In this remarkable scene from Wit (2001, directed by Mike Nichols), Evelyn Ashford (Eileen Atkins) comforts her dying friend and former student Vivian (Emma Thompson) by cradling her gently and reading Margaret Wise Brown’s The Runaway Bunny.
At the 5:00 minute mark, these two grieving women, both academics, share a surprising discovery about the book. “Ah! Look at that,” Evelyn says smiling. “A little allegory of the soul. Wherever it hides, God will find it.” Vivian is hardly able to speak, but the moment figures as a turning point as her suffering gradually gives way to sleep.
The Runaway Bunny is a picture book classic, most often read in the same spirit as books such as Love You Forever or Guess How Much I Love You. It’s meant to be read over and over again, until the words are all memorized and the spine cracks and the pages fall out. Little ones never tire of hearing that wherever they go, however life changes them, their mama will find them and bring them home.
It’s a logical choice for the film, which chronicles the inward journey of an intellect-centered college professor struggling for transcendence as she dies of cancer. Her friend and mentor in this scene is much like the mother bunny in the book. Evelyn arrives at the hospital having only just learned that Vivian is there. What are the odds? It is a detail just touched on as Evelyn takes off her coat, but it is the same quiet miracle as the mother bunny finding her baby wherever she goes. The little bunny who keeps trying to shape-shift, to become some other animal, to have some other life, mirrors the human journey to discover and improve our actual self, the one we hope to keep. And the kindly, humorous, unfailing persistence of the mother bunny is the Love that birthed us and leads us home.
Of course, once you begin to hold a lens over the story, you see more in it than you first expected. Consider the progression of transformations the little bunny suggests, and the ways his mother answers them. These pairs of images are rife with Christian symbolism!
I will be a fish in a trout stream/ I will be a fisherman. Jesus calls His apostles with the promise that they will become “fishers of men,” gathering in new believers.
I will be a rock on a mountain/I will be a mountain climber. He calls Peter the “rock” on which He will build the Christian church.
I will be a crocus in a hidden garden/I will be a gardener. When Mary comes to the grave seeking Jesus after his crucifixion and He meets her there, she believes at first that He is the gardener.
I will be a bird/I will be the tree you come home to. The tree is a reference to the Cross, the place to which Christians “fly home” in search of eternal life.
I will be a sailboat/I will be the wind. The wind is the Holy Spirit, and “blows where it will”, just as the mother bunny will blow her little sailboat “where I want you to go.”
I will be a trapeze artist/I will be a tightrope walker. The circus is an old and often-used metaphor for the world (as distinguished from heaven or the Church). Biblical tradition describes Satan as the “lord of the air,” and Jesus harrowing hell and rising to heaven “clears the air,” overcoming what darkness lingers there. Thus, like the mother rabbit, He meets us in danger and saves us. Alternately, the trapeze artist and the tightrope walker could prefigure the Second Coming, when believers will be “caught up together in the clouds” and “meet the Lord in the air.”
I will be a little boy/I will be your mother. This pair brings the little bunny to the pinnacle of Christian imagery, and teaching – the incarnation. Interestingly, in this final iteration, the little bunny has assumed the divine role (the Son of Man, born on earth) and the mother bunny plays the dual role of birthgiver and guide. She will be this little boy’s mother and catch him up in her arms to hug, just as Mary must so often have embraced Jesus in her role as Theotokos, God-bearer, mother. But simultaneously, this is also the role in which she succeeds in bringing her little bunny home to his true identity, a nod at the salvific power of the incarnation and the Christian striving to be in God’s image. When the little bunny chooses an identity that both parallels and transcends his present life, he has come to the end (or beginning!) of his spiritual journey. And of course, he has found his way home.
The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd, was first published in 1942, and is still in print!
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