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The Big Orange Splot

by Daniel Manus Pinkwater

Summary

This is the story of a man in conformist suburbia who learns to embrace his own individuality.

Mr. Plumbean lives on a street where all the houses look the same, and everyone likes it that way. Everything changes when a seagull splashes orange paint on Mr. Plumbean’s house. He decides to paint his house to reflect his colorful dreams. Although the neighbors are upset at first, one by one they talk to Mr. Plumbean. He convinces them to use their imaginations to transform their own houses to reflect their dreams.

Read aloud video by Jennifer Veneracion

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

This is a tale about conformism and individualism, as Mr. Plumbean’s expression of creativity and individuality challenges his neighbor’s ideas about the importance of having a “neat street.” By repainting his house to reflect his colorful dreams, Mr. Plumbean breaks away from the conformity of his street. The neighbors are at first appalled, thinking that surely something must be wrong with Mr. Plumbean for not wanting a house that looks like all the others. As the neighbors talk with Mr. Plumbean, one by one, they too begin to embrace Mr. Plumbean’s idea of expressing their dreams through their houses. It is Mr. Plumbean’s actions that liberate his whole street, encouraging the neighbors to become proud of their homes.

When Mr. Plumbean’s neighbors ask him to paint his house, he does so literally but does not follow the spirit of their request. Mr. Plumbean chooses to disregard the unspoken understanding that the neighbors hold about having a “neat street.” This raises the question of why having a “neat street,” in which all the houses look the same and lack personality, is so important to the neighbors. Issues of individuality and conformity can be explored through seeing how the quiet conformity of the neighborhood is left unchallenged until Mr. Plumbean’s house is splashed with a splot of orange paint.

Mr. Plumbean chooses the route of self-expression when repainting his house, thus demonstrating his autonomy as an individual; he acts upon his own independent and authentic desire to paint his house as he desires. This choice, however, raises the issue of whether it is always better to be different and to act according to your own wishes. Are there circumstances where exercising freedom of expression becomes inappropriate? Or do the standards that society and cultural norms attempt to enforce need to be challenged and broken in order for a person to realize their own individuality?

Eventually Mr. Plumbean’s neighbors realize that being different allowed them to realize their own unique dreams. Thus, this book also celebrates individuality, as the neighbors eventually appreciate each other’s choices to paint their houses as they wish. This raises the question of the importance and desirability of individuality. What are the benefits and risks of being an individual who rejects the values expressed by others?

The issue of conformity versus individuality was explored by philosophers in the Existentialist tradition. They believed that the pressure to conform to social norms had undermined the ability of people to develop their own unique abilities and personality. For the Existentialists, becoming an individual was the most important thing for a person to do. The Big Orange Spot allows children to explore this issue in a fun and entertaining manner.

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

Expression of Individuality

At first all the houses on Mr. Plumbean’s street were the same.

  1. What do you think about the houses on Mr. Plumbean’s street changing from being all the same to being different?
  2. Do the houses being different make them more interesting?
  3. What do you think about the visitors at the end of the story who say that Mr. Plumbean’s street is not a neat street?
  4. The neighbors on Mr. Plumbean’s street are proud of their houses at the end of the story. Why don’t they care what the visitors think about their street?
  5. Which is better, being like everyone else or being different?
  6. Is it ever okay to be like everyone else? If so, when?

Mr. Plumbean decides to be different by painting his house rainbow colors.

  1. Are there ways that you show that you are different? If so, who are you different from? How are you different from them, and why do you show you are different from them?
  2. Are there ways that you show that you are the same? If so, who are you the same as? How are you the same as them, and why do you show that you are the same as them?

Conformity and Individuality

  1. After telling Mr. Plumbean to paint his house, why were his neighbors unhappy when he did paint it?
  2. Why does having a “neat street” seem to be so important to Mr. Plumbean’s neighbors? Why did everyone want all the houses to be the same?
  3. Was it okay for Mr. Plumbean to paint his house to look like his dreams?
  4. Should you paint your house any way you want? If so, when?

Freedom of Expression

  1. Why did Mr. Plumbean paint his house the way he did?
  2. Why did his neighbors paint their houses?
  3. Are there ways that you are like Mr. Plumbean?
  4. Are there ways that you are like Mr. Plumbean’s neighbors?

When Mr. Plumbean painted his house to reflect his dreams, what affect did this have on his neighbors? Let’s make a list of the things the neighbors do:

  1. Thought Mr. Plumbean was out of his mind
  2. Muttered (unhappy)
  3. Pretended not to notice
  4. Shouted at Mr. Plumbean to explain why he painted his house like a rainbow
  5. Asked the next-door neighbor to talk to Mr. Plumbean to make his house look the same as everyone else’s
  6. Started painting their houses like their dreams

At one point, the neighbors “decided they would pretend not to notice” the rainbow house of Mr. Plumbean.

  1. Is ignoring a problem every a good idea?
  2. What is a better way of dealing with something that you do not like or disagree with?

Mr. Plumbean says that “My house is me and I am it. My house is where I like to be and it looks like all my dreams.”

  1. Should people live their dreams?
  2. Do you think that Mr. Plumbean is his house and his house is Mr. Plumbean?
  3. Are your clothes you, and are you your clothes?

Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion by Ariel Sykes. Edited June 2020 by The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics.

Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our Resources page.

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About the Prindle Institute

As one of the largest collegiate ethics institutes in the country, the Prindle Institute for Ethics’ uniquely robust national outreach mission serves DePauw students, faculty and staff; academics and scholars throughout the United States and in the international community; life-long learners; and the Greencastle community in a variety of ways. In 2019, the Prindle Institute partrnered with Thomas Wartenberg and became the digital home of his Teaching Children Philosophy discussion guides.

Further Resources

Some of the books on this site may contain characterizations or illustrations that are culturally insensitive or inaccurate. We encourage educators to visit the Association for Library Service to Children’s resource guide for talking to children about issues of race and culture in literature. They also have a guide for navigating tough conversations.  PBS Kids’ set of resources for talking to young children about race and racism might also be useful for educators.

Philosophy often deals with big questions like the existence of a higher power or death. Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our resources page.

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