In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines
Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.
The smallest one was Madeline.
At first her life seems perfectly fine.
Her many adventures are so divine!
But read it close, and the truth aligns…
Who really is Miss Madeline?
Just a girl with red hair that shines?
Have you ever noticed that Pepito has a guillotine in his backyard? Or that when Genevieve goes missing, the girls look for her in a graveyard, of all places? This disconcerting imagery that is omnipresent in all of the Madeline books is more than just a coincidence.
It makes sense that Madeline is a patient in hospital because Miss Clavel is a nurse — not a nun, contrary to popular belief. No one refers to her as Sister Clavel, or Mother Clavel, as you would address a nun. She’s Miss Clavel. Not only that, Miss Clavel’s outfit in Ludwig Bemelmans’ illustrations is specifically that of a French World War One nurse’s uniform.
But it’s more Miss Clavel’s actions, than her clothing, that point to her being a nurse. She acts as the girls’ primary caretaker in more ways than a nun or boarding school teacher typically would. Miss Clavel is always the one who rushes “faster and faster to the scene of the disaster,” and knows what to do in every type of emergency, especially when one of the characters’ lives or health is at risk.
Unfortunately, death is always accompanied by something else. Sometimes it’s fear, dread, and pain. Other times it’s relief, sadness, and grief. For Madeline, it’s Pablito, Paquito, and Panchito — Pepito’s three cousins. Madeline becomes friends with Pepito and death, but she has a much harder time becoming friends with Pepito’s cousins and what they represent. In fact, she and the other girls deem the cousins even worse than “Bad Hat” Pepito, referring to them as “Mean, Nasty, Horrible Hats.” The most telling detail of their symbolism is that they aren’t just some other kids that Pepito knows; Pepito is related to them, just as death is related to other Mean, Nasty, Horrible things of life, all of which Madeline must deal with.
Running Away/Escaping Life & Death
The underlying theme of Madeline is breaking free from burdensome circumstances. Given that Madeline is a sick girl, it makes sense that she would want to escape not only the pain and sadness she may be dealing with, but also the hospital room in which she is stuck. This is why she uses her vivid imagination, and it’s also why escaping is the central motivation of many of Madeline’s adventures.
This is especially relevant in Madeline in London, in which we find out that Madeline’s friend Pepito will no longer be living next door. Pepito’s pet cat, whom he leaves behind in Paris, admits, “I’m glad, there goes that bad hat. Let him annoy some other kitten at the Embassy in Great Britain.” Now, neither the cat nor Madeline has to deal with the mischievous antics of Pepito, who — let’s not forget — represents death.
Ludwig Bemelmans depicts Pepito losing a significant amount of weight while he’s away, getting weaker and weaker, just like Madeline’s relationship to death. But this isn’t permanent. After Pepito has been away for too long, he starts to get lonely, so his mother decides to call Miss Clavel to have Madeline and the girls visit. This is Madeline’s literal and figurative proximity to death. She has escaped death momentarily, but not for long. Through the power of her imagination, Madeline turns the situation into a positive one — she gets to go on another exciting adventure in a new place, London.
In Madeline’s Rescue, the theme of escape manifests itself through Madeline’s dog, Genevieve. When Genevieve goes missing, the girls run all around Paris looking for her, even in a graveyard, for hours until dark. But it’s hopeless, and all Madeline can do is pray and plead for Genevieve to come home. In the middle of the night, Miss Clavel — thanks to her nurse instincts — awakens with a feeling, and discovers that Genevieve, who represents life, has returned. Miss Clavel brings Genevieve back inside to be reunited with the sad girls — or in other words, a nurse brings life back into her patients. The girls fight over who gets to keep Genevieve, since there’s twelve of them and only one dog. Miraculously though, in the same night Genevieve gives birth to puppies and “suddenly there was enough hound to go all around.” If Genevieve represents life, then her puppies represent hope — an extension of life. In Madeline’s imagined reality, all of her friends get to have their own puppies too, because in her true reality she believes all the girls in the hospital should get to have life and hope too.
