I’ve always loved short stories. There’s something about slightly-abrupt endings never yielding full closure, that appeal to me. Every word counts in a minimized format, and the inherently ambiguous nature of these stories supplies my mind with daydream fodder for days.
This past summer, I rediscovered one of my favorite short stories — Margery Williams’ “The Velveteen Rabbit.” Published in 1922, this story, disguised as merely a tale for children, chronicles a stuffed rabbit’s desire to become Real through the love of the little boy that owns him. It is a bittersweet tale with a woeful ending, and it invoked in me a sense of nostalgia — whether that is because I was recalling my mom first reading this story to me when I was very young or because the desire to be Real undoubtedly resides in all of us subconsciously, I’m not sure.
In the story, the velveteen rabbit first meets an old Skin Horse toy in the little boy’s nursery. The Skin Horse is older and wiser than the other toys, and the rabbit asks him about being Real, to which the Skin Horse responds with four explanations:
“Real isn’t how you are made, it’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become Real.”
“[It hurts] sometimes. When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“It doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
“Once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”
Upon reading the Skin Horse’s description, I felt so intrigued by the concept of “Real.” It seemed as though I had finally found the words to voice a question I’d been trying to ask for many years, pushed furthermore to the forefront of my mind by the isolation of the pandemic. How could I become Real?
In order to understand this question, I must consider what it means to be Real in the world of humans, rather than toys.
Perhaps being Real means meeting your soulmate — having every multitude you contain being understood wholly by another. Perhaps being Real is an unattainable, idealized notion endorsed by a lonely mind. Or perhaps, and this is what I choose to believe, being Real is being loved, unconditionally.
It is the kind of love that you cannot have for yourself by yourself, yet it makes you love yourself even more. It allows for secrets to be kept, for each person to retain that little bit of themselves that only they ever truly know, and yet celebrates every subliminal confidence it does know, making you want to fearlessly expose your truths to it. It is the kind of love that sees into your soul, and applauds you simply for existing, in whatever state you currently subsist. It continues long after the one who made you Real is gone, and I do not believe it necessarily has to be romantic love that makes one Real.
It seems to me that any life well-lived would surely include becoming Real, with the pain of such a process only bolstering its importance as a milestone. I was puzzled to never have come across this idea of “Real” before re-reading “The Velveteen Rabbit.” As it turns out, I was simply reading the wrong texts. This past semester, I was intrigued to discover that the idea that being Real is being loved also surfaces in the work of a prominent Jewish author.
Salome of the Tenements, Anzia Yezierska’s insightful masterpiece, published only one year after “The Velveteen Rabbit,” in 1923, follows Sonya Vrunsky, nicknamed Salome, a Russian-Jewish immigrant living in New York City who will do almost anything to marry John Manning, an American millionaire philanthropist, and escape the confines of her working class lifestyle. By the end of the novel, Salome has married and then subsequently left John, returning to the working class and teaming up with a fellow former-tenement-resident, now a successful fashion designer, Jacques Hollins.
Over the course of her relationship drama, Salome learns the value of being loved and being Real. The following is an excerpt from the moment she discovers that she needs to be Realized during her lifetime.
It came to her with a ghastly shock that she was like one who had been at a gay party, the center of light and color and song. Suddenly the lights had been switched off and she found herself in the dark, alone.
“I had in my two hands everything I once dreamed and longed for when I was in the Essex Street tenement by Mrs. Peltz. I had everything — husband, house, beautiful clothes. Why did I have to leave it all?”
She paused in her thought and then answered herself: “Because I really had nothing. Even my love for him was only a lie, because you can’t love a man that drives you to be different from what you are. Never with him was I me, myself!
“From him I wanted beauty, and I lost even the little beauty that was in me, because I lived a lie with him. There is no beauty for me unless I can express myself, unless I can be in the open what I am.”
John Manning’s shallow love of Salome’s adopted persona could not sustain her, and it could not make her Real. The following is an excerpt from the moment she discovers that to be Real is to be loved, righteously and truly.
. . . Now everything she did pulsed with reality.
“Tell me,” she pressed with impersonal affection. “Is there anything in the world so real, so thrilling, as real work?”
. . . “Love!” breathed Hollins, triumphant conviction in his voice. “The thing that makes work so real for us is love.”
The love Salome shares with Jacques Hollins — a love of fashion, of honest identity, of beauty soul-deep — Realizes them both.
Whether you subscribe to the sage words of a wise, old Skin Horse or the breathy excitement of immigrant fashion designers united in the New York City tenements, it is clear that a need for connection — for durable, meaningful ties with others — is something so vulnerable, so simply human. Being truly seen by someone else changes us irrevocably and undoubtedly for the better. It is often a painful process, and righteous love hardens us, but it also ensures our humanity, and our reality.
Once you are Real, you may even Realize someone else. Perhaps if we all love a little deeper, a little more fearlessly, and fall a little more willingly into our vulnerability and our true selves, we may all become Real, in time.