“Children Are Bored on Sunday”
by Jean Stafford
from the February 21, 1948 issue of The New Yorker
reprinted in the December 3, 2018 issue of The New Yorker
This week, rather than publish a new story, The New Yorker went back to their archives to give us a story by Jean Stafford, who died in 1979, and John Updike, who died in 2009. For John Updike’s “Snowing in Greenwich Village,” click here. I actually posted on Jean Stafford’s “Children Are Bored on Sunday” back in 2010. Below, then, I’ve reposted my original thoughts. I’m interested to see how they stand up in a re-read! Also, I’m interested in hearing from you, so join in the comments below!
Now, a flasback to 2010:
Jean Stafford is a name I’ve heard often but I have never gotten to know her work. I noticed that later this year NYRB Classics is releasing her 1947 book The Mountain Lion. Checking out The New Yorker, I found that she was a prolific contributor with a couple dozen short stories to her name. Not having the first clue where to start, I opted for “Children Are Bored on Sunday,” which was published on February 21, 1948.
This story did two things for me: (1) it made me want to get to know Stafford more — it’s an intriguing character portrait; (2) it made me think that neglecting Stafford might be like neglecting Edith Wharton — their style (at least, according to my limited perspective) is very similar and their dissection of New York society very acute.
The main character, Emma, is visiting the Metropolitan Museum on Sunday. While there she almost panics when she sees an old acquaintance. Here are the opening lines:
Through the wide doorway between two of the painting galleries, Emma saw Alfred Eisenburg standing before “The Three Miracles of Zenobius,” his lean, equine face ashen and sorrowing, his gaunt frame looking undernourished, and dressed in a way that showed he was poorer this year than he had been last.
There’s no sign of the panic there yet. It doesn’t come for a while, actually. We first get some interesting insights into Emma’s relationship with Alfred and, even more importantly, into Emma’s troubled heart:
Emma liked Alfred, and once, at a party some other year, she had flirted with him slightly for seven or eight minutes. It had been spring, and even into that modern apartment, wherever it had been, while the cunning guests, on their guard and highly civilized, learnedly disputed on aesthetic and political subjects, the feeling of spring had boldly invaded, adding its nameless, sentimental sensations to all the others of the buffeted heart; one did not know and never had, even in devouring raptures of adolescence, whether this was a feeling of tension or of solution — whether one flew or drowned.
Still no sign of panic. But soon we get this interesting sentence wherein we learn that something has happened to Emma relatively recently:
In another year, she would have been pleased to run into Alfred here in the Metropolitan on a cold Sunday, when the galleries were thronged with out-of-towners and with people who dutifully did something self-educating on the day of rest.
That line “in another year” is almost a repeat from above. There is something that has made this year unlike any other year. The encounter with Eisenburg has thrown off Emma’s plan. This little outing to the Met was part of a bigger plan that resembles some sort of rehabilitation, but that plan has not only been thwarted but its goal is shown to be more distant than Emma hoped.
She paused because she could not decide what to look at now that she had been denied the Botticelli. She wondered, rather crossly, why Alfred Eisenburg was looking at it and why, indeed, he was here at all. She feared that her afternoon, begun in such a burst of courage, would not be what it might have been; for this second’s glimpse of him — who had no bearing on her life — might very well divert her from the pictures, not only becuase she was reminded of her ignorance of painting by the presence of someone who was (she assumed) versed in it but because her eyesight was not bound to be impaired by memory and conjecture, by the irrelevant mind-portraits of innumerable people who belonged to Eisenburg’s milieu.
Emma has withdrawn from society — not that it was her society to begin with. She grew up where they could play hide-and-seek behind lilac bushes and not behind ash cans; these had a head start “because they had grown up in apartments, where there was nothing else to do but educate themselves.”
This is only a glimpse at this story. There are a few pages left where Emma looks at the others in the museum, in particular at some of the youths wandering around. There are some powerful social dynamics going on, but this is played out in the Met and in the context of art and science and religion. As I said above, the style and the precision reminded me of Edith Wharton. The tone of the story isn’t lightened by Wharton’s wit and charm, but this particular one didn’t need that. Certainly it is time to develop a relationship with Stafford.
