Historical Context

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The Great Depression Thurber first published this story at the height of the Great Depression, when America was in the midst of one of the worst economic crises that it has ever known. By that time, about one-third of the labor force—16 million people—were unemployed. The country’s gross domestic product,...

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The Great Depression
Thurber first published this story at the height of the Great Depression, when America was in the midst of one of the worst economic crises that it has ever known. By that time, about one-third of the labor force—16 million people—were unemployed. The country’s gross domestic product, which is one of the main indicators that economists use to measure economic health, had shrunk nearly in half between 1929 and 1933, from $104 billion to $56 billion. Hundreds of people died of starvation every year, and thousands avoided starvation only by relying on government handouts.

The Great Depression had many causes, but the main factor that started it was the stock market crash on Thursday, October 4, 1929, a date that has come to be known as Black Thursday. During the 1920s, economic prosperity had given people a false sense of security, leading many to invest foolishly in stocks, often with borrowed money. When the value of the stocks fell sharply, debt holders were forced to default on their loans, which caused a rippling effect throughout the economy. Businesses folded, laying off workers who then had trouble paying for goods and services, forcing other businesses into bankruptcy, and so on. The economic crunch was worldwide, blocking any hope for relief: In Germany, for instance, despair over the runaway economy gave Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party a platform for their rise to power.

The economy worsened for the first years of the 1930s. In 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president and initiated a long list of policies, collectively known as the New Deal, that were meant to stimulate the economy and help Americans deal with the problems of chronic unemployment. The economy rose slowly, and the depression never fully lifted until 1939, when World War II began in Europe.

Americans coped with the economic situation by finding ways to spend less. One way they did this was by moving into more cramped quarters. It was not uncommon for several generations of family members to live in one house, as older members, who once may have been able to afford to live on their own, found that their savings would not stretch, their pension plans were bankrupt, and the few employers who did have jobs gave them to younger workers. People also relied on their neighbors more to help out when they came up short, whether it was in borrowing cooking ingredients or calling for a hand in putting together food or furniture that they could not afford to buy from the store. Thurber’s audience, therefore, would have been well familiar with the kind of household and community that he describes in ‘‘The Night the Ghost Got In,’’ many of them having been pushed together into similar close circumstances themselves.

Domestic Comedy
‘‘The Night the Ghost Got In’’ gains its humor from several trends in American humor. For one thing, it is the sort of family-oriented story that was popular during the depression. The major strains of humor throughout the country’s history had always been political humor—as might be expected of a democracy that was built on the principle that those who govern are no better than those whom they rule—and racial or ethnic humor, owing to the country’s immigrant nature. The late 1880s and early 1890s, however, saw the establishment of the middle class, a new category that was neither high nor low but was prime material for satire. Though satires of the upper and lower classes usually had an outsider’s perspective, middle-class humor was gentler, if only for the reason that most writers and their readers were members of that category themselves. Thus, there was no audience for humor pieces that would portray homeowners and housewives as corrupt or inherently ignorant. The humor tended to laugh with them, not at them.

The New Yorker, for which Thurber wrote for most of his life, was a main influence for the growth of this type of writing. The magazine began in 1925 as a sophisticated journal for an urban audience. In writing for that audience, however, Thurber’s mentor and friend, editor Harold Ross, assembled a stable of writers who wrote droll, understated pieces about the quirks of family life. Writers like Robert Benchley and S. J. Perlman spun witty stories about their difficulties as decent, ordinary fellows in coping with modern expectations. Clarence Day, whose version of the same material was collected into the book Life with Father, took a somewhat more sentimental view of the same material, whereas James Thurber was more likely to venture into the absurd. But at the core of the New Yorker style of humor in the 1930s was the bumbling middleclass man.

Domestic comedy grew over the years. The latter part of the decade saw the extravagant musicals, with which Hollywood had kept people amused during the beginning of the depression, give way to screwball comedies based on the idea that ordinary life was anything but ordinary. In order to develop continuing characters that people would want to revisit week after week, situation comedies were developed, placing their stars in ordinary households that home audiences could relate to. Movie studios started churning out series with low production budgets, such as the Blondie movies, based on the popular comic strip, and the Andy Hardy series. These, in turn, have given rise to the domestic comedies that proliferate on television today about ordinary, working-class people with eccentric family members.

