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The Tale of Peter Rabbit

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The Tale of Peter Rabbit
Peter Rabbit first edition 1902a.jpg
First edition, October 1902
AuthorBeatrix Potter
IllustratorBeatrix Potter
CountryUnited Kingdom
GenreChildren's literature
PublisherFrederick Warne & Co.
Publication date
October 1902
Media typePrint (Hardcover)
Followed byThe Tale of Squirrel Nutkin 
TextThe Tale of Peter Rabbit at Wikisource

The Tale of Peter Rabbit is a children's book written and illustrated by Beatrix Potter that follows mischievous and disobedient young Peter Rabbit as he gets into, and is chased around, the garden of Mr. McGregor. He escapes and returns home to his mother, who puts him to bed after offering him chamomile tea. The tale was written for five-year-old Noel Moore, the son of Potter's former governess, Annie Carter Moore, in 1893. It was revised and privately printed by Potter in 1901 after several publishers' rejections, but was printed in a trade edition by Frederick Warne & Co. in 1902. The book was a success, and multiple reprints were issued in the years immediately following its debut. It has been translated into 36 languages,[1] and with 45 million copies sold it is one of the best-selling books in history.[2]

Since its release, the book has generated considerable merchandise for both children and adults, including toys, dishes, foods, clothing, and videos. Potter was one of the first to be responsible for such merchandise when she patented a Peter Rabbit doll in 1903 and followed it almost immediately with a Peter Rabbit board game. Peter Rabbit has remained popular amongst children for more than a century and continues to be adapted and expanded through new book editions, television, and film.


The story focuses on Peter, a mischievous, young rabbit, and his family. The mother rabbit warns Peter and her other three children, Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail, not to enter the vegetable garden of a human named Mr. McGregor, whose wife, she tells them, put their father in a pie after he entered. Peter's three younger sisters obediently refrain from entering the garden and go down the lane to gather blackberries. But Peter (who was very naughty) enters the garden to eat some vegetables.

Peter ends up eating more than is good for him and goes looking for parsley to cure his stomachache. Peter is spotted by Mr. McGregor, and loses his jacket and shoes while trying to escape. He hides in a watering can in a shed, but then has to run away again when Mr. McGregor finds him and ends up completely lost. When Mr. McGregor gets tired after running Peter and resumes back to his work, Peter sees that Mr. McGregor is "gone" and it buys him some time to escape to the gate. After sneaking past a cat, Peter sees from a distance the gate where he entered the garden and heads for it, despite being spotted and chased by Mr. McGregor again. With difficulty, he wriggles under the gate, and escapes from the garden. His abandoned clothing is used by Mr. McGregor to dress his scarecrow.

After returning home, a sick Peter is put to bed by his mother. (He is too sick to eat supper.) Old Mrs. Bunny wondered what Peter had done with his clothes (his jacket and shoes). She is cross at Peter for going into Mr. McGregor's vegetable garden and losing his clothes. It was the second jacket and pair of shoes Peter had lost in a fortnight. To cure his stomachache, Mrs. Rabbit gives Peter a teaspoon of chamomile tea. Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail, meanwhile, enjoy a scrumptious dinner of milk, bread and blackberries.

Even though Old Mrs. Rabbit did not know where Peter's jacket and shoes were (other than Peter just losing them), only Mr. McGregor knew where they were. And Mr. McGregor now has the jacket and shoes (which Peter lost) and is assembled to make a scarecrow to frighten the blackbirds.


  • Peter - Peter is a naughty rabbit who disobeys his mother. (He is the eldest of the four little rabbits.)
  • Flopsy - Flopsy is Peter's sister who is a good rabbit. (She is the second oldest the four siblings.)
  • Mopsy - Mopsy is a rabbit and Peter's sister who always obeys her mother. (She is the second youngest of the four.)
  • Cotton-Tail - Cotton-Tail is a sweet rabbit and Peter's sibling. As her name says, she's soft as cotton. (She is the youngest of the four.)
  • Mr. McGregor - Mr. McGregor owns a beautiful garden that is filled with delicious fruits and vegetables. Peter's father was put into a pie by Mrs. McGregor.


