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  • Stephanie Montalti

Teaching Heinrich Hoffman’s Der Struwwelpeter: Power Dynamics, Authority, & Responsibility

Shock-headed Peter

Is Heinrich Hoffman’s Der Struwwelpeter: Merry Stories and Funny Pictures, a cautionary tale meant to frighten misbehaved children or to empower them? My undergraduate, “Literature in a Global Context,” class debated this question in response to Hoffman’s controversial picture book, first published in 1845 and then revised and translated to English in 1848. With a thematic focus on children’s literature across time and place, our course traced cultural notions of childhood from Aesop’s fables and fairy tales to Trung Le Nguyen’s The Magic Fish (2020). One thread we unraveled within our readings, and which ultimately tied them together, was the concept of power dynamics; we analyzed relationships between child and adult characters, as well as racial and gender inequalities. By encouraging my students to challenge what belonged on our syllabus, and, therefore, what constitutes children’s literature, we often considered the contemporary relevance of historic texts. This motivated us to recognize our own cultural norms and to dismantle oppressive content, especially in nineteenth-century books. These semester-long interests coalesced in our reading of Hoffman’s tale, which is presented here as a vignette of our classroom discussions.

Merry Stories and Funny Pictures

I assigned Der Struwwelpeter knowing that it would probably be the only graphic, explicitly violent, and racist children’s text my students would ever encounter; but, it definitely wasn’t on my syllabus for pure “shock” factor. This text also invites complex formal analysis, with regard to didacticism and the picture book form. Before we dove into group discussion, I shared biographical information about Hoffman, who was a German psychiatrist-physician and writer. I wanted to emphasize an incongruity between Hoffman’s intentions and the book’s content; Hoffman dedicated this Christmas book to his three-year-old son Carl. While the story opens with a “frame story” titled “Merry Stories and Funny Pictures,” that tells children only the well-behaved will receive Christmas gifts like this very picture book, the following illustration of “Shock-headed Peter” more accurately represents the harsh consequences children receive when they do not listen to authority. In order to balance the poetics and politics of this reading, I offered the following guiding questions:

  • What kinds of messages do the tales teach and how do they teach them?

  • What implicit and explicit views does the book express about child behavior?

  • How do the illustrations compare to the written narrative?

Illustration from “The Story of the Inky Boys”
Illustration from “The Story of the Inky Boys”

Students analyzed “Shock-headed Peter,” “The Dreadful Story of Harriet and the Matches,” “The Story of the Inky Boys,” and “The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb.” While Peter becomes monster-like when he refuses to care for his physical appearance, other children like Harriet get engulfed in flames and Conrad gets his thumbs chopped off by a “great tall tailor.” “The Story of the Inky Boys” is one of the more explicitly racist stories, in which the punishment for insulting a Black man is that the white boys get dipped in ink, turning them the color black. The class debated whether the lessons in these stories, against disobeying authority and mocking others, seem justified given the punishments. We searched for cultural values in order to explain the narrative endings for children like Harriet, Peter, and Conrad.

As expressed by Joachim J. Savelsberg in “Der Struwwelpeter at One Hundred and Fifty: Norms, Control, and Discipline in the Civilizing Process,” this book reveals “social norms” about childhood behavior through “deviant” characters (4). These norms range from “discipline and control of social desires,” “civility and tolerance,” and “caution in dealing with modern technologies” (6). A control of desires can be seen in “The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb,” which confused my class. Students considered why Conrad’s thumb-sucking warrants a visit from the “red-legged-scissor-man” who chops off his thumbs; they couldn’t find this act morally wrong or dangerous. Many students concluded that while the punishment is too severe for the “crime,” this story represents a concern for children’s manners. We looked not only at the written narration for answers but also at the illustrations, which elicited dramatic responses; some found the images so absurd they became funny and others were horrified by the violence. Ben Parrot’s “Aesthetic Tension: The Text-Image Relationship in Heinrich Hoffman’s Struwwelpeter” explores why the book is still an international success, despite contrasting opinions, by analyzing the illustrations.

Illustration from “Little Suck-a-Thumb”
Illustration from “Little Suck-a-Thumb”

Parrot argues that there are two kinds of readerly reactions to this text: those that find the stories “fully unsuitable for children” and those that find the images, in particular, entertaining and comical (326). Parrot concludes that these ambivalent or mixed reactions can be located in the text-image relationship, which is complementary (the images support the written narrative). He also argues that the images add an element of comedy, calling this dynamic “the ‘comedy through tragedy’ approach” (328). He unpacks the picture book form to give a formal explanation to readers’ responses that mirrored what occurred in my own classroom. Instead of falling into binary readings, that reject or accept conclusions, students became comfortable reading through ambivalence as Parrot successfully illustrates. A similar nuanced approach is applied by Eva-Maria Metcalf, in "Civilizing Manners and Mocking Morality: Dr. Heinrich Hoffman’s Struwwelpeter.

Metcalf offered us another framework for interpreting Struwwelpeter, that subverts didacticism as a genre. She argues that we can find satire and political awareness in this book all-too-often read as a cautionary tale. She states, “Indoctrination is not the whole picture. The instruction could also go in the direction of civil disobedience” (9). While many scholars have focused only on “deviant” children, this book invites political responses concerning the “sanctioners,” or those who implement discipline. Parrot, too, acknowledges that readers tend to focus on Struwwelpeter as the “archetype of all naughty children,” and, so, my class considered what our interpretations would yield if we focused our attention on the sanctioners instead (Parrot 326).

