I’m worried about a little boy who sits in front of me at school. He cries every day. This afternoon I tried to help him. I whacked him one on the arm…There’s nothing like a little physical pain to take your mind off emotional problems. Lucy van Pelt.
On March 3rd 1952, Lucy van Pelt, a new female character was introduced to the Peanuts world. The first original female character, Patty (named after Schulz’s cousin and not to be confused with the much later Peppermint Patty character discussed further on) was there from the earliest days. In fact, Patty appeared in L’il Folks, a precursor to Peanuts. We see her in the first Peanuts strip and in the second she infamously recites: “Little girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice.” She then punches Charlie Brown in the face and continues to recite, “That’s what little girls are made of!’ Patty was as Hollywood would put it ‘a strong female lead’ and like many of Hollywood’s strong female leads there is nothing much more to them that. Patty would be joined on 7th February 1951 by Violet Gray who would become her best friend. Both Patty and Violet didn’t develop beyond a tendency to sheer cruelty in regard to Charlie Brown and she would eventually fade into the background then almost completely disappear along with Shermy, who uttered the first words ever words in a Peanuts strip. Violet does have a place in Peanuts history as she, not Lucy, was actually the first person to pull away the football as Charlie Brown attempts to kick it. Though she is motivated more by fear than the blatant cruelty that motivates Lucy. These early characters were important as setting the scene for Lucy as well as Linus, Schroder etc but ultimately had no permanent fury, piano or blanket that could be used as vehicles for character evolution, if evolving isn’t too positive a term in relation to the Peanuts world:
Although key characters were missing or quite different from what they came to be, the Hobbesian ideas about society that made Peanuts Peanuts were already evident: People, especially children, are selfish and cruel to one another; social life is perpetual conflict; solitude is the only peaceful harbour; one’s deepest wishes will invariably be derailed and one’s comforts whisked away; and an unbridgeable gulf yawns between one’s fantasies about oneself and what others see. These bleak themes, which went against the tide of the go-go 1950s, floated freely on the pages of Peanuts at first, landing lightly on one kid or another until slowly each theme came to be embedded in a certain individual—particularly Lucy, Schroeder, Charlie Brown, Linus, and Snoopy. 
Children (as we’ve all discovered early on in our lives or seen as grown-ups) are at times cruel to each other often for no reason other than the joy of it. And of course, Lucy embodies the casual cruelty of existence. The Peanuts world isn’t of course comparable to a Lord of the Flies scenario. There is sensitivity and kindness, notably in the form of Linus. This was appealing to many kids including Matt Groening, the creator of the Simpsons:
I was excited by the casual cruelty and offhand humiliations at the heart of the strip. Peanuts seemed emotionally real (and unlike anything else). Occasional sadness comes up (such as Charlie Brown’s complaints that no one likes him, and Patty’s un-sympathetic explanations of why this is so), but this is offset by a friendly drawing style, great jokes and a sense of childhood exuberance that makes the discouragements of life seem a worthy price to pay. 
Cruelty is of course an ever-present in the real world and the Peanuts world but at least you can (some of the time at any rate) avoid people like Lucy but Schulz often emphasises that it is indifference that is the real killer. We can see the former in the cartoon below from April 01st 1964:
As was noted in the essay on Linus there is no humour in many of the Peanuts cartoon. The above is a great example of this. Lucy knows that Charlie Brown pines after the Little Red-Haired Girl but is far too shy to talk to her so takes the opportunity to torment him as it’s April 1st. If it was drawn today there would be some come-uppance for Lucy. Karma would get her eventually. But in the next strip, no mention is made at all of Lucy’s cruelty, instead we see Linus and Charlie Brown at the baseball mound. Kids know that it’s mostly on TV or in fiction is there consequence for the perpetrator of cruel jokes or remarks. Lucy could have played that joke in 2021. Well, if it wasn’t for Covid. Worse perhaps than casual cruelty is casual indifference:
What we see above is what Nick Cave observed when describing his performance on a music video that it was ‘the gradual disassembling of a person’. Or in this case the gradual disassembling of a person’s hope. Valentine’s Day was usually (apart from Snoopy generally) a time of disaster for the characters in Peanuts. In the world of Peanuts, love is rarely rewarded or reciprocated; Lucy chases piano-playing Schroeder who usually ignores her advances, Sally chases Linus to no avail, and Peppermint Patty (as well as Marcie) chases Charlie Brown who never really realises it and who chases the Little Red-Haired Girl (who we never see in the strip, apart from an outline of her dancing with Snoopy of all people (so to speak)).
