Introduction and Thesis
Over the years, Hank Ketcham’s serialized magnum opus, Dennis the Menace, has attracted more than its share of admirers. It’s one of those rare deep literary works that has attracted both intense critical acclaim and broad popular appeal. It is surprising, then, that so many of Ketcham’s readers have favored a shallow, one-dimensional approach to the material, choosing to read it as merely the adventures of a young boy prone to comical misbehavior, a latter-day Tom Sawyer of the suburban landscape in Eisenhower’s America. When, contrary to this popular misconception, Dennis the Menace is one of the most searing indictments of middle-class conformity and the soul-crushing despair of the new middle class created by post-war prosperity.
Alice and Henry Mitchell, far from being the long-suffering parents of a scampish child, are two desperately lonely, bitter people trapped in a loveless marriage, yet forced by the Republican values of their community to put on the facade of a happy young couple. Henry Mitchell was once a man of hopes and dreams, with lofty ambitions to succeed in the worlds of arts and letters, but a too young marriage has forced him into a soul-crushing corporate office job, where better educated, better qualified men, men who did not put their dreams on hold to start a family, continually surpass him. Alice Mitchell is in much the same position, forced to abandon her dreams of a successful and glamorous life when she hitched her yoke to Henry Mitchell in a youthful infatuation that she mistook for true love. Ketcham masterfully captures the acidic undertone of their relationship, but subtly softens it by presenting it to us through the eyes of their son, Dennis, the true victim of their failed attempts to conform to society’s expectations.
Though never directly addressed in the strip itself, it is clear from the clues that Ketcham leaves that Dennis the result of Alice and Henry attempting, in a woefully misguided manner, to recapture that initial spark that they mistook for love, to bring the two of them back together by creating a new being that is a mix of their traits. However, far from either reminding each other of what they once admired in the other, or distract them from their anguish by the travails of raising a child, what Dennis has instead done is serve as a living reminder of how both Henry and Alice blame the other for the mess that has been made of their own lives. This situation of emotional neglect is what prompts Dennis to act out. He’s not misbehaving, he’s yearning for some sign of affection of acknowledgment from his parents, and only by embarrassing or humiliating them amongst the peers, that the Mitchell’s secretly loathe as the enforcers of the middle-class conformity they feel strangled by, can he elicit any response from them, thus perpetuating the vicious cycle. This is also the chief reason why Dennis “bothers” his neighbors, George and Martha Wilson. He is seeking in them substitutes for the parental figures he subconsciously understands he lacks: a loving maternal presence from Martha and a stern, authoritarian father in George.
Dennis gives voice to his unconscious wish and Henry’s secret hope: that he is the product of Alice’s adultery and not actually Henry’s child.
Alice, longing for the touch of a man, has resorted to blatantly seeking an affair in a public place. She has, however, a deep fear of rejection, brought on by Henry’s emotional distance, and has brought Dennis with her, in a dim understanding that she will be unable to act on her longings while he is with her.
Alice is given a brief yet terrifying glimpse into a possible outcome of the neglect with which she and Henry treat Dennis, and predictably she blames Dennis for it.
A certain degree of Henry’s angst over his situation is confusion over his sexuality. So stifled is he by his suburban cage that the only outlet available to him to explore these feelings is faking drowning incidents at the beach, a fact that Alice seems not terribly surprised to discover.
Henry’s attempts to ingratiate himself with his neighbors without spending more than a negligible amount of money is thwarted by Dennis, who exposes Henry’s misrepresentation of the esteem with which he holds his peers. Here the subtle nature of the retaliation Dennis engages in for his neglect is on full display, as his statement seems to come from childhood innocence, and yet it betrays an instinctive understanding of the greater cost and prestige of steaks over hot dogs. A nurtured child would be more enthusiastic about a finger-food like frankfurters.