Snoopy’s doghouse is so well-known and recognisable that even when there are no Peanuts characters in the frame, it is impossible to mistake it for anything else. The red, wooden structure has a distinctive mushroom profile, with three slats on the top and three slats on the bottom. When it burned to the ground in a 1966 story arc, Charles Schulz drew on readers’ familiarity with it to explore loss, mourning and recovery.
This story was originally published in October 2017.
The doghouse’s original 1950’s iteration had the proportions of an actual doghouse; it was small and squat, with a roof scaled to its body. Even at this early date, Schulz made jokes about Snoopy’s inner humanity, but they were one-off punchlines. The doghouse was still a plain doghouse, and Snoopy — who still walked on all fours and did not yet have thought bubbles – was still a dog.
A couple of years later, Snoopy began walking on his hind legs. At first it was a joke, meant to juxtapose his appearance with his behaviour, but it became more normal as Peanuts treated Snoopy less like a dog and more like a human. The doghouse changed alongside Snoopy; its roof became defined, and it nearly doubled in height. When Charlie Brown went outside to give Snoopy his supper, he had to crane his neck upwards to speak to his dog, who settled on the house’s roof.
Snoopy’s home was where he indulged his Walter Mitty-esque alter egos, away from the neighbourhood kids such as Frieda, who wanted Snoopy to be a “normal” dog and chase rabbits. It was where he pecked out “It Was A Dark and Stormy Night” on his typewriter, a recurring storyline about Snoopy’s attempts to write the great American novel. It was where he was Joe Cool lounging outside the student union. It was where he was a World War I Flying Ace, dogfighting with the Red Baron for control of the skies. It was, as homes are to many people, a safe haven for his private eccentricities.
But in a strip in 1966, Snoopy’s sanctuary got taken away when the doghouse burned down. For an author who prized minimalism, Schulz went all-in on the final panel of the strip, creating a powerful scene of destruction.
At first, Snoopy grieves the possessions lost inside the doghouse. The following morning, he assesses the damage and finds the doghouse itself destroyed beyond hope. The house’s frame still smokes from the prior evening. Snoopy takes it in from all perspectives — it’s one of the rare times, during the Golden Age of the strip, that we see the doghouse from multiple angles.
Snoopy’s silent appraisal communicates despair and shock, of needing to see something firsthand to believe it. Then he cries; there’s nothing else that can be done.
Schulz stretched this storyline over two weeks. The strips had minimal dialogue, showing readers how loss lingers long after the initial disaster. In the strip below, Snoopy learns that his fire insurance lapsed. Putting aside the inherent humour of a dog having fire insurance, the situation gets at the feeling of regret and “what if”s anyone dealing with a catastrophe might struggle with.
Every small misfortune reminds Snoopy of what he’s lost and reopens the wounds anew. Snoopy’s make-believe world, which was once his biggest indulgence, offers no escape. Losing everything forces him to mature, leaving carefree whimsy behind.
Throughout this storyline, Lucy plays the role of every callous bystander to a catastrophe. She’s more concerned with assigning blame than with being empathetic or helping to rebuild.
Then, she becomes religious and sanctimonious, declaring that Snoopy’s misfortune was divine judgement.
Finally, when she’s exhausted her meanness, she minimises. She asserts that his suffering is character-building; in hindsight, this tragedy could be a positive thing. It’s reductionist, “school of hard knocks” blather. It’s also a cautionary reminder that in the wake of a disaster, no victim should feel pressured to suffer or mourn “properly”. There is no right or wrong way to do it.
There have been other story arcs in comics about the loss of security and the loss of home. An early story arc in Calvin and Hobbes, where robbers break in while the family is away, is particularly memorable. Creator Bill Watterson considered Schulz to be a primary inspiration, and it shows.
In this comic arc, which took place nearly two decades after the Peanuts arc, none of the characters had to deal with a toxic outsider who blamed them for allowing the break-in to happen or minimised their fears or suffering. The characters talk it out with each other. Snoopy, though, can only listen. Because he is a dog, his struggle is lonelier.
Snoopy finds support, however. Charlie Brown begins rebuilding Snoopy’s home, and this, like the suffering that came before it, is part of the healing process. There are logistics that go into Snoopy’s fresh start, but there’s also hope as the old foundations come down and new ones begin to appear in their place.
When the new doghouse that Charlie Brown presents to Snoopy looks exactly the same as the old one, Snoopy’s feelings are complex. Snoopy doesn’t want a new home; he wants his home, but barring that, this is the next best thing. The new doghouse is a restoration of Snoopy’s dignity, a new place to call his own. The strip mirrors the earlier one where Snoopy surveyed the damage wrought by the fire. Snoopy cries in this strip as well, only now it’s out of joy.
Still, he has trouble sleeping that evening. Even though everything looks better on the outside, there is still anxiety.
A house is mere wood and nails, but it becomes more than a structure when one builds a life inside it. It become a home, a setting for formative experiences, both good and bad. A place where the physical evidence of one’s experiences are collected — in display cabinets, or chests of drawers, or the dusty corners of attics.
Snoopy’s house may look the same, but it doesn’t have the memories or the lived-in comfort that was lost. But eventually, Snoopy starts sleeping better. He forges new memories in this house, and soon, it becomes a true home.