Two things. First this story seems to indicate that there was so much more time in the day by how this story goes oo for so long and how the heroine seems to have so much more time on her hands, when we abbreviate our time by letting it be swallowed up by smartphones which take so much time to gather so little data over 8 or 9 panels.
Second, this a classic tale of rustic upstate New Yorker versus downstate uppity intellectual. The key to this is she has probably read all of Dickens, who was always considered lowbrow. But Stafford has the precision of Dickens describing London swapped out for a description of New York via a pretty comprehensive detailing of the Metropolitan Museum.
The rich have all the time in the world to educate themselves though confined to apartments whereas as the person who was born in a house strives to survive while trying to quickly educate herself up to the level of an intelkectual.
The romantic interlude has a settling for leftovers quality to it. I especially liked the emergence of Dali, whose surrealism forshadows the whole incongruity of such a weird date of two opposites headed for disaster.
We are so far away from that time. And there is so much less time for intellectuals or any discussion of anything at all important for any time at all.
Still, it is very written and is sort of a modern update of the precision of Dickens applied to visiting an the Met art museum on a Sunday.
I’d like to add my thoughts to Larry Bone’s commentary. We see some of the same things in this tale. Two in particular:
“This a classic tale of rustic upstate New Yorker versus downstate uppity intellectual.”
Certainly cultural differences play an important part in the action. Yet, at the end they almost melt away, at least for these two people, on this one day. More on this later.
“The romantic interlude has a settling for leftovers quality to it.”
Definitely. Sad, and yet, not completely. Again, more later.
Two meta observations:
First, when I decided to write a comment, I re-read the story. Wow! How much more I gleaned from a close reading (Duh!), and how much more I admired it.
Second, I saw again how, when I have certain themes on my mind, I see them everywhere. Two examples:
From the same issue, the cartoon where the man enters a party and exclaims: “Yipes! Grownups!!” Children vs. grownups is a central theme in Stafford’s story; at least the feeling of not being grownup.
In the next week’s issue, in the profile of Edward Gorey:
“He hated New York – he thought Manhattanites were a bunch of phonies.” (p. 54)
Another cultural gap – Gorey was a rube from Chicago.
Now to the story itself. First, much strong writing, a lot of it wry self-mocking humor, sometimes ironic, some on the narrator’s hypersensitive nature:
— the Holbeins: “Eisenburg’s hypothetical suffering and her own real suffering blurred the lean lines and muddied the lucid colors.”
— “nuptial consummation of the abandoned”
— “Although she was no longer mutilated, she was still unkempt.”
— “flirted with him slightly for seven or eight minutes”
— about Dali: “She shuddered then realized that he was merely famous.”
— “because her eyesight was now bound to be impaired by memory and conjecture, by the irrelevant mind-portraits of innumerable people who belonged to Eisenburg’s milieu.”
— “shaky with apprehension and Martinis”
— “Intellectual loves rube.”
— She calls people in Eisenburg’s circle “Augustans” and “Olympians”.
— a long list of topics and people on whom the intellectuals “prounounced judgments”, ending with “Monsignor Sheen, the Atomic Energy Commission and the movie industry.”
There are many apple references, with this one summing them up: “Eve and Newton and Emma understood one another perfectly.” I think this is a creative and significant sentence.
I kept the title in my mind while I was re-reading, asking what it meant. Here are some references on children and grownups, all in the last section:
— “they cunningly saw that they were children and that if they wished they were free for the rest of this winter Sunday to play together, quite naked, quite innocent.”
“But they were en rapport, and he, wanting to avoid the grown-ups as much as she . . .”
And this wonderful, summing-up sentence:
“To mingle their pain, their handshake had promised them, was to produce a separate entity, like a child that could shift for itself, and they scrambled hastily toward this profound and pastoral experience.”
Like the apple, their afternoon of delinquency from culture mingles serous and innocent moods. Like the whole story, it is a mix of high art with the low consolation of drink in a dark dive. It’s a very touching sort-of-happy ending in which two unhappy people from different worlds turn out to have an important emotional bond and manage to connect for at least one afternoon.
Just read ‘Children Are Bored…” in an anthology of New Yorker stories from 2000 — what a pleasure to find the story being discussed here. I don’t think it was lacking wit — just a different sort than Wharton. I loved the figure of Salvador Dali scuttling through the pages.