The Balance of Good and Evil
“One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts” is a reflection on the nature of mankind and the individual's propensity for good or evil. Mr. Johnson and his wife represent two extremes of good and evil; on this ordinary day, Mr. Johnson chooses to ease the troubles of strangers, bring joy and comfort to their lives, and help them to make the most of their day. He eases the troubles of strangers by giving his time, as he does when he entertains the little boy who is moving to Vermont. He also eases the troubles of strangers by giving his money to a panhandler, a taxi driver, and a young couple. Finally, he eases the troubles of strangers by giving his wisdom: he teaches Mildred and Arthur, two people in a rush to get to work and fearful of losing out on the resources money provides, not to let practical concerns cost them a potential connection. The two young people will take time off together, and a relationship may grow out of how they spend their time. These are three ways in which everyone can choose to help others: giving time, resources, and wisdom.
Mr. Johnson's wife, however, spends the day having a detrimental effect on the strangers whom she meets. She spends her time napping and being lazy, a choice that is arguably selfish. She does not exhaust the hours of her day being kind to others; instead, she wastes her time without consideration for how she could contribute to the outside world. After her nap, Mrs. Johnson goes to the department store and falsely accuses a woman of shoplifting, which is an abuse of justice; the woman who did not steal is going to suffer for no reason. This situation provides a strong contrast to the situation Mildred and Arthur, who behave rudely and are rewarded undeservingly, find themselves in. Next, Mrs. Johnson quarrels with a man on a bus and files a complaint to get him fired, a clear indicator that she is attempting to take his resources unfairly. Again, this scenario contrasts with Mr. Johnson's generosity in helping others to make the most of the resources they have been given.
The Relationship Between Morality and Free Will
The ending of the story indicates that Mr. and Mrs. Johnson have willfully decided to behave in “good” or “evil” fashions, or by having a “positive” or “negative” impact on others. Morality, in this story, is based upon how one influences others—whether one brings fortune or misfortune to another person’s day. This black-and-white way of viewing morality is, of course, complicated by subjective views of what is fortunate or unfortunate, as well as complex situations in which one person’s fortune is another person’s misfortune. For example, Mildred and Arthur not showing up for work might be detrimental to their employers or coworkers. Regardless, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson are stubbornly intent upon fulfilling their versions of good and evil in a day, which reflects the human ability to choose how to make an impact. Jackson's tale also illustrates the idea of mankind being not fully good or fully evil. Instead, the story recognizes that we have the propensity for both—it just depends upon the choices we make.
Themes and Meanings
Shirley Jackson’s stories often deal with the interplay of good and evil, as this story does. Mr. and Mrs. Johnson are Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde types. They are each other’s alter egos, and they must alternate their personalities on occasion. As Jackson presents him, Mr. Johnson is tiresomely good. However, one can find clues in the story to suggest that he is not always this way.
Jackson makes a point of saying that Mr. Johnson “did not follow the same route every morning, but preferred to pursue his eventful way in wide detours, more like a puppy than a man intent on business.” Mr. Johnson reminds one of Robert Browning’s Pippa, in that he does not see the realities that surround him. It is likely that the woman and her child who are moving to Vermont to live with Grandpa are doing so because of a divorce or...
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