Plato's Allegory of the Cave and Lemire's Sweet Tooth
SWEET TOOTH: BOOK ONE
Writer: Jeff Lemire
Artist: Jeff Lemire
Colorist: Jose Villarrubia
Letterer: Pat Brosseau
Publisher : DC/Vertigo
Jeff Lemire's SWEET TOOTH is a Vertigo comic that came out in 2009. Upon reading it, I was constantly thinking of a piece written roughly around 380 BC, Plato's Republic. The specific part of the Republic I want to focus on is Plato's Allegory of the Cave. To explain the sheer brilliance of the philosophy behind SWEET TOOTH, we must first examine Plato's work.
The Allegory of the Cave, is, in my opinion, one of the most important pieces of philosophy. In the most basic of ways, it's the idea that what people think is real is not the reality of the world. That's still a giant oversimplification of what Plato truly meant. Plato had set up the allegory as a conversation being had between his brother Glaucon and Plato's mentor Socrates. Socrates goes on to discuss how there are people who live in a cave. While living there, they have been chained up to the walls of it with shackles. The only information they receive about the outside world is via shadow figures made from objects that sit in front of the fire in the cave. As the chained people witness these figures, they name them and use them as their set reality.
They know of nothing else. One day, a "prisoner" (what else would we call a person who is shackled to a wall) breaks free and leaves this cave. They go outside and witness the sun for the first time. They begin to realize that the life that they've known has been fraudulent. The sun is similar to the fire they've always known. Right here is where Plato discerns that the human experience of perceiving the world through the senses is a bondage to the true form of reality. The discussion that Socrates is giving further describes how the newly "enlightened" prisoner realizes that the world outside of the cave is what is real and better than the bondage they've always known. Plato theorizes that if the prisoner goes back into the cave to tell the other, they would reject them. The prisoner now knowing what sunlight is, would describe how they could not see well in the dark lit cave. Instead of believing the "enlightened" prisoner, the rest of the cave prisoners would deduce, out of fear, that the one who returned had been injured by the outside world. They would decide to never leave the cave. Plato further illustrates that he believed that if someone were to come and drag those prisoners out into the "real" world, they would try to kill that person.
That was… a lot to take in. It's a very complex idea about a multitude of different things. Being blind to a certain aspect of the world and fearing that change. 2,000 years ago the example Plato came up with was people living in caves and not wanting to come out. Today, we can apply the same type of logic to people who are afraid of growth, knowledge, and technology that pushes the set ideas (reality if you will) that they know. Religion, in particular, is the perfect modern example of this.
In Jeff Lemire's SWEET TOOTH, we are first shown a nine-year-old boy waking up from a nightmare. His nightmare consisted of him running away from a big man. This boy is named Gus. He informs the reader that while he is running, behind him is, "...fire and hell and bad stuff." When he fully wakes, he hears his father praying to God about, "not letting them in." As we turn to pages 3 and 4, we are given the information that our boy Gus has never seen another person. He has antlers because he is an animal-human hybrid that came about after some sort of disease had riddled the world into a post-apocalyptic setting. All he knows is his dad and the woods that they live in. He informs us that his dad talks to god regularly. Gus says that if they were to leave the forest, they would burn because outside of the woods is, "fire and hell".
In just four pages, we see the parallels. Gus's home, the woods where only he and his father live, acts as his metaphorical cave. As the first issue progresses, we discover that Gus has never once stepped foot outside of these woods. His dad acts as the set reality. He is the "enlightened" prisoner if you will. He has seen the true horrors of the world outside of the woods (cave) and Gus blindly believes his father. Gus's metaphorical chains are his relationship with faith that was instilled in him by his father.
His dad eventually passes. This leaves Gus all alone in his deep woods. However, this does not pose any real issue for him. His dad taught him how to survive off of the land all by himself. He can grow his food, forge a weapon (he wields a slingshot and yes, it is adorable), and live the life he has always known. Until one day, a deer makes it over to his side of the woods and brings about hunters. They hunt animal-hybrid children. They run after Gus and it brings us the end of the first issue. He is corned by these hunters until we see that there is another man with a shotgun approaching them. These hunter's quiver in fear. One even says, "Oh, God." at the sight of the other man. To which, the man with a shotgun responds, "God? Ain't no God here."
Once we get to the second issue, the man with the gun ends up killing the hunters who were planning on capturing Gus. Once they are dead, this man looks to find the boy and sees him nowhere. Gus has run back to his house in the woods. This shock of the true reality, as opposed to his perceived reality, is a lot for his nine-year-old brain. The man eventually finds his house and introduces himself as Jepperd. He tells Gus that he won't hurt him and he will take him to a safe place for animal-hybrid children. Gus refuses on the basis that his dad told him about what the world held and he didn't want to go with a bad man away from his home. Gus's chains are his faith and his cave is his perceived reality. Jepperd is another person who represents the "enlightened prisoner". He knows what the true reality of the world is and tells Gus that he doesn't care if Gus comes with him or doesn't, it just means Gus will die as they all will. Like this, Gus decides to go with Jepperd and leave the woods.
I do not know if Jeff Lemire intentionally created a universe that so easily can be used as a parallel to a 2,000+-year-old philosophy piece from Plato. But, it is astounding that within the first two issues of SWEET TOOTH, there is such a great philosophy to it. As an English major, I am familiar with the works of Plato and his impact on the modern world. As an English major, I can tell you that book one of SWEET TOOTH is something truly special. The ideas of faith and survival are explored to great depths. Morality isn't as black and white as Gus' father taught him it was. Gus's whole world is being flipped upside as he explores the world outside of his metaphorical cave. Can you believe that there are ten more issues within this book?
I will refrain from discussing any more of this book in detail. I will mention that it is very character driven with emphasis placed on the bonding relationship between Jepperd and Gus. I will also add that I do not think there is any other character as adorable, loving, and caring as Gus.
When I picked SWEET TOOTH up, I was not expecting to be pondering some intense philosophical questions about progress, reality, and morality. If any piece can make you instantly think about the Allegory of the Cave, whether intentional or not, I'd say that's brilliant. I give this a 10/10. However, I think Plato would agree that some arbitrary numerical rating system doesn't do justice to anything. Lemire created an immersive universe that truly makes you think. There is nothing better than a book that does just that.