by Rob Northrup
In his efforts to better understand the human mind, Carl Gustav Jung spent years analyzing myths and stories. His techniques can be applied to almost any form of expression including paintings, sculpture, dance or even comic strips. The characters of Charles Schulz's comic strip Peanuts have, over the course of more than three decades of existence, become American icons, and as such, deserve to be scrutinized in light of Jung's theories.
Schulz's strip is not a strange choice to examine in a psychological context. The themes presented in Peanuts almost always deal with acceptance or rejection of an individual by the peer group, frustration, fear, obsession, loneliness, inadequacy, and sometimes status. In case all these anxieties aren't enough, Schulz points it out by changing the old “lemonade stand” cliché into a “psychiatric help” booth. The neighborhood is in dire need of psychiatric help, too. Linus is an obsessive/compulsive type, Lucy seems psychopathic at times, and the rain tends to make Charlie Brown, Linus and Snoopy suicidally depressed (each has said/thought, “I should just stand here in the rain until I catch pneumonia and die”).
An important theme throughout Peanuts is that of interpersonal relations. The strips often depict Charlie Brown's struggle for acceptance among his peers, and a good percentage of the strips depict very early love-relationships. One of Jung's well-developed archetypes, the “anima,” fits this discussion perfectly. The anima archetype is a particular man's image of woman: a mental picture of the women he is attracted to, but also the character or personality type that most attracts him. Charles Schulz's (or Charlie Brown's) anima seems to be expressed in several forms: the most prominent is Lucy, but Peppermint Patty and “the Little Red-Haired Girl” also figure into it.
In real life, the importance of the anima archetype can be seen in the success of such celebrities as Marilyn Monroe or Madonna. Beautfiul female celebrities who do no exhibit distinct personalities seem to be perfect targets for men to project their animas on. The Little Red-Haired Girl is Schulz's answer to Marilyn Monroe. She is rarely if ever pictured or quoted. Her personality is so muted that we don't even know her name. In this way, Charlie Brown's fantasies about her are never dispelled, which could happen if he knew too much about her*.
Lucy is important to consider because she is the second or third most frequently appearing character next to Charlie Brown and possibly Snoopy*. Lucy is usually described by the other characters as “crabby” and a “fuss-budget,” and her actions show her to be a selfish and deceitful character. She depicts the shadowy dark side of the anima, the seductress of witch myths and folk tales. This characterization becomes most apparent in the scenes in which Lucy holds a football for Charlie Brown to kick. Charlie Brown runs up and Lucy pulls it away at the last moment, leaving Charlie to be carried into the air with the force of his kick and fall on his back. I'm not suggesting (as Freud might) that the two are thinking of fornication in these scenes. But symbolically, Lucy offers to aid Charlie Brown in a display of his masculinity, then retreats, leaving our hero to injure himself in an anti-climactic, humiliating display. The connection between the “fuss-budget” and seductress is minimal, but it's there.
You'll probably remember Peppermint Patty as the androgynous tom-boy who outperforms Charlie Brown in sports. In the comics, she is the only character who ever “comes on” to Charlie Brown. Occasionally she expresses an attraction to him, which he usually fails to recognize. When he does understand her advances, he makes social blunders and Peppermint Patty rejects him, on more than one occasion choosing Snoopy as a companion instead of Charlie Brown. The fact that she chooses the dog over its master shows how pitiful Charlie Brown is, but it may also be that the character of Snoopy represents how Schulz would like to be, spontaneous and dynamic rather than confused and neurotic. Peppermint Patty rejects the faulty persona and accepts the superior one.
This leads ot more of Jung's archetypes, the shadow and the persona. The shadow archetype is the composite of the bad parts of the personality, not only “bad” in a sense of being immoral but also dysfunctional. Of course, Jung loved balancing opposites like yin and yang, so the shadow is the opposite of the “persona.” Whereas the shadow is the hidden dark side of one's personality, the persona is the facade which is put forward to be seen by observers.
