Good and Evil
‘‘One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts’’ is primarily concerned with the presence of good and evil in everyday life, how they manifest themselves on a daily basis, and how arbitrary they can be.
Mr. Johnson is the personification of good, wandering the streets of a big city with no other purpose than to find those in need of his help— or, as it has become known since the 1990s, to practice random acts of kindness. His good deeds extend to both people and animals, which is the first suggestion by the author that Mr. Johnson’s behavior is arbitrary, that he is not performing good deeds out of a sense of charity but instead is just passing the time.
Good makes life pleasant. It is also defined by its opposite, namely, evil. Evil causes hardship in life and is often committed without concern for others. The absence of guilt following such a deed is what makes it evil rather than merely bad. Mrs. Johnson, who has a woman falsely arrested for shoplifting and tries to get a man fired from his job, personifies evil in this story. The interesting, Jacksonian twist is that Mr. and Mrs. Johnson decide to switch roles for a day and compare notes in the evening about what they have done to pass the time, emphasizing that good and evil are kept in balance. They are fully conscious of what they are doing. The moral of this story is that one never knows from one day to the next whether one is dealing with a Mr. Johnson or a Mrs. Johnson.
Life in a big city is one of the themes in Jackson’s short story ‘‘One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts.’’ It is the 1950s in an urban center that is probably New York City, which is a contemporary setting for the author, who lived there during the early 1940s. Mr. Johnson is extraordinarily cheerful and good-natured, but the people he encounters are wary and distrustful—a commentary by the author on city life at that time. In such a densely settled environment, people remain aloof in public, hurrying from one place to another. The presence of so many people means that there is also a greater likelihood of crime (evil), yet paradoxically there is also a greater opportunity to find and receive help. Mr. Johnson is persistent and everyone he encounters eventually realizes he is nothing if not well-intentioned, so they relax and smile back. Some, like Mildred Kent, are a little surprised to find someone so calm and congenial in the middle of a bustling city. The people who inhabit Jackson’s city are concerned about money and holding on to their jobs, as illustrated by Mildred Kent, Arthur Adams, the cab driver, and even the bus driver Mrs. Johnson tries to get fired. These are the things Mr. Johnson often helps people with, the same things Mrs. Johnson preys upon when she seeks to hurt someone. The big city is also a place where a great diversity of people are brought together in a milieu that fosters the growth of new ideas. Amid this diversity is the odd couple, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Shirley Jackson, Published by Gale Group, 2010