One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts by Shirley Jackson

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Analysis

"One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts" is a short story by Shirley Jackson that tells the story of a couple who go out every day, one doing good deeds and the other bad ones. This is only revealed to the reader at the end, although the story hints at something odd going on from time to time.

The action mainly concerns Mr. Johnson, who walks around New York City. He goes on to help a lot of people: giving them money, offering them good advice, helping out in every way he can, and handing out peanuts. Some of these acts are quite small, while others, such as sending a young woman and a young man on a date, could be the start of something much greater. It is noteworthy that a lot of the people Mr. Johnson helps are at first a little hesitant, as if not used to kindness from strangers. This hesitancy may cause readers to doubt Mr. Johnson's motives as well.

At the end of the story, the reader finds that these doubts were partly justified. Mr. Johnson is revealed to have a wife who went out on the same day doing the exact opposite of him—thus balancing out his good deeds with her bad ones. The final twist comes when Mr. and Mrs. Johnson agree to switch their roles the next day, meaning that their benevolent and malevolent deeds didn't stem from inner conviction but instead from a simple agreement. This information gives the story and the couple an eerie feeling, since it deprives them of individual characteristics by revealing them to be nothing more than facades. In the end, the reader knows less about Mr. Johnson than they did in the beginning, or at least less than they believed themselves to know.

The reasons for Mr. and Mrs. Johnson's behavior are not given, though readers may try and deduce something about their motives from the text. One clue is that the couple's agreement is based on balance. One of them goes out of their way to try to make things better for people, and the other tries to make things worse. This implies that fairness is a part of their goal. Another odd clue comes from Mrs. Johnson's "tiredness." Unlike Mr. Johnson, who feels happy and well-rested all day, Mrs. Johnson does not seem happy with her day. This means that they do not get the same kind of satisfaction from their duties. Mrs. Johnson is shown to be very grateful when Mr. Johnson proposes that they switch duties the next day; therefore, they do not enjoy both tasks equally.

One way to interpret this is to consider it an actual balancing process. For some reason, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson work on changing people's lives for the better or for the worse. It is not explicitly clear whether they have chosen this or been given the task by someone else. A possible hint comes from one of the last interactions Mr. Johnson has before going home. His cab driver has just had a customer who handed him ten dollars and told him to bet the money on a horse called Vulcan. Mr. Johnson is horrified that someone would urge the man to bet on a horse with a fire-related name on a Wednesday. This could mean that there are other people out there who do the same things that Mr. and Mrs. Johnson do. From Mr. Johnson's reaction, it's obvious that the tip the cab driver received was a bad one.

Another implication of this exchange is that there might be a supernatural element to the story. Mr. Johnson goes on to explain to the driver when is it appropriate to bet on a horse with a fire-related name and which horse he should bet on until then. If he does not possess some supernatural knowledge of this, it would contradict the methodology of everything else Mr. Johnson does. He has pointedly gone out to do good, or at least to give people the chance to change their own lives for the better. Giving someone misleading hints would just be sowing confusion and anarchy in a system that he and Mrs. Johnson seem to otherwise maintain very meticulously. This leads to the conclusion that Mr. and Mrs. Johnson are much more aware of the impacts of their actions than they would be if they had merely...

(The entire section is 1,142 words.)