Literary Style

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Most ghost stories fall into one of two categories: horror or folktale. The main purpose of horror stories is to thrill readers. Folktales, on the other hand, serve to amuse readers while telling them something about the culture that is being described. In the case of ‘‘The Night the Ghost Got In,’’ readers are introduced to the tiny subculture of a Columbus, Ohio, family where strange noises in the night are explained by acceptance of the supernatural. Most ghost stories from the folktale strain inform readers about the culture’s relation to its dead members: The ghosts are manifestations of mourning, or guilt, or some other unfinished business. Thurber does not offer any explanation about why this ghost might choose to appear in this particular house at this particular time, but once he does introduce the ghost, it does, like ghosts in traditional folktales, illuminate the prevailing social situation. Of the younger members of the household, Herman fears it and Thurber is fascinated by it; the mother interprets its disturbance as a burglar, representing a threat from outside the house; the grandfather, to whom the ghostly armies of the Civil War are part of everyday reality, does not hear it; and the police and reporters think that it is just a sign of the Thurbers’ mental instability. Persona

The book that this story comes from, My Life and Hard Times, is based on Thurber’s childhood, although liberties have obviously been taken with the facts. Many details in this story, from the number of policemen and reporters who show up to the existence of the ghost at all, are clearly exaggerations. The first-person speaker of the story should similarly not be mistaken for an actual representation of James Thurber himself, but should be looked at as a comic persona that resembles him.

The word ‘‘persona’’ comes from the Latin word for ‘‘mask.’’ In most first-person short stories, the writer’s persona is clearly recognizable as a different person. Usually, a character in a short story will not even have the same name as the writer. In this case, however, readers can become confused by the fact that ‘‘The Night the Ghost Got In’’ claims to be from Thurber’s memoir and that the setting and events are similar to those he experienced in his life. The ‘‘I’’ who tells the story has much in common with the author of the story, but he is still a mask that the author created.

A stereotyped character is one that is written to represent some particular type of person, oversimplified, so that the character shows no internal depth. In literature, writers try to create their characters with the same range of emotion that ordinary humans have. It is also necessary, though, for literary works to be filled in with stereotyped, or ‘‘stock,’’ characters who have little to do with the main story but interact with the main characters. Humorous writing, in particular, relies on stereotypical characters because it is easier for readers to laugh at the misfortunes of hollow representations of people than it is to laugh at characters who are wellrounded.

In ‘‘The Night the Ghost Got In,’’ several of Thurber’s characters represent familiar stereotypes. The policemen, for instance, are boorish and selfimportant, determined to justify their own authority by finding evidence of criminal wrongdoing even if it does not exist. None of them is able to understand or appreciate the quirky behavior of the people in the Thurber household because, as written, they lack the psychological depth to see beyond their own limited characterizations. The grandfather, as well, is humorous precisely because he plays the ‘‘senile old man’’ role. Shouting about a war that ended fifty years earlier, confusing the policemen for an army, and living out his faded glory by firing at an imagined enemy are all traits that would be considered pathetic, not funny, in a realistic portrayal. The ditzy mother who fails to recognize the seriousness of a man being shot is the same type of well-meaning, scatterbrained matron that shows up in situation comedies today. As long as the central character, the narrator, is psychologically complex, it is not necessary that any of these secondary characters should be, and in fact adding more depth to them would slow the story’s humor down.

