Once upon a sunny morning a man who sat in a breakfast nook looked up from his scrambled eggs to see a white unicorn with a golden horn quietly cropping the roses in the garden. The man went up to the bedroom where his wife was still asleep and woke her. "There's a unicorn in the garden," he said. "Eating roses." She opened one unfriendly eye and looked at him.

"The unicorn is a mythical beast," she said, and turned her back on him. The man walked slowly downstairs and out into the garden. The unicorn was still there; he was now browsing among the tulips. "Here, unicorn," said the man, and he pulled up a lily and gave it to him. The unicorn ate it gravely. With a high heart, because there was a unicorn in his garden, the man went upstairs and roused his wife again. "The unicorn," he said, "ate a lily." His wife sat up in bed and looked at him, coldly. "You are a booby," she said, "and I am going to have you put in the booby-hatch."

The man, who had never liked the words "booby" and "booby-hatch," and who liked them even less on a shining morning when there was a unicorn in the garden, thought for a moment. "We'll see about that," he said. He walked over to the door. "He has a golden horn in the middle of his forehead," he told her. Then he went back to the garden to watch the unicorn; but the unicorn had gone away. The man sat down among the roses and went to sleep.

As soon as the husband had gone out of the house, the wife got up and dressed as fast as she could. She was very excited and there was a gloat in her eye. She telephoned the police and she telephoned a psychiatrist; she told them to hurry to her house and bring a strait-jacket. When the police and the psychiatrist arrived they sat down in chairs and looked at her, with great interest.

"My husband," she said, "saw a unicorn this morning." The police looked at the psychiatrist and the psychiatrist looked at the police. "He told me it ate a lily," she said. The psychia¬trist looked at the police and the police looked at the psychiatrist. "He told me it had a golden horn in the middle of its forehead," she said. At a solemn signal from the psychiatrist, the police leaped from their chairs and seized the wife. They had a hard time sub¬duing her, for she put up a terrific struggle, but they finally subdued her. Just as they got her into the strait-jacket, the husband came back into the house.

"Did you tell your wife you saw a unicorn?" asked the police. "Of course not," said the husband. "The unicorn is a mythical beast." "That's all I wanted to know," said the psychiatrist. "Take her away. I'm sorry, sir, but your wife is as crazy as a jay bird."

So they took her away, cursing and screaming, and shut her up in an institution. The husband lived happily ever after.

Moral: Don't count your boobies until they are hatched.

nook: an out-of-the-way place, a quiet corner
scrambled eggs: eggs stirred and mixed with milk before cooking
booby hatch (slang): an insane asylum
strait-jacket: a jacket of strong material with very long sleeves which holds the arms close to the body, preventing an insane person from making violent movements
as crazy as a jay bird: completely mad

A. Answer the questions.

  1. What is the setting of the story?
  2. What does the man see in the garden? What is the man’s reaction? What does he feel? What would you do and feel in the same situation?
  3. What is the wife's first reaction to his words?
  4. What is the wife's plan? What clue is there that she is happy about this plan?
  5. What conclusion do the police and the psychiatrist come to?
  6. Why do they have "a hard time"? Is their behaviour justified?
  7. How does the man show his cleverness?
  8. Do you think he really sees a unicorn in the garden? Why or why not?
  9. What kind of irony does the author use in the story? Explain.
    Verbal irony is the contrast between what is said and what is actually meant.
    Dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows more than the characters do.
    Irony of situation refers to a happening that is the opposite of what is expected or intended.

  10. The expression "to turn the tables (on smb)" means to suddenly take a position of strength or advantage that was held by someone else, and change from being weaker to being stronger, e.g. She played badly in the first set, but then she turned the tables on her opponent and won the match. Who "turns the tables" on someone else in the story? Have you ever had the tables turned on you or seen them turned on somebody else? Describe the situation.

  11. Some statements authors make are long remembered especially if they are short and wise. Benjamin Franklin once wrote, "He that falls in love with himself has no rivals," and people have been repeating the line ever since. Such a brief statement of some truth is called an aphorism. Sometimes an author creates an aphorism by putting a twist on some old saying.
    1) What old saying is the moral in "The Unicorn in the Garden" based on?
    2) What other aphorisms can you think of?
    3) Thurber is having fun with words when he substitutes "boobies" for "chickens" in the old saying to create his moral. What is the meaning of the aphorism he creates?

B. The site of Glendale Community College contains the text of "The Unicorn in the Garden" as well as an online self-grading quiz which you can do to check your understanding of the story. Click the button "next question" to start the quiz.

C. The animated version of the story was released by United Productions of America in 1953. Watch the cartoon and compare it with the story you have read. Express your opinion about the cartoon.

JAMES THURBER (1894—1961)

Born in Columbus, Ohio, Thurber attended Ohio State University. During World War I, he worked for the State Department as a code clerk in Paris. Later he returned to finish college in Ohio.

After working as a reporter for several years, Thurber was hired to write for the New Yorker. He realized that the cartoons he had been drawing on envelopes, scrap paper, and tablecloths could sell as well as his writing. His cartoons soon became a major feature of the magazine.

Thurber's eyesight gradually failed. He stopped drawing as blindness approached, but he continued to dictate his stories and magazine articles. Thurber even acted in a minor role on Broadway when his book Thurber Carnival was adapted for the stage. He is, perhaps, best known for his story about a timid man who has heroic dreams, entitled "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty."