[This is so stupid, but it was kind of fun.]
“This little piggy went to the market,” the story begins. Most of us find this proclamation innocent; we might picture the anthropomorphic pig, behatted with a French beret, carrying his picnic basket to a little produce stand beside the baker’s. But there’s a disturbing undertone established immediately and subtly in this first line, for there are three entities that arrive at a market: 1) producers, 2) consumers, and 3) products. We tend to picture the pig as a consumer. Or perhaps some of us envision Farmer Pig, selling corn on the cob or potatoes—foodstuffs that require no slaughter to end up on our tables. But, of course, it’s likeliest that the pig is a product. The one being slaughtered.
Thus, with this clever beginning, there is immediately established a triple tension. Is the pig alive or dead at the market? Does he inhabit the world of fantasy (consumer pig, farmer pig) or brutal reality (slaughtered pig)? And is he more or less fortunate than the second piggy, who, we soon find out, “stayed home”? This question of fortune, in some sense, drives the entire narrative, for it raises the moral stakes of the tale. If we tend to feel pity for the second pig, stuck at home while his (larger) compatriot gets to go on a journey—one that likely does not end as well for him as he (or we) might initially think, then we’re cornered into a Kevorkian celebration of the first pig’s fortune. If, however, we see the second pig as fortunate, then we find ourselves at another moral impasse, for his fortune depends on the first pig’s death. That is, he benefits from the other’s unwitting sacrifice, which has surely staved off his own demise. (Indeed, the first pig is thus an ignorant Christ figure.)
And so the tale places us in a predicament even before our introduction to the third pig, who “ate roast beef.” Up to this point in the story, we’d be forgiven for believing this clever philippic to be nothing more than an innocent fable, absent of any political commentary, but the third pig’s consumption of beef, when considered alongside the previous juxtaposition of pig 1 and pig 2’s fortunes at (or away from) the market, mandates that we recognize the central socio-political commentary at play here—namely, that consumption of animals (against the backdrop of the commercial marketplace) poses moral dilemmas from which we cannot flee.
The fourth pig, who “had [no roast beef],” continues the dialectic established with the second pig and adds a have/have-not dimension to that dialectic. The oppressors, the haves, are always meat-eaters, both literally and metaphorically (recall Orwell’s Animal Farm pigs secretly eating meat). And, of course, the choice of cuisine for piggies 3 and 4 only serves to emphasize the quandary already established in this story vis a vis consumption of animal products. For if a pig, who is a domesticated farm animal himself, eats a domesticated farm animal, he is engaging in a sort of cannibalism by proxy, condoning the very mechanism of slaughter that might someday find him “at the market.” Thus, the fourth pig, who “had none,” is the one pig whose moral stance we should most identify with thus far.
Of course, the choice of verbs with pigs 2 and 4 (stayed, had), do not necessarily suggest will on the parts of the pigs. Was it the second pig’s choice to stay home? Did pig 4 refuse roast beef? The lack of agency in the pigs’ actions prevents us from identifying them as the heroes of the tales.
Indeed, the only pig who clearly exhibits volition is the fifth pig, the one who “went wee wee wee wee wee wee wee wee all the way home.” Granted, there remains some ambiguity within the pig’s proclamation (are these cries of joy or sorrow?), but there can be no denying that pig 5 is the only one with a voice—a voice with potential for morality. Even if the pig’s going home is a passive act, his utterance is likely not. Whether his utterance accomplishes anything is another matter; as stated above, the moral dilemmas presented in the narrative are inescapable. But the fifth pig is the only one with anything to say about his own oppression. Though what exactly he has to say is lost in translation, of course. And yet, the very fact that we can’t understand in what sense the fifth pig means “wee wee wee wee wee wee wee wee” highlights the indefensibility of eating him.
The story’s genius ultimately lies within its layering of mysteries and problematics. For what right have we to consume that which we do not fully understand? By constantly shifting the locus of our sympathies and by calling to question the fortunes of the various protagonists, the story uproots our taken-for-granted cultural mores, the mores at which we find ourselves at home. In the end, we are asked whether that’s a home we want to run to or from.