The Parsley Garden by William Saroyan Short Story Analysis

The Parsley Garden by William Saroyan

“The Parsley Garden” is a short story by Armenian-American novelist, playwright, and short story writer William Saroyan (1908 – 1981). Saroyan was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1940. “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze” was published in 1934 when Saroyan was only 26. He lived in California, died aged 72, and by this stage had grown a Mark Twain moustache.

In 1943 he won the Academy Award for Best Writing Original Story for The Human Comedy. Classic movie buffs may have seen it.

I’m more familiar with Ross Bagdasarian’s famous song “Come On-a My House”, featured in Madonna’s “Swept Away” (2002), Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952) and also in the reality TV series about the Playboy Mansion.

You wouldn’t think it takes a Academy Award, Pulitzer Prize Winning author to co-write the following, but what do I know about writing number one hits:

Come on-a my house, my house, I’m gonna give you candy
Come on-a my house, my house, I’m gonna give a you
Apple, a plum and apricot-a too eh
Come on-a my house, my house a come on
Come on-a my house, my house a come on
Come on-a my house, my house I’m gonna give a you
Figs and dates and grapes and cakes eh
Come on-a my house, my house a come on
Come on-a my house, my house a come on
Come on-a my house, my house, I’m gonna give you candy
Come on-a my house, my house, I’m gonna give you everything

Come on-a my house, my house, I’m gonna give you Christmas tree
Come on-a my house, my house, I’m gonna give you
Marriage ring and a pomegranate too ah
Come on-a my house, my house a come on
Come on-a my house, my house a come on
Come on-a my house, my house I’m gonna give a you
Peach and pear and I love your hair ah
Come on-a my house, my house a come on
Come on-a my house, my house a come on
Come on-a my house, my house, I’m gonna give you Easta-egg
Come on-a my house, my house, I’m gonna give you
Everything, everything, everything

William Saroyan and some other guy

Discussion Questions for “The Parsley Garden”

  1. The story is set in Fresno. Where is Fresno?
  2. What season is this story set?
  3. How do we know that Al and his mother is poor? Which details did the writer choose to convey how it affects Al’s life to be poor?
  4. Al steals the hammer because he doesn’t have the money to pay for it. In retrospect he justifies his actions to himself. How does he justify feeling mad at the men who caught him?
  5. Why do you think chose a for Al to steal a hammer rather than anything else, say, a packet of biscuits or a brush and shovel?
  6. What goes through his mind that he considers going back to steal it a second time, even though getting caught twice would surely mean worse punishment?
  7. Why do you think Al confesses to his mother?
  8. What do you think about Al’s mother telling him to shut up? What does it say about their relationship?
  9. Why do you think Al’s mother gives him money to buy the hammer rather than punishing him?
  10. When his mother responds by offering money rather than a scolding, how do you think Al feels?
  11. Now the perspective shifts away from Al and onto the mother. Readers no longer have access to Al’s thoughts. We must deduce why he does what he does next. Why on earth do you think Al did all that work at the store and then refused to take the (generous) pay?
  12. Why do you think the store manager hired him even though he’s clearly the kid who stole the hammer?
  13. Clearly, parsley plays an important (symbolic) role in this story. The herb even appears in the title. Why do you think the mother’s parsley garden gets so much emphasis?
  14. Now, why do you think summertime is an especially good season to set this story? (Refer to The Symbolism of Seasons.) Can you think of other stories set in summer with a similar restless and conflicted emotional state in the main (adolescent) character(s)?
  15. “The Parsley Garden” is an excellent example of a redemption story. What message(s) do you take away about hard work and forgiveness?
  16. William Saroyan lays redemption and productivity out in a story so we can see it clearly at work in mid-century American society, particularly how it affects young men. This doesn’t necessarily mean the author is not also critiquing it. What do you think about how Saroyan chose to end the narrative? Al hates the two men, but could it be something else he hates? ‘Referred’ hatred (as in referred pain)?

“The Parsley Garden” and Cognitive Bias

This short story illustrates the opposite of the well-known Benjamin Franklin Effect.


The Benjamin Franklin effect is a psychological phenomenon in which people develop more favourable attitudes towards someone after doing them a favour. The effect is named after Benjamin Franklin, who reportedly used this strategy to win over a political rival who disliked him. Franklin asked to borrow a rare book from his rival, who reluctantly lent it to him. After returning the book, Franklin thanked the man and the two became friends.


There’s no tidy direct opposite, but we can invoke several cognitive biases to describe ‘doing something horrible to someone else then hating them for it’.


The opposite of the Benjamin Franklin effect is sometimes called “reversed attitude polarization” or “self-perception theory.” This phenomenon occurs when people change their attitudes towards someone else after behaving negatively towards them. In this case, the negative behaviour creates cognitive dissonance, which is resolved by changing attitudes towards the person. This can result in a “hate the victim” effect, where people dislike someone more after treating them badly.

When Al Condraj steals from the store then feels guilty about it, he starts to think ill of the store owner and staff. This helps justify his own bad behaviour and serves to reduce his own bad feelings.


‘Hate the victim effect’ can kick in when people feel like they have no choice but to engage in negative behaviour, e.g. in situations of coercion or pressure.

