Hobbes is seen in two differentiating perspectives. Calvin perceives him as a live tiger and a best friend, capable of speech and independent action. To everybody else, he is an inanimate stuffed tiger.
Hobbes is often shown to be smarter and wiser than Calvin when he is perceived as a real tiger. He is seen reading more often than his owner and attempts to be the voice of reason when Calvin tries to perform a risky stunt or engage in a dubious scheme. Hobbes' advice often falls on deaf ears with Calvin, who usually ignores his reasoning and winds up getting in trouble for his actions. Because of this, some fans say that Hobbes represents Calvin's conscience. However, Hobbes is shown as terrible at math and spelling, quite possibly worse than Calvin himself, seemingly reflective of Calvin's own limitation.
He is named after Thomas Hobbes, a philosopher who at times had a bleak outlook on life and human nature. When Hobbes is shown to be alive, he is proud of his species and glad not to be a human, showing that when Hobbes comes to life, he too believes he is a real tiger.
Relationship with Calvin
For the most part, Calvin and Hobbes converse and play together, reveling in what is ultimately a deep friendship and almost brotherly relationship. Hobbes acts as a philosophical foil to Calvin; where Calvin is preoccupied with predestination and dreams of grandeur, Hobbes is a much more realistic thinker; he is much more focused on the present and the simple pleasant things in life. A prime example is a strip in which the two talk about what they would do with a wish; Calvin makes it clear that he'd want material things, while Hobbes wishes for a simple sandwich, adding that he got his wish. Later Calvin asks Hobbes "If you could wish for anything, what would it be?", and he replies "A big sunny field to be in", something he already has. They also frequently argue or even fight with each other, though their disagreements are generally short-lived. Hobbes often beats up Calvin with an energetic pounce-and-tackle attack, which leaves Calvin bruised and scraped up but not seriously harmed. Hobbes takes great pleasure in his demonstrations of feline prowess, while Calvin expresses keen frustration at his inability to stop the attacks or explain his injuries to his skeptical parents. Hobbes is proud to be an animal and seems to have a low opinion of humans in general (when Calvin is wondering why people exist, Hobbes simply responds "tiger food"), and Calvin claims that he once ate a kid in his school named Tommy Chesnutt for making fun of Calvin bringing Hobbes to school.
Hobbes is shown to be enthusiastic, if not particularly talented, artist, a trait which he shares with Calvin, though to a lesser degree, sometimes supplying the (often unnecessary) artwork for Calvin's school projects, such as a letterhead featuring a "Calvin shield" surrounded by "lance-toting tigers". Hobbes also appears to be more enthusiastic about knowledge than Calvin since Hobbes likes reading more than he and sometimes does Calvin's homework.
Hobbes is almost always willing to finish Calvin's homework when Calvin gets lazy, despite that Hobbes' motive for doing so is usually only to boast of the academic knowledge and skill of tigers while solving the problems (according to Hobbes tigers need to learn physics, biology and artistic expression to hunt). While he explains the homework to Calvin in a seemingly scientific and advanced method, the answer that he provides is usually completely incorrect (for example, saying 7+3=73), even though most times the problem only involves simple addition or subtraction. When Hobbes is not trying to explain the homework to him, Calvin is usually reading comics or otherwise doing anything but work.
Calvin often yells, "I'M HOME!" when he gets home, making him an easy target for Hobbes to leap out of the front door and tackle him. Sometimes, though, Calvin realizes that this is not a good idea, and manages to thwart his tiger, although this can lead to more trouble. Calvin once managed to go through his back door to sneak up on Hobbes, yelled "I'M HOME!" before opening the door (causing Hobbes to leap into the door, or in one occasion, startling him into attacking Calvin anyway), and locked the door after Hobbes left the house (accidentally locking out his mother as well). Calvin also sometimes creates decoys wearing his clothes using pieces of wood, paper bags of leaves with his face on it, or makeshift snowmen, also in his clothes. Hobbes, however, usually sees through Calvin's decoy and either spots him or uses the decoy to his advantage. In one strip, Calvin's fear and expectation of this attack is used as humor; Calvin opens the door as usual but is not attacked; he then goes upstairs to find Hobbes reading comic books, relatively unconcerned.
