illustrated portrait of American author Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury

Start Free Trial

Why does Doug Spalding decide to kill Ralph Underhill and why does he consider it the "utterly perfect murder"? Does he feel satisfied at the end?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In The Utterly Perfect Murder, narrator Doug Spaulding decides to travel across America to murder his childhood friend, Ralph Underhill, who still lives in their hometown thirty-six years after their friendship. Doug contemplates his motivation while he travels across country by train.

Doug’s internal conversation begins with a recollection of the physical violence he endured in their relationship: “Bruises. I was covered with bruises, both arms…Hit and run, that was Ralph,” (1). He finds the physical abuses of their relationship upsetting but justifies them as the nature of boyhood friendship. “Yes,” he reasons, “boys love boys…and the world is innocent and boys are evil beyond evil…on some secret level, I had to be hurt…my scars were the emblem and symbol of our love” (1). He decides something beyond those physical abuses motivates his murder plot, and recalls an incident where Ralph pushes him into the snow and mud on a day when Doug is wearing a new tweed knicker suit. “Yes! And what else?” Doug wonders.

He contemplates the time his brother gave him an expensive catcher’s mitt which he quickly trades for one of Ralph’s new Tarzan statues. He feels he got the bad end of that deal, remembering how his brother abandoned him on a hike in the countryside as a retribution: “Somewhere on a country road I just lay down and wept and wanted to die but didn’t know how to give up the final vomit that was my miserable ghost” (2). The reader wonders what Doug’s family relationship looks like. Clearly, Doug still holds these incidents of physical and psychological abuse against Ralph, but perhaps there is more to Doug’s story than he’s revealing. These traumas lead to “one final thing, more terrible than all the rest,” which seems to be his true motivation for revenge (3).

Never once in all the years did he, or anyone else, prove their friendship by coming by. "The door never knocked. The window of your bedroom never faintly clattered and belled with a high-tossed confetti of small dusts and rocks. And you always knew that the day you stopped going to Ralph’s house, calling up in the morn, that would be the day your friendship ended. You tested it once. You stayed away for a whole week. Ralph never called. It was as if you had died, and no one came to your funeral." (2)

It seems Ralph never reciprocated Doug’s love and kindness. The reader feels sympathy for Doug’s trauma, and probably wonders how the boys came to be friends in the first place, and who Doug really is. If Doug’s impulsive journey across America in the middle of the night of his forty-eight birthday to enact revenge for childhood trifles isn’t enough to convince the reader of his mental instability, his internal dialogue offers plenty of further evidence. Doug admits, “[he] was half out of [his] mind all across America” in the opening sentence. He tells himself “I would rather pack cross-country on foot, pausing by night to build fires and fry [his] bile and sour spit” than fly to his hometown (1). He imagines internal monologues as external, referring to himself as “you,” asking himself “where is that fool going?” (1). He believes “every roof and coping and bit of gingerbread [of his hometown] was made of purest brass and ancient gold,” (3). He plays out a fantasy of himself as “a boy aged twelve, arriving on a kind of Time Machine train, traveled out of hideous self-contempt,” to “[gun] down the Past,” again admitting that [he] was safe in [his] pure insanity,” (3).

In my reading of the story, Doug does get a measure of satisfaction in the conclusion. He arrives on Ralph’s doorstep to find that time has already enacted his revenge, believing that Ralph’s “whole life had cracked by [Doug’s] simple act of walking away thirty-six years ago,” (5). Doug whispers six imaginary gunshots through Ralph’s heart and walks away from the doorstep, refusing to answer Ralph’s calls. He returns to the house where he was born and tosses pebbles at the window as he had wished someone would have done in his childhood and “stood waiting just long enough for [his] other young self to come down to join,” (5). He thanks Christ and begins his journey “back toward Now and Today for the rest of [his] life,” (5). He has found a way to deal with the “miserable ghost,” or the mental illness haunting him after lying dormant for thirty-six years. While I don’t believe Doug is mentally stable in the end, he understands that the “simple act of walking away,” or not engaging with this part of himself will help him complete his journey “back toward the Now and Today.” Doug’s recollection of walking away from the relationship and of “testing” Ralph supports this reading. Though he speaks in second person, he’s referring to himself: “You always knew that the day you stopped going to Ralph’s house…that would be the day your friendship ended” (2). In other words, if he stops engaging with this other side of himself, the other side of himself dies. Similarly, when Doug confronts Ralph on the last page but refuses to answer him, he is reenacting an incident in his childhood where he was able to disassociate with Ralph.

With my reading of the story, there are a few ways you could approach your question, "why does Doug figure this crime would be the Utterly Perfect
?" In my reading, Doug knows that he has a mental health disorder, and understands that because his murder will be purely symbolic; no one will get hurt, rendering it the ideal crime. Similarly, I think Bradbury uses the word “utterly” quite intentionally, meaning both “completely” and “spoken.” The real Doug is on a journey to murder (silence) the vocal expression of Ralph (the other side of Doug). While my reading may have something to do with the intended “meaning” of the story, there is plenty of evidence for alternative readings. I encourage you to formulate your own ideas about the text.

Bradbury, Ray. "The Utterly Perfect Murder." The Stories of Ray Bradbury, Knopf, 1980, Print.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial