I was first introduced to Kurt Vonnegut’s books in 1975 as a 14 year old freshman in high school. Welcome to the Monkey House is a collection of short stories and contains “Harrison Bergeron.” Bergeron was published the year of my birth, 1961, and it is a dark tale of equality- equality achieved through handicapping. The strong are burdened with weights, the intelligent with ear-buds that emit ear piercing screeches designed to interrupt thought, the beautiful wear hideous masks and the graceful bear shackles that make glorious movement impossible.
Vonnegut creates a world where we’re all equal; we’re all at the lowest common denominator. When two youngsters break free from their bonds and dare to show the world a beautiful dance via the television airwaves they are literally stopped dead in their tracks; Diana Moon Glampers, the United State’s Handicapper General, fells them mid leap with a pair of shotgun blasts. Equality or death.
In 1992 Marcus Pfister wrote the children’s book, The Rainbow Fish; he contends it is a tale touting the joy of sharing but I hold fast to the belief that it is a glorification of the equality or death theme satirized by Vonnegut.
As I began reading The Rainbow Fish I greatly enjoyed the picture Pfister had painted. The point of view character is attractive to others because of his physical beauty. His appearance is the key to his entry into the hearts of those who do not know him. He has been given a gift and he can rise or fall with how he responds to public idolization. They neither love nor hate his essence but are in awe of his physical beauty. The gift of Rainbow’s appearance is an advantage given to him at birth, he has not earned it, it is a present from fate or the gods. How he responds is up to him.
I came across Rainbow Fish in 1998 when I was volunteering in my younger son’s kindergarten class and was asked to read to the children, a task that is one of my greatest joys. One of the children requested Rainbow Fish and this request was followed by a chorus of “yeses” and “pleases” from the other children. I gladly conceded to their request and began to read Rainbow with gusto. It started out as a tale I could embrace but soon took a twist.
Rainbow fish is physically beautiful and all the mundane, average, everyday fish adore him for his appearance. Rainbow revels in his adoration and is scornful of those who call to him to play with them in worshipful admiration. When a little fish asks for just one of Rainbow’s beautiful scales Rainbow’s haughty refusal comes back to haunt him as the multitude of disciples reject him and Rainbow subsequently finds himself terribly alone.
Being overwhelmed by fame and public adulation Rainbow believed that he was as special and wonderful as the doting public declared, he saw himself as above the others and acted scornfully toward them and thereby earned their righteous rejection. As Rainbow cannot act civilly toward them they shunned him. Treating others with respect is an important lesson for anyone at any age. Rainbow neglects the Golden Rule of, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Rainbow trips himself and Rainbow knows that he has done wrong.
As I continued reading I was certain that Rainbow would see the error of his ways, begin to act towards others as he should have all along, and become beautiful both inside and out; sadly this is not how the tale progresses. Rainbow goes on a journey to discover how he can be loved and is told by Octopus that in order to be happy he must distribute all his special scales to the other fish. He diminishes himself and distributes his beauty equally across the masses until each fish has one shiny scale.
Rainbow’s gift is his beautiful appearance, Rainbow’s flaw is his delusion that physical beauty puts him above those that are blessed with other, less obvious gifts, and Rainbow’s solution? Pfister argues that the solution is to share but I contend the message is that we must make everyone the same.
Rainbow “shares” herself with all the other fishes. He distributes one little, shiny scale to everyone so each fish has a tiny portion of Rainbow’s glory. Each becomes the same, each mundane, no special beauty, just conformity.
Rainbow’s flaw wasn’t that he was beautiful, just that he fell victim to adoration and became so self absorbed that he couldn’t see the value in others. In the end he didn’t just share, he sacrificed himself in order to earn acceptance from those he had wronged; that is a lot of penance for a little fish that just needed an attitude adjustment.
Sharing with the needy is a great and important lesson for young and old alike, but that’s not the message I hear when I read The Rainbow Fish; I read Diana Moon Glampers’ message of conform or die.