James, Thurber, The birds and the foxes

In the following text the author reduces the extremes of human behavior to an apparently simple story. Or is it not so simple after all?

Once upon a time there was a bird sanctuary in which hundreds of Baltimore orioles lived together happily. The refuge consisted of a forest entirely surrounded by a high wire fence. When it was put up, a pack of foxes who lived nearby protested that it was an arbitrary and unnatural boundary. However, they did nothing about it at the time because they were interested in civilizing the geese and ducks on the neighboring farms. When all the geese and ducks had been civilized, and there was nothing else left to eat, the foxes once more turned their attention to the bird sanctuary. Their leader announced that there had once been foxes in the sanctuary but that they had been driven out. He proclaimed that Baltimore orioles belonged in Baltimore. He said, furthermore, that the orioles in the sanctuary were a continuous menace to the peace of the world. The other animals cautioned the foxes not to disturb the birds in their sanctuary.

So the foxes attacked the sanctuary one night and tore down the fence that surrounded it. The orioles rushed out and were instantly killed and eaten by the foxes.

The next day the leader of the foxes, a fox from whom God was receiving daily guidance, got upon the rostrum and addressed the other foxes. His message was simple and sublime. " You see before you," he said, "another Lincoln. We have liberated all those birds!"

Moral: Government of the orioles, by the foxes, and for the foxes, must perish from the earth.


bird sanctuary : area of land in which the killing of birds is forbidden
Baltimore oriole : (amerikanischer) Pirol
arbitrary ['----]:
rostrum: platform for public speaking
Lincoln : Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) U.S. President from 1861 to 1865, proclaimed freedom of slaves in the American South
Government of the orioles . . .: based on the last sentence of Lincoln's famous Gettysburg Address (1863), "government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth"

Understanding the contents

1. Characterize* the orioles as they appear in the text.

2. What characteristics does the author give the foxes in this story?

3. What psychological or strategic measures do the foxes take to justify their actions against the ducks, geese and orioles?

4. How do the other animals react to the foxes' attacks on the birds?

Analysing the text

5. As is usually the case in a fable, the characters* in this text are personified* animals. The fable is similar to the parable* in several respects.
a) Both often consist of two distinct kinds of text.

Identify them for this fable.
b) The fable and the parable are both allegorical* text forms*.

What human qualities or attitudes are personified in Thurber's text?
c) The fable also has the same basic function as the parable.

What is it generally, and what in this particular case?

6. In addition to the simple chronological* order of the story itself, fables often take a dialectical order. This means that the writer puts two contrasting views, types of behavior, etc. in direct opposition to each other. These are known as the thesis and antithesis. The conflict* between the two is resolved in the synthesis.
Identify the elements of the dialectical order in Thurber's fable.
7. From the start, the reader of the fable clearly knows that this story could not have happened in reality. What produces this effect
a) as far as place and time are concerned,
b) with regard to the characters and the information we get about them?
8. Thurber uses various elements that make his fable a satire. A satirical piece of writing tries to criticize certain conditions, events or people by making them appear ridiculous.
a) To characterize the behaviour of the foxes, the author has them make use of euphemism, a stylistic device employed to hide the true nature of something unpleasant by using a more pleasant, less direct expression for it. It is quite common in political propaganda.
Find two examples in the text.
b) What else in the characterization* of the foxes contributes to this satirical effect?
9. Thurber also supports the effect of his political satire by employing parody.The aim of parody is to amuse by imitating the form and language of a well-known piece of writing. However, the context and tone* are changed. In what way is the moral* of this fable a parody of the last line of Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address"?

Working with the language

10. a) Use a dictionary to give definitions of the following expressions referring to groups of animals: "flight", "flock", "herd", "litter", "pack", "shoal", "swarm" .
b) State with which of the following names of animals each of these words can be used: "bees", "cattle", "elephants", "fish", "geese", "kittens", "pidgeons", "puppies", "sheep", "wolves".
11. A German word for "boundary" is "Grenze".
a) Consult a German-English dictionary to find further English expressions for "Grenze".
b) Now study your English-English dictionary for the differences in meaning between these words. Complete the following sentences in your notebook: The answer to that question will remain beyond the . . . of human knowledge. It is good to set a . . . to your travelling expenses before leaving home. The man the police are looking for has probably escaped across the.... Cheyenne was a famous town on the American . . . and is now the capital of Wyoming. There are no . . . to her generosity.

Going beyond the text
12. This fable was published in Thurber's collection "Fables for Our Time" (1940). How may the political events of that time have influenced the writer? State your opinion in class.

13. What animals traditionally appear in fables? What do they generally stand for? What may be the advantages of using them instead of human beings as characters in fables? Write a short expository* text.
14. Look for another English, German, French or Latin fable in a book you may have in your school library. Read it, then retell the story to your class.