Hobbes is also "President-and-First-Tiger" of the G.R.O.S.S. (Get Rid Of Slimy GirlS) club. The club headquarters are located in a treehouse (although in one strip an emergency meeting was held in a cardboard box called the "Box of Secrecy"), which Hobbes can get into without needing the rope ladder. He takes advantage of this by not allowing Calvin access into the treehouse without reciting the club's password, which is eight verses of a poem extolling tigers. It can also be much more than this; in one strip Hobbes remarked "You're not doing the dance."
Origins and development
Watterson based some of Hobbes's characteristics, especially his playfulness and attack instinct, on his own pet cat, Sprite, who was known to unexpectedly jump out of nowhere. Hobbes takes great pride in being a feline (his love affair with tuna borders on addiction) and frequently makes wry or even disparaging comments about human nature, declaring his good fortune to lead a tiger's life. Reflecting upon his work in the introduction he wrote to The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, Watterson observed that his two characters revealed different facets of his own personality. Calvin generally voices what Watterson considered his immature side, often echoing the sentiments Watterson saw prevalent in modern America. ("The consumer is always right"; "There has to be a way to cram more violence into ninety minutes"; "Hold on, I need to inflate my basketball shoes.") By contrast, Hobbes offers a voice of ironic maturity — though he is himself far from immune to silliness.
Calvin captures Hobbes in a "tiger trap" during the first strip of the comic. Watterson initially believed that it was important to establish how his two main characters first met, but by the time he wrote the Tenth Anniversary Book, he had changed his opinion, saying it was unnecessary and even detrimental to the feel of the strip. Much later, it is apparent in several strips that Hobbes and Calvin have known each other their whole lives, including when Calvin was an infant. This contradicted the first two strips, which show Calvin and Hobbes' first meeting. One strip especially shows Calvin claiming that he didn't remember much of his infancy. While Calvin starts going on and on about how he suspects he was being brainwashed when he was very, very young, and asking nobody in particular what he remembered that someone wanted him to forget, Hobbes says "I seem to recall that you spent most of the time burping up." Also, in an earlier strip, Hobbes once mused about some advice his father gave him.
Hobbes' appearance changed over the strip's run; in the beginning he was slightly shorter, his tufts of fur less defined and shorter. His eyes also had more of a round shape, as opposed to the oval shape of later years. The most notable change, however, were the pads on Hobbes's hands. In earlier years, Watterson drew the pads on Hobbes' hands as a reminder that they were really paws, but later removed them on the grounds that he found them to be visually distracting. However, in one strip after Waterson stopped drawing the pads, Hobbes remarks in response to a complaint by Calvin, "my fuzzy mittens have pads!"
Hobbes' name was revealed in the third strip when Calvin claims that Hobbes was making a lot of noise by jumping on the bed.
Hobbes has claimed that he actually had a family. In one strip, Calvin asks Hobbes what he should do if Moe tries to attack him. Hobbes claims that Calvin should scramble for a tree and sit in it all day. Calvin is outraged by the advice and Hobbes states, "It doesn't impress the girls, of course, but there's no sense in impressing them and getting killed, my dad used to say."
From Calvin's point of view, Hobbes is an anthropomorphic, usually bipedal tiger, larger than Calvin, full of his own attitudes and ideas. But when the perspective shifts to any other character, readers see merely a stuffed tiger (there are some occasions in which Calvin's perspective of Hobbes is visible in the same panel as a parent, but the parent was not looking at the time). This is, of course, an odd dichotomy, and Watterson explained it as thus:
When Hobbes is a stuffed toy in one panel and alive in the next, I'm juxtaposing the "grown-up" version of reality with Calvin's version, and inviting the reader to decide which is truer.
Many readers assume that Hobbes is either a product of Calvin's imagination, or a stuffed animal that comes to life when Calvin is the only one around, or when nobody else but him is looking. However, Watterson rejects both of these interpretations, saying, "Hobbes is more about the subjective nature of reality than dolls coming to life"; thus, there is no concrete definition of Hobbes' reality. Watterson explained:
"Calvin sees Hobbes one way, and everyone else sees Hobbes another way." Hobbes' reality is in the eye of the beholder. The so-called 'gimmick' of Hobbes is the juxtaposition of Calvin and Hobbes' reality and everyone else's, with the two rarely agreeing.
