A Critical Reading of ‘Gorilla’ by Anthony Browne
Here is a link to a reading of the book itself, including the illustrations: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vmXX3QyBqB0
Here is a PowerPoint of the scanned book: https://stamfordendowedschools-my.sharepoint.com/:p:/g/personal/08middletonkz_ses_lincs_sch_uk/Ef_se6Di0a5Fh5t5q6TUQb8BUyxVFpzspR2Ese6ECpCwvg?e=51aZNh (if this doesn’t work please let me know and I can email over the file separately)
Gorilla by Anthony Browne is a children’s book which has a very simple plot, but a deeper meaning to uncover for any adult who reads it. The story follows Hannah, a young girl who loves gorillas, and who has a very busy father, one that seems to work constantly and have no time for her. For her birthday, he gifts her a toy gorilla, which disappoints her, but overnight, the toy gorilla becomes real, and takes her on an adventure to do all the things she has longed to do with her father. On the morning of her birthday, Hannah wakes to a changed father, who offers to take her to the zoo, and the closing statement of the book tells us that Hannah is “very happy”. Reading it again, now a young adult, another less literal story jumped out at me. I believe that Gorilla is a book that deals with the struggles of loneliness, single fatherhood, and the complex relationship between a father and daughter. The gorilla itself is a symbol of the father. The illustrations are a large part of this book and seem to confirm what the words allude to. The words are obviously simplistic, and despite the book not being written in the first person, this coupled with the fact that the father remains unnamed leads me to believe it is a book which largely is heard from Hannah’s perspective (after all, who would use their father’s real name when referring to them?). The story can be separated into the following sections: before the toy gorilla becomes real, the gorilla and Hannah getting to know each other and sneaking out, their visit to the zoo and their other fun activities before returning home, and the final part, when Hannah wakes up on her birthday.
From the moment the book begins, in the first section, before the toy gorilla becomes real, we understand Hannah is a relatively happy and well provided for child. The first illustration, which is of Hannah, is full of colour and pattern, on her socks, the rug, and the walls. The patterns and colours are mismatched, showing her childhood lack of care for such things. She reads a book which is about gorillas, while smiling, showing that her father will provide for her the things that make her happy. We are also told that “she watched gorillas on television, and she drew pictures of gorillas” which shows that she has these resources provided for her, presumably by her father. It is clear from this first page, that gorillas are Hannah’s very favourite thing in the world. Here, however, we are also told that “her father didn’t have time to take her to see one [a gorilla] at the zoo”, which perhaps alludes to his constant working schedule, and here also, is the first hint at the theme of single fatherhood. Hannah has never seen a real gorilla, because her father doesn’t have time to take her, so why not ask a mother? Or perhaps, the reason for his constant working is because there is no other breadwinner in the house, and he has to work all the time to be able to provide for his daughter alone. The father’s sad, stressful, ordered lifestyle is heavily suggested in the second illustration. His environment is primarily blue, a colour associated with sadness, and everything about their kitchen is grids and lines, alluding to order for him and boredom for Hannah. This structure even shows up in tiny details like the small grid on the fridge (devoid of magnets which perhaps suggests they never do anything worthy of the purchase of a souvenir) and the father’s lined shirt. The only non-blue thing is Hannah’s red jumper, which perhaps suggests the love and admiration she holds for her father, which he seems not to see, due to the emotional (and physical in the picture) distance between father and daughter. Even his breakfast is boring and simple, a black coffee or tea, while Hannah eats cereal, with an exciting monkey and jungle picture on the front. The monkey is another allusion to the gorilla, or course. Right down to the blonde hair in the picture, which one could assume is hereditary, Hannah’s seems brighter, her father seeming overall muted and tired. The pair don’t even look at each other. We are told he “went to work every day before Hannah went to school, and in the evening he worked at home”, confirming Hannah’s lonely lifestyle, in which she doesn’t get the formative childhood experience of a parent walking her to school, and this also confirms his constant working. In the illustration above this text, the father’s body is again, primarily made up of boring, straight lines, and the plain, gridded brick wall behind him only further reinforces the idea of his plain, structured lifestyle, in which he has no time for his daughter. It is worth noting, however, this is not something he is happy about. In every picture, he is sad, and seems to constantly promise Hannah the time she so desperately wants: “maybe tomorrow”, “maybe at the weekend”. His monosyllabic, unfocussed responses appear to alienate him from his daughter, which is reinforced by the distance between the two in pictures, and how the father is often indirectly complained about: “They never did anything together”, “He didn’t have time for anything”. In the second full page illustration, the same monochromatism is used, this time brown, and the father is hunched over his desk. The picture frame on top is empty, again showing emotional distance between him and Hannah, as a normal father might have a picture of their child. Hannah’s body language is tentative, again alluding to a lack of emotional availability from her father. Even as she climbs on his chair in the next page, something most parents would probably at the very least get irritated about, if not turn around, the father continues to write, seemingly oblivious to her presence. “They never did anything together” shows Hannah’s bleak relationship with her father, and the escapism from this life that she finds in the gorillas and outside influence is shown in the picture where she sits in front of a television, presumably watching gorillas as we are told she does often earlier in the text. The light from the television illuminates bright, happy wallpaper, with butterflies and vibrant colours, but without the light, the shapes take on a scary form, and silhouettes of wolves and thorns are discernible. This seems to suggest that the only thing that adds any joy to her childhood is gorillas, not her father. This is evident on the next page when she goes “to bed tingling with excitement” at the prospect of receiving a gorilla for her birthday. The disappointment on her face when she sees it is a toy in the middle of the night is reflective of the disappointing relationship she has with her father. She has a gorilla, but it is only a toy, just as she has a father, but he has no time for her, so may as well be a toy in her eyes. This is one of many points where Browne’s use of the gorilla as a symbol for the father is evident.
In the part of the story where the gorilla changes from toy to real, and it and Hannah leave the house for adventures together, the fatherly qualities and allusions to them become yet more clear. Hannah “threw” the toy away, so clearly, she didn’t care for it, but that night, when “something amazing happened” she is frightened to discover a real gorilla. Notably, this gorilla wears a red bow tie, the same colour as Hannah’s jumper, perhaps indicating the closeness of the two, and their mutual love for one another by the end of the night. The gorilla takes on a fatherly responsibility with the stereotypical line of every caregiver to an unnerved child: “Don’t be frightened.” Hannah is delighted to hear that the gorilla just wants to take her to the zoo, and its anthropomorphised smile makes her feel safe enough to go with it. The gorilla, as shown in the illustration, chooses the more colourful set of her father’s clothes, which suggests an affinity shared with Hannah for colourful things. “A perfect fit,” he says, which only further reinforces the idea that this gorilla is a symbol for the father in the story. Hannah’s excitement is evident in this happy illustration, full of smiles right down to the light switch. Hannah’s tendency to associate everything with her beloved gorillas is also further shown in this drawing, with even the bush outside having a gorilla’s face in it. This would explain why her preferred father figure has taken the form of a gorilla. It is unclear in the end whether Hannah goes out that night so tired that she cannot recognise her father and instead imagines he is a toy gorilla come to life, which would make sense, her imagining this better version of her father who has time to spend with her as the thing she loves most in the world, or whether this is simply a dream that Hannah has. Personally, I lean towards the latter, due to the fact the former is a little improbable, what with them sneaking into a zoo after hours and the illustration of them swinging through the trees. In each illustration, they seem close, either looking at each other or holding hands. The distance is never that which we saw with Hannah’s father earlier in the narrative. The gorilla speaks to her kindly, and with more extensive sentences than her father, and lifts her “gently”. This is obviously not what you would expect with a real gorilla, even if we are to believe the magical realism of a live gorilla coming from a toy, so this seems to attest to the fatherly character of the gorilla.
