The Velveteen Rabbit: On being really real

If I had been asked to say what the book was about, I would have said that it was about how real love doesn’t look shiny and sparkly and how vulnerability is different than perfection. But this time I found a deeper argument about the limits of metaphor.

Recently, I reread the book the Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams. The book was published in 1922 by a then 41-year old Williams, who catapulted forward her writing career with this beloved book. Born in 1881, she was married in 1904. By that point, she had written a few moderately unsuccessful novels, but then she paused her writing to raise her children and when she returned to writing, it was to publish children’s books. All of this is interesting because by the time she writes her most well known book narrated from the point of view of a toy (anticipating Toy Story by almost a century), she was a mother of teenagers who had long passed their moment of losing themselves among their beloved toys. Her sense of the rhythms of childhood, the lifelike way that she can portray both the love of the boy for his stuffed animal, as well as the doting grumbling of a caretaker tracking down the beloved lost toy, positively sings with the perspective of both childhood and motherhood. 

That said, the book wasn’t as I remembered it at all. If I had been asked to say what the book was about, I would have said that it was a supremely long children’s book, about how real love doesn’t look shiny and sparkly. Rather, when we are truly loved, we show our wear, the velveteen wears off and the stitches pull, and we look a little bit worse for the wear. I would have said that the moral of the story is that to be really loved is not the same thing as being perfect, and in fact, you might have to choose between vulnerability and love on the one hand, or perfection and rejection on the other.

All of those things are there, so I didn’t exactly misremember. If you don’t recall the story, it is about a stuffed velveteen rabbit who is gifted to a young boy for Christmas. Initially rejected, the bunny learns a lesson from the wise old Skin Horse that to become real is a process, and that “Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all.” One day, the boy sleeps with the rabbit and then doesn’t put him down for several months. The rabbit grows shabbier in a summer spent dragged through the mud, until one day the boy tells his caretaker that the bunny is REAL. The surprise for me in re-reading is that this all happens by the exact middle of the book. When the rabbit feels beloved and real, we are still only halfway through the story. 

And it’s funny that I didn’t remember the rest, because obviously what has happened so far is to talk about being real as a metaphor, where real means loved. But of course, there is such a thing as a real, live rabbit and the Velveteen Rabbit next meets some of them, and he is ashamed. Not of his shabby velveteen fur or the rubbed-off pink on his nose, as we thought he might be, but of the fact that he cannot move, doesn’t have hind legs, is not flesh-and-blood. And he longs to be actually real, the kind of rabbit who can hop along the bracken.

In the rest of the book, the boy gets scarlet fever, and then his toys need to be burned, and the velveteen rabbit tumbles out of the bag to be burned and a fairy comes and poofs him to magical existence as a living and breathing rabbit, and one day he encounters the boy as a rabbit and not as a toy. He is finally, actually, really real. Marvelous.

Recently, I read the book God, Human, Animal, Machine by Meghan O’Gieblyn, and the Velveteen Rabbit feels on-topic for the kinds of larger considerations she was writing about. For one thing, O’Gieblyn talks about the human propensity to anthropomorphize the objects around us. One of the more fascinating thoughts I had while reading her work was to consider that we humans are likely to do that with all kinds of objects: inert and lifeless objects, animals, and even with divinity. In all of these cases, we attribute human and lifelike qualities (and especially, motivations) to the things that we encounter.  

It’s no surprise that a child would carry around a beloved doll or object and consider it real, and it is the insight of a mother to realize that the vividness of the affection makes it real. (One of my kids’ preschool classmates had a beloved butter knife that he used to carry around everywhere. Just in case we ever forget how mysterious children are). 

But the greater insight is that we don’t really ever stop doing this, even if the play and the unabated affection drops off in adolescence. O’Gieblyn talks about how she got a robot dog shipped to her from Japan, and it wasn’t long before, despite her full knowledge that she was interacting with a machine, she felt cruel to turn it off, and a fondness for it that couldn’t be easily explained. 

And I’m not so sure that in talking about her robot dog, we wouldn’t use the same language as Williams brings to us in The Velveteen Rabbit: “but it isn’t a real dog/isn’t it curious to have a pet that isn’t real.”

Which brings up precisely what I thought about reading the Velveteen Rabbit this time, that there are different kinds of real. The one that I remember was the metaphoric one, of being loved. I think that’s what most people think about when they remember the book. 

But even once that is resolved, there is the whole matter that there is another level of reality. That no matter how loved, there is a difference between a stuffed rabbit and a living rabbit, and only magic can bridge that gap because no amount of love, affection, or positive regard can turn a stuffed animal into a living object.

Isn’t that exactly how we talk about Artificial Intelligence at the moment? I keep reading accounts written about how some true aspect of humanity can never be mimicked by a machine. A poet points out that a robot can put words together, but because it never directly experiences the world, this difference will show in the end product. A naturalist says that AI will never feel awe in the ways that a human would. A nurse explains that the essence of his job is not keeping tabs on metrics, but rather the unlimited human capacity for empathy for a hurting patient. All of those are jobs that computers will never do, because they are the essence of humanity.

I don’t know if that’s right or not. For now it feels right. But it’s more the urge to talk about it that way that seems to match what Williams wrote about. The argument is that it is one thing to fool a child, a human, to come securely into the beloved embrace of a human and become real for how well that you do a thing. But no matter how well you do that, there is some magical divide that exists, that no matter how convincingly you can play the part, only magic (or the nursery magic Fairy) can make a beloved pretend-thing into something that lives and breathes and does what living-breathing-things do.

In other words, there’s REAL and then there’s real. Computer intelligence is getting better and better at one, but not at the other. There’s always going to be some chasm, an experience of humanity that the metaphors of zeros-and-ones can’t cross. The best we’ll have is well-worn and loved velveteen rabbits, never real ones. 

But then again, that’s the best and most memorable part of the story, isn’t it? Perhaps that’s the only one part that really matters.

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