There Was an Old Lady: A Critical Analysis

Housefly“There Was an Old Lady” retells the fantastical account of an elderly woman who swallows various animals in an ever-increasingly bizarre and grotesque display of ingurgitation. The following brief analysis will examine this nursery rhyme for critical thematic elements and possible problematic components.

The song opens as follows:

There was an old lady who swallowed a fly
I don’t know why she swallowed a fly — perhaps she’ll die!

One should note the relative banality of the opening statement: While swallowing a fly is somewhat uncommon and an unpleasant experience, it is almost certainly not fatal. The utter confusion of the author is expressed, as he or she seems to believe that the woman must have swallowed the insect on purpose. Much more likely is that she did so by accident. Nevertheless, the author “blames the victim” in an attempt to explain the described event, and then seems to revel in the possibility that she may not survive the incident. Whereas most observers would spend the time helping the old lady, performing first aid techniques if necessary, and calling the paramedics if serious, the author instead decides to retell the event with no indication that any help was given. As can be seen in the following stanzas, the woman is left to correct the problem herself.

There was an old lady who swallowed a spider,
That wriggled and wiggled and tiggled inside her;
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly;
I don’t know why she swallowed a fly — perhaps she’ll die!

In the second verse, it is told to us that the old lady swallows a spider in order to catch the fly. It is clear now (and is made more abundantly clear in the rest of the rhyme) that the woman is either unaware of basic biology (i.e., that the acids in her stomach are more than capable of digesting the fly with no ill effects) or is suffering from senility. Despite the obvious discomfort of the “wriggling and wiggling and tiggling” spider, the author still fails to help the old lady, and instead interjects a second time that she may die as a result of her actions. One may be reminded of the increasing disregard for the elderly in modern society, who are seen as backward and  burdensome. The author seems to come across as almost gleeful in his or her statement that she may pass away.

There was an old lady who swallowed a bird;
How absurd to swallow a bird.
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider,
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly;
I don’t know why she swallowed a fly — perhaps she’ll die!

The old lady is now resorting to more extreme measures. Whether as a result of her aforementioned senility or due to an overgeneralization that all birds eat spiders, the woman swallows a bird of an unidentified species. One may wonder how she did in fact swallow such a creature; any bird larger than a hummingbird would likely be difficult to swallow. Her technique is not mentioned.

There was an old lady who swallowed a cat;
Fancy that to swallow a cat!
She swallowed the cat to catch the bird,
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider,
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly;
I don’t know why  she swallowed a fly — perhaps she’ll die!

In the fourth verse, the old lady swallows a cat. This is now beyond absurdity, for even small kittens are much too large for the human esophagus. One also wonders how the lady believes the cat will be able to function inside the acidic state of her digestive system, and what these animals are to do even if they do catch their intended prey. Will the woman regurgitate the cat afterwards? Such a feat is as impossible as the act of swallowing the cat. It is clear at this point that the author is not talking about a real person; the first section of the story may well be loosely based on a real incident, but the song is evidently meant to reveal an underlying truth. Analysis of what messages the song may be making will be reserved for the end of this article.

There was an old lady that swallowed a dog;
What a hog, to swallow a dog;
She swallowed the dog to catch the cat,
She swallowed the cat to catch the bird,
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider,
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly;
I don’t know why she swallowed a fly — perhaps she’ll die!

Here, the old lady is again relying on false assumptions, this time about the common myth that dogs enjoy chasing and catching cats. Evidently, in her desperate attempts to dislodge the original fly, she is beyond any rational assessment of the situation. Ipecac, or similar medical remedies to induce vomiting, would have been much more successful initially, and would not have required any process of acquiring household pets or catching birds. Did she have all these animals in her house, at the ready for when she swallowed the fly? It seems she must have, for an elderly lady trying to catch a bird while simultaneously choking on a fly seems implausible. Then again, if the author’s initial evaluation was accurate, and she did intentionally swallow the fly, this assumption is more reasonable, granting the now-likely possibility that the woman is indeed senile. Gathering all these animals in advance, she then swallowed them in turn; however, one still wonders what strange thought process must have led her to start the task.

There was an old lady who swallowed a cow,
I don’t know how she swallowed a cow;
She swallowed the cow to catch the dog,
She swallowed the dog to catch the cat,
She swallowed the cat to catch the bird,
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider,
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly;
I don’t know why she swallowed a fly — perhaps she’ll die!

In this sixth verse, the author now reveals his or her ignorance on the means by which the old lady swallowed a cow. This is unambiguously beyond the realm of possibility, as cows are typically larger than the average elderly woman. Her senility is even more evident, as there is not even a fact or myth to draw upon that would suggest that a cow would be interested in catching a dog. With each verse, the author retells the entire story, repeating each step in her troubled situation. Nevertheless, he or she never offers a word of sympathy or concern, merely incredulity and an unemotional assessment that the whole set of events may be fatal for the woman. Indeed, at each step the author repeats his or her statement that she may die as a result of swallowing these animals. Is this really necessary, especially with the escalating size of the animals being ingested? Such repetition seems to border on mockery.

