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Friday, June 08, 2007

social commentary on feminism in the fictions of james thurber


Humor is the style that established Ohio-born James Thurber’s reputation as “foremost American humorist”[1] and about writing which attempts to evoke laughter, he has written: “Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.... As brevity is the soul of wit, form...is the heart of humor and the salvation of comedy.”[2] Flashing humor as a bright, cheery reminder to the newly arrived Modern period set between World Wars I and II and characterized predominantly by desperate and disenchanted writings, Thurber perceived his works' peculiar characters with genuine psychology. However, he never seemed to have resorted to any politics in his writings, unlike Will "Cowboy Philosopher" Rogers who spun humor with wry comments on politics and current events or his fellow The New Yorker writer E.B. White, who was a subtle stylist. Is it possible then to have a feminist reading of Thurber's short fictions, feminism being a gradually crystallizing movement during the Modern Era? Using five short stories as reference point, this paper will investigate to prove that James Thurber's fictions were written to make a social commentary on feminism. The fictions under study are: The Night the Bed Fell, The Night the Ghost Got in, The Dog that Bit People, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and The Catbird Seat. It was a long, rocky road before women felt the need to achieve equal footing with men primarily because of the prevailing false consciousness of male dominance or patriarchy. Schools, churches, families, media, among others, are institutions that help this false consciousness work for the men to act accordingly as prescribed and as expected of them by the society. Even during the Modern period (Thurber's time) when women's role as part of nation-building were being recognized, said role was limited to the "mild," long overdue successes as women's suffrage, landing the "soft" positions in the labor force, or getting published. In short, the men are still the final decision-makers, the supreme authority over everyone, the home's breadwinner, the genius of inventions, the winner. While the condition already persists in the society, even texts (such as those written by Thurber) are symptomatic of the current ideological practices of patriarchal dominance. Since men have taken all the prizes and women never wanted to be empty-handed, the latter showed feminist resistance, the desire to be equal despite or precisely because of their essential difference, the impact of which was never felt in the West until the 1970's, a far cry from Thurber's late 1930's Modern era. Even so, some of the readings made on Thurber's short stories under study suggest a commentary on feminism existent during the time of their writing. Textual Analysis 1:The Night The Bed Fell In this story of confusion brought about by a series of incidents each taken for a fatally serious one (the narrator’s falling from the bed, the cousin’s imagined suffocation, the mother’s hysteria), the mother is the first to show and act with presence of mind whenever said incidents occur, contrary to tradition wherein men are portrayed to suppose to decide on things while women watch or obey only. The central incident (which happens all in the mother’s mind, anyway), the falling from the bed by the father who “had decided to sleep in the attic one night, to be away where he could think,” is thought of beforehand by the mother, hence her strong opposition to it. “[The] mother opposed the notion strongly because…the old wooden bed up there was wobbly, and the heavy headboard would crash down on [the] father’s head in case the bed fell, and kill him.” The mother resists and while the father, naturally, cannot be dissuaded, the mother makes her point. She perceives the danger of courting death, and articulates this perception instead of the usual portrayal of women who are timid and silenced by the decision-making men who are supposed to know better. The story also mentions Old Aunt Melissa Beall “who could whistle like a man, with two fingers in her mouth.” The phrase “like a man” is a strong textual proof that the author puts her women characters in some equal footing with men, a feminist comment that directly transgresses the cut-and-dried notion about women as weak or inferior or less than men. While it seems funny that a woman, an “[o]ld [a]unt,” should do such an unladylike posture, it should be remembered that Thurber “embellishe[s] the facts and describe[s] events in an amusing manner.”[3] Lest the readers forget, Thurber’s stories are purposed for comical effect, among other things. Then there is Aunt Sarah Shoaf whose exaggerated worry moves her to “pile her money, silverware and other valuables in a neat stack just outside her bedroom, with a note reading ‘This is all I have. Please take it and do not use your chloroform.’” She does so in her hyperbolic fright for a burglar, and by such she invites any burglar to take the valuables, but this can be read also as a manner of confronting fear, a trait not commonly attributed to women conventionally thought of as too fearful to be confrontational. This holds true to another aunt, Aunt Gracie Shoaf “who also had a burglar phobia, but…met it with more fortitude.” She believes that burglars are crashing into her house but never victorious in raking away her valuables because “she scare[s] them off before they could take anything, by throwing shoes down the hallway.” Aunts Sarah and Gracie’s fortitude in confronting their fear (and the fear’s imagined