Review of The Wonderful O by James Thurber
By COYLE NEAL
An important introductory disclaimer: if you haven’t already read The Wonderful O, stop reading this review now. Nothing I have to say will be anywhere near as interesting as what Thurber has written. Which also stands as a good general rule: if you have to choose between reading Thurber and most other things, go with Thurber.
A band of thugs have taken over the island of Ooroo. These, however, are no ordinary thugs. In addition to being greedy and violent (most thugs are at least those), they are also driven by an irrational hatred of the letter “O.” When they take over, they implement this irrationality as a form of government—even as a way of life—and through brute force compel the people of the island to live according to this new ideal. What can possibly save the people of Ooroo (now just called “R”) from the tyranny exercised upon their little world? Will the four little “o” words which the islanders cling to with all their might be able to save them? (You’ll have to read the book to find out what those four words are.)
Let me get my criticism of the book out of the way at the start: it’s about 30 pages too long. And for a book that’s only 72 pages, I think that’s really saying something. Much of the book is composed of lists of the words that can no longer be said under the new anti-O legislation. Which would be fine if Thurber hadn’t run this point into the ground.
That said, this book is still a wonderful description and biting analysis of the rational application of totalitarian irrationality. (To clarify: it’s a “rational application” because the law itself is not unclear: the letter “O” is forbidden; it’s “irrationality” because forbidding something like a letter is, well, irrational.) Over and over Thurber hammers home the silly results of such laws and the aspects of human nature which make us so readily eager to accept them:
Before they were through they had torn down colleges and destroyed many a book and tome and volume, and globe and blackboard and pointer, and banished professors, assistant professors, scholars, tutors, and instructors. There was no one left to translate English into English. Babies often made as much sense as their fathers. (30)
But why would people live under such a government? One reason, of course, is the physical force at play—if they don’t they’ll be jailed or killed. Yet, this is not the only reason. As the lawyer (who being a lawyer of course joined the tyrannical government) explains, on some level these rules appeal to human nature:
And once these rules have been adopted by much of the population, it would seem that their power is complete and “O” will be exterminated from the world.
O-lessness is now a kind of cult in certain quarters… a messy lessness, whose meaninglessness nonetheless attracts the few, first one or two, then three or four, then more and more. People often have respect for what they cannot comprehend, since some men cannot always tell their crosses from their blessings, their laurels from their thorns. (46)
[Spoiler alert from here on out]
Yet the tyrants have forgotten something—in their hatred and greed they failed to account for the power of the books and words of the past. When all seemed lost, when everything good and noble was in shambles, the myths and legends contained in books themselves rose up to overturn the usurpation of the world. Descending from the heavens all the creatures from the books which had been burned (“they have a way of rising out of ashes”, 61) strike the conscience of the tyrants and drive them into the sea.
Obviously, in some ways this is a very unsatisfactory plot twist. Thurber is making much the same point that Tolkien makes in Lord of the Rings about the power and strength of the past to aid the present in resisting the evils of the current age. The difference is that Thurber’s approach is much more heavy-handed (which is not necessarily inappropriate for a short story like this), which ultimately lessens the effect. On the other hand, his advantage over Tolkien is his recognition of the place of the written word in this resistance. This is something which should resonate with Christians, we believe after all that the Word of the Lord is living and active, conquers the enemies of God, and will last forever. At the end one little word shall fell the enemies of God. That said, Thurber’s story is still heavy-handed, and could have used a bit of polishing on Thurber’s part.
I think it’s fairly clear that Thurber wrote this book as a short send-up of communism, which might make it seem dated today. But as with so many thoughtful anti-totalitarian writings, its implications can be carried over to anyone and everyone who would attempt to do what the communists tried: impose order on existence in the name of made-up human rules. Such attempts are always bound to fail—most often with spectacular amounts of bloodshed along the way. I’ll leave it to you to try to decide whose attempts we should be resisting these days. Just be aware that you have powerful allies in the books of the past. Frankly, I’m surprised that the communists ever thought they had a chance when we had James Thurber on our side.
Dr. Coyle Neal delights in the works of Thurber in Washington, DC. When he has to, he teaches political philosophy and history.