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English Commentary – James Thurber Essay

James Thurber’s “Footnote on the future” is a first person limited narrative written as an account of the author on the topic of science and the future. The piece is written with the aim of entertaining the reader; many elements in it – comedy, colloquial and conversatonal language, irony, personification and unusual imagery – reflect this unified effect. It is important to remember that although the author criticises scientists, himself and the human race in general, he does so weakly and in an amicable and comical way.

The theme of the piece is humour and this is achieved in several ways. One method used by Thurber is to include deliberately implicitly sadistic ideas into the piece. Thurber writes as if he were disappointed when he finds out that “neither the sun nor the mind of man is, after all, going out. ” This achieves humour because it seems as though Thurber is in opposition to mankind and its future even though he is a human himself.

In addition, amusing and ridiculous personification is included in the text: the universe is said to have “quit shrinking”; Thurber wishes that Halley’s Comet “deals California a glancing backhand blow before it goes careening off”; the sun-spots spread as said to have been “spreading as rapidly as ulcerative gingivitis”. Humour is also accomplished by Thurber when he ridicules himself in the opening paragraph of the piece.

Whilst attempting to make himself seem important and chiefly intelligent, he implies that information is delievered to him rather than searched by him as shown in the quote: “word is brought to me”. However, following on from this forementioned quote, Thurber reveals that it is his “pageboys” that deliver information to him. The fact that page boys do not normally deliver “information”, but instead deliver wedding rings to a priest, implies that Thurber may have mistaken the function of page boys and has therefore ridiculed himself in an attempt to seem intelligent.

In terms of content, eccentric imagery is also used to simply achieve the reader’s attention. Thurber makes the reader to imagine Earth as a “flimsy globe” and then later to imagine it being knocked “far into the oblivious Darkness, the incomprehensible Cold”. This produces shock to the reader and in fact could be considered as ironic as it implies that Thurber does not believe in a religion; instead believes that the existence of the universe can be explained through science – something that he criticises throughout the piece.

Thurber directs some attention to scientists and takes care to use the image of “bearded watchers of the skies” as a stereotype to describe them. Throughout the passage manages to portray scientists negatively through successfully (in his opinion) disproving Dr. Tilney’s theory, describing his frustration in the lack of certaintiy scientists have when predicting where and when a comet may hit Earth and commenting seemingly ironically that Time magazine is “always infallible” and. The use of irony is common throughout the piece.

He comments that scientists are “quite naturally cheerful” even though “billions of unused brain cells have been detected in the cortex of man”. Thurber however gives no explanation for why the scientists are joyful. Thurber further incorporates irony into the text when he states “we were given only a few paltry aeons to prepare our species for the end”. As an aeon is considered a period of a billion years, it would be reasonable to think that there would in fact be enough time to be prepared for such a catastrophe; Thurber does this purposefully to criticise scientists’ perception of time.

The reader’s attention is retained through a consistently colloquial and conversational use of language. Thurber refers and converses to the reader in second person when he says “the rest of you may go”, “you may all file out now” and “don’t ask me why, it just has”. The author also informally refers to the theory that man has many unused brain cells as a “little menace” and chooses to describe his age in 1910 as when he was “a stripling of sixteen going on seventeen”.


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