manifestation, the burglar) is the author’s social comment on feminism inasmuch as fortitude is not always consonant with the conventional wisdom of women’s limp-wristed gentleness or, if one has to be harsher about it, of women’s general weakness. The women in this story, besides being funny, subvert traditional concepts about them. Textual Analysis 2: The Night the Ghost Got in Again, this presents the mother as a forerunner: she is the foremost person, a woman at that, to confront the fear—of a burglar or ghost, depending on whose imagination—and the grown-up male children are shown going by the decision of the mother. While it is true that the mother, in the absence of a father (or elderly male) figure, assumes the leading and decision-making in a family, it cannot be discounted that the narrator and his brother, Herman, are old enough to show dominance, even on their mother or in her presence. Instead of thinking logically, the brothers decide that “all that running around downstairs” is the work of a poltergeist; meanwhile, the author gives his woman character the rational thinking for her to conclude that it might be that of burglars. The male narrator tries to make up for a woman’s beating them to the game by saying that Herman and he “hadn’t dared to tell her that it was not burglars but ghosts, for she was even more afraid of ghosts than of burglars,” but throughout the story, the mother is shown manning (pun intended) everything, from the calling of the police, alarming the neighbor of possible burglary, to dealing with the cops—all tasks of course expected of the ghost-frightened brothers, or any male for that matter. However, the males in the stories, curiously enough, are assigned the cowardly and scatterbrained traits usually assigned to women: the brothers fear the irrational, the cops are bungling in their field of expertise, and the grandfather just fires a gun at a patrolman without even trying to piece the happenings that transpire. The author, by the choice of the mother as tough and confrontational to fear, makes a feminist comment that challenges the idea of a woman as too fragile to be in the forefront and too credulous on irrational things (i.e. ghosts) than rational ones (i.e. burglars). Textual Analysis 3: The Dog that Bit People This story is centered on a dog owned by a family wherein the mother, yet again in Thurber’s fiction, has the upper hand in decision-making. This must give an idea to the readers that the author seemed inclined to believe that “mother knows best.” This proverb is grilled for testing in the story, as the distressed family does not understand why the mother decides not to dispose Miggs even as the Airedale dog has the penchant for biting people. In order to appease the bitten people, she does not do away with the dog—she sends gifts to people that Miggs bites. “She was forever defending him.” When the dog bites the iceman, the mother says, ”If you didn’t think he would bite you, he wouldn’t,” as if to say that the iceman had the dog’s bite coming. The same holds true when Mrs. Detweiler gets bitten; the mother dismisses by saying, “he just bumped you.” What must be the drive for the mother to go against all these distresses brought about by the dog? She owns the dog, and she moves heaven and earth to protect her property. She is not one to be easily manipulated into disposing her property, in which case she actually makes a feminist stand on her right to ownership. Had the mother been made of a softer mold, she would have readily let the men in the family decide in her behalf regarding her thrill-biting dog. Nonetheless, the woman in this story, contrary to most women portrayal as commodified instead of commodifying (or owning) and without her own brain to decide on family matters, much less for herself, is an empowered woman, capable of ownership and decision-making. Another point worth noting is the author’s comment on the mother’s dislike on “a Congressman…[who] couldn’t be trusted.” She seems to express glee when the dog bites him and even as the father loses an important business association as a result, she thinks it is just fine: she “wouldn’t be associated with such a man…Miggs could read him like a book.” Using the mother’s ire, the author comments on the implied wrongdoings of certain politicians during that time when naked Nazi and fascist ambitions triggered the ongoing World War II. Textual Analysis 4: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Thurber’s humor comes by the manner of his viewing people and events. He “was able to look into life with irony and amusement and see the incongruities and inconsistencies in the action of men. Walter Mitty is one of the most beloved and best-known Thurber character.”[4] The vivid remembrance that Walter Mitty created in the world of literature would have not been made possible without his better half (pun intended) put side by side his extremely imaginative yet escapist character. Mrs. Mitty’s dominatrix figure directly shatters the male dominance and the myth that women are just subordinates to men. The dominatrix seems to mock men at large that they are superiors only in the hyperactive recesses of their wildly escapist mind. Just after her husband’s imagined stormy navigation scene, Mrs. Mitty is seen scolding Walter for “driving too fast.” Not only does she cut the illusion of her husband, but also puts him in his place, enough for Walter to look at her “with shocked astonishment,” as she “seemed grossly unfamiliar, like a strange woman who had yelled at him in a crowd.” Why so? Because ordinarily, men do the shock to wakefulness of impractically dreamy women, and what is familiar is