The story was inspired by a pet rabbit Potter had as a child, which she named Peter Piper.[3] Through the 1890s, Potter sent illustrated story letters to the children of her former governess, Annie Moore. In 1900, Moore, realizing the commercial potential of Potter's stories, suggested they be made into books. Potter embraced the suggestion, and, borrowing her complete correspondence (which had been carefully preserved by the Moore children), selected a letter written on 4 September 1893 to five-year-old Noel that featured a tale about a rabbit named Peter. Potter biographer Linda Lear explains: "The original letter was too short to make a proper book so [Potter] added some text and made new black-and-white illustrations...and made it more suspenseful. These changes slowed the narrative down, added intrigue, and gave a greater sense of the passage of time. Then she copied it out into a stiff-covered exercise book, and painted a coloured frontispiece showing Mrs Rabbit dosing Peter with chamomile tea".[4]

Publication history[edit]

Private publication[edit]

Cover of the 1901 privately published edition

As Lear explains, Potter titled The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Mr. McGregor's Garden and sent it to publishers, but "her manuscript was returned ... including Frederick Warne & Co. ... who nearly a decade earlier had shown some interest in her artwork. Some publishers wanted a shorter book, others a longer one. But most wanted coloured illustrations which by 1900 were both popular and affordable".[5] The several rejections were frustrating to Potter, who knew exactly how her book should look (she had adopted the format and style of Helen Bannerman's Little Black Sambo) "and how much it should cost".[6] She decided to publish the book herself, and on 16 December 1901 the first 250 copies of her privately printed The Tale of Peter Rabbit were "ready for distribution to family and friends".[7]

First commercial edition[edit]

In 1901, as Lear explains, a Potter family friend and sometime poet, Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, set Potter's tale into "rather dreadful didactic verse and submitted it, along with Potter's illustrations and half her revised manuscript, to Frederick Warne & Co.," who had been among the original rejecters.[8] Warne editors declined Rawnsley's version "but asked to see the complete Potter manuscript" – their interest stimulated by the opportunity The Tale of Peter Rabbit offered the publisher to compete with the success of Helen Bannerman's wildly popular Little Black Sambo and other small-format children's books then on the market. When Warne inquired about the lack of colour illustrations in the book, Potter replied that rabbit-brown and green were not good subjects for colouration. Warne declined the book but left open the possibility of future publication.[9]

Warne wanted colour illustrations throughout the "bunny book" (as the firm referred to the tale) and suggested cutting the illustrations "from forty-two to thirty-two ... and marked which ones might best be eliminated".[9] Potter initially resisted the idea of colour illustrations, but then realized her stubborn stance was a mistake. She sent Warne "several colour illustrations, along with a copy of her privately printed edition" which Warne then handed to their eminent children's book illustrator L. Leslie Brooke for his professional opinion. Brooke was impressed with Potter's work. Fortuitously, his recommendation coincided with a sudden surge in the small picture-book market.[10]

Meanwhile, Potter continued to distribute her privately printed edition to family and friends, with the celebrated creator of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle, acquiring a copy for his children. When the first private printing of 250 copies was sold out, another 200 were prepared.[11] She noted in an inscription in one copy that her beloved pet rabbit Peter had died.[12]

Potter arrived at an agreement with Warne for an initial commercial publication of 5,000 copies.[13] Negotiations dragged on into the following year, but a contract was finally signed in June 1902.[12] Potter was closely involved in the publication of the commercial edition – redrawing where necessary, making minor adjustments to the prose and correcting punctuation. The blocks for the illustrations and text were sent to printer Edmund Evans for engraving, and she made adjustments to the proofs when she received them. Lear writes that "Even before the publication of the tale in early October 1902, the first 8,000 copies were sold out. By the year's end there were 28,000 copies of The Tale of Peter Rabbit in print. By the middle of 1903 there was a fifth edition sporting coloured endpapers ... a sixth printing was produced within the month"; and a year after the first commercial publication there were 56,470 copies in print.[14]

American copyright[edit]

Warne did not copyright The Tale of Peter Rabbit when it was published in the United States and unlicensed editions of the book were produced, with the first being published by Henry Altemus Company in 1904.[15]


Peter feasts on Mr. McGregor's vegetables

Potter asserted that her tales would one day be nursery classics, and part of the "longevity of her books comes from strategy", writes Potter biographer Ruth MacDonald.[16] She was the first to exploit the commercial possibilities of her characters and tales; between 1903 and 1905 these included a Peter Rabbit stuffed toy, an unpublished board game, and nursery wallpaper.[17]

