Although it was written decades ago, Bel Kaufman’s Sunday in the Park remains just as relevant today, if not more so, to what it means to be a man. Her story centers on a family enjoying a Sunday afternoon at the park and is told predominantly from the wife’s perspective. Relaxing on a bench, the wife watched happily as her son Larry played in the sand box before her. Sitting next to her, while reading the ‘Times Magazine section,” was her husband Morton.
Morton. A man as nerdy as his name sounded. Who was, “So citypale, cooped up all week inside the gray factorylike university.”
As Larry played on, she noticed another boy digging in the sand too. This boy was fatter, more aggressive than Larry. And his father, a grizzly looking man, sat on the opposite side and “seemed to be taking up the whole bench as he held the Sunday comics close to his face.”
Suddenly the fat boy threw sand at Larry, making him upset. After hesitating a moment, the wife intervened;
‘Don’t do that, little boy,’ she said sharply, leaning forward on the bench. ‘You mustn’t throw sand!’ The man on the bench moved his mouth as if to spit again, but instead let her speak. He did not look at her, but at the boy only. ‘You go right ahead, Joe,’ he said loudly. ‘Throw all you want. This here is a public sandbox.’
She felt a sudden weakness in her knees as she glanced at Morton.
Morton was listening too. But he hid under his magazine. Seeming to hope the matter would solve it self.
He put his Times down carefully on his lap and turned his fine, lean face toward the man, smiling the shy, apologetic smile he might have offered a student in pointing out an error in his thinking. When he spoke to the man, it was with his usual reasonableness. ‘You’re quite right,’ he said pleasantly, ‘but just because this is a public place….’
The other man cut him off, and an argument ensued until the large man said “Aw, shut up!” They both rose. Morton reluctantly. The wife nervously imagined the coming violence, about what she should do, how she should react.
Morton adjusted his glasses. He was very pale. ‘This is ridiculous,’ he said unevenly. ‘I must ask you….’
‘Oh, yeah?’ said the man. He stood with his legs spread apart, rocking a little, looking at Morton with utter scorn. ‘You and who else?’
For a moment the two men looked at each other nakedly.
Then Morton backed down.
‘Come on, let’s get out of here.’ He walked awkwardly, almost limping with self-consciousness to pick up his son Larry and left with his wife by his side.
At first she was relieved. There was no violence. No one was hurt. But as they left the park, she began to feel something else, something…
Inescapable. She sensed that it was more than just an unpleasant incident, more than defeat of reason by force. She felt dimly it had something to do with her and Morton, something acutely personal, familiar, and important.
While walking to their car, Morton rambled on and tried to rationalize his defeat. But the more he did, the more distant she became.
Getting pulled further away from the sandbox, Larry’s cries grew worse. But once he started dragging his feet, Morton and his wife finally had enough.
‘If you can’t discipline this child, I will,’ Morton snapped, making a move toward the boy.
But her voice stopped him. She was shocked to hear it, thin and cold and penetrating with contempt. ‘Indeed?’ she heard herself say. ‘You and who else?’
At first glance Bel Kaufman’s story seems simple: There’s a stronger male, Morton backs down, he’s a wimp, needs bigger balls, women hate beta males, etc…
We know that already. But there’s another point to her story that’s hidden below the surface. Because Kaufman’s story isn’t just about lacking courage, it’s about what causes that cowardice; namely, apathy.
As a man, your first reaction to the story might be that she’s saying being a big brute pays off more than being a weakling. The big guy might have shown some dominating, alpha characteristics, but to think that way is to miss Kaufman’s point entirely.
The wife didn’t care that Morton was a nerd; that’s probably why she married him. Perhaps she was one too. But it was Morton’s lack of anger, his lack of pride in himself that bothered her. That he never developed the animal-like rage proving that he was the family’s protector in the most critical of moments.
…more than defeat of reason by force. She felt dimly it had something to do with her and Morton, something acutely personal, familiar, and important.
Morton’s cowardice proved to her what she knew deep down all along, that he didn’t love his family enough the way she did.
It is critical to realize that Kaufman never gave the wife a name in the story but did for the husband. By doing this she was trying to show that the wife had given her up identity to the family, and expected Morton do the same by being a man and fulfilling his end of the bargain.
That courage isn’t so much about standing up for yourself as it is about standing up for others. But he didn’t and that was the source of her resentment. So repeating the “You and who else” remark was a way of saying, “How are you going to raise your son to be a man if you’re not even one yourself?”
The great thing about Bel Kaufman is that she came from a time where women encouraged men to be what they are and not what they should be.
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