Green Eggs and Ham

The inciting incident.

The unnamed protagonist of Dr. Seuss’s illustrated story Green Eggs and Ham wants only to be left alone — to sit in his chair and read his newspaper.  He is content, his world is whole and complete.  He is comfortable and complacent in his McLuhanesque media circuit.  The only thing missing from his life is a name — an identity.

Into this world bursts Sam, or “Sam-I-Am.”  Sam knows who he is; he even carries around a sign advertising himself.  He has such a strong sense of identity he feels a need to bring change to those who have none.

In the past, people like this have brought religion, political change or military turmoil to others.  Sam brings green eggs and ham.

(It is, perhaps, significant that the protagonist reads a newspaper — movable type being, after all, the most important, world-shaking innovation in the history of the human pageant.)

Sam has more than an identity — he has mobility and, as we shall see, boundless resources at his disposal.  Maybe he’s a shaman,  maybe he’s a leader, maybe he’s a snake-oil peddler.  Maybe he’s the marketing executive in charge of the Green Eggs and Ham account and this is a viral campaign.  We are never told, and we must sort out the dense symbolism ourselves.  Is Sam a savior or a demon?  Seuss provides no easy answers.

The protagonist knows one thing: he does not like green eggs and ham.  This is the same sort of person who knows they do not like democracy, psychoanalysis, astronomy, penicillin, abolition or stem-cell research (or, if you like, political torture, monopoly, pantheism).  And yet, Sam will not stop pestering him.  If the unnamed (not to be confused with Beckett’s Unnamable) protagonist will not take Sam’s new food straight, perhaps, Sam reasons, he will take it in a more complex form.  In short order, Sam offers the protagonist his life-changing meat and eggs in a house, with a mouse, in a box, with a fox, in a car, a train, a boat, with a goat, on and on.  And still the man with no identity resists.  He spends the entire story trying to avoid change, even as change surrounds and engulfs him.  Eyes closed, head haught, he repeatedly waves away Sam and his unusual food.  He doesn’t even seem to realize that his life is continuously in danger as he stands on the hood of a moving car, then atop a moving train as it hurtles through a tunnel.

What can change this man’s mind?  Nothing less than a cataclysm — car, train, boat, mouse, goat — all must plunge into the ocean.  Finally, with death at his chin, the unnamed man relinquishes hiscontrol over his world (it’s a shame George W. Bush was not reading this instead of My Pet Goat on 9/11).

(What drives Sam?  A hatred of the status quo?  A religious conviction?  Do-goodism?  Or a simple desire to impose his will upon others?  What does it mean that he wants to get the protagonist’s head out of the newspaper, remove his thoughts from the machinations of the world at large, to concentrate on the fleeting, earthly pleasures of the gourmand?  Is he Satan?  Is he the serpent, offering the protagonist the eggs-and-ham of carnal knowledge?  Do the ham and eggs symbolize the penis and testicles?  Is this perhaps a homosexual overture?)

Finally the protagonist submits and eats the food.  And finds he likes it.

Of course, the story does not end there.  In a shocking denoument, the man, still unnamed, typically, goes overboard.  He has no greater a sense of himself than he did at the beginning.  The man who knew only that he did not like green eggs and ham now knows only that he does.  And, just as he was adamant about not eating it before, he is now adamant about eating it now.  He crows to the skies regarding his plans to eat green eggs and ham in every possible situation, whether it is called for or not.  For example it is not necessary to eat green eggs and ham in a box — in one’s kitchen, in the morning, would seemingly do just fine.  Why insist on eating green eggs and ham with a goat?  (Seuss draws the line at animals who would probably be interested in eating green eggs and ham, but it’s not hard to imagine that, before long, the unnamed protagonist will be forcing this food on chickens and pigs, unaware of his callous disregard for life.)  So while Sam is triumphant in his quest to spread the gospel of green eggs and ham, what Seuss is really getting at is the unchanging simple-mindedness of the masses.  “Thank you, thank you, Sam-I-am” intones the protagonist with the attitude of an “amen,” utterly forgetting that, just one madcap romp earlier, he hated this tiny, furry man and his plate of food.  The man with no identity still has no identity — he’s just as happy being a green-eggs-and-ham eater as he was being a non-green-eggs-and-ham-eater.  This is the knot of the problem Seuss, the master moralist and social critic, presents to us: things may change, but the masses, on a deeper level, do not change.  Today it will be green eggs and ham, tomorrow it will be television or hula hoops or iPods, whatever shiny new thing the persuasive new voice brings.  The day after it will be Nazism.

