The Unicorn in the Garden – Text and Analysis


The Unicorn in the Garden” written by James Thurber. is one of the most famous of his humorous modern fables. It first appeared in The New Yorker 1939; and was first collected in his book Fables for Our Time and Famous Poems Illustrated (Harper and Brothers, 1940) Thurber (1894 – 1961) was a famous US cartoonist, humorist, journalist, playwright and children’s book author. He was best known for his cartoons and short stories published mainly in The New Yorker magazine.


The Unicorn in the Garden is about a man and his wife. One morning tha man sees a unicorn in the garden eating flowers. Positively excited he goes upstairs to the bedroom where his wife is still asleep and tells her what he has seen. She ridicules him, telling him that a unicorn is a mythical beast and does not exist, she then calls him an idiot. When he persists, she threatens to send him to an institution for mentally ill patients.. He persists, and she summons the authorities. They come and listen to the woman, but when she tells them about a golden horn, they force her into a straitjacket. They ask the returning husband if he has told his wife about a unicorn. He tells them, using the same words his wife has used before, that he has not. Thus they take the wife away instead, leaving a happy husband back alone.


The story is a piece of prose writing that is belletristic in style which is characterized by a casual, yet polished and pointed, essayistic elegance. The main aim is to entertain and also make people think and appeal to their emotions. It is told in the third person by an authorial (omniscient) narrator who describes the events objectively. There are mainly elements of the descriptions with some short dialogues as well.

In the first place this story is a fable which leads to a particular moral lesson at the end and one of its characters is a mythical legendary creature – a unicorn. There are all the characteristics of a fable:

  • In the fable there is a unity of place, time and action.
  • The situation takes place in only one place and in a short period of time.
  • The fable wants to instruct and entertain
  • There is only one main plot and no subplots.
  • A fable uses simple language to be generally understandable.

There are also features of a fairy tale:

Characteristic for fairy tales is among other things the appearance of fantastic elements in the form of animals that speak and act like humans as there are mythical creatures such as dragons and unicorns. The well known stock phrase Once upon a time used to introduce fairy tales appears slightly modified as Once upon a sunny morning and the usual end and they all lived happily ever after has sophistically been changed to The husband lived happily ever after.

The protagonists of this story, th man and his wife, are obviously opposed to each other. The man is dreamy, seems kind and composed, while the woman is unfriendly and selfish towards him. So when the man went upstairs to tell his wife about the great news he had experienced, she opened an unfriendly eye..and looked up at him coldly and she’s even threatening to send him to the booby hatch. The strong desire to get rid of her husband is expressed by the simile As soon as the husband had gone out of the house, the wife got up and dressed as fast as she could followed by she was very excited and there was a gloat in her eye which again stresses the fact of her evil plan.

The syntactic repetition in the sentence she telephoned the police and she telephoned a psychiatrist;

is another stylistic element that illustrates the hectic pace of her actions. The man, on the other hand, shows a friendly, good-natured manner when he talks to the unicorn offering some food: Here, unicorn,” said the man, and he pulled up a lily and gave it to him.

The unicorn, in mythology, is a symbol of happiness and purity and together with the peaceful garden scenery the author seems to point out to a happy ending of the story, which actually is the case, but only for the husband, who lived happily ever after.

The moral of that story is expressed in good old fable tradition at the end by changing the well known proverb Don’t count your chickens until they hatch to Don’t count your boobies until they are hatched. The message of which is in general: You should not make plans that depend on something good happening before you know that it has actually happened – and here in particular:

Be careful not to fall into your own trap, because evil people are always punished for their deeds.


The Unicorn in the Garden – by James Thurber

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; now he was 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 lilly,” she said. The psychiatrist 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 subduing 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 jaybird.”

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.


