A Psychoanalysis of “How to Eat Fried Worms”

The early 1970s brought about two major turning points in the careers of two seemingly dissimilar men: Thomas Rockwell published his award-winning children’s novel How to Eat Fried Worms and the validity of Sigmund Freud’s psychological theories became unanimously dismissed. While these shifts are definitively unconnected, what remains true is how applicable Freud’s dismissed theories are to Rockwell’s novel. Despite being a children’s book, the storyline of Fried Worms contains psychologically complex themes, sexually-implicit jokes, and adult-focused allusions.

As much as I would enjoy psychoanalyzing Thomas Rockwell himself and unraveling the mind that created such a deeply absurd story, there is little accessible information on the author to make that possible. All we do know, quite interestingly, is that Thomas is the son of the hugely successful painter and illustrator, Norman Rockwell. And while having a famous parent is an interesting point of analysis, my focus here will simply remain on the content of the book itself.

The narrative launches itself into action with the establishment of a bet between four boys. Challenging Billy’s claim that he would eat one bite of anything, Alan bets fifty dollars that Billy wouldn’t be able to eat fifteen worms in fifteen days. The two boys frame it as a duel of sorts, complete with a second-hand-man for each boy: Tom as Billy’s second and Joe as Alan’s. 

While Freud never directly theorized about the psychology behind bet-making, the eagerness with which Alan makes bets seems to be a sign of Freudian defense mechanisms. While he realizes that he will not actually have access to fifty dollars if he loses his bet, he seems certain that he will be able to convince his parents to allow him to take the money out of his savings if he loses. Still, this idea does not seem to align with the characteristics that Alan’s father displays when we meet him later on in the story. Instead, his father is a take-no-shit type of parent who insists on having the boys sort out their problems among each other after he catches them fighting, and further lays down the law after Alan and Joe try to trick Billy out of winning. In light of these characteristics, Alan’s early insistence that he will have access to fifty dollars seems as if it may be a defense mechanism in the form of denial–he so fervently wants to make this bet with Billy that he is willing to convince himself that his parents will allow him the money if he loses. 

Additionally, his bet-boasting behavior may appear to be a form of sublimation, the defense mechanism in which one allows themselves to act out unacceptable impulses by converting them into more acceptable forms. Here, Billy may want to act out against his seemingly strict parents but instead options to let the chances of the bet decide whether or not he will fall into trouble. As these are only kids that the story focuses on, there are many examples of these types of decisions in the book–ones in which the character’s id (the Freudian source of our most basic urges) overtakes their superego (the rational and moral parts of the psyche). This pattern of decision creates line of cheating and foul-play in all of the characters of the story.

Another of Freud’s most widely known theories is the practice of dream analysis. Freud coined dreams as the “royal road to the unconscious,” a psychological structure full of valuable information that the conscious may not be aware of. Chapter fourteen, “The Pain and the Blood and the Gore,” is a prime example of unconscious anxieties making themselves known. In the book, Billy has eaten five worms so far, and worries about how they might affect his health follow him into his dreams. 

In his dream, he finds himself in a butcher shop, jostled by a crowd of “pigeon-breasted, middle-aged women.” It is unclear whether the term pigeon-breasted is referring to the physical deformity often referred to by that name or to the early 20th century clothing silhouette. The ambiguity adds to the confusing nature of the dream, juxtaposing an uncontrollable deformity against a chosen fashion statement. This juxtaposition suggests that Billy is worried he has lost control of the situation at hand–in doubt, he fears that eating worms will have consequences that he could not anticipate or control. Additionally, this scene creates imagery that paints Billy as an outsider against greater forces. He describes having to shout to be heard in the crowd as boys lug meat to the refrigerator. Here, we see that he and the only other people he can identify with in this scene are under a weight greater than themselves. 

The butcher begins to prepare ten worms as big as snakes before Billy is transported to a restaurant where he is served another worm. No matter how much he eats of the worm, Billy cannot finish it. Finally, worms begin to coil around his arms and legs before he wakes up in a panic. The meaning here is clear: despite Billy’s confidence when interacting with Alan and Joe, he truthfully feels as if the bet is more than he will be able to handle. Freud’s theory of dream analysis reveals the weight of Billy’s doubts on his own conscious.

Beyond the easily interpretable dreams, there are also references that Rockwell includes within this story that are clearly intended for a more mature audience. One odd decision on Rockwell’s part was the metaphorical comparison he drew between the duel-like competition between the two boys and the events of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The twenty-third chapter of the novel is entitled “Admiral Nagumo and Kusaka on the Bridge of the Akaiga, December 6, 1941,” directly referencing two admirals of the Imperial Japanese Army during WWII on the day before the Pearl Harbor bombing. Within this chapter, Alan and Joe hatch a plan to bring Billy with them to a Mets game and provide him with inordinate amounts of food to eat. Their hope is to distract Billy from eating his daily worm, which would force him to lose the bet. Then, the chapter in which Alan and Joe go through with their plan and almost trick Billy is entitled “Pearl Harbor”. Another example of a more mature concept introduced within this children’s novel is during a scene when Alan and Joe are discussing the possible side-effects of eating worms. Joe is bothered that no one will tell him what the side-effects are, relating it to a time when nobody would explain why there was such an uproar when his “cousin Lucy got caught in the back seat of her father’s Chevrolet with the encyclopedia salesman.” 

Both of these concepts are sure to go over a young reader’s head, but the question that remains is why Rockwell felt compelled to include these additions in the first place. When making content for families to enjoy, it is common to include references intended for adults; however, within a children’s novel, the broadening of audience appeal is not necessary. This is a story intended for children, not families. Therefore, it forces me to wonder what the unconscious effects of including these references are. Freud separates the mind into two main parts: the conscious and unconscious mind–or, what we are aware of and what we are unaware of. When reading these parts of the novel, it seems to me that instead of going over a child’s head, they would find a place in the unconscious mind. While these ideas are ones that the reader would be unaware of, they do influence the thought and behavior of an individual. Of course, I am not going to make any sweeping suppositions as to what the influence of these particular ideas would be; however, I would question, once again, what Rockwell intended these inclusions to be for.

Ultimately, How to Eat Fried Worms is a straightforwardly-plotted story with quite absurd ideas strung throughout it–ideas that only the highly contested theories of Sigmund Freud can even begin to unravel.

Oh, My Word! Jacob Sammon and I found the list of Wormy Recipes in the back of the book and made our own dirt and worms dish!

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Hello! I am a poet and essayist who sometimes likes to share her work with the world! I am currently an English major at the University of Iowa and I write as often as I can when not spiraling into the black voids of the internet.

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