All The Symbolism You Never Knew Existed In Leave It To Beaver (And There’s A Lot Of It)


I’m a big fan of the sitcom Leave it to Beaver (1957-63).  When I was a young kid, I used to watch reruns of the show quite often. Recently, I came to realize that the creators of the show took painstaking measures to infuse it with a wealth of aquatic symbolism and mythological references. One example of this would be coincidence, but as I dug deeper, I discovered much more. Here is what I found:

What’s in a (Sur)name?
The family’s surname is “Cleaver.” A “cleaver” is a “heavy, broad-bladed knife or hatchet” that is used to “split or separate.” As an intransitive verb, the word “cleave” is defined as “to penetrate or pass through something, such as water or air.”

Ward Cleaver: The Guardian/Separator

The father of the family is named “Ward,” which is defined as “the act of guarding or protecting; guardianship.” It also is defined as “the projecting ridge of a lock or keyhole that prevents the turning of a key other than the proper one.” A cleaver is also a broad-bladed knife that is used to split or to separate. The combination of these definitions fits Ward Cleaver’s — the patriarch of the family — role: He is there to protect his sons and to help them separate good from bad behavior and to instill a sense of morality in them. After all, every episode is a morality tale. Episodes range from cautionary tales that warn against everything from lying to stealing.

June Cleaver has a Beaver

Now, onto his wife June. Her name is very close to the name of “Juno,” who in Roman mythology was the goddess of the “hearth and home.In Roman religion and mythology, she was also the wife and sister of Jupiter. She and her husband were in an incestuous marriage. The types and degrees of mythological punishments are many. So, what better punishment for this incestuous relationship is there than to have progeny that is an an aquatic rodent commonly know as Castor canadensis Kuhle—a “Beaver”?
Larry Mundello: the Cackerel

So, what do we make of Beaver’s pudgy sidekick, Larry Mundello? His surname is very similar in pronunciation to “mendole,” which is also known as a “cackerel,” which is a word of Old French origins. The dictionary definition of “cackerel” is “a small worthless Mediterranean fish considered poisonous by the ancients.” Again, the aquatic reference is evident. Saying that Larry is worthless and poisonous may be a little harsh. But after all, in one episode, he does manage to goad Beaver into smoking coffee grounds in Ward Cleaver’s collectible, ivory pipe, which leads to the development of Beaver’s monumental stomach ache. Larry’s companionship is, in a larger sense, worthless and poisonous to Beaver’s moral and ethical growth.
Hubert ‘Whitey’ Whitney: Merlangus Merlangus
Another of Beaver’s recurring friends in the television series is Hubert “Whitey” Whitney. He is always referred to by his nickname “Whitey,” which is unmistakably a reference to the common name of the Merlangus merlangus, the “whiting,” which is a fish that is related to cod that is indigenous to the European Atlantic waters.
Gilbert Bates: Another Fishy Friend
Another of Beaver’s playmates is Gilbert Bates. The aquatic reference is quite obvious. The first three letters of his first name are “gil,” one letter short of the word “gill,” which is defined as “the respiratory organ of most aquatic animals that breathe water to obtain oxygen, consisting of a filamentous structure of vascular membranes across which dissolved gases are exchanged.” To find the relevant significance of his last name, we need to look no further than it’s homonym, “baits,” which means “to place a lure in (a trap) or on (a fishing hook).” The definition of “bait” is “an enticement; a temptation.” Even though Whitey was a minor ensemble character, he did manage to become a voice against reason during several of Beaver’s moral conundrums, which “baited” Beaver into making unwise decisions.

Tooey: The Enabler

Child actor Tiger Fafara played another of Beaver’s friends in various episodes of the show. His name is derived from the word “tew,” which in provincial English is defined as “rope or chain for towing a boat; also, a cord; a string.” Again, the aquatic reference is seen. Even though Tooey was a minor character in sporadic episodes, he did, when present, manage to “tow” Beaver and his friends toward treacherous waters as an enabler.

The Ward/Beaver Dynamic

So, now we have a Beaver (an aquatic rodent) who gets into all sorts of predicaments that are presented as tests of his moral fortitude, his sense of ethics, and common sense. Whenever he faces one of these tests, or learning experiences, it is his father, who protects him (as a “ward”) from harm and provides lecturing sessions at the end of each episode in which he helps his sons to differentiate (“cleave”) between right and wrong, in an effort to ensure that Beaver makes the “proper” choice if faced with a similar situation in the future.

