Tuesday, March 27, 2012


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James Thurber


Thurber’s fame as a humourist rests on both his writings and his drawings. His writings are remarkable for their sublime humour, pathos and psychological insight. In his childhood an accidental arrow left him blind in one eye. Eventually, a ‘sympathetic opthalmia’ took over his other eye. Owing to this, his early life was filled with a certain melancholy and introspection. He unleashes a masterpiece of humor and subtle mockery in ‘University Days.’ The essay amuses his audience with the follies and foibles of himself and his peers at the university.


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1. Thurber could never pass botany. He never once saw a cell through a microscope. The instructor would begin patiently explaining how anyone can see through a microscope. He would adjust the microscope for Thurber. But he would always end up in a fury claiming that Thurber pretended that he couldn’t see. The student was supposed to see ‘a vivid, restless clockwork of sharply defined plant cells.’ What Thurber saw looked like a lot of milk. Thurber used to complain that the microscope took away the beauty of flowers. He was not solely concerned with the mechanics of flowers. He was more interested in the aesthetics of flowers.

. Thurber took a deferred pass and waited a year. The next year the professor came back from vacation brown as a berry and fit as a fiddle. He was determined to make Thurber see cells this time. Students to the right of him and to the left of him were seeing cells, but not Thurber. The professor pulled himself together and began patiently. He declared that he would try every adjustment of the microscope known to man. He swore that he would make Thurber see cells or give up teaching. The professor was working up gradually. When he reached the point of mentioning his career of twenty two years of teaching Botany, he lost control of. The professor shook all over like Lionel Barrymore. Barrymore was a prolific actor who was most effectively cast in character roles of villains, military officers etc. Thurber had taxed the professor too much.

. Thurber went to the Economics class straight from the Botany class. So he used to mix up those two subjects. But Thurber was not as confused as another student who came to the Economics class direct from the Physics laboratory. He had the Polish name of Bolenciecwcz. He was a tackle on the football team. At that time, Ohio State University had one of the best football teams in the country. Bolenciecwcz was the pride of the University team. A student had to qualify himself in his studies in order to be eligible to play. It was very difficult for the dud. Thurber tells us with tongue in cheek that Bolenciecwcz was not less intelligent than an ox. The humour in the irony is that the ox is not famous for its intelligence. The only noteworthy quality in an ox is its smartness. However, Bolenciecwcz was not any smarter than the animal.

4. Gymnasium work was a harrowing experience for Thurber. They made you strip the day you registered. Moreover, they asked a lot of embarrassing questions. They wouldn’t let you do the exercises with your glasses on. Owing to his partial blindness, Thurber made a mess of the Gymnasium class. Without his glasses on, he couldn’t differentiate between professors and iron-bars. He bumped into virtually everything in the gymnasium. He felt their presence but he could not discern them. He could not tell an agricultural student from an iron ring. The humour is in grouping the animate professors and agricultural students with inanimate objects like the horizontal bars and iron rings.

5. A lot of agriculture students took up Journalism as an additional subject. Apparently, there is nothing in common between Journalism and Agriculture. Farming was a precarious occupation and it was prone to fail. The students hoped to fall back on journalism in case farming went awry. They didn’t realize that Journalism was an equally risky job. Falling back on Journalism was very much like falling back full-length on a kit of carpenters’ tools. Here Thurber employs a pun on the phrase ‘fall back on.’ It is a phrasal verb with the extended metaphorical meaning of ‘have recourse to in difficulty.’ When used in the literal sense it has only the aggregate of the meaning of the three words ‘fall’ + ‘back’ + ‘on.’

6. Thurber narrates the experience of an agricultural student who chose Journalism as an additional subject. He was a timid student by name Haskins. He was not cut out for journalism. The editor of the college paper generally suggested the cow barns and the horse pavilions as the subject of his assignments. The editor was pretty annoyed because his assignments were very uninteresting. Once the editor asked Haskins to produce some hot news from the horse pavilion. They had a large collection of horses, second only to the Purdue University. The editor hoped to get something readable from Haskins. Haskin plunged into action and produced the ‘sensational’ news of some obscure horse disease!

7. Two years of military training was compulsory in the university. Thurber was never any good at military drills. Once General Littlefield snapped at Thurber that he was the main trouble with the university. Thurber was at a loss to know whether the General meant him individually or that type of cadets as a whole. Thurber was the only senior still in uniforms. The uniform, when new, had given him the prestigious look of a railway conductor. It has now become faded and tight. He looked awkward and clumsy in the old uniform. It gave him the appearance of a clown. He looked like the Negro comedian Bert Williams in his errand-boy role. The uniform had a bad effect on his morale.

8. One General Littlefield put Thurber’s company to task. He tried complicated squad manoeuvres. In three minutes one hundred and nine men were marching in one direction and Thurber was marching in another. The General declared that Thurber was the only man who got it right. He was made a corporal for this achievement. The next day Littlefield summoned Thurber to his office. The General was swatting flies. He was fully immersed in his occupation and did not seem to notice the presence of Thurber. Abruptly the General ordered him to button up his coat as if the General was chiding the fly. Thurber, in his uneasiness, startled the fly the General was chasing. The General was enraged and he dismissed Thurber from the room. Thurber was at a loss to know why the General wanted to see him. Perhaps, the General wanted to apologize for having called him the main trouble with the university. Perhaps, the General wanted to compliment his brilliant marching performance. (114 words)

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