Lucy appears first not as a baby as her brother Linus would later be introduced but as a slightly younger child, drawn with weird druggy looking eyes and that sense of entitlement that humanity is born with. We want fed, we want a drink and we will cry at the top of our lungs if we can’t get what we want. In one strip the young Lucy ‘hypnotises’ Charlie Brown to bring her a drink. In another later one she steals a biscuit from the baby Linus then lies to her mother about it. It’s something we never lose:
“Lucy comes from that part of me that’s capable of saying mean and sarcastic things, which is not a good trait to have, so Lucy gives me a good outlet. But each character has a weakness and Lucy’s weakness is Schroeder.”
Schulz’s description confirms that Lucy’s meanness is innate and indeed she even from the beginning was very proud of her ‘fussiness’, the precursor to her anger and cruelty. Whereas Charlie Brown could be thought of perhaps as Jimmy Stewart in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, much put upon by life but generally decent, Lucy is more of a caricature of anger and frustration and you could imagine her as a Bette Davis type in ‘Whatever Happed To Baby Jane?’.
This is important because Peanuts was obviously a product of its time. i.e. the early 1950s and the gender roles are generally traditionally defined. The girls in the early 1950s strips act as homemakers and play with dolls though they are just as violent, often more so, than the boys. Violence exists through the history of Peanuts. A very young Lucy hits Charlie Brown over the head with a draughts board for instance. Schulz pointed out at the time that a little boy hitting a little girl isn’t funny at all but a little girl hitting a little boy is potentially very funny. A statement very much of its time it’s fair to say but what I think he meant was that the redefinition of the traditional gender roles and the actions associated with them have comedy potential. Later with the Peppermint Patty character he would reflect the times and show her challenging the school dress codes for female pupils. Peppermint Patty is not as a compelling character as Lucy but she is probably more rounded. Unusually for the time she comes from a single parent family. She is brought up by her father, her mother having died or left. She is often left on her own, which scares her and negatively affects her sleeping patterns, hence her continual falling asleep/narcolepsy in the classroom. She seems to be the classic ‘tomboy’ of the era.
‘Tomboy’ originated in the early sixteenth Century and was associated with rowdy and rumbustious boys but weirdly by the end of it the meaning had changed to ‘a wild romping, girl who acts liked a spirited boy’. Peppermint Patty was unusual in that she was a tomboy from a working-class household. She stayed alone at home presumably because her father couldn’t afford a babysitter or a home-help. Tomboys were usually associated with the middle and upper-class. Take George in the Famous Five for instance. Whilst at first glance a rebel struggling against gender norms, she does it very much within a certain class (perhaps upper middle-class) framework. Both George and Peppermint Patty refuse to wear dresses for example but:
Blyton’s novels are suffused with xenophobia that plays into a wartime fear of invasion, but extends to the perennial British fear of lower and foreign classes. In the Famous Five, this manifests most obviously in the series’ villains, who are frequently travellers (Blyton calls them “gypsies”) and characterised by dirt and disorder. One villain is described as wearing “enormous gold rings hanging from his ears,”…In the Famous Five, the racist portrayal of travellers is threaded right through to the “filthy” clothing they wear, in opposition to the Five’s clean, practical, “British” aesthetic. 
On a slight tangent Pigpen is picked upon in Peanuts because of the ever-present dust cloud surrounding him but he stands up for himself and usually has the better of exchanges.
