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  • The Modern Fable:James Thurber's Social Criticisms
  • Ruth A. Maharg (bio)

Aesop's fables mirror Greek life around the sixth century B.C.; James Thurber's depict sophisticated, neurotic Americans in the twentieth century A.D. Both groups of fables entertain while instructing, but in quite different ways.

Aesop's fables are reassuring—they reinforce conservative moral values. Aesop recommends simple virtues like loyalty, patience, honesty, moderation and industry, etc. The bad or foolish usually get what they deserve, or they must make amends for their errors. Aesop often warns against greed and pride: "in their greed for more, grasping people often throw away what they already have" and "vainglory is often the cause of misfortune."

Although his fables are more humorous and fantastic, Thurber presents a more realistic view of life. Originally published in The New Yorker, his apparently simple fables were meant for adults. Thurber demonstrates the complexity of life by depicting the world as an uncertain, precarious place, where few reliable guidelines exist. He exposes the falsities of clearcut distinctions between right and wrong, good and bad, and tears apart traditional beliefs. In "The Shrike and the Chipmunk" a wife who urges her husband to be an industrious early riser is rewarded by his death: "Early to rise and early to bed/makes a male healthy and wealthy and dead." A swallow who decides not to rush headlong into danger in "The Glass in the Field" escapes death because "he who hesitates is sometimes saved." The fairly intelligent fly joins a group of less intelligent flies on a piece of flypaper; hence, "there is no safety in numbers or in anything else." Thurber's hen who runs around yelling that the heavens are falling down would have had the last laugh, because the heavens do fall and everyone dies.

This fatalistic view underlies many of Thurber's fables, which were influenced by the spread of Nazism before World War II, the war itself and the McCarthy trials in the fifties. Heavens don't fall but bombs do; man's greatest fear is man himself. This theme appears in both Fables for Our Time, published in 1940 and Further Fables for Our Time, published in 1955. In "The Rabbits Who Caused All the Trouble," Thurber attacks American indifference to the Nazis; a group of wolves who decide they don't like rabbits blame them for all natural catastrophes. The wolves imprison the rabbits and eat them when they try to escape. The other animals blandly accept the wolves' explanation of the rabbits' deaths. In "The Green Isle in the Sea," Thurber warns of oncoming war. An old man wants only to enjoy what is left of his life, so he hobbles to a park where the barren trees offer no protection from the "hundred planes which appeared suddenly overhead [and that] had an excellent view of the little old gentleman through their bombing sights."

Thurber saw the postwar period as a time of intellectual and moral confusion. In "The Bears and the Monkeys" the monkeys give the bears freedom and explain, "Now you are free to do what I tell you to do"; their motto is, "Why stand on your own two feet when you can stand on ours?" Thurber's moral emphasizes his point: "It is better to have the ring of freedom in your ears than in your nose." Thurber attacks McCarthyism in "The Trial of the Old Watchdog." A court of foxes finds an innocent watchdog guilty, and banishes a peaceable mongoose because he doesn't exhibit "normal" mongoose tendencies. When an old hen misunderstands the complimentary phrase "very proper gander" to mean something about propaganda, rumors fly; the animals eventually drive the gander out of the country.

Despite his emphasis on war, destruction, and mass behavior, Thurber echoes Aesop's theme of individual folly; but unlike Aesop, he suggests that man cannot know, find, or follow his own inherent character. In Aesop's "A Waste of Good Counsel" a turtle who disregards an eagle's advice and insists he can fly ends up smashed to pieces. Others hearing the tale will learn from the turtle's mistake. Thurber retells this fable with a...


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pp. 72-73
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