The Unicorn in the Garden

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"The Unicorn in the Garden"
Author James Thurber
Country  United States
Language English
Series Fables For Our Time
Genre(s) Fable, short story
Published in The New Yorker
Publication type Magazine
Publisher Harper & Brothers
Media type Print (Periodical, Hardback & Paperback) & AudioBook
Publication date 1939 (magazine), 1940 (book)
Preceded by "The Patient Bloodhound"
Followed by "The Rabbits Who Caused All the Trouble"

"The Unicorn in the Garden" is a short story written by James Thurber. The most famous[citation needed] of Thurber's humorous modern fables, it first appeared in The New Yorker on October 31, 1939; and was first collected in his book Fables for Our Time and Famous Poems Illustrated (Harper and Brothers, 1940). The fable has since been reprinted in The Thurber Carnival (Harper and Brothers, 1945), James Thurber: Writings and Drawings (The Library of America, 1996, ISBN 1-883011-22-1), The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales, and other publications. It is taught in literature[1][2] and rhetoric courses.[3]

Plot summary[edit]

A husband sees a unicorn in the family garden and tells his wife about it. She ridicules him, telling him "the unicorn is a mythical beast" and calls him a "booby". When he persists, she threatens to send him to the "booby hatch" (the mental institution). He persists, and she summons the authorities. However, after she tells them what her husband saw and they note her own somewhat loony-looking facial features, they force her into a straitjacket. They then ask the husband if he told his wife he had seen a unicorn. Not wanting to be locked up himself, he prudently tells them that he has not, because "the unicorn is a mythical beast." Thus they take the wife away instead, and "the husband lived happily ever after". The story ends with, "Moral: Don't count your boobies before they're hatched", a play on the popular adage, "Don't count your babies [or chickens] before they're hatched". Thus, the moral advises not to expect your hopes to be a certainty.

Format and style[edit]

Detail from James Thurber's original illustration

At 530 words, including the tagline "moral", "The Unicorn in the Garden" qualifies as a short short story, but is generally consistent with the format of a much older literary form, the fable. Fables typically employ anthropomorphic animals as characters, a convention Thurber ignores here, concentrating instead on the reactions of the human husband and wife.

As in much of Thurber's work, wordplay is oft employed. An example is the multiple uses of the words "booby" and "hatch". Parallel construction[4] and repetition of words for comedic effect can be found in the sentence, "[t]hey had a hard time subduing her, but they finally subdued her." This is unusual in that such repetition is generally discouraged, especially in journalism and formal writing.[5] Although fiction does not necessarily follow the same rules of style, Thurber, a former reporter for the Columbus Dispatch and (briefly) an editor for The New Yorker under Harold Ross, would certainly have been aware of such stylistic guidelines.

Major themes[edit]

The struggle between the husband and wife respectively pits peaceful fantasy vs. harsh realism.[citation needed] The moral acknowledges the husband's victory, achieved by a role reversal: the husband stakes claim to the realistic answers expected by the psychiatrist and the police after the wife ironically repeats the husband's earlier fantastic claims.

In popular culture[edit]


An animated version of the story was released by United Productions of America in 1953.[6] The cartoon was directed by William T. Hurtz, and was originally intended to be part of a feature based on Thurber's work, to be called Men, Women and Dogs.[7] It was later voted #48 of the 50 Greatest Cartoons of all time by members of the animation field.

The fable was also adapted to the stage as part of the 1960 revue A Thurber Carnival. The original cast for this portion of the stage production was as follows:

The fable was animated again as part of the My World and Welcome to It episode "The Night the House Caught Fire", which first aired October 13, 1969. In the episode, William Windom as John Monroe tells the story to his daughter Lydia (Lisa Gerritsen) as his accompanying drawings come to life for the viewer. The episode was written and directed by series creator Melville Shavelson. The animation for the series was by DePatie-Freleng Enterprises.

Also in 1969, a musical adaptation of "The Unicorn in the Garden", composed by Russell Smith, was performed by the Denver Lyric Opera in Denver.[8]

An audio adaptation of the story, read by Peter Ustinov, was released by Caedmon Audio in 1986 (ISBN 0-89845-641-X).


The 1950 film Harvey contains a scene depicting characters at a psychiatrist's office, where Veta is committed to the institution instead of Elwood.

Dr. Richard Lenski, leader of the E. coli long-term evolution experiment, made an allusion to the story in a widely disseminated response[9][10][11] to Conservapedia founder Andrew Schlafly (who expressed doubt Lenski found an evolutionary beneficial mutation in E. coli bacteria): "In other words, it's not that we claim to have glimpsed 'a unicorn in the garden' – we have a whole population of them living in my lab!"[12]

The ninth episode of the TV series Life on Mars has similarities with the story. The protagonist, Detective Inspector Sam Tyler tells a criminal that he, Tyler, is a time traveller from the future. When the criminal tells Tyler's colleagues of this, in an attempt to discredit him, Tyler denies being the source of the 'delusion' and the criminal is discredited instead.


  1. ^ Peterson, Daniel C. (2002). "Self-grading quiz: The Unicorn in the Garden". Glendale Community College. Retrieved 2007-02-10. 
  2. ^ "Various Essays on James Thurber's "The Unicorn in the Garden"". Department of English, Gymnasium Steglitz Berlin. 2005. Retrieved 2007-02-10. 
  3. ^ Nordquist, Richard (2005-01-02). "Passages for rhetorical analysis". English 5730: Rhetoric. Office of Liberal Studies, Armstrong Atlantic State University. Retrieved 2007-02-10. 
  4. ^ Harvey, Michael (2003). "Parallelism". The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing. Retrieved 2007-02-10. 
  5. ^ Yagoda, Ben (2003). "Yagoda Dos and Don’ts for Feature Writing". University of Delaware. Retrieved 2007-02-10. 
  6. ^ "The Unicorn In The Garden". The Big Cartoon Database. Retrieved 2007-01-31. 
  7. ^ "Priceless Gift of Laughter". Time Archive: 1923 to the Present (Time Inc.). 1951-07-09. Retrieved 2007-01-31. 
  8. ^ Young, Allen (2006). Exotic and Irrational: Opera in Denver-1879-2006. Pilgrims' Process, Inc. p. 69. ISBN 978-0-9749597-8-8. 
  9. ^ "Creationist critics get their comeuppance". New Scientist. doi:10.1073/pnas.0803151105. Retrieved 2012-04-16. 
  10. ^ Reference at the notable Panda's Thumb blog
  11. ^ "Mentioned in Pharyngula". Retrieved 2012-04-16. 
  12. ^ "Lenski dialog". Conservapedia. Retrieved 2012-04-16. 

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