Blyton only started her Famous Five novels a few years before Charles Schulz created Peanuts, but they seem centuries and worlds apart:
Enid Blyton wrote the Famous Five books between 1942 and 1963 cramming them with old-fashioned language, food, clothing, and customs. Already nostalgic by the time they were written, the Five tramp around a countryside pulled straight from an idyllic version of British childhood. 
Whilst Blyton was regaling us with nostalgic tales of the summer adventures of good-natured crime solving probably public-school children, Schulz had his characters hate Charlie Brown for no other reason that because he was a decent kid. Can you imagine George punching Julian in the face (though she really should have) in the way the original Patty slugs Charlie Brown and gives him a black eye?
There’s a thought that the concept, in Britain and America at least, of the tomboy was actually born of fear:
During the 1840s and ’50s, when the abolition of slavery began in the U.K. (the U.S. would follow in the 1860s), social elites became concerned about the physical health of white women due to restrictive clothing and a lack of exercise. Amid fears that white people would become a minority as more immigrants arrived and abolition neared, white women were encouraged to lead more active, outdoorsy lifestyles. The tomboy became a perfect cure for white malaise. It would, in theory, better prepare young white women “for the physical and psychological demands of marriage and motherhood,” as Abate writes, and further ensure that the white race would not die out. 
The concept would change throughout the years and both Peppermint Patty and George would be to some extent claimed by the LGBT communities. The Famous Five would reinforce traditionally British ‘values’ of class and gender norms. Hence, they are beloved of the Brexit crowd. Peanuts on the other hand would change with the times and Peppermint Patty would champion women’s equality in the strip. Though Schulz denied that there was any truth in Patty (and her friend Marcie) being gay, saying that the characters are supposed to be very young children and they both have crushes on Charlie Brown who of course doesn’t realise that they like him, obsessed as he is with the little Red-Haired Girl. Once created though, characters in a sense develop separately from their author’s original intentions. It’s also significant that Schulz was a friend of Billy Jean King, the famous American tennis player who would come out as gay in the early 1980s. The development of Peppermint Patty was influenced greatly by King.
Lucy is too self-obsessed to be interested particularly in anything than herself, so it is perplexing to say the least that she became of one the icons of psychiatry through her psychiatric booth with its infamous ‘the doctor is in’ sign. Lucy in her booth hand out ‘common sense’ advice for five cents to her patients, most commonly the unfortunate Charlie Brown. It could be argued that Lucy is the most damaged of the Peanuts characters. She enjoys destruction for its own sake, makes her brother, Linus’s life a misery and generally torments Charlie Brown:
On March 27, 1959, Charlie Brown, the first patient to visit her booth, says to Lucy, “I have deep feelings of depression … What can I do about this?” Lucy replies: “Snap out of it! Five cents, please.” That pretty much sums up the Lucy way. 
‘Common Sense’ along with patriotism is the last bastion of the scoundrel and the populist and Lucy often represented the majority common-sense view. When Linus takes up patting birds on the head she is appalled because people will realise that Linus is related to her and attempts to puts a stop to it. Lucy is the part of society that abhors imagination and likes to ‘tell it as it is’:
Lucy was, in essence, society itself, or at least society as Schulz saw it. “Her aggressiveness threw the others off balance,” Michaelis writes, prompting each character to cope or withdraw in his or her own way. Charlie Brown, for instance, responded to her with incredible credulity, coming to her time and again for pointless advice or for football kicking. Linus always seemed to approach her with a combination of terror and equanimity. 
Ethics and Lucy don’t really go hand in hand. Charlie Brown visits her booth and not only does she tell him his faults, she creates a sideshow for him to see them himself. Not only that, she risks permanently damaging Linus when she takes his blanket from him causing him to go into cold turkey. She even showed him as an exhibit in the science fair. She won first prize. For Lucy, life is all about winning…
Lucy van Pelt: Schroeder, do you think I’m beautiful?
Schroeder: I think you’re the most beautiful girl the world has ever known.
Lucy van Pelt: You hate me, don’t you?