Despite this, in the world of the comic the other characters often speak of Hobbes as Calvin's "imaginary friend." As well, it is sometimes difficult to imagine how the "stuffed toy" interpretation of Hobbes is consistent with what the characters see. For example, when Hobbes pounces on Calvin, the next panel shows Calvin lying on the ground, covered with dirt, with Hobbes lying on top of him, then when Calvin walks in, his mother can clearly see him beaten up, and she is left completely baffled. Another example is when Calvin wants Hobbes to take a bath with him, so Hobbes disguises himself with bubbles, and when Calvin assumes that Hobbes needs a hat and tie, he attempts to get his Dad's hat. As Calvin is bringing a tie through the living room, sneaking behind his Dad, his Mom exclaims, "Dear, why are you taking a bath? And wearing your best hat?!" Also, Hobbes "cuts" Calvin's hair (rather unsuccessfully), leading his parents to think that he cut his own hair badly. In several strips, Hobbes accompanies Calvin to his bus stop, and always seems to come home, even eating Calvin's lunch once (though in a later strip, Calvin's mother is shown going out to grab Hobbes after the bus has left). In another example, Hobbes "assists" Calvin's attempt to become a Houdini-style escape artist by tying Calvin to a chair. Calvin, however, cannot escape, and his irritated father must undo the knots, all the while asking Calvin how he could do this to himself. In a rare interview, Watterson explained his approach to this situation:
Additionally, aspects of Hobbes' existence as a "real" tiger and a stuffed animal converge with little dispute from Calvin. An example is Hobbes's frequent washings or "baths" in the laundry machine which Calvin accepts. Likewise, in one strip, Calvin states that Hobbes becomes "a little loopy" when he comes out of the dryer. Another example is when Calvin's mom signed Calvin up for swimming lessons, Calvin asks why Hobbes can't come, so she responds (eyes rolling) "it's not good to get tigers wet," to which Calvin asks Hobbes why this is true, and Hobbes replies "it takes us all day to dry out, and until we do, we smell funny." Another example is that although the debut strip showed Calvin capturing Hobbes with a snare in such a way that seems like it's the first time they've ever met, another strip implies that Hobbes is older than Calvin and has been around his entire life. This strip has Calvin quoting that he can't recall anything from when he was under the age of three. Hobbes responds to this by saying Calvin spent most of the time burping up. Though other characters often refer to Hobbes as a "stuffed tiger" to Calvin, he avoids or ignores those comments (for example, when Hobbes is believed to have been stolen during a burglary, Calvin's mom reassures him that a robber would not want a stuffed tiger, to which Calvin responds "But Hobbes is so trusting ...").
In response to the journalist's assumption that Hobbes was a figment of Calvin's imagination, Watterson responded,
But the strip doesn't assert that. That's the assumption that adults make because nobody else sees him, sees Hobbes, in the way that Calvin does. Some reporter was writing a story on imaginary friends and they asked me for a comment, and I didn't do it because I really have absolutely no knowledge about imaginary friends. It would seem to me, though, that when you make up a friend for yourself, you would have somebody to agree with you, not to argue with you. So Hobbes is more real than I suspect any kid would dream up.
Hobbes is often the voice of reason, contrasting Calvin's manic impulsiveness. It is ambiguous if this rationality is in Hobbes as a distinct personality, or in Calvin as a kind of conscience. In the end, the question becomes less about absolute truth and more about different versions of reality: the nature of Hobbes' existence is never a puzzle to be solved, but rather a subtle comment on the power of imagination, and on the similar power of a lack thereof.
Susie Derkins also comments on Hobbes. After Calvin vigorously refuses her proposal to play with her and her toy rabbit, Mr. Bun, Hobbes comments that "Mr. Bun seems comatose, did you notice?" contrasting Hobbes' "reality" to that of another stuffed animal. Hobbes has a heavy crush on Susie.