The central meaning behind Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham is pretty easy to tease out: you don’t know if you like something until you try it. (I don’t know if you know this, but I studied English in university). It’s not the worst message to instil in the minds of young children, but the method by which Dr. Seuss approaches this topic raises several serious concerns about the issue of consent and personal agency.
For any of you who are not familiar with the text, here is a brief summary: Sam-I-Am asks an unnamed character whether he likes green eggs and ham. The unnamed character politely responds that no, he does not: “I do not like them, Sam-I-Am. / I do not like green eggs and ham.” Sam-I-Am proceeds to ask the same questions in multiple different ways (“Would you like them here or there?”, “Would you eat them in a box? / Would you eat them with a fox?” etc.) that becoming increasingly threatening, coercive, and violent as the narrative progresses. When presenting the scenario of eating green eggs and ham in a car, Sam-I-Am shifts from asking to demanding: “Eat them! Eat them! Here they are.” The unnamed character refuses the green eggs and ham nearly one hundred times.
|Not only is Sam-I-Am endangering the lives of those in the car|
and the train, but also whoever might be driving that boat.
In the end, the unnamed character ultimately does try the green eggs and ham, and he likes them. He even thanks Sam-I-Am for being so insistent. But it’s important to point out that he does not try them because he wants to, but out of sheer exasperation: “Sam! If you let me be / I will try them. You will see.”
What troubling precedent does this narrative present to young readers? What are the ramifications of such a story? Why is it Sam-I-Am who is praised in the end for being so insistent? Are we left with the impression that the unnamed character was too uptight, that he should have tried green eggs and ham sooner, and that this is all his fault? And why does he have no name throughout the entire narrative? Why is Sam-I-Am given an identity through naming that is denied to the other character? How does this technique influence our sympathies?
Sam-I-Am, from the very beginning, is given a name, and implicit in his name is his own power to name himself. At times the unnamed character refers to him as Sam, but the “I-Am” portion is also built into his name. Sam is the first character we are introduced to in the story, and we are introduced to him by Sam speaking his own name. This signals to Sam’s assertion of his subjectivity. It is also worth noting that the name “Sam” is a very generic one, which serves to reinforce a sense of normalcy in Sam’s character.
These elements, taken together, contribute to some of the issues surrounding consent in the narrative. Sam-I-Am is given a level of authority and power that is denied to the unnamed character. This is demonstrated not only by his name and ability to name himself, but also the way by which he does so: he rides in to the scene on some cat-like beast, which highlights an ongoing trend in Sam's character to assert his dominance over others.
Issues of consent are often talked about in the context of medical ethics. The general idea is that patients should have at least some control over their own care. A patient's preference should be consistent over time and across multiple scenarios. In "The Green Eggs and Ham Phenomena," Lachlan Forrow uses the Dr. Seuss text to question what he perceives to be an oversimplification of patient preference:
"There are three important lessons in this story. First, although the Patient [the unnamed character] unequivocally states his preference seventy times in thirteen different scenarios, it becomes clear at the end of the story that the Patient has never known what green eggs and ham are like. The fact that a patient can express a preference with utter consistency does not tell us anything about whether or not she or he understands what is at stake in the choice.Okay, Lachlan Farrow. First of all, it's not necessary to have tried something in order to know whether or not you like it; having not tried something does not preclude the possibility of making informed decisions about it. There are any number of ways to gather information on a given subject without having it in your mouth first. For example, I haven't "tried" AIDS, but I know that I don't like it. Secondly, it's not necessarily explicit in the text that the unnamed character has never tried green eggs and ham. It's possible to infer that he hasn't, but he does not once state explicitly that he has never eaten them before. His first refusal is simply, "I do not like them, Sam-I-Am. / I do not like green eggs and ham." Thirdly, Farrow might be correct in stating that the unnamed character's refusal to eat green eggs and ham is influenced by his dislike of Sam-I-Am, but that's a totally valid reason to not try something. Sam-I-Am is a self-centred asshole, and there's no reason to believe that he has the unnamed character's best interests at heart. After all, we're talking about green eggs and ham, not medicine, and Sam-I-Am isn't held to an ethical code in the same way doctors are. And just as a final note: it's likely that the ham and eggs are green partly to appeal to the market audience (children), but also for poetic reasons. That said, I am probably one of the few people who really enjoys artificial colouring, but even I wouldn't eat that (obviously not the eggs, but not the ham either).
Second, the story makes it clear that the very process of being asked to provide a response, then reaffirm it over and over and over, leads the Patient to express a stronger and stronger sense of certainty about his preference. Even if the Patient had started off somewhat uncertain about his preference, by late in the story he is absolutely clear and convinced in his own mind.
Why is the Patient in this story so ready to reject the offer of green eggs and ham from Dr. Sam-I-Am? Why is he refusing something he seems to know nothing about?
The answer to that is clear in the opening pages of the book. There, Dr. Sam-I-Am is seen racing back and forth around the Patient, clearly very busy, but paying no attention to the Patient himself. In fact, unlike almost any other important character in Dr. Seuss' many books, the Patient is never given a name. And Dr. Sam-I-Am certainly never gives any indication that he even cares to know this patient's name. The opening words in the story, spoken by the Patient, are quite direct: 'That Sam-I-Am! That Sam-I-Am! I do not like that Sam-I-Am!' In fact, the entire story as seen from the Patient's perspective has nothing whatsoever to do with his opinion of green eggs and ham (remember, he has never tasted them), but has everything to do with his relationship--or lack thereof--with the person who is offering them to him." (30-1).
Green Eggs and Ham is, in the end, a story for children. But what message does it provide them? That you can't possibly know your own likes and dislikes, or that someone other than you has a better sense of your own needs and desires? That you should give up your power of consent to anyone who asks you to do so? Or more troubling yet, if someone says "no" to you, all you have to do is pester them and threaten them until they give in? At the end of the day, it really doesn't matter why the unnamed character doesn't want to eat green eggs and ham and it doesn't matter that he ends up liking green eggs and ham. What matters is that he doesn't want to eat green eggs and ham. In order to build a healthy society--one that doesn't privilege the desires of some over those of others--we need to begin by empowering children to say "no."
I feel a bit weird posting something like this, because I really don't care about empowering anyone, ever. But I do feel strongly about this, and not as an analogy for rape culture or medical ethics or the unnamed "Other" or whatever. As someone who has spent a great deal of time over the course of her life refusing to try certain foods in the face of incessant harassment, I find it troubling that a book like this exists. And what I also find troubling is that people's notion of consent only goes so far. There are a few posts on the internet condemning Dr. Seuss's treatment of consent in Green Eggs and Ham (here and here), but both talk about the text in light of rape culture. I feel like most people don't take the right of consent seriously when it comes to something as seemingly frivolous or harmless as trying new foods. But for me, feeling the pressure to eat something that I really do not want to eat is actually traumatic, and right after I finish posting this, I'm going to start a petition on Change.org to demand that a big shiny "Trigger Warning!" sticker be included on all future copies of this book.
Forrow, Lachlan. "The green eggs and ham phenomena." The Hastings Center Report 24.6 (1994): 29-32. Print.