According to Savelsberg, children’s discipline is almost entirely negative in this book and is administered by “natural elements (fire, wind, physiological processes), animals (dog, rabbit, fish), supernatural figures…and finally humans” (6); sometimes parents punish their children, while other times God is the ultimate sanctioner. Drawing analogies to our current times helped students identify their own social norms, including parental rights to discipline children. In addition, students discussed how “misbehaved” children are often perceived as reflections of their parents. While these classroom ideas are very generalized, they highlight the way we disrupted our assumptions and preconceived ideas regarding childhood and children’s literature. So, instead of reading Hoffman’s tales as reflections of bad children, as cautionary tales often do, we practiced reading the tales as reflections of bad parenting.

Applying the term “poisonous pedagogy,” coined by Katharina Rutschky, we read Der Struwwelpeter alongside Josefine Wagner’s “‘Der Struwwelpeter’ - A Critical Analysis of a Pedagogical Trend.” This article provided us with new vocabulary to challenge our didactic texts. Wagner argues that “the perverted power triad of adult, child, and punishment is mirrored by the theoretical writings of 18th and 19th century philosophical scholars” (103). Through a fascinating interdisciplinary approach, Wagner also analyzes the “role of the adult” and “the behavior of the child that is marked as naughty or deviant” in order to “dismantle the racist, patriarchal, oppressive lessons that children are taught” (103). Wagner argues that the negative discipline exhibited in this book reflects oppressive systems that view children as inherently naughty for, oftentimes, arbitrary reasons. Wagner, too, recognizes that the book invites readers to critique normative behavior, but diverges from Metcalf who sees the possibility of satire. Ultimately, these scholars allowed us to negotiate pluralist responses, that do justice to the form and content, and the following are some of our class’ conclusions.

Illustrations from “The Dreadful Story of Harriet and the Matches”
Illustrations from “The Dreadful Story of Harriet and the Matches”

Students approached group discussion in various ways. Some students compared Struwwelpeter to contemporary media and our perceptions of childhood. Others analyzed the book’s illustrations. For example, students considered contemporary examples of monstrous children as a way to negotiate different cultural responses to child behavior. They looked for parallels between Struwwelpeter and the film industry, locating similarities between “Shock-headed Peter” and Edward Scissorhands. One group agreed that children are still taught lessons in civility, at home and at school, even if they seem unfounded or arbitrary. In response to “The Story of the Inky Boys,” and the picture book form, students said it’s important to see racism’s prevalence in a seemingly “innocent” genre and to see what efforts are made to counter racism; they were surprised to find such content in a picture book and debated whether Agrippa, the sanctioner, was trying to be anti-racist. Other students were taken by the illustrations’ bright, primary colors, which we had yet to see in our illustrated texts, and the animation of figures in the “The Dreadful Story of Harriet and the Matches.” Metcalf argues that the story’s “uniqueness and importance” lies not in its lessons, but in the “formal and stylistic elements” of the story. She credits Hoffman for expanding the cautionary tale genre to consider what actually appeals to children through illustration. Overall, students felt comfortable analyzing the text’s form and content. Although they disagreed about whether Struwwelpeter qualifies as children’s literature, they were able to think critically about the text’s audiences. Lastly, they brought maturity to our discussions that paved the way for future discussions of other complex topics, like imperialism, nonsense, and identity, during the rest of the semester.

Works Cited

Hoffman, Heinrich. Der Struwwelpeter: Merry Stories and Funny Pictures. Project Gutenberg, April 23, 2004,

Metcalf, Eva-Maria. “Civilizing Manners and Mocking Morality: Dr. Heinrich Hoffman’s Struwwelpeter.The Lion and the Unicorn, vol. 20, no. 2, 1996.

Parrot, Ben. “Aesthetic Tension: The Text-Image Relationship in Heinrich Hoffman’s Struwwelpeter.Monatshefte, vol. 102, no. 3, 2010, pp. 326-339.

Rutschky, Katharina. Schwarze Pädagogik: Quellen zur Naturgeschichte der bürgerlichen Erziehung. Ullstein Verlag, 1977.

Savelsberg, Joachim J. “Struwwelpeter at One Hundred and Fifty: Norms, Control, and Discipline in the Civilizing Process.” The Lion and the Unicorn, vol. 20, no. 2, 1996.

Wagner, Josefine. “‘Der Struwwelpeter’- A Critical Analysis of a Pedagogical Trend.” Social Studies: Theory and Practice, vol. 3, no. 2, 2017, pp. 103-117.


Stephanie Montalti

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Stephanie Montalti is an English PhD candidate and adjunct instructor at St. John’s University in Queen’s, NY beginning her dissertation on Golden Age illustrated children’s literature. Her areas of specialization include children’s literature, Victorian novels, and postcolonial theory with interests in childhood, illustration, cross-writing, fantasy, canonicity, and adaptation. She has a Master’s in Liberal Studies, with a focus on English and Childhood Studies, from The Graduate Center, CUNY. Her academic works can be found in St. John’s University’s Humanities Review, Dickens Studies Annual and CUNY Academic Works. Twitter: @StephMontalti

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