Recurring Motifs in Calvin & Hobbes – Building Character

Turn the clock back. Remember how, as kids, we were asked by our parents to eat one whole bowl of vegetables because it was good for us? Remember how we were told that making the bed would somehow make us a better person? Remember how we were asked to clean the house before festivals? Remember how (my Indian friends would be able to relate to this more) cycling up to the flour mill with an impossibly large load of wheat would make us stronger and better? In summary, according to our parents, all that was good for us used to make us miserable and as a corollary almost everything that made us miserable was somehow good for us.

I used to think that, this phenomenon was restricted only to India until I was introduced to Calvin & Hobbes. One of my favorite characters in the strip is Calvin’s Dad. His quirky habits, such as, getting up at the crack of dawn, even when on a holiday, going for walks and occassionally cycling in a blizzard, insisting on going to wild, ‘itchy’ islands for holidays, giving bizarre, nonsensical answers to Calvin’s questions, make him one of the most endearing characters in Calvin & Hobbes. Well, that is for the readers, not Calvin. Calvin’s Dad always keeps looking for opportunities to build Calvin’s character by asking him to do things that are good for him. And like it is always with children, the things that Dad thinks are good for him, make Calvin miserable.

Dad tries to instil the values of hard work, independence, sportsman spirit etc in Calvin who stoutly resists it and even makes fun of it. Of course, at times Dad takes his character building lessons for Calvin a bit too far. One gets the feeling that sometimes he makes Calvin do the things he was forced to do as a kid, and being the naughty, lazy, sarcastic kid that Calvin is, these interactions are often hilarious.

Dad sometimes finds himself unable to come to terms with the fact Calvin’s attitude to life is so different from his own, forcing him to remark once that he is going to get his DNA tested to see if Calvin is really his son. The things that Dad loves are usually what Calvin despises.

There are times when Calvin actually enjoys the things that Dad wants him to do, but once he finds out that those things build character, his enthusiasm wanes. As Calvin puts it, “nothing spoils fun like finding out it builds character”.

Bill Watterson, once revealed in an interview that the character building stories were inspired from his own childhood, and that his dad used it a lot on Watterson. During the last years of the strip, Calvin is so sick of Dad’s ‘plots’ to build his character, that he remarks “whenever I’ve built character, I’ve regretted it”. It is one of my favorite lines in the strip.

However, my favorite character building strip in Calvin and Hobbes is the one in which Dad says “being cold builds character”. This strip makes you realize that Dad is completely aware of the fact that Calvin detests his plans to build Calvin’s character. In this strip you see Dad enjoying the interaction and talking about character building, just for the fun of it, just to make Calvin mad.

Wish there were cartoon strips today one-tenth as good as Calvin and Hobbes. Calvin and Hobbes rocks! and Mr. Watterson, you rock!

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10 thoughts on “Recurring Motifs in Calvin & Hobbes – Building Character

  1. Terrific piece! We C&H fans seem always to be able to understand Watterson’s subtle ways of layering ethical and sensitive lessons within his humor. You’ve captured that well!

    • Thanks John! Yes, you have hit the nail on the head. Watterson’s wisdom shines through in his work. Wish they taught Calvin and Hobbes in college. As Watterson once said in an address to a bunch of fresh college graduates, “Your preparation for the real world is not in the answers you’ve learned, but in the questions you’ve learned how to ask yourself.”

    • Thanks so much for your comment Shelley. Calvin and Hobbes has been a major influence and I’ve found Watterson’s wisdom to be quite enlightening. There are a few more recurring themes that I would like to write about, such as philosophical discussions between Calvin and Hobbes while riding in the toboggan, building snowmen, GROSS, and games that Calvin and Hobbes play such as Calvinball! Doesn’t look like my study of Calvin and Hobbes will stop anytime soon. 🙂

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