Thurber’s Carnival
by Cathy Cupitt

“… In comedy … the broken frame must be presupposed
but never spelled out.”1

The Fables for Our Time contained in Thurber’s The Thurber Carnival are, in my opinion, particularly good examples of a writer successfully ‘breaking frames’ in order to create humour and satire. In this essay I am going to explore the main methods Thurber uses to create humour and satire in the fables “The Shrike and the Chipmunks” and “The Unicorn in the Garden”2.

Firstly though, what do I mean by the ‘broken frame’? This is a reference to the idea that the violation of our ‘frames of reference’, and the recognition of the incongruity caused by it, is the basic element of humour. If the incongruity needs to be explained, the humour will be lost. Kant expresses this idea when he says “Laughter is an affection arising from a strained expectation being suddenly reduced to nothing”3.

Thurber violates several different types of expectation in his attempts to create humour and satire. These range from expectation of the rules of fable and other literature, to expectation of characterisation, and expectation of the familiar saying.

“The Shrike and the Chipmunks”, is first and foremost a parody of the traditional fable. It has all the traditional ingredients: the anthropomorphised Chipmunks, corresponding with stereotyped human characters, the building of suspense over a perceived right and wrong type of behaviour, a corresponding climax, and a moral at the end.

Anthropomorphism is a common technique of humour. Umberto Eco explains that this is so that the audience can laugh at the ‘broken frame’, without the discomfort of empathy with the frame breaker. “It is for this reason that the animalisation of the comic hero is so important”4. But quite apart from this use, Thurber adds absurdity. These animals are not just anthropomorphic, they have human traits that are completely incongruous with chipmunks.

To be sure, the female chipmunk had not been gone three nights before the male had to dress for a banquet and could not find his studs or shirt or suspenders.5

Both of these fables are part of the ‘twist in the tale’ tradition. They lead the reader into expecting one type of ending and then provide another, in this case in order to create a humour.

In “The Shrike and the Chipmunks”, the lady chipmunk espouses all of those ‘old wives’ sayings that are generally considered to be commonsensical. “You can’t be healthy if you lie in bed all day and never get any exercise,” the chipmunk wife tells her husband6. The irony here is that by being forced from his bed the male chipmunk becomes the prey of a shrike. Thurber’s twist is that we tend to believe that the wife’s advice is right – ‘early to bed early to rise makes a man healthy wealthy and wise’, but in the chipmunks’ case, following this maxim was a death warrant.

The moral at the end provides the final laugh. It is in fact an altered version of the maxim quoted above. “Early to rise and early to bed makes a male healthy wealthy and dead.”7 It is the familiarity of the one, compared with the changed emphasis of the other, that ‘breaks the frame’ of our experience and provokes our laughter. This is a satirical laugh. The ‘new’ version of the maxim exposes the unthinking trust we put in a lot of sayings – deserved or not.

“The Unicorn in the Garden” has a similar structure to that of “The Shrike and the Chipmunks”. It is also a parody of the fable, and makes use of the twist in the tale format, although the ending to this fable is more of a ‘sting in the tale’ than a mere ‘twist’. This is in part created by Thurber’s use of a pun.

“The Unicorn in the Garden” inverts not merely a ‘folk saying’, but a fundamental belief in the correct order of our society. We believe that people who see imaginary animals and lie to the authorities will be punished, and that those who don’t see imaginary animals, and tell the truth to the authorities will be left in peace. The opposite of this happens in “The Unicorn in the Garden”. Thurber cleverly distracts us from the tragedy of the situation by making the ‘wronged’ party the scheming, manipulative and generally unsympathetic wife, so that the reader’s sympathies go to the ‘seer’ and ‘liar’ – the husband. And it is because the ‘frame of reference’ broken in this tale is such a serious one, that it works so beautifully as satire – we laugh, and we are slightly uncomfortable about laughing.

And the line that makes us laugh the most is the moral, complete with pun: “Don’t count your boobies until they are hatched” writes Thurber8. What a biting epilogue for the wife who tried to ‘count her booby’.

The ‘war of the sexes’ theme, present in both “The Shrike and the Chipmunks” and “The Unicorn in the Garden”, was apparently common in Thurber’s writing. “The ultimate victory of the imaginative male over the dull female was a theme Thurber had used many times before,” writes Bernstein about “The Unicorn in the Garden”9.

Considering that satire’s purpose its to highlight human follies, it seems to me to be an added irony that Thurber’s best satire seems to be derived from a misogynistic tendency. However, Eco points out that the “comic is always racist: only the others, the Barbarians, are supposed to pay”10 .


Bernstein, Burton.
Thurber: A Biography. Great Britain: Lowe & Brydone, 1975.
Eco, Umberto.
“Frames of Comic Freedom” In Sebeok, T. A., ed. Carnival! Berlin: Mouton Publishers, 1984, pp. 1-9.
Kant, Immanuel.
Critique of Judgement, Book II. E307 Photocopy. pp. 196-203.
Thurber, James.
The Thurber Carnival. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1983.

End Notes

  1. Umberto Eco, “Frames of Comic Freedom,” in Carnival!, ed. T. A. Sebeok (Berlin: Mouton Publishers, 1984), p. 4.
  2. James Thurber, The Thurber Carnival (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1983). Fables for Our Time pp. 278 – 305. “The Shrike and the Chipmunks” pp. 290-291. “The Unicorn in the Garden” pp. 304-305.
  3. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, Book II, E307 Photocoy. p. 199.
  4. Eco, p. 2.
  5. Thurber, p. 290.
  6. Thurber, p. 290.
  7. Thurber, p. 291.
  8. Thurber, p.305.
  9. Burton Bernstein, Thurber: A Biography (Great Britain: Lowe & Brydone, 1975), p. 308.
  10. Eco, p. 2.

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