There was an old lady who swallowed a horse…
She’s dead, of course!

In this, the final verse, the song comes to a sudden climax and simultaneous finish, as the chain of events ends in the woman’s death. This outcome is expressed merely as inevitable. As the woman swallows the horse (for which it may be implicitly assumed was undertaken to somehow catch the cow), she is no longer able to survive the ordeal, having already a barnful of animals inside her. The author offers no explanation, no context, and no details. She merely dies.

What is meant to be the message of this nursery rhyme? At least three lessons are evident. First, as a children’s nursery rhyme, it seems evident that it is meant to communicate a message to children about the role of the elderly in society. The author of the song offers no sympathy for the woman’s death, repeatedly states the likelihood of her dying, and expresses incredulity only in her miraculous ability to survive. The author here implies that the role of the elderly is, in fact, to die. The old lady offers no benefit to society, but is instead lost in her own world of fantasy and senility. Already alone in the world, with no help from others for her situation, she resorts to extreme measures that result in her death. She is not mourned, and nowhere is it suggested that she should be mourned. Children who repeat this song reinforce the idea that the elderly should be left to die and then forgotten.

At the same time, this song offers a second, more positive message. In a world full of objects that may pose considerable dangers for children, it is important that they develop restraint and care when handling these objects. In particular, it is important for children to learn what should and should not be put in their mouths and swallowed. Clearly, large animals such as cows and horses can be a choking hazard for children. It is thus crucial that children learn boundaries about large objects such as these. However, while this lesson has positive intentions, it sends a mixed message. For instance, most parents continue to raise their children on a diet consisting at least partly of meat. This nursery rhyme may confuse children, who might be unable to discern when a cow is okay to eat and when it is not. Had the rhyme focused on other objects instead of animals, it would have not had this potential for confusion. In addition, the old lady in the song is apparently able to survive swallowing all the animals up to and including the cow. It is only the additional ingestion of the horse that results in her demise. This may in fact send the opposite message to children, that one is able to survive swallowing objects even up to the size of a cow.

Finally, this song sends a message about the role of observers in medical emergencies. Unfortunately, the message it sends is far from a positive one. It tells children that failing to help those who are choking (or otherwise in need of medical attention) is acceptable, and that even singing songs about them is appropriate. Nowhere is it suggested that the woman could have or should have received adequate attention from medical personnel, or that it is important to have knowledge of first aid procedures in order to be ready to help when an emergency arises. Children are instead encouraged to be passive observers, and indeed even to openly discuss the probability that the victim may live or die. By continual repetition of the phrase, “Perhaps she’ll die!” it is suggested that such statements are more appropriate than aiding someone in need.

In sum, “There Was an Old Lady” offers dubious benefit for instilling appropriate social values in children. One wonders how a nursery rhyme displaying such grotesque and flagrant disregard for the elderly was ever found acceptable to teach to children. It is my personal opinion that this rhyme should be discouraged and prohibited, or at least revised to express positive portrayals of the elderly, of medical intervention, and of accurate scientific facts about animals and the digestive system. Only by improving our awareness of the values that we teach to our children can we, as a society, improve and progress. Such nursery rhymes as the one analyzed here simply do not pass muster.

7 responses to “There Was an Old Lady: A Critical Analysis”

Mike

Is this satire? Screw the elderly, don’t swallow horses?

If there is a deeper meaning behind this rhyme, it is that sometimes the cure is worse than the disease. While probably not intended to convey such depth to children, it implants an idea that can later develop and can be interpreted by adults, and can be applied to personal relationships, pharmaceuticals, foreign policy, regulations and a whole host of other issues.

Gill vntk

Can anyone calculate an answer to this problem. I want to put this question to a quiz group.
If the old lady swallowed all of the following and the contents settled on top of each other?
How high would her stomach have to stretch. This would have to be worked out as measurements of a fly standing with a spider on top. Then bird on top, then cat, dog and finally horse. Average sizes of each. Please pass around to masterminds

Doug

I think it’s about overindulgence don’t do to much too soon and also about over thinking and then not thinki,g strait and being overly critical to the point of irrationalisation.

Jaydelott

Thank you, thank you, thank you Jeff, for some much-needed cathartic laughter. With Lucille Colandro relentlessly polluting my favorite cautionary tale with her senseless derivatives, I have despaired the loss of a true classic. All I needed was one kindred spirit to light my day, and you have.

AJAdderbolt

Good insight Mike. I have always believed this rhyme to be related to the progressive nature of substance abuse. One always has to increase the dose, or find another sustance to combat the ill and diminishing effects of a drug, or medication. Eventually a critical point is reached in self destruction and a person dies.

Marcia

It could be the fly is a lie. A falsehood told or believed. And another one told to cover up the first lie and so and so forth on down the line. A web of deceit that perpuates itself. Swallowing lies a common conception in government, business and the human race.

Leave a Reply