Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 402
“Sunday in the Park” relies heavily on sharp contrasts to make its points, beginning with the conflict between what the reader expects from the peaceful title and the brutality that lurks in that park. The peaceful scene becomes a battle between the forces of civility and barbarity, and Bel Kaufman plays up the differences in the two families to the point that they are almost allegorical figures.
At first glance, the two boys seem much alike. They are about the same age, and they are squatting calmly side-by-side in the sandbox. The boys are not sharing or playing together, but happily ignoring each other, in what child development experts call “parallel play.” As soon as sand is thrown, however, the differences are made clear. Larry has a pointed little face and a small frame; Joe is chubby, husky, with “none of Larry’s quickness and sensitivity in his face.” After the mother scolds Joe, Larry looks to her to see how he ought to react, but Joe (whose name is pointedly not the diminutive “Joey”) never looks at his father.
The fathers might also appear similar at first. Both men are sitting on park benches reading, ignoring their young sons playing in the sandbox. However, Morton is small, able comfortably to share a park bench with his wife, while the other father is big, taking up an entire bench himself. Morton reads the Sunday Times Magazine while the other man reads the comics. Morton speaks pleasantly and shows his anger by tightening his jaw, while the other speaks rudely and scornfully, flexing his arms and waiting for a punch.
No fight ever develops; the only fists in the story are the boys’, and their fists are clutching sand shovels. The boys listen and stare, but the conflict soon stops being about them. In fact, Larry does not want to leave the park; the sand-throwing that starts the disagreement does not affect him.
Kaufman uses these contrasting details to shift the reader’s focus, first to the boys, then to the fathers. The mother, the observer, is not paired with anyone, just as she plays no part in the potential fight. As details of her thoughts and actions reveal, she carries within her elements of both fathers. She can speak civilly or brutally, she can move gently or sharply. Ultimately, the conflict between reason and force is not between people, but within them.
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