James Thurber, (1894-1961), was an American writer best known for his humorous stories. As a celebrated wit, Thurber highlighted the comic frustrations and eccentricities of ordinary people in his works.
The following essay is about the ways to sustain a happy marriage. Although its tone is hilarious, it reveals the naked truth of marriage characterized by the twists and turns of confrontation and conciliation. The ten rules, nothing less than the manifesto of Thurber’s idiosyncrasies, are intended to amuse rather than preach.
First of all, he mentions the motive for this writing is the fight between a couple in his neighborhood:
The idea just came to me one day, when I watched a couple in an apartment across the court from mine, gesturing and banging tables and throwing objects d’art at each other. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but it was obvious, as the shot-put followed the hammer throw, that he and/or she (as the lawyers would put it) had deeply offended her and/or him.
Witnessing the exciting battle, Thurber began brooding on the subject of marriage. Here come the ten unique rules for the maintenance of a happy marriage:
Rule One: Neither party to a sacred union should run down, disparage or badmouth the other’s former girls or beaux, as the case may be. The tendency to attack the character, looks, intelligence, capability, and achievements of one’s mate’s former friends of the opposite sex is a common cause of domestic discontent. Sweetheart-slurring, as we will call this deplorable practice, is encouraged by a long spell of gloomy weather, too many highballs, hang-overs, and the suspicion that one’s spouse is hiding, and finding letters in a hollow tree, or is intercepting the postman, or putting in secret phone calls from the corner drugstore. These fears almost always turn out to be unfounded, but the unfounded fear, as we all know, is worse than the founded.
Aspersions, insinuations, reflections or just plain cracks about old boy friends and girl friends should be avoided at all times. Here are some expressions that should be especially eschewed: “That waffle-fingered, minor-league third baseman you latched on to at Cornell”; “You know the girl I mean---the one with the hips who couldn’t read”; “That old flame of yours with the vocabulary of a hoot owl”; and “You remember her---that old bat who chewed gum and dressed like Daniel Boone.”
This kind of derogatory remark, if persisted in by one or both parties to a marriage, will surely lead to divorce, or, at best, a blow on the head with a glass ash tray.
Rule Two: A man should make an honest effort to get the names of his wife’s friends right. This is not easy. The average wife who was graduated from college at any time during the past thirty years keeps in close touch with at least seven old classmates. These ladies, known as “the girls”, are named, respectively: Mary, Marian, Melissa, Marjorie, Maribel, Medeleine, and Miriam; and all of them are called Myrtle by the careless husband we are talking about. Furthermore, he gets their nicknames wrong. This, to be sure, is understandable, since their nicknames are, respectively: Molly, Muffy, Missy, Midge, Mabby, Maddy, and Mims. The careless husband, out of thoughtlessness or pure cussedness, calls them all Mugs, or, when he is feeling particularly brutal, Mucky.
All the girls are married, one of them to a Ben Thompkins, and as this is the only one he can remember, our hero calls all the husbands Ben, or Tompkins, adding to the general annoyance and confusion.
If you are married to a college graduate, then, try to get the names of her girl friends and their husbands straight. This will prevent some of those interminable arguments that begin after Midge and Harry (not Mucky and Ben) have said a stiff good-night and gone home.
Rule Three: A husband should not insult his wife publicly, at parties. He should insult her in the privacy of the home. Thus, if a man thinks the soufflés his wife makes are as tough as an outfielder’s glove, he should tell her so when they are at home, not when they are out at a formal dinner party where a perfect soufflé has just been served. The same rule applies to the wife. She should not regale his men friends, or women friends, with hilarious accounts of her husband’s clumsiness, remarking that he dances like a 1907 Pope Hartford, or that he locked himself in the children’s rabbit pen and couldn’t get out. All parties must end finally, and the husband or wife who has revealed all may find that there is hell to pay in the taxi going home.
Rule Four: The wife who keeps saying, “Isn’t that just like a man?” and the husband who keeps saying, “Oh, well, you know how women are.” are likely to grow farther apart through the years. These famous generalizations have the effect of reducing an individual to the anonymous status of a mere unit in a mass. The wife who, just in time, comes upon her husband about to fry an egg in a dry skillet should not classify him with all other males but should give him the accolade of a special distinction. She might say, for example, “George, no other man in the world would try to do a thing like that.” Similarly, a husband watching his wife labouring to start the car without turning on the ignition should not say to the gardener or a passer-by, “Oh, you know, etc.” Instead, he should remark to his wife, “I’ve seen a lot of women in my life, Nellie, but I’ve never seen one who could touch you.”
Certain critics of this rule will point out that the specific comments I would substitute for the old familiar generalities do not solve the problem. They will maintain that the husband and wife will be sore and sulky for several days, no matter what is said. One wife, reading Rule Four over my shoulder, exclaimed, “Isn’t that just like a man?” This brings us right back where we started. Oh, well, you know how women are!
Rule 5: When a husband is reading aloud, a wife should sit quietly is her chair, relaxed but attentive. If he had decided to read the Republican platform, an article on elm blight, or a blow-by-blow account of a prize fight, it is not going to be easy, but she should at least pretend to be interested. She should not keep swinging one foot, start to wind her wrist watch, file her fingernails, or clap her hands in an effort to catch a mosquito. The good wife allows the mosquito to bite her when her husband is reading aloud.
