Themes and Meanings

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 495

Illustration of PDF document

Download Sunday in the Park Study Guide

Subscribe Now

The story of the two boys and the two fathers is a story of the conflict between reason and force, between man and beast. Larry is smaller, quieter, and weaker than Joe; the two boys ignore each other and manage to play side-by-side for a time. Morton is smaller and weaker than the other father, and he, too, ignores the scene in front of him at first. So long as neither engages, they are safe.

The family’s security and contentedness is built, however, on a false view of the world. Morton is in his element at the university, out of the sun, where all disagreements are rational, where reason has power. On an ordinary Sunday in the park, however, he confronts a man who is not like him, who relies on physical power. The fact is, there are both kinds of people in the world. When push comes to shove (in this case, a literal possibility), force can beat reason every time, at least over the short term. Although Morton walks away from the fight and no one is physically hurt, his views of the world and himself have changed.

The role of women in this conflict is a complex one. The only person whose thoughts and feelings are presented is the mother; the reader can judge the other characters’ thoughts only by their actions. However, the mother’s part in the external events is a passive one. She is the one who first notices Joe’s aggressive actions, and she feels comfortable scolding the three-year-old boy, but as soon as Joe’s father joins in the confrontation, she steps aside, leaving her husband to deal with both bullies. Interestingly, the only other female characters in the story are two women and a little girl on roller skates, who leave the park just after the first spadeful of sand is thrown.

Women have traditionally left brute force to men—not necessarily repudiating violence themselves, but relying on their men to deal with it for them. The mother in this story does not consider fighting herself, but she comes to wish her menfolk were more forceful and less exclusively rational.

With whom, then, is the mother angry at the end of the story? Why does she, at least in words, take on the role of the bully? It seems too simple to say that she is angry at Morton for not defending the family honor. She has always been proud of him before; she agrees that reason should be used instead of force. If she is disappointed in Morton for appearing weak, she must also be disappointed in herself—not because she should have punched the other father herself, but because she now doubts whether wisdom and intellect can really hold their own against brute force. If they cannot, what grounds has she for her secure contentment at the beginning of the story? If they cannot, what chance does a woman have in this world?