‘Children are Bored on Sunday’ by Jean Stafford: Short Story Analysis
‘Children are Bored on Sunday’ is the modernist realistic short story penned by American novelist, short story writer, and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Jean Stafford. It narrates how two young people Emma and Alfred, the former a novice in everything intellectual and the latter a real intellectual, meet at a museum on a Sunday. They rekindle their earlier warmth for each other and set off to buy each other a drink. Most probably to consummate their relationship as two failures in the elitist intellectual world of New York City in the 1940s. Jean Stafford penned this story in the New Yorker in the year 1948. The story is a reflective but humoristic piece. It explains how Emma looked at all intellectuals ever since she had come to live in New York. It also describes her feelings for Alfred, for whom she had affection but kept a distance because he was an intellectual. The humor in this short story is subtle and speaks about the problems of rural women who come to study or work in a big city and try their very best to fit in with the elitist crowd and most of the time fail as Emma did.
The short story’s title is misleading, making us presume that this short story is about children trying to pass the time on a boring Sunday. There is a mention of two New Yorker school boys staring at the knight armor suits, which may make us think that they will be the short story’s central figures, but we would be wrong in thinking so. This short story is about the novices in the elitist world of cocktail parties, intellectually stimulating conversations, and the world of art that defined urban life, especially in the bustling city of New York just after the end of the Second World War. Emma is a child of this society who tries to fit in with the crowd she mingles with but hopelessly fails to make a mark. She is either ignored or laughed at by these intellectuals who marvel at her lack of depth and knowledge. Alfred was an intellectual from New York much more well informed about literature, good music, and paintings than Emma. However, the terrible and harsh circumstances of his life, which included a failed marriage, poverty, and psychological disorders, had brought him down to the earth and had indeed humbled him. In his unfortunate condition, he is like Emma, a lonesome child trying to pass the time on a Sunday in self-education of a particular sort. However, we realize that they both were just plain bored and came to the museum to remind themselves of the cocktail parties and the lively conversations that used to happen there. They are novices or rather ‘children’ in this world of the rich and want to drown their sorrows with naked abandon like children at a nearby bar. There is a hint that they would have sex free of the intellectual talk used to make up their lives earlier. There would be no more pretensions after this Sunday at the museum because now they were both on the same wavelength.
Jean Stafford is very reflective in her narrative prose style and delves into the intricacies that make up human behavior’s humorous side. This is especially so when Emma ridicules herself along with the cocktail intellectual party crowd. She mentions how hypocritical they are and were always criticizing each other in a sorrowful way as if the world was a mess and that they were the ones who had to bear up the madness that was civilization. Emma analyzes the people who call themselves intellectuals. She believes that they have the money and the time and could waste time sipping martinis with olives and Manhattans with cherries as they would converse about art, culture, politics, and everything intellectually stimulating. They acted artificially and stood on ceremonies. Such elitists were highly critical of each other and evaluated each other based on the intellectual knowledge of each person in their social circle. Although Emma says that she was a failure and could never meet up to their standards, we realize from the text that she had learned a lot herself and was indeed an intellectual. However, she was a blunt intellectual who liked to speak her mind and had a heart. She could never be impersonal while analyzing even a painting or sculpture because her rural upbringing in her Great Uncle Graham’s farm clashed with the urban life of New York. Emma genuinely believed that children born in New York had a headstart over other children at the thing called ‘being an intellectual’ because they had their whole childhood to assimilate and develop their tastes in the finer things in life. Emma came to New York to study when she was only twenty years old. She had spent her life reading books by Charles Dickens and was scandalized that the people or elitists in New York did not care much for him. She tried learning their ways of talking and their way of life, but she couldn’t continue with this charade because it was indeed a charade. There was no genuine compassion among the people or the circles Emma moved about because they were very impersonal and too full or proud of themselves. So, Emma unnecessarily degrades her intellectual capabilities.