The most telling of these adventures, though, comes from Madeline and the Gypsies, during which Madeline and Pepito escape Miss Clavel and the rest of the girls to run away to a Gypsy Carnival. At first Madeline is having fun with Pepito, because she is free from all her troubles:
How wonderful to float in a pool,
Watch other children go to school,
Never have to brush your teeth
And never — never —
To go to sleep,”
In other words, Madeline is playing with death. And at first, she’s happy to be free from the burdens of her life, such as the suffering she experiences (or brushing her teeth). But even before Madeline comes to the realization she no longer wants to stay at the Gypsy Carnival, Miss Clavel is already on her way to bring her back home safely. As she is a nurse, she steps in right away. But when the Gypsy Mama sees Miss Clavel coming to Madeline’s rescue through her crystal ball, she devises a plan to keep Madeline and Pepito from leaving the carnival. Madeline therefore ends up getting sewn into a lion costume with Pepito, and they almost get trapped inside of it forever, to spend the rest of their lives performing as a circus animal. Madeline being trapped with Pepito in a situation that seems impossible to escape from invokes once again Madeline’s continual relationship with death. The Gypsy Mama’s stubbornness is the pull of death, and without Miss Clavel, her nurse, Madeline cannot escape it. When Madeline sees Miss Clavel and the other girls in the front row of the audience, she is overcome with relief and homesickness. This is Madeline’s realization that if she succumbs to the sweet relief of death, she won’t be able to see her loved ones. Miss Clavel rushes to save her, and in true nurse fashion, she cuts away the stitches of the lion costume that Madeline and Pepito are stuck in.
Glorification of Hospitals, Illness, and Near-Death Experiences
Practically every single one of Madeline’s adventures is driven by some form of life-risking experience. But each of these experiences is glorified, as if conceived in the imaginative, optimistic mind of a little girl.
In the first Madeline book, Madeline is rushed to the hospital in the middle of the night, and she ends up needing surgery to have her appendix removed. Even though at first Madeline cries and cries until her eyes are read, she soon finds this to be a positive experience. She gets toys and candy, a dollhouse from Papa, and best of all, a unique scar that she proudly shows off to the other girls. The other girls are so jealous of Madeline that they cry, because they want their appendixes taken out too.
In Madeline’s Rescue, Madeline slips and falls off a bridge into the Seine River, and nearly drowns. A stray dog, Genevieve, rescues Madeline from what could’ve been “a watery grave.” Madeline escapes death thanks to Genevieve, and she gets a pet dog in the process.
In Madeline and the Bad Hat, Pepito gets rushed to the hospital after getting attacked by the cat. His injuries are so extensive that practically his entire face and torso is bandaged up. With Pepito at his weakest, Madeline takes advantage of the opportunity to chastise Pepito for acting like a “horrid brat.” Humbled by Madeline’s great wisdom, Pepito and Madeline end up becoming friends, marking the moment that he becomes humanized in Madeline’s eyes.
In Madeline’s Christmas, everyone gets sick — Miss Clavel, all the girls, the mouse — everyone except Madeline. Madeline and the girls are forced to spend their Christmases away from their families, just as an ill child in a hospital might have to. Because Madeline is the only one who isn’t sick, she is entrusted with the responsibility of taking care of everyone and everything. While she is doing so, Madeline hears a knock at the door and opens it, expecting it to be Santa Clause. Instead it’s a rug merchant, but he proves himself to be a better visitor than Santa. The rug merchant performs a Christmas miracle, curing all the girls and Miss Clavel.
Madeline’s mindset, and by extension, her imagination, is so optimistic, that it’s easy to gloss over the heavy underlying imagery that drives her stories. She finds a way to turn her many trials and tribulations into thrilling adventures, and in reading them, we automatically focus on the good and not the bad. For as much as she faces, Madeline always manages to relinquish control, to write the own outcome of her story. She has the same attitude going into every one of her adventures, which start off with the rhyme: “To the Tiger in the Park Madeline just said ‘Pooh-pooh.’” Regardless of how we choose to read and interpret Madeline, her fearlessness in every situation — real or imagined — shines through. Madeline both is and isn’t the girl we thought she was.