Considerable variations to the original format and version of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, as well as spin-off merchandise, have been made available over the decades. Variant versions include "pop-ups, toy theatres, and lift-the-flap books". By 1998, modern technology had made available "videos, audio cassette, a CD-ROM, a computer program, and Internet sites", as described by Margaret Mackey writing in The case of Peter Rabbit: changing conditions of literature for children. She continues: "Warne and their collaborators and competitors have produced a large collection of activity books and a monthly educational magazine". A plethora of other Peter Rabbit related merchandise exists, and "toy shops in the United States and Britain have whole sections of [the] store specially signposted and earmarked exclusively for Potter-related toys and merchandise".[18]

Unauthorized copying of The Tale of Peter Rabbit has flourished over the decades, including products only loosely associated with the original. In 1916, American Louise A. Field cashed in on the popularity by writing books such as Peter Rabbit Goes to School and Peter Rabbit and His Ma, the illustrations of which showed him in his distinctive blue jacket.[19] In an animated movie by Golden Films, The New Adventures of Peter Rabbit, "Peter is given buck teeth, an American accent and a fourth sister Hopsy." Another video "retelling of the tale casts Peter as a Christian preacher singing songs about God and Jesus."[18]

Literary praise[edit]

Writing in Storyteller: The Classic that Heralded America's Storytelling Revival, in discussing the difference between stories that lend themselves well to telling and stories that lend themselves well to reading, Ramon Ross explains Peter Rabbit is a story created for reading. He believes Potter created a good mix of suspense and tension, intermixed with lulls in the action. He goes on to write that the writing style—"the economy of words, the crisp writing"—lends itself well to a young audience.[20]

Lear writes that Potter "had in fact created a new form of animal fable: one in which anthropomorphic animals behave as real animals with true animal instincts", and a form of fable with anatomically correct illustrations drawn by a scientifically minded artist. She further states Peter Rabbit's nature is familiar to rabbit enthusiasts "and endorsed by those who are not ... because her portrayal speaks to some universal understanding of rabbity behaviour."[21] She describes the tale as a "perfect marriage of word and image" and "a triumph of fantasy and fact".[22]

Mr. McGregor tries to trap Peter under a garden sieve

According to Stuart Jeffries, "...psychoanalytic critiques of her work have multiplied since her death in 1943."[23] Carole Scott writes in Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit that the reader cannot help but identify with rebellious little Peter and his plight as all the illustrations are presented from his low-to-the-ground view, most feature Peter in close-up and within touching distance, and Mr. McGregor is distanced from the reader by always being depicted on the far side of Peter. Scott explains: "This identification dramatically instills fear and tension in the reader, and interacts with the frequently distanced voice of the verbal narrative", sometimes with contradictory effects.[24] In the verbal narrative and the illustration for the moment when Mr. McGregor attempts to trap Peter under a garden sieve, for example, the verbal narrative presents the murderous intent of Mr. McGregor as a matter-of-fact, everyday occurrence while the illustration presents the desperate moment from the terrified view of a small animal in fear of his life – a view that is reinforced by the birds that take flight to the left and the right.[25]

In the illustration of Peter standing by the locked door, the verbal narrative describes the scene without the flippancy evident in the moment of the sieve. The inability to overcome obstacles is presented in the verbal narrative with objective matter-of-factness and the statement, "Peter began to cry" is offered without irony or attitude, thus drawing the reader closer to Peter's emotions and plight. The illustration depicts an unclothed Peter standing upright against the door, one foot upon the other with a tear running from his eye. Without his clothes, Peter is only a small, wild animal but his tears, his emotions, and his human posture intensifies the reader's identification with him. Here, verbal narrative and illustration work in harmony rather than in disharmony.[26] Scott suggests Potter's tale has encouraged many generations of children to "self-indulgence, disobedience, transgression of social boundaries and ethics, and assertion of their wild, unpredictable nature against the constrictions of civilized living."[27]

Frank Delaney notes "a self-containment" in Potter's writing reflective of an uninterested mother and a lonely childhood spent in the company of pets.[28] John Bidwell, curator at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, observed "...the sardonic humor that makes Beatrix Potter so much fun for kids and grown-ups."[29]


In 1938, shortly after the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney became interested in making an animated film based on The Tale of Peter Rabbit. However, in a letter to a friend, Potter wrote that she refused Walt Disney's "scheme to film Peter Rabbit", saying, "I am not very hopeful about the result. They propose to use cartoons; it seems that a succession of figures can be joggled together to give an impression of motion. I don't think the pictures would be satisfactory... I am not troubling myself about it!"[30]

