The Birthday Party

When a wife surprises her husband on his birthday, an ironic turn of events occurs. Katherine Brush’s “The Birthday Party” is a short story about relationships, told from the perspective of a nearby observer. Brush uses the words and actions of the married couple to assert that a relationship based on selfishness is weak.

Immediately, the narrator stereotypes the couple by saying “they looked unmistakably married” (1). The couple symbolizes a relationship. Because marriage is the deepest human relationship, Brush chose a married couple to underscore her message and strengthen the story. The husband’s words weaken their relationship. When the man rejects his wife’s gift with “punishing…quick, curt, and unkind” (19) words, he is being selfish. Selfishness is a matter of taking, just as love is a matter of giving. He has taken her emotional energy, and she is left “crying quietly and heartbrokenly” (21). Using unkind words, the husband drains his wife of emotional strength and damages their relationship.

The husband was also selfish in his actions. With good intentions, the wife had planned a surprise for him, but he was not pleased. “Instead, he was hotly embarrassed, and indignant at his wife for embarrassing him” (13). When the narrator describes the husband at the beginning, he has a “self-satisfied face” (3). Embarrassment is a result of feeling self-conscious. Because of his self-conscious nature, he assesses first how the few people in the restaurant will view him because of his wife’s actions. He does not prioritize appreciation for his wife’s effort and care, but rather sees the worst in her misguided actions. The husband’s selfishness causes him to be prideful, which in turn causes him to destroy his relationship with his wife through his actions.

In a subtle way, Brush also makes the wife’s actions selfish. Even though her husband was wrong to react in the way that he did, she was also selfish in her actions. Clearly, her husband has a shy personality because “he was hotly embarrassed” (13) in front of “such few people as there were in the restaurant” (11). Using a couple of this age (“late thirties” (1)), Brush asserts that the wife should have known her husband’s preferences and been sensitive to them. The author also uses the seemingly opposite descriptions the couple: “There was nothing conspicuous about them” (5) and the “big hat” (4) of the woman. The big hat reveals the wife’s desire to be noticed.
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