What is Bel Kaufman's universal truth in "Sunday in the Park?"

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In Bel Kaufman's "Sunday in the Park," there are probably several universal truths or themes. Literature speaks to different people in many ways, depending upon each person's individual experiences.

Common themes might be that everyone is different. Another might be that children learn from their parents. However, the universal truth (or theme) that resonates most with me is "there are no perfect solutions in an imperfect world."

A woman sits in the park with her family—her husband Morton and their son Larry. Another boy is aggressive, throwing sand at Larry. At first Larry (like his father) takes no notice. The mother corrects the other little boy. Despite her warning, the other child throws sand again, and this time a dispute develops between the other child's father and the mother. The stranger announces that the park is a public place; therefore, his son can do as he pleases. The mother, frustrated because reason does not change the man's mind, turns to her husband who has been reading the paper. Morton stands up to speak to the other father finding—as his wife had before him—that not only will the other man not be reasoned with, but that now he is ready to settle the argument with a physical fight.

The mother becomes fearful, trying to find a way avert what seems to be an impending altercation of fists. As Morton tries to deal with the man in a reasonable manner one more time, "I must ask you...," the other responds with a bully's cliché:

You and who else?

Words will obviously not work, as Morton sees it, so instead of standing his ground (because he does not want to get into a fist fight), he packs things up, gathers together his wife and child, and walks away.

The mother, who had originally despaired that the men might start beating each other, is now disappointed in her husband, and angry. She is thankful that there was no fight, but she is bothered because her husband backed down.

Always before she has been proud of her husband's and her son's sensitivity and delicateness.

At this point in time—and we cannot be certain why—her husband's peaceful resolution to the problem does not satisfy her but leaves her feeling "beaten" or "defeated."

The mother does value peace: the peace of the day in the park, as well as the wish for a peaceful resolution between the two men over the other child's behavior. At the same time, however, the mother is not satisfied with her husband's benign behavior. Perhaps she is upset as a mother because her son was bullied and her husband did nothing. Perhaps she realizes that a peaceful resolution is attainable only under certain circumstances—not when her child's comfort or safety is at stake.

However, what most upsets the mother is that Morton's frustration with the confrontation causes him to turn on his son in anger, threatening the same violence toward the little boy for crying, that the stranger threatened him with. He tells his wife that if she cannot successfully "control" Larry, he will do it for her. His wife turns to him and says:

Indeed?...You and who else?

There is a time for peace. However, as the mother learns by watching her husband wrestle with his sense of impotence, and then by experiencing a need to fight back personally, she realizes that not all conflicts respond to peaceful negotiation. The ideals we hope and work for sometimes have no place in the real world. At the end, her anger makes her threaten her husband for her child's sake.


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