Here is a summary of “Sunday in the Park” by Bel Kaufman, followed by a discussion of a prominent theme. It’s a popular short story for students.
Summary of “Sunday in the Park”
Morton and his wife sit on a park bench while their little son, Larry, plays in the sandbox with another boy who’s a bit huskier. It’s late afternoon on Sunday, and the grounds are mostly deserted. The wife is contented and thinks they should get out in the sun more often.
The other boy suddenly stands and throws a shovel full of sand at Larry, narrowly missing his head. Morton’s wife gently scolds the boy, telling him not to throw sand. She can’t find his mother, but figures a large man on a nearby bench reading the comics is his father.
The boy throws more sand, this time getting some in Larry’s hair. He looks to his mother with concern. She sharply tells the boy to stop. The man on the bench tells the boy, Joe, to go right ahead doing whatever he wants because it’s a public place.
Morton puts down his paper and mildly objects. The man reiterates his view and tells Morton to take his family and leave if he doesn’t like it. The wife is angry at the man and resents that Morton has to get involved in a situation like this.
The other man stands and approaches Morton. Morton starts to object again, but the man says, “You and who else?” Morton turns away and says they’re leaving. He goes to the sandbox and gets Larry.
Morton and his wife lead Larry by the hand while he cries to stay and keep playing. The wife doesn’t look at the other man as they leave, trying to maintain as much dignity as she can.
She’s relieved that there was no fight and no one was hurt, but she also feels something else. Morton says a fight wouldn’t have proved anything except that the other man was bigger, and he would have sustained some injury for nothing. His wife agrees. She just wants to get home and forget about this unpleasantness.
Larry is still crying. His mother has lost her pity for his frailty, and sharply rebukes him. She thinks back on the confrontation and knows nothing else would have helped.
Morton tells her to keep Larry quiet. She’s been trying. He says if she can’t discipline Larry, he will. His wife contemptuously asks, “You and who else?”
Morton and his rival are very different types of men, and each has qualities that are associated with manliness.
Morton is educated, mild-mannered, wears glasses, and works in a university. He was reading the Times Magazine section. He’s also a smaller man and physically weaker than average. Morton is successful in the civilized world, holding a position of some importance that gives him status with his peers. He has a wife who respects him and a son who (presumably) looks up to him.
The other man is coarse, forceful and bigger than average. He was reading the comics. We aren’t told about the man’s work, so we don’t know how much money he makes. He has a son who listens to him. He’s “successful” in his interactions with other men, in the jockeying for dominance that is common among them. This would give him status with his peers.
The complexity of what makes a man is seen in the reaction of Morton’s wife. Her view of Morton changes dramatically over the course of a few minutes. She starts out feeling tenderness for him and anger toward the other man for his confrontational manner. She ends up feeling contempt for him and echoing the bully’s taunt that he’s not man enough to do something.
Immediately after leaving the scene of the altercation, underneath the relief she feels that things didn’t turn physical, Morton’s wife feels something else: “. . . something to do with her and Morton, something acutely personal, familiar, and important.”
Morton’s wife feels this despite agreeing that a fight wouldn’t have proved anything, and that Morton getting beat up wouldn’t have made things any better.
We get some insight into how she views Morton in how she reacts to Larry’s crying. She always felt “tender pity” for his physical weakness and sensitivity, but now she resents him. She resents Morton now as well, thinking, “If there had been an issue involved. . . if there had been something to fight for. . .” She realizes that even if Morton undoubtedly should have fought this man, he couldn’t have. It’s not that his response was wrong, it’s that it was the only response he was capable of. In this sense, Morton isn’t a man. He’s more like a helpless child.
Morton seems to recognize his failure as well. Earlier, we were told he was “rarely angry” and “seldom lost his temper”. He’s speaking in frustration when he tells his wife to keep Larry quiet, and is about to show he’s a man of action when his wife’s cutting remark stops him.
Interestingly, Morton’s wife is “shocked to hear” her own voice when she mocks her husband at the end. She’s surprised that she feels contempt for her husband, a man she previously viewed with tenderness. His lack of manliness in the physical realm, something she’s always been vaguely aware of, has been thrown in her face, and she has lost respect for him as a result.
Normally, she sees Morton in his own environment where he is sufficiently manly. He’s out of his element when it comes to confrontation. Likewise, the bully is in his “environment”; he would be out of his element at the university and wouldn’t seem so manly there. He could be viewed with scorn, as Morton is in this situation.
Although Morton acted reasonably and on principle, it wasn’t satisfying. He was cowed by another man, and all his rationalizations for backing down don’t prevent the embarrassment he and his wife feel.
Morton’s non-violent principles also have to be taken with a grain of salt because he’s not equipped to win a fight. The only way a man can back down as Morton did without losing face is if the onlookers think he would have won the fight. In that case, he would have had options, so the argument could be made that showing self-control was the most manly thing to do.