The Odd Couple

by Neil Simon

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Themes and Meanings

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The Odd Couple is a comic treatment of a serious theme: how human relationships can go wrong, especially when too much ego is involved. Felix and Oscar are both part of a failed marital relationship; while both readily admit to their shortcomings, they have too much self-love to believe that the failure actually resulted from any faults of their own. Although Felix enumerates the annoying traits that drove Frances to send him away, he cannot distance himself from his ego enough to see Frances’ point of view with any real conviction. Deep down, he believes that he is a better cook and housekeeper; therefore, Frances’ actions were unjustified and unfair. When Felix professes to hate himself for his past behavior, Oscar objects, “You don’t hate you. You love you. You think no one has problems like you.” Felix has learned nothing from his failed marriage; he continues making the same mistakes in his relationship with Oscar. Oscar is also guilty of too much self-love. His slovenliness and insensitivity to his former wife, Blanche, are just as self-centered as Felix’s fussiness. When they were married, Oscar thought nothing of waking Blanche up at three in the morning to fix his dinner. He burned holes in the furniture, was a heavy drinker, and for their tenth anniversary took Blanche to see a hockey game. His life is one of self-gratification; he is as extravagant as Felix is penny-pinching.

Yet Oscar and Felix remain lovable and sympathetic characters, for Neil Simon succeeds in showing them as ordinary, vulnerable human beings. The audience is allowed glimpses of Oscar’s more sensitive side when he admits that he likes to bluff at poker. He bluffs in life, too. When Felix is reluctant to move in with him, Oscar finally admits that he cannot stand to be alone, despite his seemingly happy and carefree state. He lets down his mask of indifference and reveals some of the pain of his divorce. “When you walk into eight empty rooms every night it hits you in the face like a wet glove.”

Audiences react with compassion for Felix much as the Pigeon sisters do. Feelings of sympathy for Felix stem from his genuine love and concern for others. He sincerely loves Frances and his children, and he sincerely desires to help Oscar save money and bring some order to his life.

A secondary theme running through The Odd Couple is Simon’s belief in the value of compromise in relationships. By making the relationship between Oscar and Felix a parallel, or metaphor, for any marriage, Simon dramatizes his commitment to a social order achieved through moderation and compromise.

Each partner in this “marriage” must moderate his behavior to make the arrangement work; otherwise the relationship will end in “divorce,” as it does twice. Neither man has learned the value and rewards of compromise; each continues his self-absorbed life-style. Despite their failure, Simon upholds the value of marriage by showing the absurdity of selfish behavior, and by making audiences recognize, through humor, their own self-destructive behaviors.


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Order and Disorder
When two good friends newly separated from their wives decide to live together, the arrangement fails miserably because the two friends have personal habits and domestic lifestyles that are diametrically opposed. Felix likes to live in an extremely ordered and tidy living space while Oscar not only tolerates living in disorder and messiness but even seems to prefer it.

Simon is more interested in creating compelling character types and raucous laughter than he is in investigating ideas, but to the extent that The Odd Couple deals with theme...

(This entire section contains 1358 words.)

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it focuses on the friction between radically different personalities. There is never a sense that either Oscar or Felix is "right" and the other is "wrong." They are simply different and attempting to live together was a bad idea. Oscar initiated the idea because he was lonely and concerned for Felix, but in his carefree approach to life he did not anticipate the conflict that should have been apparent from his knowledge of Felix's habits. Oscar describes Felix as "a panicky person" obsessed with controlling everything in his life. Specifically, Felix panics when he is confronted with disorder in any form, and he attempts to "fix" things by restoring his concept of order thus giving himself the illusion of control. When Felix accepts the invitation to live with Oscar, he characteristically adopts the very behavior patterns that drove his wife to dismiss him. At the end of Act I, Oscar repeatedly asks Felix to go to sleep, but Felix insists on staying up to clean, saying he needs pencil and paper "to start rearranging my life." He says, "I've got to get organized," and the malleable Oscar finally gives in. When Felix unconsciously calls Oscar "Frances," Felix's wife's name, it is clear that Felix is looking to Oscar as some sort of substitute for the relationship he had with his wife.

