Wile E Coyote, Tragic Hero of Science

Posted on 12th January 2005 by Ryan Somma in Ionian Enchantment

Wile E. Coyote

Wile E. Coyote

Wile E. Coyote, self-proclaimed “Super Genius,” goes by the scientific name “Eternalii Famishus,” has one all-consuming goal in life, to catch the Road Runner, scientific name “Acceleratii Incredibilus.” To accomplish this, Wile E implements a wide variety of weapons, state of the art technologies, and McGuyveresque (which should really be “Wile E Coyotesque”) makeshift feats of mechanical engineering. Despite his profound intellectual capacity, Wile E has never successfully apprehended this dim-witted bird.

I always wanted Wile E to catch that damn bird. I didn’t care what he did with it. I just wanted his efforts not to go to waste. This is the reaction Wile’s creators want to evoke in the audience, one of sympathy for this mangy and brilliant ever-predator.

Chuck Jones, Wile’s creator, and closest approximation to God, has defined Wile’s universe with many basic laws. Among these, one stands out as the source of Wile’s whoas:

No outside force can harm the Coyote — only his own ineptitude or the failure of Acme products.

Wile E’s creator has obviously taken many liberties with this law. Wile E is not at all inept. His engineering designs exhibit a thorough understanding of nature’s physical laws. It’s not his fault that the gods of his universe are whimsical about enforcing them. How often have we seen velocity, gravity, and mass go topsy-turvy on this poor coyote-scientist?

So Wile E’s Universe works against him. Certainly there are moments when he does genuinely miscalculate, underestimate, or overestimate factors in his plans, but these sorts of mistakes are hardly the result of “ineptitude,” rather they are a natural fact of experimentation, and experimentation is what Wile E’s endeavors to capture the Road Runner are all about.

Wile E’s faithful adherence to scientific principles in a universe that has no respect for them is admirable. When the wrong half of the cliff falls away or the heavier end of the catapult flips upside down to smash him, Wile E goes back to his drawing board faithfully and tries again and again and again and again. He knows how the laws of his universe should work, but does not know that the gods lording over his existence are sadistic jerks who take glee in his suffering. Still… why doesn’t Wile E learn from all those whacks, bangs, smashes, and ka-booms? Shouldn’t he have figured out that something is amiss with the natural laws and discovered the law of everything working against poor Wile E???

Just as Titus Andronicus allowed his loyalty to the Emperor to override his good judgment and bring about his tragedy, or as Hamlet’s inaction brought death upon so many, including himself, Wile E. Coyote has a character flaw that brings him endless suffering. For all his brilliance, Wile E cannot see beyond his immediate all-consuming goal. Chuck Jones makes this same point, “The Coyote could stop anytime — IF he was not a fanatic. (Repeat: “A fanatic is one who redoubles his effort when he has forgotten his aim.” – George Santayana)”

Wile E’s unhealthy obsession with the Road Runner, his derangement if you will, inspires him to invent fantastic contraptions for the task of apprehending his prey. On the level of invention his psychological dysfunction helps him to think outside of the box, but this same dysfunction has impaired Wile E’s emotional development, leaving him trapped inside another box. A mature individual would have found other, more meaningful purposes in life. The results of Wile E’s arrested growth as a person severely detracts from his quality of life, which we see evidenced every time he gets smooshed flat, burned to a crisp, falls off a cliff, or falls victim to some other tragic and hilarious mishap.

Surely there are alternative food sources in this universe. Wile E’s fixation on eating Roadrunner has caused him to forsake a Cosmos of infinite possibilities. His addiction has crippled his thought processes and reduced him to a Sisyphus archetype, forever pushing the stone up the hill. Wile E, trapped by his own obsession, applies his scientific reasoning to such a never-ending task with the same non-result.

A cartoon character with Wile E’s brilliance could work for the common welfare of all toons everywhere. His mastery of mechanical and electrical engineering could be put to use… uh… filling some basic necessity of toon life. You know, building safer mallets or ending toon-hunger or something.

Then again, I am in no position to criticize. I have never found myself so passionately bound up in a cause that I would subject myself to the abuses Wile E. Coyote brushes off so easily, jumping back into his purpose with all of his heart. I have not the endurance, the sheer strength of will, or the spirit to endlessly pursue what I felt was right to the fantastic degree Wile E pursues his prey. There is a sublime, romantic simplicity in Wile E’s single mindedness, and a nobility in his dedication to his cause.

Perhaps there is an underlying wisdom as well. Maybe Wile E has come to understand that it’s not the having, but the getting that’s important. The Road Runner is Wile E’s ultimate truth, always just out of his reach, like a Scientist seeking all of the answers to existence. Maybe it’s not the Road Runner that Wile E lives for, but rather the chase that he enjoys so much.

I think there might be a lesson there for us all to ponder.

Meep. Meep.

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