that women are too timid or too scared to point out to their husbands the latter’s shortcomings. The dominatrix proceeds by concluding that his psychiatrist should look him over because he is “tensed up again.” Upon their arrival at the hair salon, Mrs. Mitty tells her husband “to get those overshoes while [she is] having [her] hair done,” to which Walter retorts, “I don’t need overshoes.” So suddenly, and this story is supposed to be this way, the male is hopelessly resisting the female dominance, to no avail because the wife casually dismisses his stupid objection. He is then reduced to slipping into his secret life as a doctor, as a gun expert, as a captain in the war. Going to this escapist extreme is the height of the author’s commentary on feminism because the propaganda is actually achieved by assigning a dominatrix to subvert the male’s illusion of dominance. When Walter desperately opposes his wife by asking, “Does it ever occur to you that I am sometimes thinking?”, she resolves that he is sick so she will get his temperature upon reaching home. This only confirms that the male dominance is really a false consciousness, and only sick males believe it. The author needs a female, Mrs. Mitty, to prove this point. Textual Analysis 5: The Catbird Seat The last but definitely not the least of Thurber’s women characters is yet again a realization that women can get into the fighting mode to the point of crossing into the wild woman archetype (previously shown in Mrs. Mitty’s case and, mildly, in the cases of the mother characters in the first three studied stories). Mrs. Ulgine Barrows becomes “the newly-appointed special adviser to the president of the firm” in which the narrator works. First, how many women in all the world become special advisers, and to the firm’s president at that? The author has a social comment on feminism here in that women who very rarely get a moderately high position in the labor force can even go so far as be the firm’s president’s special adviser. Mrs. Barrows is seen by the narrator as a bully out “to destroy the efficiency and system of F & S,” and the latter has the reason to take her as such by way of her “advent and rise to power.” She takes her would-be advisee out of a compromising situation, which case makes Mr. Fitweiler “jump to the conclusion…that this was a woman… [who could] bring out the best in him and the firm.” The narrator feels otherwise, thinking that Mrs. Barrows “was swinging at the [firm’s] foundation stones with a pickaxe.” This felt threat by a woman’s sudden rise to power actually works against her, and while in the story’s ending she eventually loses out in the battle, it may be read that Mrs. Barrow’s termination is only a frustrated attempt to preserve the male dominance by pruning out possible female contamination in the ideology.
The fictions under study yield textual proofs that they are written by James Thurber to make a social commentary on feminism. In the Modern era as in today, the patriarchal ideology rendered a world that put forth male dominance at the expense of women. While not yet a byword then, feminism is already building its way to have the women wrest their place in the sun, and in the reading of Thurber’s works, a social commentary on feminism is alive and well despite the prevailing false consciousness. As a result of reading all the stories, there are many myths shattered by the women characters in the performance of their role as women in their respective stories. The conventional wisdom of women as cowardly, inferior, irrational, decision-unreliable, domination- or leadership-incapacitated and the like are subverted in varying fashions in the stories. In the process, too, the women characters manifest the equal footing they deserve side-by-side with men. They have shown that women can be leaders, and their essential difference should be celebrated. Besides the bashing of the myths about women, the women characters by way of the author’s comments have challenged the male dominance by showing the pathetic falseness of such dominance, and by presenting themselves dominating in their own abandon. While this may be read as just a stubborn rebellion by women, their actual dominance in the stories crash against the illusion of supremacy harbored by men in general. Hence, the women are not subordinate beings to be taken with polite if superficial seriousness. Decades before feminism triumphed into making the women surf back against the patriarchal tides and into finding their long-overdue spot in the center stage, it may be said that women found a surprise ally in a male humorist by the name of James Thurber, with the grace of his feminist-commenting works.


Bibliography: Babusci, Roger et al. Literature: The American Experience. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1989.
__________. Literature: Platinum. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1989.
Cassidy, Jack et al. Introducing Literature. New York: McGraw Hill Educational Division, 1991.
Monsberger, Robert E. James Thurber. New York: Twayne, 1964.
Thurber, James. My Life and Hard Times. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1933. __________. Vintage Thurber. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1963.


[1] Monsberger, Robert E. James Thurber. New York: Twayne, 1964. ii.
[2] Babusci, Roger et al. Literature: The American Experience. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1989. 830.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Thurber, James. Preface to My Life and Hard Times. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1933. xiv-xv.

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