Perhaps the most symbolic part of this book comes when Hannah and the gorilla visit the zoo and go out on their adventures. In order to get in, they must go “up and over” the wall, which would have been an exciting experience for Hannah, and breaks her out of the conventional orderliness she is used to with her father. When they go and visit the primates, we are told that Hannah was “thrilled”, and in the illustration she has her arm around the gorilla, showing how close the pair have become in just a few short minutes, and how this substitute father figure is truly what she has been in want of for so long. They visit all the primates, but with the gorillas, there is no mention of them looking sad on Hannah’s part, even though in the illustration, the majority of them are frowning. However, when they visit the chimpanzees and orangutan, we are told Hannah thought them beautiful, “but sad”. This is perhaps representative of how nothing in the end can truly replace her father. She may have wished for a different father (i.e. a chimpanzee or orangutan) but in the end, she will always love her father (the gorilla) best. After the zoo, the gorilla poses the question “what would you like to do now?” and Hannah replies that she wants to go to the cinema. “So they did” is a line worth noting, as with her workaholic father before, she would have been turned down, and he would have absent-mindedly suggested another time. This shows the compassion and care with which Hannah’s beloved gorilla treats her, and what she’d love to hear from her father. In the cinema, they watch Superman, who flies across the screen with a gorilla’s face. In fact, throughout the book, there are many famous pictures with a gorilla’s face imposed upon them, which seems to indicate the tendency of a child to see their father as a hero, or recognise him in public figures, especially this one of superman, and the cowboy gorilla in the cinema reception, the gorilla Che Guevara poster, and even the Whistler’s Mother painting has a gorilla face, which again perhaps suggests that Hannah’s father is a single parent, because otherwise Hannah would see a mother figure represented in this female picture, with the same idea going for the gorilla Statue of Liberty beneath the Superman. Again, after the cinema, the gorilla does exactly what Hannah wants as soon as she requests it, no questions asked: ‘“Okay” said the gorilla, “We’ll eat.”’. Here, we get an extremely contrasting illustration of dining. Where Hannah’s breakfast with her father was bleak, cold, and washed out, her dinner with the gorilla is colourful and exciting, with cherry patterned wallpaper and a glorious array of shining junk food. The lack of blue and complete takeover of red not only helps to show the contrast between this and the first illustration, but also shows Hannah is in her element, almost as if her red jumper from the first picture has diffused into the setting. Also, the pair are much less distanced, representing their emotional closeness. The gorilla then asks, “Time for home?” again, making sure Hannah is happy, and working by her wishes, and he takes her back to the garden. Their body language is indicative of a father-daughter bond and lacks the original physical distance between Hannah and her father. She sits on his shoulders, stands on his toes as they dance together, and gives him a goodbye kiss, heart-warming depictions of the closeness of their relationship. We are told, “Hannah had never been so happy,” showing that the key to solving her loneliness was simply love and attention from her father. At this point, the gorilla smiles, and the feeling is one of knowingness on his part as he tells Hannah, ‘” See you tomorrow.”’ The illustration on the page opposite showing the gorilla (now a toy) and Hannah tucked into bed together shows that Hannah grew very close to him overnight, and no longer wants to throw him into a corner.
In the final section, when Hannah wakes, she rushes down to tell her father what happened in the night. Before she has a chance though, a seemingly changed father, who uses affectionate nicknames like “love”, offers to take Hannah out to the zoo. We are told at this point that “Hannah looked at him”. This is the penultimate sentence of the entire book, and she never ends up telling him what happened. This suggests that when she looked at him, she almost recognised the gorilla, saw that the gorilla had been her father all along, whether in a dream or otherwise, and therefore she didn’t need to tell him what had happened; he was there. This is the biggest piece of evidence for the theory that the gorilla is symbolic of the father, along with the last few illustrations. The fact that the Mona Lisa painting by the stairs is now missing seems to show that Hannah no longer needs gorilla depictions, she has her actual father. One would imagine the Mona Lisa would have gone back to normal, but as Hannah doesn’t seem to have a mother to represent in female pictures, it has just disappeared. The crude child’s drawing in the last full page illustration (which is full of life and colour) is no longer a gorilla like the other child’s drawing in the first illustration was, it is a drawing of Hannah and her father, not a gorilla in sight, except for all over Hannah’s birthday paraphernalia- the cake, the toy, and the card. This also shows just how much Hannah’s father loves her and wants to make her happy. However, on closer inspection, one could suggest there is a more subtle gorilla in there; the father looks very dishevelled, his hands distinctly hairy and his face unshaven. The banana in his pocket, matching the ones the gorilla ate at Hannah’s midnight feast, is also a very strong suggestion that the gorilla and the father may not be quite so distantly related as Hannah had previously thought. Physically, the distance between them is much smaller, the father is affectionately kissing the top of Hannah’s head, alluding to their changed relationship. Also, the father wears red, to match Hannah and her gorilla, showing how their relationship has gotten closer throughout the narrative. The last illustration on the last page of Hannah and her father, silhouetted, walking to the zoo, almost exactly matches the illustration of Hannah and the gorilla exiting the zoo the night before, showing how the gorilla is a symbol of the father. Hannah holds her toy gorilla by the hand, symbolising perhaps how her relationship with her father improved after the presence of it. In a heart-warming ending, we are told “she was very happy”.
To conclude, the deeper insight that one gets when reading Gorilla from an adult perspective is a story about the struggles that come with loneliness and single fatherhood, and how a passion can unite people. Browne’s use of illustration is a key part of the story, and the symbolism of the gorilla for a father figure is evident within them. This book also deals with, subtly, the idea of children viewing parents as heroic figures, despite the fact they may be imperfect in reality. This could also connect to the idea of childhood innocence, and the relationship between a father and daughter, which is never by any means a simple thing. Overall, Gorilla is a wonderful tale about what it means to have an emotional connection and affection between parent and child, both for the father who reads it, and the daughter being read to.