Column: Peanuts’ guide to relentless failure
He runs at the ball. He’s going to kick it this time, he thinks – no, knows.
He’s finally going to do it.
And then Lucy pulls the ball from him. And then he flies in the air with an “aaugh” and lands on the ground with an emphatic thump.
In the 50-year run of the “Peanuts” comic strip and the numerous film adaptations, not once has Charlie Brown kicked that football. Yet, with relentless optimism, year after year, he goes for it – even if that optimism leads to an equally relentless failure every single time.
This duality of endless hope and disappointment continues to follow around everyone’s favorite blockhead. He’s whiffed at every kick, lost nearly every baseball game and failed to fly a kite without that darned tree snagging it.
In short, Charlie Brown embodies the near-memetic opening line of Coldplay’s “Fix You”: “When you try your best but you don’t succeed.”
Such is life, though, is it not?
We all feel those moments from time to time, some more than others. It makes many, like “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz, ponder about the nature of constant failure.
Writer John Serba said this aspect makes “Peanuts” unique.
“‘Peanuts’ was, at its heart, Schulz’s existential prodding for an answer as to why we must suffer,” Serba said. “There was a great, profound truth in his melancholy, summed up with two pithy words, Charlie Brown’s catchphrase, ‘Good grief!’”
Dan Kois of “Browbeat” agrees with Serba on this assertion.
“The role of Charlie Brown in the ‘Peanuts’ universe is to be ever hopeful, and to be ever disappointed,” Kois said. “Charlie Brown tries; he fails; he can’t stand it, he just can’t stand it; he tries again.”
This unfortunate cycle of try, fail, ruminate and retry applies to many aspects of Charlie Brown’s experience. One dilemma, though, seems to encompass all the other problems with an added twist of realism and a few bolts of fiery red hair.
On Nov. 19, 1961, the “Peanuts” Sunday strip featured Charlie Brown sitting for lunch and pondering his many anxieties as he eats lunch. He then glimpses at someone new in the schoolyard, yearning for her to come sit with him.
With that strip, the fable of the Little Red-Haired Girl came to life on the page.
For the next 50-plus years, Charlie Brown has pined for her in numerous iterations, admiring her from afar and coming up with endless schemes to talk to her before eventually reneging and fading to his relative obscurity.
The feeling of wanting to say something to an admired person but feeling too nervous is a rather universal concept. It can, will and has happened to the best of us. Fear overcomes us. Nerves paralyze us. Something just makes us stop and rethink everything in life.
And, like good ol’ Chuck, we end up running from the doorstep before we even ring the doorbell.
“The Peanuts Movie” was the most recent production to feature an animated depiction of the unnamed Little Red-Haired Girl. Once again, Charlie Brown sees her after she moves to town and grows mesmerized with her, hoping she will somehow notice him.
He tries in vain to return her pencil. He writes an entire book report to impress her, only to have it literally ripped to shreds in comic fashion. He makes an attempt, and he fails in outlandish fashion. (Beware for one more spoiler later.)
Much like everything Charlie Brown has done and likely will continue to do, it follows the endless cycle of try, fail, try again and hope for the best. Then again, such is the nature of life – a point the comic strip as a whole conveys.
“It establishes right from the get-go that this isn’t just another strip about the adorable adventures of precocious children,” blogger and reviewer Tyler Talley said. “It’s going to be about the cruelties and even hardships of growing up.”
And what crueler growing pain is there than unrequited love? Schulz admitted it himself.
“I can think of no more emotionally damaging loss than to be turned down by someone whom you love very much,” Schulz said. “What a bitter blow that is. It is a blow to everything that you are.”
Maybe that’s why Charlie Brown completely and utterly avoids talking with the Little Red-Haired Girl. Nathan Radke said that this common Charlie Brown phenomenon is part of the very foundation of existentialism.
“The very possibility that he could go over and talk to her is far more distressing than its impossibility would be,” he said in his essay “Sartre and Peanuts.”
The weird part is that most of us can relate with the feeling. In everyday bouts of existentialism, we talk ourselves out of doing something we want but feel is out of our reach. Sometimes, it applies to a person; others, it refers to a goal.
Either way, we can commiserate with Charlie Brown in some way, whether we participate in the “fail and try again” loop or we capitulate to our anxious fears of rejection and ostracization before we even get to the “try” phase.
But what is it about the air surrounding the Little Red-Haired Girl that makes her stick out among the missed kicks and failed flies of a kite?
Part of it could be in the fact that the character was based in Schulz’ reality. He based her off of Donna Wold (née Johnson), a redheaded woman with whom Schulz shared a dating relationship before she married another young man. This memory stayed with him enough that he created the unreachable, ineffable Little Red-Haired Girl of Charlie Brown’s affections.
She was a character so indescribable that Schulz refused to draw her. While the movies and specials all depict some form of the Little Red-Haired Girl, the strips only ever showed a silhouette of her in 1998 – two years before Schulz’ passing – as the only canon representation.
“He said it was so every man could consider the little red-haired girl in their life,” Wold said in an interview. “Someone that he knew, and loved, and didn’t have.”
Herein lies the main reason the redheaded existential conundrum rises above the rest. Most every human, regardless of identification, has experienced a person who “got away,” didn’t reciprocate feelings or came in at the wrong time (if the movie “Imagine Me and You” is accurate in any way).
In short, while we all know Charlie Brown’s pain, this particular wound cuts even deeper.
At the end of “The Peanuts Movie,” the Little Red-Haired Girl and Charlie Brown share an exchange as she’s about to leave for summer camp. To summarize, she’s noticed all the good things he’s done over the year and admires him for them. She promises to write over the summer before departing, leaving Chuck with a warm sense of unexpected triumph.
While many may find this action a stray from the traditional “Peanuts” feel, it says one thing about the nature of love – and life in general. Sometimes, even through the cycle of attempts and failures, a success shines through.
Maybe that’s why Charlie Brown keeps practicing a brand of relentless optimism that some would interpret as borderline insanity. Maybe this time will be the time it happens. Maybe, just maybe, he’ll land on his feet instead of literally falling all over himself.
If history is any indication, though, he’ll likely end up on his back once more – as will we all at some point.
That’s when we start to stare at the sky and question everything. Like Charlie Brown, we wonder why good things happen to everyone else and why nothing but failure comes our way. Just as quickly as the question arises, though, the answer reveals itself to him – and to us.
“Maybe, just this once, it will happen to me.”
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