"The Marry Month of May" Themes
The main themes in “The Marry Month of May” are the month of May, the arbitrary nature of love, and relationships and social class.
- The month of May: Henry satirizes traditional tropes about the month of May, here personified as a trickster who disrupts the orderly lives of the upper class.
- The arbitrary nature of love: Mr. Coulson’s desire to marry Mrs. Widdup and Miss Coulson’s elopement with the iceman are entirely caused by the spring air.
- Relationships and social class: The story portrays the wealthy Coulsons’ romantic relationships with members of the working class as humorously improbable.
Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1098
The Month of May
The author announces in the first paragraph that this story will not only take place in May, but will illustrate the singular effects of that month on the behavior of the characters. He begins by humorously advising the reader to hit in the eye any poet who sings the praises of May. The antiquated language (“Prithee, smite . . .”) not only makes it clear that the author is being facetious and that the story will be a comic one, but also mimics the language of the poems and songs to which he is alluding. The title of the story is a pun on Thomas Dekker’s sixteenth-century poem “The Merry Month of May,” and there are many other traditional works of a similar sort that herald the coming of spring after a long, dark winter. These poems and songs invariably connect the coming of spring, the reemergence of plant and animal life, and the love affairs of young people who are reveling in the new warmth and light.
“The Marry Month of May” takes these motifs to ludicrous lengths, an absurdity signaled by the language and imagery of the opening paragraphs. Some of the clichés of the genre are subverted: the young countryman, often a simple shepherd, who appears in the poems becomes a rich old city-dweller. Others are exaggerated: the power of scent to create a romantic atmosphere is depicted as so forceful as to compel a proposal of marriage after a few breaths. In case the reader is in any danger of forgetting that the havoc in the Coulson household is all due to May, O. Henry inserts frequent reminders, personifying the month, even after the four-paragraph preamble on the subject. The following statements, along with other, briefer exclamations about the month, are scattered through the story:
The deadly work of the implacable, false enchantress May was done.
She knew that elderly men and thick-waisted women jumped as educated fleas in the ridiculous train of May, the merry mocker of the months.
But who shall shame the bright face of May? Rogue though she be and disturber of sane men's peace, no wise virgin’s cunning nor cold storage shall make her bow her head in the bright galaxy of months.
With the eye of a botanist she viewed the flowers—most potent weapons of insidious May.
All these comments on the character of the month traditionally celebrated as the bringer of warmth, light, and greenery may be seen as an implicit criticism of modern city life. The triumph of life and nature symbolized by May is a disruption and an inconvenience in the cloistered, artificial lives of the Coulsons.
The Arbitrary Nature of Love
O. Henry is never a champion of realism, but his depiction of love in stories such as “The Gift of the Magi” can be sentimental and romantic. In “The Marry Month of May,” however, the author represents love in a way that is perhaps best described as mechanical. The most striking instance of this quality is the way in which Mr. Coulson’s determination to propose to Mrs. Widdup is suddenly and automatically created by the scent of flowers on a warm breeze. His feelings are then completely destroyed by cold air that comes up through the vents from the ice purchased by Miss Coulson. As soon as the vents are closed and the warm air comes in through the windows again, Mr. Coulson is mechanically motivated to propose in exactly the same words as he did two days before, to a woman who merely irritated him yesterday.
Although the reader hears...
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nothing of Miss Coulson’s elopement with the iceman until the last sentence of the story, it is a surprising conclusion precisely because it is at least as arbitrary as her father’s proposal to his housekeeper. Miss Coulson’s “frigid” demeanor makes the iceman a more symbolically appropriate partner for her than the milkman or the coalman, but nothing she has said or done in the story makes the reader imagine her capable of falling in love at all. The author’s description reinforces this idea, claiming that Miss Coulson is impervious to emotion. If she did decide to marry, it would be with a member of her own class, forming a union that consolidated her wealth and status. O. Henry is often criticized for his improbable, contrived endings, and very few are more improbable or contrived than this one. However, although the reader cannot believe in Miss Coulson’s elopement as a realistic event, it does reinforce the theme of the arbitrariness of love as it is presented in the story.
Relationships and Social Class
Throughout the story, it is emphasized that the Coulsons are not only rich, but also members of the upper class. They live in the sedate, patrician neighborhood of Gramercy Park. They are clearly accustomed to having servants to do everything for them. The full name of Mr. Coulson’s daughter is Miss Van Meeker Constantia Coulson, suggesting that, like many members of New York high society, the family is of Dutch origin. Miss Coulson is described as a caricature of a New York socialite, well-bred and frosty, looking down her nose at the world.
In the story, both father and daughter form relationships with members of the working class, a housekeeper and a delivery driver. This is represented as bizarre and extreme behavior. In one case, the strangeness of forming a relationship across social boundaries drives the plot of the story and makes Miss Coulson resort to desperate measures. In the other, it provides the punchline. In both cases, this mingling between the social strata is represented as alien to the nature of the upper-class party, something they would never do without the motivating atmosphere of the month of May.
Even before the Coulsons are introduced, O. Henry refers to the idea of proper relationships remaining within class barriers. With humorous snobbery, the author says that spring reminds us that we are animals, just like donkeys, chimpanzees, ducks, housemaids, and policemen. The inclusion of the housemaids and policemen has a dual function. It ends the image with comic bathos—the reader has to be reminded that they are related not only to animals and plants, but even to members of the working classes. Its other function, however, is to point out how natural it is for housemaids and policemen to be together, within the same social class. This affirmation of natural order contrasts with the supposedly unnatural relationships formed across the class divide by Mr. Coulson and his daughter.