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JEAN SHEPHERD–Allegories/metaphors Part 1



Jean Shepherd said that some of his stories were done as allegories.  Barry Farber, quoted in Excelsior, You Fathead! said that:

 He liked me because I could see the allegory.  He would question me like a professor: “What’s the meaning of this?”  “Well, Jean, this is like the eternal war between the younger and the older.”  And he liked that… He was very big on recurring themes.

 On the other hand, Shep’s good friend Murphy Grimes remembers that, although Shepherd, in his later career, claimed to have hidden meanings in his writings, a younger Shepherd had said that his stories “were just stories, some true, some amalgamations of fact and fiction, and the product of a sometimes warped memory and imagination.”  Murphy, himself a sometime standup comedian/storyteller, says that “Personally, I think he was just a great storyteller and as for all the metaphors, I don’t buy it… Leigh pumped his ego big time, pushing the image of him being the great artist to him.”

Regarding the uncertainties of interpreting meaning in someone’s writing, Murphy remembers that a kid once sent Shepherd a school test concerning In God We Trust—All Others Pay Cash, so Shepherd answered the test and sent it back.  The kid submitted it and the teacher wrote in red ink across the test answers that they showed that “either he had not read the book at all or he had absolutely no idea of what the author was trying to say.”  Murphy recalls that Shepherd saved the test and said that he’d had it framed.

So we don’t have a definitive answer, but as Murphy reminds us regarding many issues including this one, “what he would say one day he contradicted on another.”  Yet through evidence within some stories and the nature of what Shepherd told and wrote, at least sometimes there are undeniable allegories, metaphors, and similes.  What follows is not comprehensive, but a mere selection of what I’ve gathered.  I requested that the email shepgroup help in my little quest for examples.  Most of the following are my own list and analysis; others I credit in parentheses at the end of the contribution.

 The A Christmas Story movie and the stories upon which it is based contain

some of the most easily recognizable examples:

 Shepherd claimed that the BB gun story, around which the movie is based, originally published in Playboy with a slightly different title and then in his first book of stories as “Duel in the Snow or Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid,” was done as an anti-war tale.  The opening words of the printed story are: “DISARM THE TOY INDUSTRY,” and one can easily interpret the tale as suggesting that guns, even toy guns, are dangerous—“You’ll shoot your eye out”—and can cause accidental as well as deliberate injury. And, of course, many believe that giving toy guns to kids to play with promotes in them the idea that shooting real people is less horrific than it should be considered.

The BB gun is also a metaphor for any obsession such as a sports car, mansion, etc. (Joel B).

Flick’s Tavern, the continuing locale from which the linked stories of In God We Trust—from which most of the movie was adapted—as a metaphor for the home of nostalgic illusions and unfulfilled human potentials.

The Little Orphan Annie decoder pin—“A crummy commercial!” shows Ralphie that the source of one’s great expectations in our world are frequently commerce-backed deceptions.   _decoder_date1

Ralphie “beating the crap out of Scut Farkas” (Suellen).  Seems to me to show that bullies of the world might not be as powerful as feared, and can sometimes be defeated by a sufficiently goaded victim.

Santa Claus shoving Ralphie down the slide with his big black boot.  Even an ultimate symbol of loving, jolly largess might in reality just be a truth-telling, grumpy old man not willing to work a minute after hours.

The mother’s blue bowling ball present that she plopped into the old man’s groin as duel symbols—the woman, lacking a good sense of the male psyche, doesn’t know the inappropriateness of a man having a colored bowling ball (especially in the 1940s); and her accidentally (?) dropping it on the center of his masculinity shows her unconscious hostility toward the man of the house.blueball

The leg lamp, the old man’s “major award.” At first it was his joy that he had won something—a major award…when he saw what it was, an erotic masterpiece, a man’s dream-object, he lit up.  He evinced a romantic nature in his appreciation for art—“FRA-GI-LEE.” It was a signal of hope, a dream, a stairway to heaven out of the dreary mill town grit of his daily existence.  The old man’s genuine heartbroken response [to the breaking of the lamp] was a metaphor for…disappointment in married life, being saddled with a mundane family life (Gene B2).

No wonder the mother breaks the lamp—this symbol of male sexual fantasies.  After a failed attempt to repair the lamp, the old man buries it out by the garage, the narrator imagining that he can hear the playing of the ceremonial “taps”—a symbol that the old man’s dreams are dead.  All this interpretation might seem like a stretch unless one knows that Shepherd’s real father, one day, left his family in the lurch, driving off to Florida in a convertible with a blond secretary from the office.

The Bumpus hounds who invade the Parker house and carry off the turkey.  As Shepherd, the narrator, puts it, when you think all is right with the world, disaster may well be about to strike.

“The Chinese turkey,” a duck—served to the conventional American family which is used to the nearly pre-digested sensibilities of meatloaf, must be, even dead and cooked, deprived of its head, that “smiling” symbol that it was once a real animal, not just a piece of food.  

duck dinner


 A few of the many military metaphors from Signal Corps-Shep. There are probably many more in my Shep’s Army book:

The dead soldier’s effects given to Shepherd, who, feeling uncomfortable with them, abandons them, only to have them returned to him as indicative of the difficulty of walking away from life’s sadness.

Sleeping unknowingly on a dead soldier’s coffin on a train, indicating the close interrelation in war between the living and the dead.

Shepherd’s army glasses, through which he can’t see, suggesting the military’s obliviousness to simple human needs.

Shepherd’s post-service date with a minister’s daughter, meant to reintegrate him into “normal” civilian life, turns out to be a falling-down-drunk, honky-tonk girl.  People tend to be the same, no matter what their background.




1 Comment

  1. Methinks we need to be careful reading too much into his work. I agree with Murphy. Sure there are messages in his stories. They all have to do with the human condition. Huck Finn was a metaphor? No, it was a story about how people are and think.

    The famous battle of the tops has been referred to as a metaphor for the mutual destruction of nuclear war. I think it unlikely he started with a plan to write a story which would be a metaphor for that and arrived at the battle of the tops as the answer.

    I take issue with the anti-war interpretation of the BB Gun story. The woman with the button that said “disarm the toy industry represented a but of a kook, I think, who finds danger in so many things. Remember, the BB Gun fantasy Shep described was protecting his family from marauders (Black Bart). One might even say he was supporting the NRA idea that we should have guns in our homes for our own protection against evil. He ended the sequence by saying the BB Gun was the best present he had ever received or EVER WOULD RECEIVE! Now that is a big statement.

    A lot of Shep’s stories had to do with fantasies and dreams dashed by reality. Zudock’s plan to build a house from a kit, Shep and friends building a hot air balloon and burning down the high school, Bumpus’ dogs eating the ham or turkey…etc etc…The theme of the poem Excelsior speaks to that.

    In any case, I suggest we take his stories on face value for their insights,humor and fun.

    Knees loose gang, metaphorically speaking.

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