Public vs. Private Life
Oscar and Felix are best friends, but before moving in together they share only a public life with one another. When they finally share a living space, they discover that the pressures of private life are much more demanding. The transition from "good friends" to pseudo "husband and wife" tests compatibility in a way that only experience can prove. The same living space and the experience of round-the-clock sharing magnifies differences and makes the discord inescapable and intolerable. Oscar and Felix were certainly aware of their personality differences before they lived together, but they encountered these differences only briefly in their public relationship, largely at the Friday night poker game. In Act III, when Oscar throws Felix's suitcase on the table and insists that Felix leave, he says, "All I want is my freedom." Even with his unusual tolerance for disorder, Oscar cannot live in inescapable proximity with behavior that is so different from his own. He admits that it's not a question of right or wrong: "It's not your fault, Felix. It's a rotten combination."

Very clearly, Simon is suggesting that heterosexual marriages can also suffer from the same hopeless conflicts when they exchange a "public" relationship for an intimate and "private" one. Simon communicates this theme by drawing attention to the way the relationship between Oscar and Felix is very much like a marriage. In Act I, when Oscar is trying to convince Felix to take advantage of his offer, he says, "I'm proposing to you. What do you want, a ring?" In the second scene of Act II, Oscar and Felix sound like the cliched married couple when they argue—"If you knew you were going to be late, why didn't you call me?" Similarly, the opening of Act III, when Oscar and Felix are not "talking," perfectly mimics the archetypal marriage spat. When Oscar tells Felix he must leave, he says, "It's all over, Felix. The whole marriage. We're getting an annulment." And Felix responds, "Boy, you're in a bigger hurry than Frances was."

Simon strengthens this aspect of the theme by calling attention to the marital and near-marital relationships that surround Oscar and Felix. It's clear that Speed's marriage has its rocky moments because he compares the aggravation he feels in the poker game to the aggravation he gets at home. Murray responds to Oscar's pretending on the phone that he is having an affair with Murray's wife by saying, "I wish you were having an affair with her. Then she wouldn't bother me all the time." Murray perhaps speaks for the general skepticism about marriage by saying, "Twelve years doesn't mean you're a happy couple. It just means you're a long couple." In contrast with these rocky relationships, Vinnie appears to have a happier marriage, dedicated as he is to his frequent travels with his wife. In direct contrast to Oscar and Felix, the Pigeon sisters seem to live together without serious conflict—perhaps because, unlike Oscar and Felix, they are so much alike.

Finally, Simon puts this theme into perspective by using the public relationships between the poker players as a backdrop for Oscar and Felix. The poker players meet once a week and as a result know one another well, but their apparent camaraderie is never tested by the more demanding situation of living together over a long period of time. And Simon is careful to show that their relationships are filled with potential conflict and tension due to personality differences. The irascible Speed, for example, seems always on the verge of quitting the group. But at the end, even Felix vows to come back to the next poker night. He's not going to "break up" the game because "marriages may come and go, but the game must go on."

Change and Transformation
The only way that marriages survive is through the compromise that must occur when inevitable conflicts arise. Oscar and Felix's experience shows that some conflicts are too great for compromise, but they point the way toward the necessity for compromise by demonstrating slight changes in their personalities by the end of the play. Oscar's change becomes clear when he receives a phone call from his ex-wife and reveals that he paid up his alimony in full. He says, "You don't have to thank me. I'm just doing what's right." Oscar's relationship with his wife and son appear to be improving because he has become a more responsible husband and father. And, of course, he ends the play with his admonition to the poker players to "watch your cigarettes, will you? This is my house, not a pig sty."

The change in Felix is much more mysterious. Moving in even temporarily with the Pigeon sisters, nearly total strangers, is something Felix would not have been able to do when the play began. But is he merely "loosening up" as Oscar suggested he ought to? Or is he making a huge change and considering a romantic relationship with either or both of the sisters? As he gathers his things in Oscar's apartment, Felix passes the poker players and smiles in a way that is open to interpretation. When he moves in with Gwendolyn and Cecily will he try to tidy up their lives the way he attacked Oscar's? There is no way to know, but it is clear that he has gone through some kind of change for he asks Murray to tell his wife that "if I sound different to her, it's because I'm not the same man she kicked out three weeks ago."

While the play's ending leaves Oscar and Felix' s future relationship open to some speculation, it seems reasonable to assume that the two men will not live together again. It is interesting to note then, that the popular television series presumed a different scenario. In the television situation comedy version of The Odd Couple, Oscar and Felix remain roommates, each having reached a kind of mutual tolerance for the other's idiosyncracies. The series did, however, preserve much of the friction between the two characters, in order to maintain comical conflicts similar to the play. This is something of a reversal of Simon's suggested outcome, but one that can be seen as necessary to perpetuate a weekly comedic series.