She should not break in to correct her husband’s pronunciation, or to tell him one of his socks is wrong side out. When the husband has finished, the wife should not lunge instantly into some irrelevant subject. It’ s wise to exclaim, “How interesting!” or at the very least, “Well, well!” She might even compliment him on his diction and his grasp of politics, elm blight or boxing. If he should ask some shrewd question to test her attention, she can cry, “Good heavens!” leap up, and rush out to the kitchen on some urgent fictitious errand. This may fool him, or it may not. I hope, for her sake---and his sake---that it does.
Rule Six: A husband should try to remember where things are around the house so that he does not have to wait for his wife to get home from the hairdresser’s before he can put his hands on what he wants. Among the things a husband is usually unable to locate are the iodine, the aspirin, the nail file, the French vermouth, his cuff links, studs, black silk socks and evening shirts, the snapshots taken at Nantucket last summer, his favorite record of “Kentucky Babe”, the borrowed copy of My Cousin Rachel, the garage key, his own towel, the last bill from Brooks Bros, his pipe cleaners, the poker chips, crackers, cheese, the whetstone, his new raincoat, and the screens for the upstairs windows.
I don’t really know the solution to this problem, but one should be found. Perhaps every wife should draw for her husband a detailed map of the house, showing clearly the location of everything he might need. Trouble is, I suppose, he would lay the map down somewhere and not be able to find it until his wife got home.
Rule 7: If a husband is not listening to what his wife is saying, he should not grunt, “Okay” or “Yeah, sure”, or make little affirmative noises. A husband lost in thought or worry is likely not to take in the sense of such a statement as this: “We’re going to the Gordons for dinner tonight, John, so I’m letting the servants off. Don’t come home from the office first. Remember, we both have to be at the dentist’s at five, and I’ll pick you up there with the car.” Now, an “Okay” or “Yeah, sure” at this point can raise havoc if the husband hasn’t really been listening. As usual, he goes all the way out to his home in Glenville---thirteen miles from the dentist’s office and seventeen miles from the Gordons’ house---and he can’t find his wife. He can’t find the servants. His wife can’t get him on the phone because all she gets is the busy buzz. John is calling everybody he can think of except, of course, in his characteristic way, the dentist and the Gordons. At last he hangs up, exhausted and enraged. Then the phone rings. It is his wife. And here let us leave them.
Rule 8: If your husband ceases to call you “Sugar-foot” or “Candy Eyes” or “Cutie Fudge Pie” during the first year of your marriage, it is not necessarily a sign that he has come to take you for granted or that he no longer cares. It is probably an indication that he has recovered his normal perspective. Many a young husband who once called his wife “Tender Mittens” or “Taffy Ears” or “Rose Lips” has become austere or important, like a Common Pleas Judge, and he wouldn’t want reports of his youth frivolity to get around. If he doesn’t call you Dagmar when your name is Daisy, you are sitting pretty.
Rule 9: For those whose husbands insist on pitching for the Married Men against the Single Men at the Fourth-of-July picnic of the First M. E. Church, I have the following suggestions: don’t sit on the sidelines and watch him. Get lost. George is sure to be stuck out by a fourteen-year-old boy, pull up with a Charley horse running to first, and get his teeth knocked out by an easy grounder to the mound. When you see him after the game, tell him everybody knew the little boy was throwing illegal spitballs, everybody saw the first baseman spike George, and everybody said that grounder took such a nasty bounce even Phil Rizzuto couldn’t have fielded it. Remember, most middle-aged husbands get to sleep at night by imagining they are striking out the entire batting order of the Yankees.
Rule 10: A wife’s dressing table should be inviolable. It is the one place in the house a husband should get away from and stay away from. And yet, the average husband is drawn to it as by a magnet, especially when he is carrying something wet, oily, greasy or sticky, such as a universal joint, a hub cap, or the blades of a lawn mower. His excuse for bringing these alien objects into his wife’s bedroom in the first place is that he is looking for “an old rag” with which to wipe them off. There are no old rags in a lady’s boudoir, but husbands never seem to learn this. They search hampers, closets, and bureau drawers, expecting to find a suitable piece of cloth, but first they set the greasy object on the dressing table. The aggrieved wife may be tempted, following this kind of vandalism, to lock her bedroom door and kick her husband out for good. I suggest, however, a less stringent punishment. Put a turtle in his bed. The wife who is afraid to pick up a turtle should ask Junior to help her. Junior will love it.
After offering the solutions to marital discord, Thurber mocks at them jokingly at the end. He confesses that his solution may leave as another problem for the distressed couple:
I have, indeed, left a number of loose ends here and there. For example, if the husbands are going to mislay their detailed maps of household objects, I have accomplished nothing except to add one item for the distraught gentleman to lose.
Besides, the wife’s turtle-revenge perhaps will trigger another from the husband, setting off a vicious chain of reaction.
Although this humorous piece ends without any certain cure for the “Running Feud” in marriage, we can at least grasp better the mentality of husband and wife. As Tolstoy remarked, “Every happy family is the same.” The key lies in compassion and consideration between husband and wife!