Short story: “Children Are Bored on Sunday”

by look i have opinions

“Children Are Bored on Sunday,” by Jean Stafford

Appeared in the January 21st, 1948 issue of the New Yorker (subscribers can read here), featured in their May 2008 podcast (here); also on Google Books here and here

Maybe 8,000 words—actually no idea

The great thing about fiction, but especially about third person, is the way a story can say things that the characters can’t. This story has a lot of scathing insights into the New York intellectual set of the time, even though its point-of-view character is incapable of trusting her own perceptions, incapable of articulating them, and certainly incapable of delivering them with the necessary aplomb and timing. Emma thinks there’s something wrong with her for considering these endless cocktail parties to be occasions for getting drunk; she thinks painters and poets are above drunken fist fights; she can’t bring herself to judge her sophisticated friends as harshly as she judges herself. So the story persuades us to judge them for her, and to relish the infuriating distance between what Emma perceives and what she believes.

It also contains this great evocation of the ugliness of opinions—being bombarded with other people’s, and being expected to have them oneself:

She feared that her afternoon, begun in such a burst of courage, would not be what it might have been: for this second’s glimpse of him—who had no bearing on her life—might very well divert her from the pictures, not only because she was reminded of her ignorance of painting by the presence of someone who was (she assumed) versed in it but because her eyesight was now bound to be impaired by memory and conjecture, by the irrelevant mind-portraits of innumerable people who belonged to Eisenburg’s milieu. And almost at once, as she had predicted, the air separating her from the schoolboys below was populated with the images of composers, of painters, of writers who pronounced judgments, in their individual argot, on Hindemith, Ernst, Sartre, on Beethoven, Rubens, Baudelaire, on Stalin and Freud and Kierkegaard, on Toynbee, Frazer, Thoreau, Franco, Salazar, Roosevelt, Maimonides, Racine, Wallace, Picasso, Henry Luce, Monsignor Sheen, the Atomic Energy Commission, and the movie industry.

Except for the language and some of the items on the list, this passage doesn’t strike me as dated in the least. It could be rewritten and set among hipsters or anarchists or any subculture where pronouncing judgments on “important” topics is a major source of social status and personal identity.

I love the wish fulfillment at the end. It’s one of those moments the short story form is made for capturing. Maybe they’re both doomed to alcoholism and despair, but I’m still counting it as a happy ending.