The Paradox of Peanuts

Charles Schulz’s kid characters are precocious, cruel, and nihilistic. They’re also among the most compelling in children’s literature.

Schroeder, Franklin, Linus, and Charlie Brown look discouraged.
A still from the 1977 film Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown. (Everett Collection)

The Peanuts characters are among the most iconic kids in American culture, right up there with the March sisters and Tom Sawyer. But kids, really? Most college-educated adults I know would be thrilled to attain Linus’s level of erudition; he is, after all, conversant with the writings of Dostoyevsky, Orwell, and the apostle Paul. Then there is the business of Schroeder playing Beethoven on his toy piano, and Lucy moonlighting as a psychiatrist, and Sally raging in one strip against “middle-class morality,” and pretty much all the characters’ impossibly articulate access to their every passing emotion. And I am only scratching the surface of Peanuts’ absurd precocity.

Charles Schulz did not create Charlie Brown and Linus and Lucy to talk—or act—like normal children. He created them to be funny, and to act out what became a deeply personal theater of cruelty. But it is kids, real or unreal, that he put front and center, and it is kids who have been among his most avid readers, my own younger self very much included. I suspect that school-age children, who have to be shamed out of their natural inclination to laugh at others’ misfortune, enjoy Peanuts’ harshness as a subversive, vicarious thrill. I know I did. It helps that most of the jokes, references to Dostoyevsky and Beethoven notwithstanding, are accessible at a fairly early age, if not the deeper resonances of Schulz’s wit (such as the implication that adults also like to laugh at other people’s misery and pratfalls). It helps, too, that the strip’s surface concerns are children’s: friendships, pets, baseball, kite flying, thumb sucking, schoolyard crushes. Schulz met kids on their own terms, but then wrote up to them.

There is child-appropriate wisdom in Peanuts. The strip, begun in 1950 and celebrated this October in a forthcoming essay collection from the Library of America, sometimes functions like a fable. Its characters, when viewed with a blurring squint, are as archetypal as the donkeys, lambs, wolves, and lions that populate Aesop. Just as wolves always eat lambs if given the chance, so Lucy will always yank the football just as Charlie Brown attempts to kick it; such is the nature of wolves and Lucys. I now think the strip’s hold on me as a child, besides that forbidden schadenfreude, must also have been somewhat analogous to the way traditional fairy tales enthrall children. They help to assuage unconscious fears about growing up and finding a place in the world—real anxieties exaggerated and made grotesque.

(Library of America)

A Peanuts narrative, however, is the opposite of a fairy tale’s. In the latter, good generally wins out, however messily: Dragons get slain, witches are shoved into ovens, simpletons land fortunes, and so on. In Schulz, no one wins and everyone is thwarted, not only in love, but also on the baseball field or in the classroom or, where Snoopy is concerned, in the skies over World War I battlefields. Notwithstanding Happiness Is a Warm Puppy (charming, but a cash-in and, I’d argue, maybe wishfully, not canon), the quintessential Peanuts catchphrases are “Rats!,” “Good grief!,” “I can’t believe it!,” and “Augh!” Charlie Brown is, was, and always will be a blockhead. Lucy remains forever crabby, her pleasure in humiliating Charlie Brown eternally fleeting. Linus will never see the Great Pumpkin rise on Halloween. Pigpen cleans up nicely, but it will be only a panel or two before he is once again filthy.

Justice is almost as beside the point in Schulz as realism; rather, panel to panel, strip to strip, he just grinds his characters down, as if they were players in a children’s-theater adaptation of Camus or Sartre or Robert Johnson. One of my favorite strips, from 1954, depicts Charlie Brown sitting alone on a curb. In the first panel, a few raindrops are falling. By the fourth panel, the rain is torrential, and Charlie Brown is still sitting in the same spot, mouthing the ostensible punch line to this otherwise purely visual cartoon: “It always rains on the unloved!” Is Schulz even trying to be funny? I don’t think so—not really. “Winsomely depressing” might be the aspiration here. The drawings’ wit is why I love this particular strip, Schulz’s deceptively casual line capturing the subtle shifts in Charlie Brown’s body language as he first sits up, noticing he’s being rained on; then looks up, almost as if questioning the skies; then slumps in submission both to the deluge and to his miserable place in a disinterested universe.

What do kids take away from all this bleakness? On some level, Charlie Brown’s relentless suffering comforted me, a lightning rod, I think, for my own anxieties about my place in the world—Peanuts as catharsis, as worst-case scenario, with the awaited thunderclap of laughter substituting for the reassurance of a fairy-tale happily-ever-after. I felt bad for Charlie Brown, but I confess I didn’t feel that bad for him, no more than I did for less soulful, less worthy cartoon losers—Wile E. Coyote, Elmer Fudd, even that shill the Trix Rabbit. As a budding cynic and a kid congenitally impervious to religion, I may have found something confirming in Schulz’s nihilism—I don’t think that’s too strong a word. I understand he took his Christian faith seriously, and I know people have argued that the suffering in Peanuts is somehow redemptive, but I’m not sure I buy it. What I took away from Schulz is that life is hard. People are difficult at best, unfathomable at worst. Justice is a foreign tongue. Happiness can vaporize in the thin gap between a third and fourth panel, and the best response to all that is to laugh and keep moving, always ready to duck.