Wally Cleaver: Sander Vitreus?
In keeping with the aquatic analogy, Beaver’s sibling, Wally, is also an aquatic creature. His name is quite similar in pronunciation to “walleye,” which is a freshwater food and game fish also known as Sander Vitreus.
Clarence ‘Lumpy’ Rutherford: Cyclopterus Lumpus

If we were to search for an aquatic reference for Wally Cleaver’s husky, and slightly dopey friend, Clarence Rutheford, we need only to look at his nickname: “Lumpy.” This nickname can then be seen as a reference to another aquatic creature, the lumpfish, which, by dictionary definition, is “a clumsy soft thick-bodied northern Atlantic fish,” also known as Clyclopterus Lumpus.

Edward “Eddie” Haskell: The Contrarian

So what should we make of Wally Cleaver’s mischievous friend Eddie Haskell? He seems to always encourage both of the Cleaver boys to engage in activities that are contrary to the teachings of their father, Ward. Speaking aquatically, what is an “eddy”? It is, by definition, it is “a current, as of water, moving contrary to the direction of the main current.” This definition fits his character precisely. After all, young Mr. Haskell does, by his very nature, introduce an anti-establishmentarian attitude or “contrary” views and encouragement that the Cleaver boys must try to resist (but seldom do). His influence runs counter to the sense of morals and ethics that Ward Cleaver tries to instill in Beaver and Wally.

The Evolutionary Process: Shedding Marine Vestiges
At this point, we can introduce a bit of Darwinian theory. This is to say that all of the children of Mayfield are on an evolutionary path of sorts. Through the trials and tribulations of their youth, they are expected to evolve morally and ethically. This process can also be likened to the time when fish and other aquatic creatures crawled onto land, terra firma. The educational institution, the Mayfield School, that all of the children attended, there was a process for holding them in place, while providing guidance for them to shed their aquatic features and to evolve into land dwellers. Outside of their respective family settings, they received assistance from their school. Mayfield, which, when analyzed alludes to “may,” which is a noun that means “the springtime of life; youth.” The children of Mayfield are, in a sense, undergoing an evolutionary process during the “springtime” of their youth.

Miss Canfield: To Teach and to Contain
The actress, Diane Brewster appeared early in the show for the first two seasons, from 1957-1958, as Miss Canfield. Her last name is a compound word. The first component of her last name is “can.” When we look at the etymology, we find that the word “can” originates from the Middle English word “canne,” which is “a water container.”  In addition to the aquatic reference, there is the realization that, as the teacher of Beaver and friends, her role was, two-fold: to “contain” and to educate them. She was responsible for their intellectual, moral, and ethical growth in the context of the educational institution, and she provided the proper environment (“aquatic”) for them to thrive and to grow.

Mrs. Landers: The Evolutionary Siren

Sue Randall was the actress who played Mrs. Landers from 1958-62, the successor of Mrs. Canfield, in the previous seasons. If we look at her surname, we can see that it describes her role in the children’s lives. A “lander” is “one who brings something (or someone) to land.” In the children’s later years, she serves as the force that promotes their evolution into a higher order of “land-dwelling” creatures.

Principal Rayburn: It Felt Good to Burn

At the Mayfield school, there was also the matronly principal, Cornelia Rayburn, played by actress Doris Packer. She served as a beacon of righteousness in the education of Beaver, Wally, and the children of Mayfield. Her role was also to help them along the evolutionary journey by enabling them to become “land-dwelling” creatures. An analysis of her surname provides clear proof when dissected. The first part of her surname, “ray” is a noun that is defined as “any of various marine fishes of the order Rajiformes or Batoidei, having cartilaginous skeletons, horizontally flattened bodies, and narrow tails.” In addition to this obvious aquatic reference, we must also consider the zoological definition of the word “ray,” which is “one of the bony spines supporting the membrane of a fish’s fin.” When paired with the second half of her surname, “burn,” it becomes clear. “Burn” is a verb that means “to dispel; dissipate” as in The sun burned off the fog. When we consider both parts of her surname, it is evident that her role is to “dispel” or to “dissipate” the “bony spines supporting the membrane” of the children’s “fins,” thus preparing them as land-dwelling creatures that would have no need for such anatomical accoutrements.

Obvious Undercurrent
This analysis of
Leave it to Beaver
is designed to show that the elements that are seemingly created randomly in the making of a show are not so random. In this instance, it is evident that the creators of this sitcom intentionally embedded allusions and symbolism that are far more sophisticated than the simplistic veneer of this television show would suggest. Leave it to Beaver, in all of its benignancy, is much more than a middle-brow television show, but rather an intellectual confluence of aquatic and evolutionary analogy that springs from a foundation of mythology.

featured image – Leave It To Beaver