There was no coercion or pressure to steal the hammer in this story. But despising victims is a pretty common phenomenon. It’s easier to feel drawn to superheroes, or to anti-heroes who treat others very poorly despite their murders and pillaging. People are drawn to characters who show initiative, who take control of their own situations, even if their morality is despicable.

I don’t believe Al considers the store owner a victim. But ‘Hate the Victim Effect’ comes into play when Al starts to feel sorry for himself for not having a hammer. He intended to do good things with that hammer. He worked hard scavenging all those nails, and he deserves a hammer, dammit.

When Al’s mother also wishes him to have the hammer (and also wishes her family not to be disgraced), she gives Al her hard-earned coins to return to the store and buy one.

I suspect Al would have felt more comfortable after confessing had his mother scolded him as the grocery store manager had scolded him. That’s what he needed to hear. To receive the charity of his mother’s money created another kind of cognitive dissonance, in which he sees himself as both perpetrator and victim.

The Hammer

Al admires a man called Johnny Gale, who has the reputation of being hard working and the fastest box maker at Foley’s (the packing house). It’s clear from Al’s admiration, and the way he stops to admire Gale, but doesn’t want to disrespect him by interrupting, that he admires hard work.

The hammer is a symbol of masculinity. Building things out of wood is a traditionally masculine thing to do in the heavily gendered milieu of the mid 20th century, and so ‘acquiring’ a hammer is one step closer to manhood and all that entails: independence, respect, the satisfaction of having contributed something useful to this world.

We see Al reject things he’s starting to regard as feminine: First he rejects his mother’s salad, then he hates all the books at the library so borrows none.

Speaking of salad greens…

What is the significance of the parsley in “The Parsley Garden”?

Now we’ve heard all about candy, plums and apricot too, let’s move back to parsley. What do you think when you conjure up parsley? It’s a love-it-or-hate-it kinda garnish, so let’s stick to fairy tale. Do any fairy tales spring to mind?


How about “Rapunzel“? You don’t remember any parsley in Rapunzel? Yeah, modern re-tellings frequently leave this bit out, but basically the whole reason the old witch steals the girl is to punish the girl’s mother for stealing parsley from the witch’s garden when the mother was pregnant (and probably malnourished). That is one parsley-lovin witch! (The girl is called Petrosinella in Neopolitan, where this fair ytale comes from. Petrosine a type of parsley.) And the witch is an ogress. (Ogres: monsters who will eat you.) Petrosinella’s mother hands over the kid when she is born.


  • Parsley’s been around for longer than people have been writing things down so we’re not sure where it comes from.
  • Like most vegetables and fruits you eat today, ancient parsley looks very little like the modern kind.
  • We do know it originated in the Mediterranean and that the Ancient Greeks were using it.
  • Guess what, the Greeks had myths about it. Parsley was thought to have sprung up from the blood of Archemorus when he was killed by a serpent as a bab. As you can see, parsley was associated with death. (Archemorus literally means “the forerunner of death”. His birth name was Opheltes, but that was changed after he was left alone for just a moment by his nurse, which is all it takes to get eaten to death by a serpent. Archemorus, as he was now remembered, subsequently had some Games created in his memory.)
  • The botanical name Petroselinum comes from the Greek word for stone (petro, related to ‘petrified’). The Ancient Greeks found parsley growing on rocky hillsides in Greece.
  • Romans, like Greeks, associated parsley with death. You know how parsley is meant to be good for bad breath? It’s also good for death stink, too. The ancients would use it to quell the death stench. (Parsley is good for reducing odours because of the high chlorophyll content.)
  • So obviously, the Ancients didn’t eat it. It’s like when you use a Tupperware to hold cleaning product when cleaning the shower, you don’t want to use that same Tupperware for a lunchbox even if it’s a perfectly fine Tupperware and all the mouldy bits have been washed off. It’s the… association.
  • It was fed to horses, however. And some people (the less suspicious kind) planted it as borders in gardens. They made crowns out of parsley to adorn the winners of those aforementioned games, and also other games. (Like a modern Olympian wreath.)
  • Parsley seeds require a long germination. Those Ancients had overactive imaginations and came up with reasons for everything. Why do parsley seeds have a long germination period, according to the Ancient Greeks? Because they go to Hell and back seven times before sprouting, duh.
  • Actually parsley seeds take a while to sprout because parsley seeds have a hard outer coating that can prevent water and oxygen from reaching the embryo inside, causing the seeds to remain dormant until conditions are favourable for germination.
  • Those Greeks really did not like parsley. Parsley could not shake the death connotations. Farmers would not transplant it. Others refused to have it in their gardens at all.
  • Not every culture hated parsley. Parsley is used in the Hebrew celebration of Passover as a symbol of spring and rebirth.
  • Before parsley was used as a spice, it was used medicinally. It was (wrongly) believed to counteract poisons because the smell was even stronger than the odour of garlic.
  • When was parsley first used for its flavour? Middle ages, Europe. We know Charlemagne (King of the Franks from 768) grew parsley as a spice.
  • By the Elizabethan era (Shakespeare’s time), parsley was being used both medicine and flavour. Shakespeare mentions parsley in The Taming of the Shrew (Act 4, Scene 4, 1592) when Biondello says, “I knew a wench married in an afternoon as she went to the garden for parsley to stuff a rabbit.” Lucentio, wins Bianca’s hand in marriage after promising her father a ridiculous dowry he can’t immediately guarantee. So he races off to church to seal the deal. Biondello, a servant, is making a comment about the hurried nature of their nuptials.
  • We now know that parsley does have some healing powers, but it’s not as powerful as people once believed. It’s rich in vitamins A and C and also helps to reduce systemic inflammation. It also contains histamine inhibitors, which is good for when you’ve broken out in hives or something.


