It has been noted often enough – by me, by friends, by a professor or two forced to suffer my undergraduate papers – that I enjoy the obvious and the literal a good deal more than most people. Anyone who has known me long enough grows accustomed to it, this tendency of mine to revel and splash about in literality as one might in a shallow pool. Yet there is always truth to be found in that basic level of things, the level which really should be understood before one attempts climbing any higher or delving any deeper. Those who too eagerly scramble up to heights they suppose grander, loftier, or more significant may lose their intellectual footing, so to speak, having neglected to take care that their climb be properly grounded on a solid base.
(N.B. that solid bases don’t really have much to do with what follows.)
I wish to revisit a story, read so many times in younger days and in such rapid succession with other stories that I came to accept it without examining it very closely: The Princess and the Pea.
It is all too easy for interpreters to say “Ah! This supposed sensitivity is but a joke about how the actual nobility was sensitive to perceived slights and callous toward the plight of commoners!” or that “Ohh, clearly the fact that she woke black and blue alluded to some manner of rough sexual encounter.”* Or perhaps they are diverted by the concept of a real princess, and what that signifies, both in the context of Denmark ca. 1835 and in today’s ostensibly democratic society.
But I leave such things aside, for of late I have taken on myself an additional box-spring and mattress. A friend needed to empty her apartment, and since I saw the potential for using them in future, I carted them off. Now, until the future arrives, stacking them on my bed frame with the extant box-spring and mattress seems the most space-efficient means of storage.
My bed, as you see, stands about four feet tall now, such that I cannot sit down on it; instead I must get a knee up or spring or otherwise clamber atop it, taking care not to hit my head on the sloping ceiling. This adds an element of decisiveness to turning in for the night, and an interesting perspective on this princessy business of mattresses and eiderdown beds.
Leaving the pea aside – though anyone who ruminates on peas for more than a second must think how smushed the thing would get – I cannot let this story premise roll past me any longer. No, friends, I must peer at it, closely as one might.
First, note how the princess turns up in the rain. We are given no explanation of whence she came or why she was walking to this particular castle alone in the rain at night (but let me just say “ambulopluviophobia” where that’s concerned). One would think that the raindrops, falling from such a height as they do, would injure her quite gravely and render this bed business quite unnecessary.
Moreover, note that the queen, who we suppose to be a real queen** and thus to have been a real princess once, must have the same vaunted sensitivity – and yet she moves twenty mattresses (and makes the bed somehow. Difficult business)! Does all her royal sensitivity leave once she wears a crown? I have had a hard enough time (and surely bruised a time or two) moving two mattresses. She might have given herself a contusion; surely a proper queen has servants on hand for such manual labor!
Sixth and lastly, the bedroom must be quite a grand chamber, for such a bed would tower at least 25 feet high; this implies that the princess must be fearless where heights are concerned, or else generally brave, or else mad, as no one reasonable relishes the thought or enjoys the possibility of falling so far while asleep. Two box-springs and two mattresses get quite unsteady on their own, and mine are set right beside the wall to boot. Hopefully there was a ladder or something on hand.
Thirdly, imagine what other exhibits are in this museum. Either it is a vast space, with curators itching for something, anything, to display there, or else it contains a panoply of hodgepodgey “royal” artifacts. And to conclude, the people about town must be very in dire straits if any of them would conceive of stealing the Pulverized Pea of Princess Proof.
*I actually read some pieces of analysis on the story – longer than the story itself – expressing these two interpretations. Gosh, somehow I missed that subtext.
**Unless others read the same edition I read as a child, wherein the queen slept soundly in the Mammoth Bed of Mammothness the next night, despite the fact that the pea hadn’t been moved, thus suggesting that she was not really properly sensitive but in fact a CHARLATAN PRINCESS who had taken advantage of a good, honest prince back in her day. Takes one to know one, I always say.