She leaves the cocktail party circle and starts drinking at bars and eating wafers as food because she was down and out. She would think a lot about Alfred, whom she flirted with at these cocktail parties but was afraid to make the first move because he was also a highly gifted New York intellectual. Now, coming to the topic of being an intellectual. There is a feeling that since some people in the world have a lot of money and time, they can afford to spend their time perfecting their knowledge in reading, painting, music, et al. But there are also people who are not well off, but want to learn from the masters and so educate themselves on the intellectual pursuits of the elite. We must understand here that not everyone who sips a martini is an intellectual, and not every factory worker is a socialist. Being a true intellectual goes beyond the trappings of the world. However, people living in metropolitan and vibrant cities like New York indeed get a better headstart at all this than people from other places, though this has changed because of globalization. An intellectual is a person who engages in critical thinking, research, and reflection about society’s reality. It proposes solutions for society’s normative problems, and thus he or she gains authority as a public intellectual. Alfred was such an intellectual. His knowledge made Emma feel unnerved to converse with him. She did not want him to think she was a fool. She did not realize that he too must have been one of these poorer or middle-class intellectuals who attended the cocktail parties because of good drinks and good conversation. He was proud but not as much as the others because he also, like her, must have worked very hard to become the intellectual he was.
Several composers, painters, writers, sculptors, and their works in this short story titled ‘Children are Bored on Sunday’ excites us, especially when we recognize the names. I want to analyze a few of them which are central to the text:
- Sandro Botticelli was one of the greatest painters of the Florentine Renaissance. His ‘The Birth of Venus and Primavera’ is often said to epitomize the Renaissance spirit for modern viewers. Emma was contemplating on this painting when she suddenly saw Alfred looking very haggard at the museum. She hides from him at first and is highly annoyed that she could not look at her Botticelli because of him.
- Salvador Dalí is one of the most celebrated artists of all time. His fiercely technical yet highly unusual paintings, sculptures, and creative explorations in film and life-size interactive art ushered in a new generation of imaginative expression. Emma meets this famous twentieth-century personality at the museum. She bangs into him while trying to flee from Alfred and gets a bit of a shock. Dali was there for the paintings.
- There is mention of Emma’s favorite paintings that she likes because of something related to her personal life. They are Botticelli, Carlo Crivelli, and Francisco Goya. Goya is considered the most important Spanish artist of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Throughout his long career, he was a commentator and chronicler of his era. Carlo Crivelli was an Italian Renaissance painter of conservative late Gothic decorative sensibility, who spent his early years in the Veneto.
- Emma mentions the writer Ezra Pound and how embarrassing it would be not to know who he was. What was even more embarrassing was recognizing his name and not knowing what he wrote, especially his ‘Cantos’. Ezra Weston Loomis Pound was an expatriate American poet and critic, a significant figure in the early modernist poetry movement, and a fascist collaborator in Italy during World War II. His works include Ripostes, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, and the c. 23,000-line, the 800-page epic poem ‘The Cantos’.
When Emma mentions the names of these fine painters and writers, you know that she has indeed come a long way from her time as a novice intellectual. However, she has, for a year, been away from the cocktail crowd. I can empathize with her. I know about these great painters, sculptors, writers, or poets, but because I have spent a significant part of my life as a recluse, it is difficult for me to converse on these topics. I especially am a connoisseur of books. If you want to know more about my life in books and with books, you can buy my memoir on my blog or Amazon products page. The title of the memoir is Scenes of the Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai. Check it out; it will be worth your while.
Emma realizes that the hardships of life have changed Alfred, the man she was avoiding at the museum. She decides to look for him and finds him with a crowd of people walking with Dali towards the painting area. One look, and they realize that time has changed them to people with hearts made not of glass or marble but cardiac muscle. They decide to drown their sorrows in a bar and start a new life away from the elitist circle they had chased all their lives in New York.
I enjoyed reading and analyzing this short story by Jean Stafford. I am focusing on American writers for the time being in keeping with the fact that the US elections are taking place and on everyone’s minds. I wanted to celebrate American short story writers who made it big in the country where all dreams come true. I hope to analyze more American short stories soon.
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