The Shore and the Sea

by James Thurber

A single excited lemming started the exodus, crying, "Fire!" and running toward the sea. He may have seen the sunrise through the trees, or waked from a fiery nightmare, or struck his head against a stone, producing stars. Whatever it was, he ran and ran, and as he ran he was joined by others, a mother lemming and her young, a nightwatchlemming on his way home to bed, and assorted revelers and early risers.

"The world is coming to an end!" they shouted, and as the hurrying hundreds turned into thousands, the reasons for their headlong flight increased by leaps and bounds and hops and skips and jumps.

"The world is coming to an end!" ....

"A what?" she was asked.

"A treasure hunt!" cried a wild-eyed male who had been up all night. "Full many a gem of purest ray serene the dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear."

"It's a bear!" shouted his daughter.

One male lemming who had lived alone for many years refused to be drawn into the stampede that swept past his cave like a flood. ....he was a serious scholar (and) watched the other lemmings leap into the sea and disappear beneath the waves, some crying "We are saved!" and some crying "We are lost!" The scholarly lemming shook his head sorrowfully, tore up what he had written through the years about his species, and started his studies all over again.

Moral: All men should strive before they die to learn what they are running from, and to, and why.

James Thurber wrote this short piece in his Further Fables for Our Time (1956). It reflects his tenor as he grew older and is stark contrasted to his earlier more whimsical work there is a presence of a sadder and more fatalistic tone as his career progressed.

In The Shore and the Sea,a lone scholarly lemming watches with interest as his fellow lemmings run amok and plunge to their deaths in the sea, then tears up his life's work to begin anew. It may have seemed to Thuber in the 1950's as he watched his health fail and the world thrown into turmoil over Communism and McCarthyism causing him to rethink his incentives. The moral to the allegory: "All men should strive to learn before they die what they are running from, and to, and why," reflects his growing futility with life. He leaves the story bare of his tongue-in-cheek irony-- his despair and concern for humanity is plainly seen.

Charles Holmes gives a great synopsis in his 1972; Thurber: A Collection of Critical Essays, when he says that, "Thurber's later work is darker in tone, harsher in judgment, and more penetrating in moral wisdom that in the work of his early and middle years... He saw the postwar world as a time of intellectual and moral confusion."

Evident in the meanings of the morals of Thurber's later works proffers a warning to mankind: "Man is flying too fast for a world that is round. Soon he will catch up with himself in a great rear-end collision, and Man will never know that what hit Man from behind was Man."


Holmes, Charles. Thurber: A Collection of Critical Essays,Prentice-Hall, 1974.

James Thurber Biography:

The Shore and the Sea:

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