I still hold to that philosophy, more or less. Maybe less: I’m older and softer-hearted now. Not incidentally, I’m also a father, which in my case means I get a bit quivery when it comes to things such as children being bullied, humiliated, ridiculed, ostracized. Revisiting Schulz from a tender parental perspective can be eye-opening, just as rereading the Brothers Grimm can be—all that gore we shrugged at as kids! Or emotional gore, in Schulz’s case. I now find myself dismayed at times by his sadism—and again, I don’t think that’s too harsh a word. As Schulz himself once admitted, or boasted, “Maybe I have the cruelest strip going.” He knew the blackness of his heart where playing God was concerned.

A still from A Charlie Brown Christmas (Mary Evans / Lee Mendelson + Bill Evans Production / Charles M. Schulz / Ronald Grant / Everett Collection)

Flipping through my old Peanuts paperbacks, I am appalled by a Valentine’s Day sequence from 1964. Charlie Brown is sitting on a schoolyard bench and, as usual, eating his bag lunch alone. “There’s that little red-haired girl…. She’s handing out Valentines,” he says in the first panel. (Ellipses Schulz’s throughout.) In the second panel, he leans forward, a look of embarrassed expectancy on his face: “She’s handing them out to all her friends … She’s handing them out one by one … She’s handing them out … She’s still handing them out …” Third panel. He’s sitting back, his shoulders slumping and mouth drooping. “Now she’s all done … That was the last one … Now she’s walking away….” Fourth panel. Charlie Brown turns away, his mouth now a quavering upside-down arc, his eyes wide, wobbly, and slightly askew. He looks as if he is trying desperately not to cry. His final word balloon is a simple, ironic “Happy Valentine’s Day!” The deluge sequence I mentioned above was at least softened by a kind of “Rainy Days and Mondays” melancholy, but here there’s nothing the least bit droll or ironic, not even the tiniest movement of the needle toward wit. I find it almost exhilarating the way the strip transcends anything readers would normally expect from the funny pages.

Just as pitiless is the climax of an August 1963 baseball story, running over several days, in which Charlie Brown is pitching for his perennially lousy team in a championship game. (The presumed miracle by which they arrived at a championship game is left unexplained.) This time, instead of giving up a homer or dropping an easy fly ball or striking out at the plate with the game on the line, Charlie Brown balks in the winning run. No! Augh!! His teammates cry out to the heavens with those wide, agonized mouths Schulz liked to draw, the ones that look like upside-down inked-in apples. The wordless fourth panel shows Charlie Brown still on the mound, being pelted by hats and gloves. That’s it. No attempt at a punch line, no sad little observation. Just humiliation, like a Fassbinder finale. Did I laugh at this cartoon as a kid? If I did, I must have been a horrible child.

If Schulz’s characters were anything like “real” kids, his cruelty to them would be unendurable, rather than just curious and sometimes unpleasant. For this reason, I find the scene in A Charlie Brown Christmas where Lucy, Patty, Shermy, and the rest berate Charlie Brown for bringing back the homely little tree especially hard to take, since, on TV, the voices belong to actual children. They sound like kids one might know, or even be a parent to. I still love A Charlie Brown Christmas, and I still love Peanuts as a body of work, but I would be lying if I didn’t admit that age—mine, not the strip’s—has soured it for me, a little.

But here’s a happier note to end on: My adult self has taken something positive from Peanuts that my younger self missed. When our daughter, Zoë, was born, my wife’s aunt sent us a card in which she wrote that her wish for Zoë was that she have a passion. I didn’t quite understand what that meant, at first, but as our children grew up, I began to see the difference between kids who cared deeply about something—soccer, books, flute, theater, social justice, whatever—and those who didn’t. You could see that, even in an embryonic way, they had found some kind of meaning in their lives—and you could see what a gift it was.

Charles Schulz, pictured at his home in 1966 (AP)

I think Schulz felt this deeply. Look at his own passion for cartooning—unlike most syndicated cartoonists, he never brought in assistant artists or writers—and look at how Peanuts evolved as he leaned into his imagination and let fly. Early on, the main characters were Charlie Brown, Shermy, Patty, and, soon, Violet. Aside from Charlie Brown’s being something of a roughneck and practical joker, none of the characters had much personality; they were more or less interchangeable, plugged in as gags and visual variety demanded. But Schulz soon began fleshing out his cast with more eccentric, more specific, more driven characters: Schroeder, piano prodigy and Beethoven superfan; Lucy, vain fussbudget and perpetually aggrieved scold; Linus, thumb-sucking philosopher. Meanwhile, as Schulz turned the universe against Charlie Brown, as he made him his own alter ego, the character’s personality deepened and colored. Charlie Brown began life as “I Saw Her Standing There,” a blast of fresh air, but within a decade, he was The White Album: dark, troubled, raw here, refined there, embracing—magnificent.

So if I were asked to pick the character most likely to find happiness if he or she ever grew up—the real kind, not just the glib, warm-puppy kind—I wouldn’t hesitate to pick Charlie Brown. Maybe he does find a form of redemption in his suffering? He feels his failures deeply, he suffers profoundly, and yet he remains ever willing to take another run at kicking the football or trying to get his kite aloft or pitching the next game or hoping this year, finally, to receive a valentine. If he is a blockhead, it is in part because he cares so much; diffidence doesn’t merit the insult. Like his creator, he has passion and persistence. If he were real, I like to tell myself, Charlie Brown would be fine.

This essay has been adapted from The Peanuts Papers: Writers and Cartoonists on Charlie Brown, Snoopy & the Gang, and the Meaning of Life, forthcoming from Library of America.