The Velveteen Rabbit, or How Toys Become Real tells the story of a stuffed rabbit made of velveteen. The Velveteen Rabbit was given to a Boy at Christmas one year; for a while, the Boy plays with the other toys instead. Excluded by the other toys, the lonely Velveteen Rabbit finds wisdom and comfort with the Skin Horse, the oldest and most knowledgable of all the toys in the nursery. The Skin Horse tells the Velveteen Rabbit all about the power of nursery magic and how toys become real. When Nana put the Boy to bed one night, she gave the Boy the Velveteen Rabbit with which to sleep. From that day forward, the Velveteen Rabbit became the Boy’s favorite toy and the Boy loved the Rabbit so much that the Rabbit became Real to the boy.
One day, the Boy became very ill with scarlet fever, and the Rabbit stayed with the Boy throughout his sickness. When the Boy got better, the doctor bid Nana burn the Velveteen Rabbit since he was infected with germs. The Velveteen Rabbit was able to escape the sack of toys that were to be burned, but became very sad that he could never be with the Boy again and started to cry. As soon as the Rabbit’s first tear touched the ground, a mysterious flower grew from the ground and a the nursery magic Fairy appeared. The fairy made the Velveteen Rabbit Real for everyone, not just the Boy, and the Rabbit ran off to play with the other wild rabbits, though he always remembered and loved the Boy.
And then, one day, the Boy was ill.
His face grew very flushed, and he talked in his sleep, and his little body was so hot that it burned the Rabbit when he held him close. Strange people came and went in the nursery, and a light burned all night and through it all the little Velveteen Rabbit lay there, hidden from sight under the bedclothes, and he never stirred, for he was afraid that if they found him some one might take him away, and he knew that the Boy needed him. (Williams, 32-33)
The Epidemic: Scarlet Fever
It was in the 20th century that “pediatrics emerged as a specialty” as a result of such infectious diseases like scarlet fever that were so dangerous to the children of the time (Lantos). Thus, such a time in history where diseases so dangerous to children dominated, Williams’ story was especially relevant and timely; for in The Velveteen Rabbit, not only does the Boy contract Scarlet Fever, but he recovers from it, which renders the story to be an enormously hopeful point of references for families of the day.
Historically, scarlet fever had a reputation for being the most culturally and societally relevant in the general time period during and before Williams’ publication in 1922, where it affected scores of young children, most of whom were younger than 10 years old (Lowth). While today scarlet fever is relatively harmless and fairly easily treated, this was not always the case. For, “before antibiotics became widely available in the second half of the 20th century, scarlet fever was a major cause of death. It also sometimes caused late, and often fatal, complications… which in turn lead to heart valve disease” (Ainsworth). For indeed, upon the discover of Penicillin in 1928, this marked an immense turn around in the prevention, treatment, and mortality of scarlet fever.
Scarlet fever, consistent with its reputation, is wildly contagious as it is spread by “nasal droplet infection through the respiratory mucosa” (Lowth), which is why the doctor made it so imperative that the family burn all the toys the Boy touched while he was ill. From the years 1825-1885, death rates were unusually high, but scarlet fever has since become notably milder (Ainsworth), a cycle no doubt aided by the development of modern medicine.
Even by around 1900, treatments were beginning to be utilized to good effect; horse serum (from immune horses) started to be used in treating Scarlet Fever, and such a treatment aided in a reduction of mortality rates (Lowth). Such knowledge thus further bolsters the doctor’s role as a character and important care-giver in The Velveteen Rabbit.
Presently the fever turned, and the Boy got better. He was able to sit up in bed and look at picture books, while the little Rabbit cuddled close at his side. And one day, they let him get up and dress…
The Boy was going to the seaside tomorrow. Everything was arranged, and now it only remained to carry out the doctor’s orders. They talked about it all, while the little Rabbit lay under the bedclothes, with just his head peeping out, and listened. The room was to be disinfected, and all the books and toys that the Boy had played with in bed must be burnt.
“Hurrah!” thought the little Rabbit. “Tomorrow we shall go to the seaside!”
…Just then Nana caught sight of him.
“How about this old Bunny?” she asked.
“That?” said the doctor. “Why, it’s a mass of scarlet fever germs!– Burn it at once. What? Nonsense! Get him a new one. He mustn’t have that any more!”
And so the little Rabbit was put into a sack with the old picture-books and a lot of rubbish, and carried out to the end of the garden behind the fowl-house. That was a fine place to make a bonfire, only the gardener was too busy just then to attend to it…
That night the Boy slept in a different bedroom, and he had a new bunny to sleep with him. (Williams, 33-36)
For a further brief analysis, refer to Introduction and Abstract.