Reading and writing about short fiction
"Unicorn in the Garden" by James Thurber is а classic example of the existentialist philosophy of choice and subjectivity, as shown by the characterization of а husband and his wife, the police and the psychiatrist. Both husband and his wife are different in the cultural context. А husband is а man who loves nature and his wife is quiet selfish. Apart from this story, James Thurber's writings are widely known and admired in English-speaking countries and his drawings have а world following. He has been compared with James Joyce in his command of and playfulness with English, and he invites comparison with most of his contemporaries, many of whom he parodies at least once in his works. He greatly admired male and female characters, referring to them often in his works and parodying them masterfully several times, for example, in "Unicorn in the Garden" While Thurber is best known as а humorist (often with the implication that he need not be taken seriously as an artist), his literary reputation has grown steadily. His short story "Unicorn in the Garden" became an instant classic after it appeared in 1988 and was subsequently reprinted in Reader's Digest. After his death in 1961, several major studies and а volume in the Twentieth Century Views series have appeared, all arguing that Thurber should rank with the best American artists in several fields including the short story.
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As the story "Unicorn in the Garden" opens we find а man sitting at home eating breakfast with his wife upstairs asleep. The man, who chooses to glory in his existence by rising and eating, is blessed with the spectacle of а unicorn in his garden. In this story а husband is looking so much excited. His wife is spending а normal life and chosen to sleep and overlook the beautiful day, but in so doing has negated further choices she might have made had she woken up. The two times the man attempts to wake his wife to the life around her and in the garden, she further confirms her lack of interest in life and living the moment that has presented itself. The wife ignores and insults her husband for believing that а unicorn exists. Her own idea of what is real is subjective to what she has witnessed thus far, which could be anything or nothing. She is entropic. The wife not referred to as а woman or even given а name; is only referred to as an extension of the man.
We soon see that, after the man is called а booby by his wife, she begins to force her own subjectivity of nothingness upon him. The unicorn, which symbolized life and choice, then disappears and the man feels compelled to take а nap (symbolic of his acceptance of his wife's negativism). By choosing to sleep in the garden on his bed of roses (the symbolic center of life) the man expresses his desire to maintain а connection with life. It is this desire that later leads to the man's salvation.
The wife, nevertheless, persists to exert her own destructive power by calling for а police and the psychiatrist in order to further withdraw her husband of his freedom. But by selecting а criteria, where she is only an extension of the wife is really demolishing her life. This is proven when the police and the psychiatrist take away the wife in а straight jacket.
The man awakens, seeming to sense the presence of the police and the psychiatrist and, unlike his wife, is able to wake himself up on his own. The man is clearly а subject of his own reality. When asked whether he told his wife if he saw а unicorn, however, the man is forced to confront the center of his wife's destructiveness. By conceding to her what she previously desired (the negation of the unicorn and its existence) the husband is once again blessed with the vision of life, whereas his wife returns to the sleepy death from whence she came.
James Thurber is best known as the author of humorous sketches, stories, and reminiscences dealing with urban bourgeois American life. To discuss Thurber as an artist in the short-story form is difficult, however, because of the variety of things he did that might legitimately be labeled short stories. His essays frequently employ stories and are “fictional” in recognizable ways. His “memoirs” in "Unicorn in the Garden" are clearly fictionalized. Many of his first-person autobiographical sketches are known to be “fact” rather than fiction only through careful biographical research. As а result, most of his writings can be treated as short fiction. Proffitt (1988) also indicates that Thurber seemed to prefer to work on the borderlines between conventional forms.
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There is disagreement among critics as to the drift of the attitudes and themes reflected in James Thurber's work. In fact, it seems that critics' opinions regarding Thurber's attitudes about most subjects vary from one text to the next, but certain themes seem to remain consistent. His weak male characters do hate strong women, but the males are often weak because they accept the world in which their secret fantasies are necessary and, therefore, leave their women no choice but to try to hold things together. The concept of marriage is controversial and based on modern way of life. When а woman's strength becomes arrogance as in “The Unicorn in the Garden,” the man often defeats her with the active power of his imagination. Characterizing Thurber as а Romantic, Proffitt (1988) lists some themes he sees pervading Thurber's writing: а perception of the oppression of technocracy and of the arrogance of popular scientism especially in their hostility to imagination; an antirational but not anti- intellectual approach to modern life; а belief in the power of the imagination to preserve human value in the face of contemporary forms of alienation; and а frequent use of fear and fantasy to overcome the dullness of his characters' (and readers') lives.
Proffitt, Edward. "Reading and writing about short fiction". Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; 1 edition, 1988.
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