There was a legend: a legend that, given enough love and wear, a toy might become REAL. The Skin Horse told him it was true, and he was very wise, so it must be. And now the Boy himself had said, “He’s not a toy, he’s real.”
So there it was. The Boy said it, that settles it. And Velveteen Rabbit, comforted by his newly-bestowed realness, immersed himself more fully in the creative life of his Boy, reveling in their romps together through the garden, joyful in the layer of dirt encasing his increasingly shabby fur—signs that he was indeed loved, that he was REAL.
But then reality, as it is wont to do, crashed in.
One day as they played near the edge of the garden two actual, flesh-and-blood rabbits came near to meet Velveteen. These live rabbits, quite innocently at first and then less so as the exchange continues, challenge his assertions of realness. Velveteen, quite taken aback, covers his inadequacies under aloofness:
“Why don’t you get up and play with us?” one of them asked.
“I don’t feel like it,” said the Rabbit, for he didn’t want to explain that he had no clockwork.
“Ho!” said the furry rabbit. “It’s as easy as anything,” And he gave a big hop sideways and stood on his hind legs.
“I don’t believe you can!” he said.
“I can!” said the little Rabbit. “I can jump higher than anything!” He meant when the Boy threw him, but of course he didn’t want to say so.
“Can you hop on your hind legs?” asked the furry rabbit.
That was a dreadful question, for the Velveteen Rabbit had no hind legs at all! The back of him was made all in one piece, like a pincushion. He sat still in the bracken, and hoped that the other rabbits wouldn’t notice.
“I don’t want to!” he said again.
But the wild rabbits have very sharp eyes. And this one stretched out his neck and looked.
“He hasn’t got any hind legs!” he called out. “Fancy a rabbit without any hind legs!” And he began to laugh.
“I have!” cried the little Rabbit. “I have got hind legs! I am sitting on them!”
“Then stretch them out and show me, like this!” said the wild rabbit. And he began to whirl round and dance, till the little Rabbit got quite dizzy.
“I don’t like dancing,” he said. “I’d rather sit still!”
But all the while he was longing to dance, for a funny new tickly feeling ran through him, and he felt he would give anything in the world to be able to jump about like these rabbits did.
Well soon the wild rabbits come near and recognize him for an imposter—”He doesn’t smell right!” one exclaims, “He isn’t a rabbit at all! He isn’t real!”—and both bolt just as the Boy returns. Velveteen’s pleas that they return to play, his cries of “I know I am real!” unheeded.
What do you do when you think you’re REAL, only to find actual reality slamming into you? What do you do when the progress you think you’ve made leaves you embarrassingly out of your depth?
What do you do when your suffering has left you shabby but otherwise unchanged—not better or holier or more loving—just dirty and well-used? When you desperately long to dance but find yourself utterly incapable?
What do you do when the changes believed to be positive leave you with more self-doubt and shame and not much else? When “liberation” leaves you angrier and drunker, but no more free or loving?
The next moment of Velveteen’s story is deeply important and I don’t want to give it short shrift (plus it signals the series’ coming end), but we must get there eventually. You see, the Boy, Velveteen’s whole world, comes down with scarlet fever and for “a long weary time,” all the rabbit could do was snuggle the burning sick child and wait for the day they could once again play in the garden.
But that day never comes.
Oh, the Boy recovers. But the Doctor requires that everything the Boy touched in his illness must be burnt—especially that “mess of scarlet germs” rabbit.
And so, REAL or not, when the Boy isn’t looking, Velveteen Rabbit is unceremoniously tossed in a trash sack and thrown on the burn pile to be incinerated the following morning. And all that night he sits on the trash heap, shivering in his dirty threadbare coat, wondering how it all came to this.
Wasn’t he REAL? Who burns a REAL person without a backward glance?
Didn’t the Boy love him? How could he let this happen?
Sometimes, the cold night on the burn pile is where we’re left. Watching the dew gather on last year’s ashes, heart full of tears and questions and little else to show for our pains.
And sometimes that’s where we have to be left for a time.