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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

“An Ordinary Day, with Peanuts”: Shirley Jackson on The Problem of Evil


Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

One way to gain insight concerning horror writers’ fiction and the techniques that the writers of such literature employ is to study actual specimens of the genre. Chillers and Thrillers has already examined such stories in some detail, including H. G. Wells’ “The Red Room,” Bram Stoker’s “Dracula’s Guest,” Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” Ambrose Bierce’s “The Damned Thing,” and Charles Dickens’ “The Signal-man.” In addition, Chillers and Thrillers has considered the film The Descent and Stephen King’s novel Under the Dome in thorough detail. As a result of these studies (and others that are note quite as detailed), much concerning the art of writing horror fiction has been learned and shared. Perhaps these studies have also suggested the critical tools, techniques, theories, and approaches that one can take, on his or her own, to better understand the tricks of the trade. Chillers and Thrillers will continue to “murder” these stories in order “to dissect” them, so that this blog’s faithful followers and occasional readers can gain and share whatever insights Chillers and Thrillers may offer, beginning with Shirley Jackson’s masterful tale, “An Ordinary Day, with Peanuts.”

Her story opens as the omniscient narrator introduces the unlikely protagonist, Mr. John Philip Johnson, sharing with the story’s readers Johnson’s view of the world. It is unduly optimistic--naively optimistic, one might suggest--like that of the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz, whose view of the universe as representing, despite its moral and ontological limitations, “the best of all possible worlds,” an optimism that is attacked, quite effectively, each in his own way, by writers as diverse as Nathaniel Hawthorne (“Young Goodman Brown”), Francois Marie Arouet Voltaire (Candide), and the Marquis de Sade.(Justine; or, The Misfortunes of Virtue). Leibnitz’s view of the world is assailed, again, in part, by Jackson, in “An Ordinary Day.”

Mr. Johnson’s view of the world is (or, at least seems to be) much like that of Voltaire. Johnson, like the philosopher who wrote “Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man, and the Origin of Evil,” apparently believes that this is “the best of all possible worlds” (although, as readers will soon learn, appearances of belief, as of appearances otherwise, can be deceiving). Jackson, through her narrator, supplies hints that her protagonist’s ostensible optimism may not be supported by the actual state of the world. For example, he has had to have his shoes resoled, and this “resoling” suggests that the universe is not the perfect place that it may, at times, appear to be, for the fact that Mr. Johnson’s soles have worn out, needing to be replaced, suggests that good things even as trivial as the soles of shoes--and, perhaps, as significant as the souls of men and women--can degrade. This intimation of entropy, of erosion, of gradual degradation, if not of evil, is reinforced by the narrator’s reference to the sidewalk upon which Mr. Johnson steps as he leaves home as being “dirty” and by the narrator’s observation that only “some” of the people at whom Mr. Johnson smiles bother to return his smile.

Although his kindness wins them over, at first, other characters are not nearly as trusting of Mr. Johnson as he seems to be of them. When he offers a child the carnation he has bought for his lapel, the baby’s mother studies him “for a minute” before smiling at him, as her innocent child has done, upon the receipt of the flower, suggesting that she, having experience of the world, does not, unlike her child, automatically trust strangers bearing gifts. This mother’s initial distrust of Mr. Johnson is mirrored, a few moments later, by another mother’s suspicion of him when he offers to watch her child for her while she tends to the men who are moving her furniture. (The rest of the small crowd gathered at the scene are more interested in inspecting her worn furniture than they are in lending her a hand.) Her suspicion--she “turned and glared at him distrustfully”--prompts him to add, “We'll sit right here on the steps.” The child, a boy, is allowed to go to Mr. Johnson, who offers the lad a “handful of peanuts” from his pocket. The boy initially refuses the offered peanuts because “his mother did not allow him to accept food from strangers.” While the mother supervises the movers, Mr. Johnson reassures the boy that he will like his new home in Vermont. As he goes about town, having chosen a random route (“he did not follow the same route every morning, but preferred to pursue his eventful way in wide detours, more like a puppy than a man intent upon business”), Mr. Johnson does one good turn after another to all whom he encounters, including animals: he feeds a peanut to “a stray dog” he encounters on his way.

