Raising a child into a competent, intelligent human being is no light task. It is necessary to imbue the child with a sound system of values, but also to prevent his perpetual dependence on external authority for answers and guidance. The two aims need not be antagonistic and can reinforce one another, as the upbringing of Nick Burns by his uncle, Murray Burns, in the 1965 film A Thousand Clowns demonstrates. Murray is able to endow Nick with a moral framework that guides Nick’s further judgments, but he does so in a non-intrusive manner that suggests rather than commands. The plot of the film demonstrates how this approach can produce an integrated person who triumphs over the obstacles posed by the dominant society.
Nick’s entry into Murray’s home occurred at the age of five, when his reckless vagabond mother abandoned him there. Due to his presence under Murray’s guardianship since such an early age, Nick’s upbringing is almost entirely determined by Murray. This is not to say that Nick is stifled or deprived in any manner. Formerly a child living on the streets with his mother, Nick now enters a special school for talented children, and is able to retain his place there for many years. There is no doubt that Murray’s acumen, wit, spontaneity, insight, and individualistic courage permeated Nick’s experiences from an early age, and that Nick absorbed these qualities. Nick’s dialogue within the film is indicative of a sophistication that one does not typically find in a twelve-year-old. When Nick and Murray walk through New York City on Irving R. Feldman’s Birthday, a holiday that Murray had invented, Nick earnestly addresses Murray with respect to the latter’s unemployment. He presents realistic concerns about the future of his upbringing, Murray’s financial security, and the very ability of the two to remain in the same household. Nick has a foresight into matters of consequence that approaches that of an adult. While other kids his age would “live for today” and simply enjoy themselves during a day on which they had skipped school and were able to enjoy a walk across town, Nick is able to extract the best from both worlds. After he raises his concern, he is still able to visit the Statue of Liberty with Murray and enjoy the unique and magnificent sights that Murray is able to show him. Nick’s upbringing has allowed him to exhibit an integrated personality, combining serious thought with pleasure. He is not a young Albert Amundsen, who “talks as if he had written everything down beforehand,” but is unable to realize to a bond of joy can exist between two people, outside mere “practicality” and adherence to societal norms. At the same time, Nick is also more practical than Murray himself, as the latter tends to lean toward enjoying himself at the present moment while compromising long-term security.
How was Murray’s upbringing able to produce a person more adult and more reasonable than Murray himself? A part of the answer lies in Murray’s laissez-faire approach to parenthood. Unlike a majority of parents, who establish stringent guidelines for children with regard to the smallest minutiae, Murray allows Nick immense free rein. Until the age of thirteen, Nick is allowed to go by whatever name he pleases, as he tests varying roles and identities in order to find out which one will suit him best when he becomes “an actual person.” Murray does not want his nephew to become a mirror image of him; instead he “[wants] him to know the special thing that he is; [he wants] him to see the wild possibilities.” Since Murray recognizes the need to raise Nick as a unique and unprecedented individual, his approach is not one of domination, regulation, and imposition, but of suggestion, demonstration, and camaraderie. Murray does not intervene in Nick’s schooling; he is confident that Nick is capable of managing his own formal education. Indeed, Nick performs well in his special school without being unnecessarily obsessive about his learning. He is able to skip school on special days, such as Irving R. Feldman’s Birthday, in order to share much-valued time with his uncle. In the modern culture, the compartmentalization of education into a separate rigid sphere of existence prevents most typical students from spending adequate amounts of time with their family, but Nick has learned to “own his days and name them.” He will not permit schedules and routines to intervene with the people and things genuinely valuable to him.
Though Murray allows Nick’s schooling to follow its own path, Murray, too, acts as a teacher for Nick in vital matters of principle, ideas and phenomena that cannot necessarily be taught in a classroom. During Irving R. Feldman’s Birthday, Murray points out to Nick the gray masses of people rushing off to work, pushing to enter a bus, running desperately to catch the next train and meet someone else’s schedule, being mired in a routine that prevents them from living life on their own terms and in accordance to their own principles. Murray shows Nick a scenario and allows Nick’s observations to determine his conclusions; it is a far more effective method of teaching than the common “When I tell you something, believe it!” approach. Murray is able to share his values and impressions of the world with Nick without forcing Nick to adopt them. They merely become matters for Nick’s consideration, but Nick, like an adult, is given the authority to analyze them on their own merits. Because Nick is granted the responsibility typical of an adult, he is able to think like one and interact with the world as every man’s intellectual equal, not a subordinate.
