"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.


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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.

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“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...

(The entire section contains 1098 words.)

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