In 1935, the story was loosely adapted in the Merrie Melodies short film, Country Boy. It shows some modifications in relation to Beatrix Potter's original story, most notably the Rabbit family surname is changed to "Cottontail" and Peter having two brothers and a sister rather than 3 sisters. In 1971, Peter Rabbit appeared as a character in the ballet film The Tales of Beatrix Potter. In late 1991, HBO aired an animated musical adaptation of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, narrated by Carol Burnett,[31] as part of the network's Storybook Musicals series, which was later released to VHS by Family Home Entertainment under HBO licence.[32] In 1992, the tale was adapted to animation again for the BBC anthology series, The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends, along with The Tale of Benjamin Bunny. In 2006, Peter Rabbit was heavily referenced in a biopic about Beatrix Potter entitled Miss Potter. In December 2012, a new CGI-animated children's TV series titled Peter Rabbit premiered on Nickelodeon, with a full series run beginning in February 2013.[33][34]

In February 2018, a 3D live-action/CGI animated feature film titled Peter Rabbit, directed by Will Gluck, was released. Voice roles were played by James Corden, Daisy Ridley, Margot Robbie, and Elizabeth Debicki, and live action roles played by Domhnall Gleeson, Rose Byrne, and Sam Neill.[35] A sequel was released in 2021.[36]



  1. ^ Mackey 2002, p. 33
  2. ^ "Worker's Press acknowledge Frederick Warne's intellectual property rights". London: Frederick Warne and Co. 10 July 2003. Archived from the original on 15 August 2017. Retrieved 31 August 2009.
  3. ^ Mackey 2002, p. 35
  4. ^ Lear 2007, p. 142
  5. ^ Lear 2007, p. 143
  6. ^ Lear 2007, pp. 143–144
  7. ^ Lear 2007, p. 145
  8. ^ Lear 2007, pp. 145–146
  9. ^ a b Lear 2007, p. 146
  10. ^ Lear 2007, p. 147
  11. ^ Lear 2007, p. 150
  12. ^ a b Lear 2007, p. 149
  13. ^ Lear 2007, p. 148
  14. ^ Lear 2007, p. 152
  15. ^ Linder 1971, p. 109
  16. ^ MacDonald 1986, p. 128
  17. ^ Lear 2007, pp. 172–5
  18. ^ a b Mackey 1998, pp. xxi–xxii
  19. ^ Hallinan 2002, p. 83
  20. ^ Ross 1996, p. 210
  21. ^ Lear 2007, p. 153
  22. ^ Lear 2007, pp. 154–155
  23. ^ Jeffries, Stuart. "The ugly truth about Peter Rabbit ...", The Guardian, 7 December 2006
  24. ^ Mackey 2002, p. 22
  25. ^ Mackey 2002, pp. 22–23
  26. ^ Mackey 2002, p. 26
  27. ^ Mackey 2002, p. 29
  28. ^ Delaney, Frank. "The Tale of Beatrix Potter", The public Domain Review
  29. ^ Chozick, Amy. "Bet Your Camomile Tea, Peter, You’re a TV Star Now", The New York Times, 5 December 2012
  30. ^ Laws, Emma (2007). "Showing 'What a Woman Has Done': The Beatrix Potter Collections at the V&A". Art Libraries Journal. 32 (1): 25–30. doi:10.1017/S0307472200014826. ISSN 0307-4722. S2CID 184073032.
  31. ^ "The Tale of Peter Rabbit". Turner Classic Movies. Atlanta: Turner Broadcasting System (Time Warner). Retrieved 9 October 2016.
  32. ^ Peter Rabbit 1991 (TCM)
  33. ^ "Nickelodeon Premieres Peter Rabbit with Holiday Special". People Magazine. 12 December 2012. Retrieved 8 February 2013.
  34. ^ "Adventure Abounds in Peter Rabbit, Nickelodeon's New Animated Preschool Series Premiering Tuesday, Feb. 19, At 12 pm (ET/PT)". PR Newswire. 7 February 2013. Retrieved 22 October 2018.
  35. ^ Schaffstall, Katherine (9 February 2018). "'Peter Rabbit': Meet the Voices Behind the Animated Characters". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 15 May 2019.
  36. ^ Kroll, Justin (22 February 2019). "David Oyelowo Joins the Cast of Sony's 'Peter Rabbit' Sequel (EXCLUSIVE)". Variety. Retrieved 21 September 2020.

Works cited[edit]

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