The parsley in “The Parsley Garden” has an almost magical effect. When Al eats it, he is moved to go inside and confess about the theft to his mother. But then he rejects the salad she has made, presumably utilising produce grown in the parsley garden.

Through Al’s viewpoint, the garden is paradise on Earth. Yet he also rejects what’s grown there. He’s starting to feel conflicted. This is his mother’s space, and as a young man, a patriarchal culture dictates that boys must begin the process of bifurcating emotionally from their mothers around adolescence, if not sooner.

Rejection of the parsley paradise is rejection of boyhood. The stealing of the hammer is a step closer to manhood, even though it’s ‘a small hammer, but still a real hammer’. He’s a small man, but still a ‘real’ man.

William Saroyan creates a mother who is not your archetypal white mother, because this is not a white American family. When his mother tells him quietly to ‘shut up’, this is a form of intimacy between them. The mother can speak to her son like that precisely because they are so close. When she tells him to ‘shut up’, she’s saying, ‘I hear you. It’ll be all right.’ This is not the sort of exchange you’d read in a children’s picture book, as telling your children to shut up is not considered affirmative parenting, let alone modelling good manners.

If we go back to ancient mythology and back a few hundred years to fairy tale, we can link parsley to the death of something. Does anything die in this story?

Parsley is an ambivalent symbol because of its association with both death and renewal.


Through the viewpoint of the mother, who returns home around 9pm after a hard day’s work packing figs to enjoy a cigarette around the outdoor fire with her friend, we learn that Al has decided to redeem himself by setting to work in the parsley garden. He has set about making a bench for the garden.

He earned money for the hammer by working all day at the store.

By doing these things, Al has affirmed his burgeoning masculinity to himself. He has worked for what he has; he is building something with his own toil and he has shucked off the shame. Until Al could dispense with the shroud of shame, he could never live with himself as a proper and upstanding man in the world.

Once he is shame free and sufficiently affirmed in his gender, he is able to once again return to the feminine paradise occupied by his mother and her woman friend, and enjoy it with them.

“The Parsley Garden” is an example of a redemption story, very popular in America. Back to Benjamin Franklin (who has an Effect named after him): Ben Franklin went from being a fugitive teen in Philadelphia to the founder of a nation. This backstory helped rather than hindered his political career.

Likewise, off-stage, the manager of the grocery store would have been impressed by the chutzpah of a young man caught stealing just days ago, returning with the offer to work for the hammer. Moreover, this young man delivered more than he promised, and had the strength of character to reject more than he felt he deserved.

Of course, rejection of the silver dollar was a necessary part of reclaiming his self-image as an upstanding citizen ‘by nature’, and in shucking off his own shame, at odds with his sense of manliness.

The opposite of a redemption story is a contamination story. People don’t like victims. People also avoid contamination. (Stigma is a form of contamination, hence its power.)

Redemption stories can be problematic because:

  1. They can suggest hard work can get anyone out of any degree of awful circumstance
  2. They can elicit empathy for the wrong character.

Are there ideological issues with Saroyan’s “The Parsley Garden”?

Let’s consider what this short story says about hard work, and by extension, capitalism. Al clearly gets his hard-working attitude from his mother. This is why the viewpoint shifts, and we see the mother staying late at work, eking out a paltry amount of pay so she and her son can get by. Al’s male role model is the fastest box maker in the West, the closest thing to a machine the packing house has ever seen.

This idealised work ethic is of course very convenient for the factory owners, getting rich off the likes of these characters, especially the boys, conditioned to link self-worth to productivity.


THEFTS from Baughman’s Type and Motif Index of the Folktales of England and North America by Ernest Warren Baughman 1966.


On paper, things look fine. Sam Dennon recently inherited significant wealth from his uncle. As a respected architect, Sam spends his days thinking about the family needs and rich lives of his clients. But privately? Even his enduring love of amateur astronomy is on the wane. Sam has built a sustainable-architecture display home for himself but hasn’t yet moved into it, preferring to sleep in his cocoon of a campervan. Although they never announced it publicly, Sam’s wife and business partner ended their marriage years ago due to lack of intimacy, leaving Sam with the sense he is irreparably broken.

Now his beloved uncle has died. An intensifying fear manifests as health anxiety, with night terrors from a half-remembered early childhood event. To assuage the loneliness, Sam embarks on a Personal Happiness Project:

1. Get a pet dog

2. Find a friend. Just one. Not too intense.




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