Upon extremely cursory consideration, the long-running comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes” seems to be a sweet but largely insubstantial body of work. Bill Waterson often writes puns or coming-of-age shenanigans for Calvin, but interspersed with these are earnest moments contemplating philosophy and nature. Because Calvin is a six-year-old boy, these often seem to be played for laughs, but what of the main characters’ eponyms?
It is widely accepted that their names are based on John Calvin and Thomas Hobbes, sixteenth century religious and political philosophers. Calvin led the Protestant Reformation, coming down on the side of pessimism with his belief in absolute predestination–i.e., ‘you might as well do whatever you want because it’s already decided whether you’re going to Heaven or not.’ Hobbes was only slightly less cynical as the originator of social contract theory, which says that the people tolerate government in exchange for protection, and coiner of the oft-quoted observance that life is ‘nasty, brutish, and short.’ However, Hobbes was also a pioneer of individual rights and equality, so perhaps it balances to neutral.
How, then, is this relevant to a comic strip about a boy and his stuffed tiger? Calvin is no spiritual leader, even if Hobbes can be sarcastically compared to a man who recognized the regrettable natural order of things (three cheers for the bloodthirsty animal who only eats tuna sandwiches). Hobbes the Tiger is a representative of a gentler side of nature, almost as an answer to the philosopher’s cynicism. But Calvin? He is neither religious nor a proponent of fate. He is a crusader. John Calvin rejected the church and his father to advocate radical fundamentalism; six-year-old Calvin constantly butts heads with authority over his unorthodox, whimsical, and irreverent methods, and is punished for exposing flaws in the system.
His crusade is not religious but imaginative, as an exhortation to the audience to be interesting and unique.
Hobbes, though, is more interesting to me. Calvin is an obvious reader surrogate, which means that lessons taught to him are aimed at the audience. And what lessons Hobbes has! Where Calvin tends to lose himself in science fiction and technological dystopias, Hobbes is a grounding influence telling him to relax and enjoy the outdoors–an emissary from nature. Hobbes is the reason that Calvin is disgusted by piles of empty cans in the woods instead of creating them. This is why he is a tiger (although surely Waterson has his other reasons): a representation of the ferocity, elegance, and beauty of nature. Hobbes teaches Calvin, and us, that sitting against a tree is a valid and fulfilling way to spend an afternoon.
Interestingly, Hobbes is something different to Calvin than to the reader. Observing their interactions, one sees that Hobbes acts at times like a condescending and worldly older brother, and it becomes clear that Calvin is projecting his perception of maturity onto his friend. Hobbes often expresses interest in girls and kissing, and (again, as would an older brother) teases Calvin about them. He is also frequently pressed into service doing Calvin’s homework, but tellingly knows nothing more than Calvin himself, and is obviously bluffing when he shows the ‘correct methods.’
This suggests that Hobbes is indeed purely imaginary, created as a role model and companion by a weird lonely boy–
Luckily, this doesn’t make him any less real.