The pleasant, friendly appearance of the title character belies the insatiable inner person that author Roger Hargreaves chooses as a metaphor for selfish destruction in the second book of his satirical world mythos inhabited by the eerily-named Mr Men.
In 1887 John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, first Baron Acton (1834 – 1902) wrote in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton:
Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Mr Greedy is the on-the-surface child-friendly representation of this but this is no child’s book; rather, it is a fable that crosses boundaries of age and background and it warns of the ultimately doomed dangers not just of power but any addiction.
Hargreaves simplifies the 19th century message and substitutes power with the physical substance we all know: food. This is a master’s stroke of genius on the author’s part. The seeking of power is not, after all, universal; there are those who are content to simply be. But the need for food is a craving we cannot simply turn off or something to which people either take or leave. It is always there. For an addict – power, drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, gambling, religion, and so on – there is a similar need but the vast majority of people are not addicts. Baron Acton’s stark warning strikes a chord; Roger Hargreaves’ Mr Greedy character sets free a macabre symphony from the orchestra.
Selfish destruction is self-serving says Hargreaves. Mr Greedy likes to eat. Eating makes him fat. Becoming fat makes him hungrier. Ad infinitum. He lives in a house, says the author, "that looked rather like himself." It is the nature of the addict to barricade his or herself with reinforcing surroundings. The roly-poly house of Mr Greedy is instantly recognisable as the Yes Men that protect the tyrannical business executive from reality. There is a similar fantasy that encases everyone who falls for destructive addiction.
The physical appearance of Mr Greedy lets us know that what we are reading about is wrong, as if we needed telling. Yes, this is a personable character, a smiling character, perhaps someone we might enjoy being around. But Hargreaves doesn’t want us sympathising too much; at the heart of the story is a great exclamation mark: stop! Enough! Mr Greedy is fat and we all simply know without needing to be told that fat is bad. Each page turn heightens the anticipation of Mr Greedy’s undoing. Hargreaves’ writing style is superb in keeping us alert for the come-uppance and yet simultaneously lulling us, rocking us gently along. As humans we recognise this; it’s when we know we’re doing something wrong and we think we’re being careful and we’re slowly going past the point of no return. A better glimpse into the psyche of the addicted personality sliding down into the chasm simply isn’t present in modern literature.
The title character is inquisitive; he wants more. It leads to his undoing. In the novel it’s the forced overdose and fear of the giant that sorts out Mr Greedy. In plain terms: too much of something might just kill you. It’s obvious and, were the book to end that way, unsatisfactory given what has gone before, but there is one final twist in this fascinating tale. Mr Greedy is a changed man; the fear changed him but in so doing the fear became the new addiction. He’s unrecognisable. Despite the smile he doesn’t look as approachable. Hargreaves asks: "I think [the new look] suits him a lot better, don’t you?" but you’re unsure as a reader whether it really does. And then the final three words:
Beware of giants!
The climax to Mr Greedy blows apart the hard-to-achieve yet still simplistic cure to the disease of addiction; the cycle of selfish destruction can be broken but we must be vigilant that it isn’t replaced with something equally unwholesome. Life is a balancing act. In the book Mr Greedy Roger Hargreaves shows us the ends of the see-saw. Careful you don’t fall off.