An Analysis of James Thurber’s “The Unicorn in the Garden”


Commentary by Karen Bernardo


The plot of Thurber’s fable “The Unicorn in the Garden” can be summarized in only a few paragraphs. A man wakes his wife to tell her there is a unicorn in the garden, eating the flowers. Without getting up to look out the window, she tells him there can’t be: “A unicorn is a mythical beast.” He goes back into the garden, returns again to the bedroom, and repeats his assertion. His wife, still not getting up to look out the window, warns him that “You’re a booby…and I’m going to have to put you in the booby hatch.”


After the man returns to the garden, the wife—with “a gloat in her eye”—calls the police and a psychiatrist. When they arrive, she tells them what her husband said to her, assuming that they will lock him up (which is clearly what she wants). The police and the psychiatrist ask her husband whether there is, in fact, a unicorn in the garden, and he says “Of course not. The unicorn is a mythical beast.”


Consequently, they lock up the wife—which is clearly what the husband wants. Thurber even attaches a moral— “Don’t count your boobies until they are hatched.”


The woman in Thurber’s story does not know whether there’s a unicorn in the garden, and she doesn’t care; she immediately sees how her husband’s assertion can be used to get rid of him. In other words, she isn’t interested in getting inside his head; she isn’t interested in sharing his vision of life; she’s only interested in pursuing her own agenda, which doesn’t include her husband.


Until the last two paragraphs, however, we have no indication that the husband feels the same way. Thurber still does not give us any indication whether the husband has planned this outcome all along; in other words, he leaves completely open the question of whether there was ever a unicorn in the garden at all. However, Thurber does tell us that after the wife was committed to a mental institution, “the husband lived happily ever after,” so we can see that up till then, this couple essentially lived two separate lives in the same house.


Anticipating the current “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus,” argument, Thurber’s story is grounded in his apparent belief that his characters’ lack of intellectual and emotional intimacy is gender-based and thus inevitable. Even though in the context of comedy this seems amusing, in real life it is not.


“The Unicorn in the Garden” can be found in the anthology The Thurber Carnival.


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