The story starts off in a happy, light-hearted manner, describing a charming married couple. The detail of the "round, self-satisfied face" of the man and the "fadingly pretty" woman help describe their attitudes and mannerisms. The "self-satisfied face" of the man gives off an impression of arrogance, which makes the reader dislike him. The woman on the other hand, pulls the reader in. Her "big hat" a metaphor for her big heart. The first paragraph is also where Brush introduces the growing contrast between big and little, which is carried on throughout the story. The "little narrow restaurant" in which the "unmistakably married" couple dined at conveys just how simple the date was suppose to be by emphasizing how little it was. Brush refers to the intimate atmosphere when she describes that the couple sat "opposite [of] us," which makes the reader feel as if he/she were also in the narrow restaurant about to watch the scene unfold. The word "little" is repeated again when Brush depicts the "little surprise" the wife had set up for her husband to again touch upon how small the gesture was.
The cake is portrayed to be "small but glossy," which adds to the littleness of the surprise and how low key is was meant to be. Just a little reminder of her feelings towards her husband. When the orchestra played "happy birthday to you," "the wife beamed with shy pride over her little surprise." The wife beaming over her "little" surprise is paralleled with the "one pink candle burning" on the cake, representing the wife's loneliness even though she is in a relationship. It is obvious that the wife's "little surprise" was taken out of hand when the author explains that "help was needed" in order to calm the husband down. This conveys how mad he was, and how he didn't appreciate his wife's kind, little gesture for him.
The author brings the intimate elements back around when she adds that "you looked at him, and you saw this and you thought." The repetition of "you" emphasizes the intimate atmosphere, making the reader feel as if she/he were experiencing this with the onlooker. Everyone around them sensed the tension and the anger felt by the husband towards his wife. Brush uses cacophony when describing the "quick and kurt and unkind" comment the husband made to his wife in order to show how bitter and angry the husband was. We see just how upset the wife is because, even after the bystander "waited for quite a long time" before looking, she was still crying. She cries "all to herself," showing the loneliness "under the gay big brim of her best hat," which is happily hiding her from the terrible remarks of her selfish, rude husband.
The intimate mood of the restaurant is cut through with the harsh diction of Brush's word choice and the nasty remarks made by the husband. The couple that seemed so perfect in the beginning is now torn apart and weeping. The simple surprise that the wife made is ruined leaving her feel lonely even though she is in a relationship.
In three short paragraphs, Katherine Brush has managed to produce a brilliant gem of a short – very short, in fact – story. “The Birthday Party” tells of a couple, “unmistakably married (Brush 2),” and the disastrous surprise that marked the husband’s birthday. The wife, “fadingly pretty, in a big hat (2)” has planned a seemingly innocuous and intimate party for her husband. However, to her surprise, instead of receiving a warm, gratified smile, he turns hostile and utters “some punishing thing, quick and curt and unkind (2)” to his wife. Even though “The Birthday Party” revolves only around this singular act, Brush’s use of different literary devices help to evoke the depth and range of emotions necessary to portray the theme of the story.
The main theme of this story is question of marriages and relationships. Initially, the husband and wife looked like any ordinary married couple eating at a restaurant. In fact, according to the narrator, “there was nothing conspicuous about them, nothing particularly noticeable…(2)” This line implies how they were acting like any regular couple out for dinner. Yet, suddenly, at “the end of their meal,” with the coming of the “small but glossy birthday cake, with one pink candle burning in the center” to their table, their real relationship was revealed (2). The man’s reaction, initially, called for the narrator to side with the wife: “Oh, now, don’t be like that! (2)” But, the narrator eventually realizes that the husband “was like that,” wary being the center of attention. In the end, blame is passed on both sides: the husband’s unbending and inflexible ways that was hurtful to his wife, and the fact that the woman did not know her husband well enough to know that he would not like the attention generated by her little surprise.
One technique employed by Katherine Brush to explicate this theme is the use of irony. In this story, it is situational irony that is most easily detected, as this is the crux and major conflict of the story. What the wife expected to happen did not; instead, the opposite happened. As the headwaiter brought out the cake, the orchestra played, and the other restaurant patrons clapped their hands, it became clear that the little surprise intended for the husband would turn out to, ironically, be also a surprise for the wife. Not only was she shocked at her husband’s reaction, she was also shocked to learn that she did not know him fully well, after all. Furthermore, it was not only the wife who was surprised – even the other guests were surprised, with the narrator’s initial reaction was to chide – silently – the husband to “not be like that.” Another form of irony in the story is verbal irony, which appears at the start of the story:
There was nothing conspicuous about them, nothing particularly noticeable until the end of their meal, when it suddenly became obvious that this was an Occasion — in fact, the husband’s birthday, and the wife had planned a little surprise for him. (2)
“Occasion” here does not imply a special, important, or happy event, which the husband’s birthday should have been. Instead, “occasion” here is used ironically, as the climax of the story shows. Instead of the birthday being a real “occasion,” what the author intends to say is that it is not the birthday that is to be the “occasion” but something totally different. Furthermore, the initial “o” of the word “occasion” is capitalized. Because of this deliberate way of spelling, the readers are signaled that “occasion” is not to be used in the ordinary sense of the word. And when the orchestra proceeds to sing “Happy Birthday to You,” another verbal irony is exhibited. Based on the husband’s reaction and his hostile manner of showing it to his wife, there was nothing very happy about the occasion.
In the story, there are very important symbols used that developed the theme, the conflict, and the resolution of the story. One of the most obvious symbols is the “small but glossy birthday cake.” In the short story, the cake symbolized the surprise. It was able to reflect the true status of the couple’s relationship by virtue of its gloss, which implies a reflective surface, even though it was described as small. Another symbol used in the story is the “best hat” of the wife, which was described by the narrator as having a “gay big brim.” It stands for the character of the wife, which is – as could be extrapolated from the events – extroverted. She only wanted to show her best to the outside world, not minding whether or not her husband would actually like her little surprise.
Finally, the use of the first-person narrative adds to the drama of the story. The actions of the narrator are intertwined with the actions of the couple as they are being observed. When the wife was punished by her husband for the surprise, the narrator “stared at [her] plate and waited for quite a long time (2).” By including her own actions and emotions in the story, the narrator adds a new depth of emotion to the story. It further draws in the reader to also feel the sympathy that the narrator is feeling for the wife.
As the narrator ends her account of the incident, wherein the wife is described as “crying quietly and heartbrokenly and hopelessly, all to herself, under the gay big brim of her best hat,” it is established that the narrator has succeeded in becoming one with the story she is narrating. This escalates the mood established, and leaves an impression of both pity and sympathy for the wife. Such emotions are not easy to portray if the narrator were only describing the scene, narrating it with impartiality and detachment. This technique, as well as the other literary devices used throughout the very short narrative, all come together to not only develop the central theme of the story. All serve also to deeply engage the reader, which help make the story successful in its portrayal of human relations and emotions.
Brush, Katherine. “The Birthday Party.” 22 March 2007. <faculty.elgin.edu/sdye/docs/LIT%20201.200/LIT%20201%20F%20Theme/LIT%20201%20Theme%20handout.doc>