer are corporate masters satisfied with poisoning children with filth, now they are after them through education and instilling the thought that reading can be an enjoyable and fulfilling pastime.