One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts

by Shirley Jackson

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Mr. Johnson took out a handful of peanuts from his pocket and sat on the steps with the boy, who at first refused the peanuts on the grounds that his mother did not allow him to accept food from strangers; Mr. Johnson said that probably his mother had not intended peanuts to be included, since elephants at the circus ate them, and the boy considered, and then agreed solemnly.

Mr. Johnson gets intimately involved in people's lives. The peanuts he offers them are symbolic of the help he gives them. In this case, he offers a little boy a peanut that the boy at first declines because he is not supposed to accept food from strangers. This interaction is representative of the way in which Mr. Johnson gets involved with people. He often forces his help on others. Though his intentions are presumably good, he doesn't ask questions ahead of time. For example, he does not know why this mother and child are moving, but he sends them to his friend in the Vermont town where they are moving. The reader is left to wonder what Mr. Johnson's intentions are. Though his actions seem gracious and magnanimous, to some degree he forces help, and peanuts, on others.

Went into a department store this morning and accused the woman next to me of shoplifting, and had the store detective pick her up. Sent three dogs to the pound—you know, the usual thing.

Mr. Johnson's wife takes on the opposite role of evildoing. While he makes every interaction with others about doing good, she constantly chooses to get people in trouble and cause problems for them. She represents the kind of person who appears not to be concerned with the effects of her actions on others. The reader is left to wonder why Mr. and Mrs. Johnson are each so extreme in their own regard. The story makes the reader question how one should get involved with strangers.

“Right,” said Mr. Johnson. “What’s for dinner?”

“Veal cutlet.”

“Had it for lunch,” said Mr. Johnson.

At the end of the story, Mr. Johnson adds a detail that makes him seem more like an ordinary person than a saint. He has paid for a beggar to have veal for lunch, but it is not clear what Mr. Johnson ate for lunch. He nonetheless boats to his wife that he had veal, showing that perhaps he is not as charitable at home as he is to strangers. This is an odd twist in the story. What does it mean that he is kinder to others than he is to his own wife? His actions at home might take away from his generous actions to others.

Ultimately, the Johnsons decide to switch roles for the next day, with Mr. Johnson committing bad deeds and Mrs. Johnson committing good ones. The revelation that the Johnsons have some sort of arrangement, in which they each purposefully commit either good or bad deeds, destroys Mr. Johnson's appearance of saintliness once and for all.

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