Jackson’s narrator frequently advises readers of how good Mr. Johnson himself feels, possibly as a result of his optimism and possibly as a result of the good deeds that he does. For example, as he sets out from home, at the beginning of the story, “Mr. John Philip Johnson shut his front door behind him and went down his front steps into the bright morning with a feeling that all was well with the world on this best of all days, and wasn't the sun warm and good,” and, after he watches the woman’s son, he steps “happily. . . Feeling the warm sun on his back and on the top of his head.”

He matches two young people who are too much in a hurry and too concerned with work to live their lives, paying them for the day they will miss by going on a date, the expenses of which Mr. Johnson pays in advance. He continues to offer peanuts to those whom he meets--a gull, a panhandler, a bus driver--and advises a couple who are seeking an apartment to rent of the vacancy left by the mother and son who have moved to Vermont. (This act is especially helpful in such big cities as New York, in which finding any apartment is difficult.) His good deeds continue until it is time for him to return home:
After his lunch he rested; he walked into the nearest park and fed peanuts to the pigeons. It was late afternoon by the time he was ready to start back downtown, and he had refereed two checker games, and watched a small boy and girl whose mother had fallen asleep and awakened with surprise and fear that turned to amusement when she saw Mr. Johnson. He had given away almost all of his candy, and had fed all the rest of his peanuts to the pigeons; and it was time to go home. Although the late afternoon sun was pleasant, and his shoes were still entirely comfortable, he decided to take a taxi downtown.
On his way home, he saves a taxi driver from losing money on a horserace. After the driver agrees to take the money home to his wife that a fare had given him to bet on a horse, Mr. Johnson gives the driver another ten dollars to bet on a different horse on another day, convincing the driver that astrological signs are against the horse winning the race that the driver has been tipped about the horse’s winning.

Finally, arriving back at his apartment, Mr. Johnson is greeted by his wife. They enquire as to one another’s day. He tells her that his has not been difficult; hers, she says, has been only “so-so.” She then recites the incidents of her day: she “accused” a woman at a department store “of shoplifting,” “sent three dogs to the pound,” “quarreled” with a bus driver and complained about his conduct to his supervisors. Based upon Mr. Johnson’s kind and considerate behavior throughout the day, readers are apt to think that Mr. Johnson would be horrified by his wife’s conduct. Therefore, his reaction comes as something of a shock. “Fine,” he says, and then, observing that she looks “tired,” suggests that they “change over tomorrow”--in other words, she will play the angel to his devil.

The story ends upon the same sort of commonplace note with which it began, as Mr. Johnson, enquiring as to what is for dinner and told “veal cutlet,” replies, “Had it for lunch.” The ordinariness of the lives of this couple, each of whom does good or evil in the course of their daily lives and is able, by a mere act of the will, to alternate between these modes of conduct enhances the story’s horrific quality, for it suggests that anyone and everyone--people as seemingly normal and ordinary as Mr. Johnson and his wife--can be either good or evil, or, indeed, both, and the duality of all human beings as agents, simultaneously, of both good and evil is the message of Jackson’s story. Men and women, Jackson suggests, are capable of choosing to be good or evil--or, at least, to act in good or evil ways. They have free will.

Her story suggests how much good or evil can be done by seemingly insignificant acts of kindness or malice. Mr. Johnson’s matching of the young couple might result in a happy, lifelong marriage between a young woman and a young man who, before, were in much too great a rush to earn a living to appreciate life or, indeed, themselves or other people, just as Mrs. Johnson’s accusation (perhaps unfounded) of a shopper’s theft could become a lifelong impediment to the individual, should a conviction result, in seeking employment or retaining a position. Obviously, most people would agree that it is better to do good than to do evil, but, Jackson’s story also suggests that, given the choice of behaving one way or the other, most people choose to behave both ways, either simultaneously or alternately, and that those who are suspicious of other people’s seemingly good intentions may, therefore, have good reason, indeed, to be suspicious. To choose to do good only at times is to choose to do evil, for to truly choose to do good would mean to renounce evil entirely--something that people do not seem to want to do or, perhaps, to be capable of doing.

Readers may be reminded of the lesson that Goodman Brown learns in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “Young Goodman Brown,” that all men and women are both good and evil; that sin is innate and inescapable; and that all human deeds, therefore, are, even when good, tainted with evil. It is this theme, the idea of original sin, that Leibnitz’s optimistic philosophy ignores and that Jackson’s story, like “Young Goodman Brown,” Candide, and Justine; or, The Misfortunes of Virtue ultimately underscores.

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