Arthur Adams is a harried young man who finds himself late for work one ordinary Wednesday, when he is suddenly intercepted by Mr. Johnson and paid a day’s wages to take the day off and do something enjoyable in the company of Mildred Kent, a young woman to whom he has just been introduced. Like Mildred, Arthur is suspicious of Mr. Johnson’s motives but can find nothing amiss regarding the latter’s generous offer other than the fact that it comes from out of the blue and from a stranger. Arthur is less willing than Mildred simply to accept the present situation, even going so far as to ask Mr. Johnson what would happen if he just took the cash and left Mildred behind. Mr. Johnson is not worried about the outcome, knowing that they will accept his offer and enjoy themselves. Nothing in the narrative indicates that Mr. Johnson has brought Arthur and Mildred together as a love match. He is simply asking two harried young people to give themselves over to fun and relaxation for a day.
The cab driver picks up Mr. Johnson at the end of the day and takes him home. He is puzzling over a tip concerning a racehorse made by the person who was just in his cab. The cab driver decides that Mr. Johnson is an omen that he should not place the bet, an idea with which Mr. Johnson agrees. Given all the good deeds that Mr. Johnson has done that day, the reader is inclined to believe that the cab driver was indeed lucky to have picked up Mr. Johnson. It is even possible that the previous fare is intentionally stirring up trouble and ill will, like Mrs. Johnson. Mr. Johnson gives the cab driver a new tip concerning which horse to bet on plus another ten dollars on top of the ten dollars the cab driver was given earlier. The cab driver is thankful.
John Philip Johnson
Mr. Johnson is the main character of this story. He is described as being small in stature. Moreover, he is improbably cheerful in the midst of a bustling city where people do not always take the time to be friendly and are always worried about money. Mr. Johnson’s main purpose is to wander the city doing good deeds. He helps people by giving them money, offering advice, and generally being a good neighbor. He treats animals with kindness and also offers them peanuts.
He seems to be the polar opposite of his wife yet offers to switch with her on Thursday— he will be hurtful and she will be helpful—suggesting that doing evil deeds is more exhausting. The Johnsons balance each other out, the husband offering cheer and displaying goodwill toward their neighbors, while the wife causes strife. These figures are meant to be understood as personifications of good and evil. When Mr. Johnson gives the single mother the name of his good friend in Vermont, and tells her that this man will be happy to help with anything—he also mentions that his friend has a wife—the author is suggesting that there may be other such pairings of opposites living elsewhere around the country.
Mrs. Johnson may be an unlikely personification of evil, but older women in mythology represent evil crones as often as fairy godmothers. As the evil half of this pair, she spends her day getting people into trouble and sending animals to their deaths. Sensitive to the toll this has exacted from his wife, Mr. Johnson offers to switch with her the next day, meaning that he will be the evil one on Thursday. She then tells her husband that she has made veal cutlets for dinner, which he immediately rejects, claiming he had the same for lunch earlier that day.
Mildred Kent meets Mr. Johnson when she accidentally bumps into him on the sidewalk after he stoops to pet a kitten. She is late for work and moving a bit too fast. Mr. Johnson notices that she has not taken the time to worry about her slightly disheveled appearance. At first her concerns are focused on money, time, and legal ramifications, but once she realizes that Mr. Johnson is sincere, she agrees to wait while he fetches Arthur Adams from the crowd on the sidewalk, a young man Mr. Johnson seems to choose with great care, presumably with her in mind. After Mr. Johnson leaves the two of them to determine how to spend the balance of the day, Mildred seems quite ready to do just as Mr. Johnson suggested, that is, to have fun.
The little boy is moving to Vermont with his mother, where they plan to live on his grandparents’ farm. After asking the boy’s mother for permission, Mr. Johnson sits with him and shares peanuts while they talk, allowing the mother to concentrate on the packing of their furniture. No mention is made of the father, leaving the reader uncertain as to whether the boy’s parents are divorced or whether his father is dead. At the end of their impromptu chat, the little boy is much more cheerful and looks forward to moving to Vermont.
The mother of the little boy is torn between caring for her child, watching how the movers handle her furniture, and being observed by a circle of bystanders. Mr. Johnson sees how he can help and offers to sit with her boy so that she can focus on the furniture. She is naturally suspicious of Mr. Johnson, who is a total stranger, but allows him to sit with her child where she can keep an eye on both of them. The author does not explain whether she is a single parent because of divorce or the death of her husband. Mr. Johnson’s final kindly gesture is to give her the name of a friend of his who lives in the same town she is moving to, suggesting that this friend will also provide a helping hand should she be in need.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Shirley Jackson, Published by Gale Group, 2010