…And yet winning is her weak spot. Lucy, like most of the Peanuts characters has a flaw. She wants to be ‘normal’, unlike her blanket carrying brother, the disaster that is Charlie Brown and his ‘stupid beagle’. She also wants to be loved. Unfortunately for Lucy, the object of her desire is Schroeder, obsessed with playing Beethoven on his toy piano. Schroeder is a purist with a devotion to Beethoven than eclipses everything else and generally sees Lucy as a nuisance. Schulz was asked why, of all the classical composers, he chose Beethoven, he stated, “The answer is simply that it is funnier that way. There are certain words and certain names that work better than others. I don’t believe it would be half as funny if Schroeder admired Brahms.” Also, more people have probably heard of Beethoven than Brahms. There isn’t after all a movie about a big dog called Brahms.
Schroeder is a snob and is appalled by for example jazz echoing Schulz who disliked it intensely. Weirdly the jazz soundtrack of the Peanuts animated holiday specials have been widely and critically acclaimed though there is a huge chasm between most of the televisual/cinematic Peanuts output and the comic strips. The fact that Schroeder ignores her advances is a source of immense frustration for Lucy. She even considers the piano as her ‘competition’. Lucy wants to get married and create a ‘home’ with Schroeder, Schulz implicitly observing that perhaps musicians aren’t always husband material and dooming her dreams. There’s even a part of Lucy that’s appalled by the fact that she likes Schroeder but like Linus with his blanket there is a degree of dependency and eventually there is a degree of roleplay in her attempts to woo Schroeder as if she never really believes she will be successful. All Peanuts characters are assigned unrequited love so even when Schroeder appalled and channelling Henry Higgins, asks himself if he’s ‘become accustomed to that face’ when Lucy and her family briefly moves away, she isn’t even there to be cheered by a little chink of light.
Lucy was the first character in Peanuts to describe herself as a feminist but it would be Peppermint Patty that would be a better conduit for Schulz to explore the issues regarding women in society. Lucy’s anger is very Old Testament and she has an almost Calvinist suspicion of happiness and dancing in particular. In one classic strip she observes Snoopy dancing and rebukes him saying ‘If you knew what was going to happen you wouldn’t dance’ Snoopy replies that ‘perhaps it already has happened!’ and continues to dance.
In the strip above we see Schulz return to the subject. This time Snoopy punctures Lucy’s pomposity by stopping not because of her ‘message’ but because his feet hurt. As was noted earlier Lucy could be viewed as a representation of the worst traits of general society. It could also be said that she represents the worst of contemporary religion, in particular a joyless, mean interpretation of scripture that many people hold.
There’s many memes and cartoons that have replaced Schulz’s text with bleak lyrics and poetry. I’ve always thought that these are usually created by people that have never read the comic strip as it is far bleaker and cruel that most contemporary writing. We can even reread Lucy’s infamous ‘Happiness is a Warm Puppy’ declaration as an admission of lost faith in the possibility of people making her happy. Indeed, Schulz himself was unnerved by the positivity in that statement and in a latter strip had Linus, after hugging Snoopy, asks what’s so happy about a warm puppy? If Charlie Brown is the decent but doomed heart of the Peanuts strip, Lucy is the fury of frustration, the angry narcissist unhappy that the world won’t listen and that the world won’t learn. We’re more like her than we care to admit. We’re just as scarred.
Epilogue – A Rerun?
Today 46 years ago (March 26 1973) Rerun appeared. He is the little brother of Lucy and Linus. Schulz somewhat regretted creating him (in the 1970s) but kept him around. For the first fifteen years we see him generally looking terrified on the back of his mother’s bike, then in the late 1980s and early 1990s we see him (or rather don’t) hiding under the bed, refusing to go to school as he’s too scared to move. When he does finally make it to nursery school, he upsets the teacher by being too talented and intellectual than his peers and is expelled for suggesting he and the little girl beside him run away to Paris. The Peanuts world of scarred disappointment is summed up in the strip above. Lucy (who was often uncharacteristically kind to him) takes Rerun out for a walk to see the outside world. ‘You mean is that it?’ he says. The Abridged philosophy summed up in five little words.
Thanks to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland who supported this series of essays through their Artist’s Emergency Funding Programme. Much appreciated.