Shirley Jackson’s short story ‘‘One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts’’ concerns a man who goes about his day dispensing kindness and generosity toward the people he encounters. For most of the story Mr. Johnson is seen as eccentric, harmless, and a force of good in a city where kindness seems to be in short supply, as evidenced by the wariness exhibited by the other characters. Kindness between people and even toward animals is important because it establishes relationships that, when woven together, create a community. Communities exist because people cannot live in isolation. Human beings rely upon each other for companionship and help.
‘‘One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts’’ is set during the early 1950s, the postwar period. After World War II, many young couples settled down and started families. The nuclear family—which consists of a mother, a father, and children— became more dominant at this time. Traditional roles were emphasized, with the husband going to work and the mother devoted to housework and raising the children. This represented a significant change from life during the war, when so many men were abroad fighting that women had to take over jobs traditionally held by men.
Cities, which had been important centers of industry during the war, waned in popularity as people fled to the newly developing suburbs, a place that combined the best aspects of city and rural life. Levittowns, representing a new approach to home and community development, arose in the early 1950s as part of this cultural shift. Four Levittowns established United States and Puerto Rico, setting the standard for suburban development. ‘‘One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts,’’ which is set in a big city, depicts characters—especially mothers—who remain suspicious of strangers in order to protect their children from harm. Jackson illustrates how life in the big city can be full of fear and isolation.
The post-World War II period represented a time when, as a result of tense international relations between the United States and such countries as the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea, people were suspicious of communism. This fear came to be known as the Red Scare (red is a color typically associated with communism). Because he and others like him felt that communism posed a threat to the United States, Senator Joseph McCarthy used this nationwide unease to blacklist and even imprison people whom he suspected of harboring communist beliefs. His campaign of extreme scrutiny came to be known as McCarthyism. Although it lasted less than a decade, it destroyed lives. People reported each other out of fear rather than based upon hard evidence; careers were ruined, with mere accusations often leading to blacklisting. In the end, the mania surrounding the purported dangers of communism was generally believed to be of McCarthy’s own devising.
Mr. Johnson’s kindness is an antidote to all the fears that underlie this short story. His goodwill is relentless, and his supply of peanuts and money seems endless. He practices what came to be known in the United States forty years later as ‘‘random acts of kindness.’’ As recounted in 1996 by Adair Lara in her Francisco Chronicle column, the phrase ‘‘practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty’’ was coined by Anne Herbert in the early 1980s and was subsequently popularized by journalists in national news outlets and periodicals. The phrase ‘‘random acts of kindness’’ was also the subject of books, was used in classrooms, and was even printed on coffee mugs and other novelty items. The idea of kindness being random and even anonymous is appealing because it gives one the feeling that the world is perhaps a better place than was previously thought. The phrase also imparts a sense of spontaneity, suggesting that acts of kindness emerge naturally on the part of people.
In her article, Lara notes that random kindness is not selfless but is, in fact, a method of personal gratification. She writes that ‘‘a random act of kindness, when performed correctly, is something one does for oneself.’’ When Jackson’s story is looked at in this light, the character of Mr. Johnson gains clarity. The end of the story reveals that he is not the paragon of goodness that he appears to be and that his daily routine on the streets is comparable to an actor’s role. The interpretation of the story undergoes a transformation in the reader’s mind, from wondering why Mr. Johnson is helping all these people so selflessly to determining why Mr. and Mrs. Johnson do what they do, the good and the evil.
What is the power of kindness in the lives of the people Mr. Johnson meets? Even while Mr. Johnson, in his role of do-gooder, ultimately holds himself above those he is helping, the power of his message does not fail to move those he has touched: the child who is moving to Vermont with his mother is happier, the cab driver is relieved, Mildred Kent and Arthur Adams are pleasantly surprised, both mothers in the story are glad to know their children are safe, the beggar is well fed, and many other people have been touched after having received Mr. Johnson’s unexpected smile. Jackson ultimately chooses not to resolve the question of what comes next for the people who have been helped. Instead she unveils Mr. Johnson as a fraud: his generosity is part of a role he plays to perfection.
Is Mr. Johnson happy? His job, coupled with that of his wife, is to dispense goodwill and ill fortune, respectively, to the random people they meet in the city. Mr. Johnson appears to be content with his lot, strange as it appears, so it does not require a great leap on the part of the reader to believe that he is happy. Yet his happiness, arising as it does from such an odd occupation, makes the reader wonder what life must be like within the Johnson household. Do they practice their jobs upon each other? The last three lines of the story seem to suggest this.
Themes of community and good and evil appear frequently in Jackson’s short stories. ‘‘One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts’’ dwells specifically upon the good (kindness) within a famous story, ‘‘The Lottery,’’ which is about a lottery no one wants to win, presents a different perspective in chilling fashion, revealing the evil that exists within a community.
Ultimately what Jackson imparts to her readers in ‘‘One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts’’ is the assurance that kindness—which, given the Johnsons’ strange approach to good and evil, may or may not be inborn—is required for the smooth functioning of communities and that good and evil have a way of balancing each other out. Irrespective of his intentions or degree of sincerity, Mr. Johnson brings people together at a time when fear and isolation threaten to tear them apart. Isolated by the nuclear family structure, fearful of international politics, and weary of big-city life, the people in Jackson’s world would otherwise be easy pickings for the likes of Mrs. Johnson.
Carol Ullmann, Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Shirley Jackson, Published by Gale Group, 2010