In the last paragraph of the story, Thurber adds a brief epilogue that tells readers what happened the next morning, when the daylight had come to shed light on things and the confusion had died down. An epilogue is usually not a part of the story but is included to let readers know what happened to characters as a result of the events that have taken place. Since this story is a comedy, there are no serious consequences to be faced in the morning. There is no sign of a ghost or whatever caused the initial disturbance; Mr. Bodwell from next door does not demand that his window be fixed; and the law does not show up to arrest the grandfather for shooting an officer. In fact, Thurber has the grandfather speak coherently (if angrily) about the policemen who were there, showing that he is not permanently out of touch with reality. The last line—‘‘He had us there’’—shows that the narrator is willing to consider the night’s events baffling and inexplicable, but not serious.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Baker, Russell, Afterword, in My Life and Hard Times, by James Thurber, with an introduction by John J. Hutchens, an afterword by Russell Baker, and commentary by Michael J. Rosen, 1st Perennial Classics ed., Perennial Classics, 1999.

Coates, Robert, ‘‘James G. Thurber, the Man,’’ in New Republic, Vol. LXXVII, No. 993, December 13, 1933, pp. 137–38.

Elias, Robert H., ‘‘James Thurber: The Primitive, the Innocent, and the Individual,’’ in Thurber: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Charles S. Holmes, Prentice-Hall, 1974, pp. 87–100; originally published in the American Scholar, Summer 1958.

Long, Robert Emmet, James Thurber, Continuum, 1988, p. 107.

Maddocks, Melvin, ‘‘James Thurber and the Hazards of Humor,’’ in Sewanee Review, Vol. XCIII, No. 4, Fall 1985, pp. 597–601.

Further Reading
Burnett, Michael, ‘‘James Thurber’s Style,’’ in Thurber: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Charles S. Holmes, Prentice-Hall, 1974, pp. 75–86. Burnett examines the contradictions in Thurber’s use of language that lead to the humorous effect of his stories.

Holmes, Charles S., ‘‘James Thurber and the Art of Fantasy,’’ in Yale Review, Vol. LV, No. 1, October 1965, pp. 17–33. Holmes, probably the best known of Thurber’s biographers, gives an overview of the author’s career.

Kinney, Harrison, James Thurber: His Life and Times, Henry Holt, 1995. At 1,238 pages, Kinney’s biography is one of the most recent and most thorough studies of Thurber’s life available.

Morsberger, Robert E., James Thurber, Twayne Publishers, 1964. This book, part of Twayne’s ‘‘United States Authors’’ series aimed at the level of high school and college students, presents a concise overview of Thurber’s literary career.

Compare and Contrast

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1915: Mack Sennett’s Keystone Cops comedies are popular at the movies, featuring a large group of bungling policemen running around and creating mayhem.

1933: A string of movies about hard-boiled gangsters, including Little Caesar (1930), Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface (1932), has given policemen a sense of self-importance.

Today: The trend in police dramas is toward the collection of minute pieces of evidence, in direct contradiction to the brutish destruction wrought by the officers in ‘‘The Night the Ghost Got In.’’

1915: In the middle of World War I, many of the young men of Thurber’s age are off in the trenches of Europe.

1933: In the middle of the Great Depression, many family members who would otherwise have gone their own way are still living at home, unable to afford separate housing.

Today: The past decade has brought a dramatic rise in the number of people moving back home after college, unable to find jobs and burdened with student loans.

1915: Fifty years after the end of the Civil War, a veteran like the grandfather in the story can still use it as a point of reference.

1933: Having been through World War I, the Civil War seems like a quaint antiquity to Thurber’s readers.

Today: Nearly thirty years after its end, Vietnam still remains America’s point of reference for large-scale conflicts.

1915: Spiritualists and mediums are popular and have achieved some credibility in upper-class social circles.

1933: Many tricks that spiritualists have used to create the illusion of unworldly occurrences have been debunked. Magician Harry Houdini, in particular, has spent years revealing how such mysteries as phantom knocking and music from nowhere are created.

Today: Spiritualists seldom use elaborate special effects but instead just make unverifiable claims about speaking to people who have died.

Media Adaptations

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Thurber’s collection My World, and Welcome to It was adapted to a television series starring William Windom, Joan Hotchkiss, and Henry Morgan. It ran from 1969 to 1970.

Thurber’s play The Male Animal ran on Broadway for 244 performances in 1940 and is frequently revived today.

Students can find references to books and articles by and about James Thurber at http://www. budgetweb.com/heather/thurber/Thurber.html.

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Critical Essays


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