Although none of the characters in Peanuts individually represent the shadow archetype, it is integrated into each of the characters. The female characters are a special group, but Lucy, Patty and Violet may represent various aspects of the shadow in the context of the anima. Charlie Brown is generally a kind and good person, but he's also plagued with the shadows of loneliness and depression.
A more complex example of shadow and persona is Lucy's little brother Linus. Linus is a talented, often philosophical boy, portrayed as a prodigy in almost any activity he attempts (usually to contrast against Charlie Brown's mediocre abilities).* Linus seems perfectly adjusted until it comes to his “security blanket” which he is virtually addicted to. In this way, all of Linus's negative qualities are boiled down into one intense problem.
On the other hand, the peculiar character of Pig-pen seems less peculiar when seen in the framework of shadow and persona archetypes. Pig-pen is always covered with dirt and rejoices in playing in mud-puddles. Although his shabby appearance is discouraged by the other characters, Pig-pen proudly continues his disregard for cleanliness. His peers eventually ignore his condition and take it as natural. Whereas Linus is the talented, perfectly behaved boy who bottles up his troubles, Pig-pen is flawed in a very apparent way. Linus's “shadow” manifests itself in his security blanket, but Pig-pen wears his bad qualities for everyone to see. Consequently, Linus is insecure, neurotic and intensely unhappy without his blanket, but Pig-pen has found happiness in accepting his flaws.
The last character who stands out as an important aspect of the psyche is Charlie Brown's dog, Snoopy. When a strip involves both of these main characters, Snoopy usually ends up doing something impressive, so that he seems happier and more popular, better accepted by the peer group, than Charlie Brown. In this sense, Charlie Brown and Snoopy, when shown together, are extensions of the shadow and persona archetypes. Charlie Brown embodies the bad qualities and Snoopy is the “mask” whose actions are always designed to impress observers.
But like everyone else, Snoopy has his own neurotic problems. After gaining acceptance from his “peers,” Snoopy still feels alienated from them because he is a dog. He knows that he is so different from them that he can never be their equal. Even the lowly Charlie Brown is his “master.” Only occasionally does Snoopy's hatred of his status surface*.
As with anything intended for children, the question comes up of the appropriateness of Peanuts for a young audience. Should children be allowed to touch these little collections of neuroses without several hours of therapy and debriefing afterwards? Giving a cursory glance at the themes, I would think quite the opposite. One of the consequences of reading Peanuts could be that it gives the depressed or alienated reader someone with whom to sympathize. The strip may be less admirable, however, in the relationship between Snoopy and Charlie Brown. They way they portray the shadow and persona aspects of extraversion, how Snoopy (the Mask) is accepted socially and Charlie Brown the realistic but faulty person is rejected, may rub off on youngsters as guidelines for appropriate ways to act. On the other hand, Western society generally holds extraversion as a good quality. In this respect, Charlie Brown and Peanuts are probably no more harmful than Christianity.
[This essay was written for a Children's Lit class at Eastern Michigan University around 1993. I basically dredged up all the bits of superficial info I had gleaned from a psych project on Jung and applied it to Peanuts. A person who really knows about Jung or about the full run of Peanuts could probably show how incomplete this essay was, but not too shabby for an undergrad, right? The professor recommended that I submit it for the XIIIth Undergraduate Symposium. It was accepted, so I got to make a presentation showing comic strips on an overhead projector. That was fun. I'm posting this without thoroughly editing it, so the opinions or writing errors should be blamed on the Rob Northrup of 16 years ago, not necessarily endorsed by Rob Northrup of May 2008. I would try to avoid this stilted language if I wrote or edited it today (indeed, quite stilted in this respect), and I wouldn't use that whiplash parting shot about Christianity today. The footnotes are all junk I added 25 May 2008. Anyone who liked this essay enough to read the whole thing would probably be interested in the biography Schulz and Peanuts by David Michaelis.]