UPDATE: It occurs to me that the name “Sam-I-Am” is almost a homonym for “I am that I am,” the name the Old Testament God gave to Moses.  Perhaps Sam-I-Am is God and the “Green Eggs and Ham” represent the new covenant with mankind, a different kind of trinity.  This would, perhaps, make the unnamed protagonist Saul who became Paul and the train track the Road to Damascus. hit counter html code


13 Responses to “Green Eggs and Ham”
  1. curt_holman says:

    Whenever I read ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ to my daughter, I think “Sam-I-Am is one helluva salesman!”

    To me the most Beckett-like Dr. Seuss work is “The Zax,” where, if memory serves me right, the East-Going Zax and the West-Going Zax come face to face, each refusing to step aside to let the other pass, and end up like statues as civilizations rise around them.

    • Todd says:

      Sam is more than a helluva salesman, he’s a seemingly magical salesman. How else to explain his endless array of props and situations?

      One could say that “green eggs and ham” are, in marketing terms, “the new thing,” an innocuous twist on an age-old idea, and that Sam is simply selling something old in a new package. Seuss expands on the theme of the evils of marketing and the gullibility of the masses in The Sneetches (and includes marketing’s impact on the environment in The Lorax).

      It’s worth noting, however, that Sam “sells” nothing to the protagonist. No money changes hands; he’s giving it away for free. This indicates to me that Sam is well aware of green eggs and ham’s powerfully addictive properties, which are borne out in the final passages as the protagonist becomes a hopeless, enslaved green-eggs-and-ham addict. This suggests that perhaps Green Eggs and Ham owes more to Burroughs than to Beckett or McLuhan (or Ogilvy).

  2. greyaenigma says:

    You’ve read, I presume, Dr. Seuss goes to war?

  3. edo_fanatic says:

    Would you be racist and try to take over the world in a box? on a train?

  4. dougo says:

    Does the unnamed protagnist actually like green eggs and ham, but he just didn’t know it? Or has Sam-I-Am brainwashed him into liking it? Seems like those would result in totally different morals, namely “don’t knock it ’til you try it” vs. “if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again”.

    • Todd says:

      If you ask me, the protagonist could not “know” that he likes green eggs and ham because there is no such thing as green eggs and ham. The thing that Sam wants the protagonist to try is at best a surreal absurdism and at worst a dangerous drug leading to madness, poverty and destruction. Or perhaps its merely a symbol of some “new” idea or mode of thought, like “no taxation without representation” or “the death of God.”

  5. Anonymous says:

    Stupid last line

    Very enjoyable read…until the last line. “The day after it will be Nazism.”??!? Love the blog, though.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Stupid last line

      Well, the whole thing is meant to be tongue-in-cheek but the Nazis certainly capitalized on the masses’ capacity for being hypnotized by hype and the promise of a strong identity. Ask Leonard Zelig.

  6. edo_fanatic says:

    Returning from jail to find a younger brother eating green eggs and ham. American History Green.

  7. urbaniak says:

    Many years ago, probably during the early years of the Clinton administration, I was in a room somewhere with you and some other people and the subject of Dr. Seuss came up. And if memory serves you said something to the effect that “someday” you would write your “annotated Dr. Seuss.” Thank you for being a man of your word.

    Anonymous seems to think that invoking Nazism in an essay about Dr. Seuss is completely out of left field. In fact World War II was the defining event of Theodor Geisel’s life and his writings are consistently informed by a vigilant opposition to complacency, groupthink and any and all encroachments on liberty. The post’s last sentence isn’t that bizarre.

    • Todd says:

      It’s funny — this post started as a joke (my own Sam just read Green Eggs and Ham, by himself, for the first time the other day) but then, the more I thought about it, the more the echoes and parallels started to fall into place and a book I had thought of as extraordinarily simple suddenly became not so at all.

      The same conversation where I said that I would one day write an annotated Dr. Seuss is probably where I also said that, in my opinion, Seuss should have won the Nobel prize for literature.