  • booby: in this context, a crazy person (probably from the name of a stupid extinct bird).
  • booby-hatch: a mental institution, a place where the insane are kept.
  • breakfast nook: a little side room for eating breakfast.
  • browsing: sampling or tasting here and there.
  • “crazy as a jaybird”: extremely crazy or hopelessly insane
  • cropping: clipping or cutting close to the root.
  • “Don’t count your boobies until they are hatched”: from the American expression “Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched”, meaning “Don’t count on things to turn out exactly as you planned them.”
  • gloat: a look of malice or greed.
  • institution: a mental institution, an insane asylum.
  • moral: in this context, the “lesson” of the story.
  • mythical: relating to a myth, hence not real.
  • psychiatrist: a mental doctor
  • strait-jacket: an armless belted jacket used to confine the violently insane

Bernd Riebe, 2020

By the way, here is a good German version of the story:

Das Einhorn im Garten

Es war einmal ein Mann, der saß an einem sonnigen Morgen in der Frühstücksecke, und als er von seinem Rührei aufblickte, sah er im Garten ein weißes Einhorn mit einem goldenen Horn, das in aller Ruhe die Rosen abfraß. Der Mann ging ins Schlafzimmer hinauf und weckte seine friedlich schlummernde Frau mit dem Ruf: “Im Garten ist ein Einhorn und frisst Rosen!“ Sie öffnete die Augen und starrte ihn missmutig an. “Das Einhorn ist ein Fabeltier“: murmelte sie und kehrte ihm den Rücken. Der Mann ging langsam die Treppe hinunter und in den Garten hinaus. Das Einhorn war noch da und knabberte jetzt an den Tulpen. “Hier nimm, Einhorn”, sagte der Mann, rupfte eine Lilie ab und gab sie ihm. Das Einhorn fraß sie mit ernster Miene. Freudig bewegt, weil ein Einhorn in seinem Garten war; kehrte der Mann ins Haus zurück und weckte abermals seine Frau. “Das Einhorn hat eine Lilie gefressen”, berichtete er. Die Frau setzte sich im Bett auf und musterte ihn mit kaltem Blick. “Du bist ein Narr”, sagte sie, “und ich werde dich ins Narrenhaus stecken lassen.” Der Mann, der die Worte, Narr’ und, Narrenhaus’ nie gemocht hatte und sie angesichts des strahlenden Morgens und des Einhorns noch weniger mochte, dachte ein Weilchen nach. “Das werden wir ja sehen”, erwiderte er dann und ging zur Tür. “Es hat ein goldenes Horn mitten auf der Stirn”, teilte er seiner Frau noch mit, bevor er sich wieder in den Garten begab, um dem Einhorn zuzuschauen. Aber das Einhorn war fort. Der Mann setzte sich zwischen die Rosensträucher und schlief ein. Sobald die Frau allein war; stand sie auf und kleidete sich an, so schnell sie konnte. Sie war sehr aufgeregt, und ihre Augen leuchteten triumphierend. Zuerst rief sie die Polizei an und dann einen Psychiater. Sie forderte sie auf, schleunigst in ihr Haus zu kommen und eine Zwangsjacke mitzubringen. Die Polizisten und der Psychiater kamen, setzten sich auf Stühle und betrachteten die Frau mit großem Interesse. “Mein Mann”, begann sie, “hat heute Morgen ein Einhorn gesehen“. Die Polizisten schauten den Psychiater an, und der Psychiater schaute die Polizisten an. „Er erzählte, es hätte eine Lilie gefressen”, fuhr sie fort. Der Psychiater schaute die Polizisten an, und die Polizisten schauten den Psychiater an. “Er erzählte, es hätte ein goldenes Horn mitten auf der Stirn”, schloss sie. Der Psychiater gab den Polizisten mit ernster Miene ein Zeichen. Sie sprangen von ihren Stühlen auf. Einer ergriff die Frau. Es fiel ihnen nicht leicht, sie zu überwältigen, denn sie wehrte sich erbittert, aber schließlich überwältigten sie sie doch. Sie hatten sie gerade in die Zwangsjacke gesteckt, als der Mann hereinkam. “Haben Sie Ihrer Frau erzählt, Sie hätten ein Einhorn gesehen?” fragten die Polizisten. “Natürlich nicht”, antwortete der Mann. “Das Einhorn ist ein Fabeltier.” “Mehr wollte ich nicht wissen”, sagte der Psychiater. “Schafft sie fort. Es tut mir leid, Sir; Ihre Frau Gemahlin ist total übergeschnappt.” Die Polizisten führten die Frau ab, so sehr sie auch fluchte und schrie und sperrten sie in eine Anstalt. Der Mann aber lebte glücklich und zufrieden bis an sein seliges Ende.


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