"The Proud Little Grain of Wheat" : A Nihilistic Approach To A Forgotten Classic
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"The Proud Little Grain of Wheat" : A Nihilistic Approach To A Forgotten Classic

Frances Hodgson Burnett's Least Famous Short Story

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"The Proud Little Grain of Wheat" : A Nihilistic Approach To A Forgotten Classic
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Most students know Frances Hodgson Burnett from her great, beautiful, occasionally-racist-but-generally-redeemable novels, "A Little Princess" and "The Secret Garden." But before the novels and the mediocre made-for-TV movie adaptations that brought her fame, there was another of her works that has gone criminally unrecognized by the literary canon over the past century: her short story “The Proud Little Grain of Wheat.”

Published in 1880 in the children’s magazine "St. Nicholas," this tale follows the exploits of a single grain of wheat as she is sown, harvested, ground, and consumed. She considers herself the most superior in everything she does; she is the best seed, stalk, ear, flour and cake there ever was. Her companion, the learned grain, is something of a prophet who knows what will happen next on their journey from ground to grindstone, and is aware of their relatively unimportant place on the cosmic scale. Together, they represent a dichotomy between Arrogance and Humility, between Obstinacy and Acceptance. It does not matter how many times the proud grain claims she will defy her fate; the metaphorical hand of fate and the literal hand of the farmer always triumphs against her determination. At the end of the story, both grains are baked into a cake and destroyed in a single bite. They have not the dignity even to be eaten by a strong powerful cereal killer, but by nothing more than a little boy.

The popular interpretation, and probably the message intended for the publication’s audience of small bourgeois children, is that pride will get you nowhere and braggarts will be punished. And yet, the learned grain fares no better than the proud one, or any other for that matter. No kernel is spared. In fact, the pride of the grain may not be a vice at all, but a defense mechanism. Her appearance changes constantly, and telling herself that it is all for the best is the only way she can reconcile the reasons for this transformation, like Voltaire’s "Candide" in chlorophyllous form.

In contrast with her later novels, in which optimism saves the most unlikable of souls, this work is the product of absolute nihilism. Though she may have been the grandest seed, the prettiest stalk, and the finest flour, the proud grain could not escape her fate of becoming a cake and succumbing to the whims of whatever divine hand might pluck her from her lofty heights of self-importance. In the end, are all still in the same sack of wheat.

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