The culmination of Murray’s upbringing of Nick manifests itself when Chuckles the Chipmunk enters their home in an attempt to persuade Murray to return to work. Rather than being tactful, Chuckles seeks to psychologically dominate Murray and Nick. He carries in a cardboard statue of himself and, when it falls, forcefully urges Murray to put it up once more. He thrusts corny and uninteresting remarks at Nick and expects Nick to laugh due to the sheer weight of Chuckles’ authority. Nick, however, frankly admits that Chuckles’ jokes and routines are not humorous. Though he wishes that Murray would find a job, he does not wish for Murray to take this one. Chuckles calls Nick a “freak” simply because Nick does not display the deference that Chuckles receives as a societal norm. But, after Nick resists the label placed upon him and nearly forces Chuckles out of the apartment, the Chipmunk begins to assume a more respectful posture. He informs Murray that his show has suffered without Murray’s writing, and that Murray would be an integral component of the program. Rather than acting with pseudo-superiority and condescension toward Murray, Chuckles begins to treat him as an equal, and Murray accepts the job offer. In the meantime, he can be content knowing that he has taught Nick the individuality and devotion to principle that he intended to transmit. Earlier, Murray states to Sandy Markowitz that he wants Nick to “understand the sneaky, subtle, important reason he was born a human being and not a chair.” Now, Nick has fully demonstrated his non-chairness. He will not be sat on by those who expect him to bear their burden. He will not feign his emotions or his moral sanction simply to be polite to those who do not give him the same courtesy in return. He will analyze each situation on its own merits, rather than on his society’s expectations of conformity to this social worker or that Chipmunk. And he will meet with courage and dignity whatever challenges the society poses to him.
Indeed, challenges to Murray’s relationship with Nick abound. When Albert Amundsen enters Murray’s home, accompanied by Sandy Markowitz, he already carries orders from the Child Welfare Board to confiscate Nick from Murray. His job is merely to inform Murray that this is the case, not to give Murray any authority in deciding otherwise or interacting with Amundsen on an equal level. But rather than be the quiet, complacent, and somewhat miserable child that Amundsen expects Nick to be, Nick acts jovially, telling jokes and stories about his genuinely satisfying relationship with Murray. Sandy, despite Albert’s strict reprimands against such conduct, begins to laugh, as she is genuinely entertained by Nick’s conduct and personality. She becomes convinced that there is no reason to separate Nick from Murray, as both seem to be satisfied with their relationship.
The audience is moved to ponder the idea that a dominant paradigm’s expectations of a “good” household may not hold or be necessary in every individual case. A “parent” need not work from 9 to 5 in order to provide a beneficent environment for his child. And if he does work, he need not grovel before authority in order to receive his paycheck. Moreover, elements outside the financial realm play a crucial role in the sound upbringing of a child. Nick is able to receive both learning and leisure, work and play, under Murray’s care. Amundsen informs Murray that his “is a distorted picture of this world.” However, when comparing Nick to a self-evidently absurd character like Chuckles, who “keeps touching [himself] to make sure that [he] is real,” but who would likely fit Amundsen’s characterization of a “sound” member of society, one must seriously question the validity of Amundsen’s statement. While Chuckles is not even sure of his own existence, and Sandy, when she is under Albert’s aegis of “societal respectability,” has not “the slightest idea of who [she is],” Nick moves firmly toward establishing a unique, colorful, principled identity. Nick, no matter what name he will go by, is sure never to become just a series of different facades put before each person he meets, devoid of personality and self-esteem. The individual that is Nick does exist; this is not a matter of doubt either for Nick or for the viewers of the film.
The ending of A Thousand Clowns is indicative of victory for Murray’s relationship with Nick. Murray returns to work, which foretells his ability to continue to provide for Nick materially, while not compromising his principles intellectually. Because Nick has refused to show deference to Chuckles, the latter agreed to approach Murray as a human being and not a chair. Murray is thus able to work on his own terms, and to be certain that Nick has become his own person. The objections of the Child Welfare Board to Murray’s continued guardianship over Nick have now become null and void, as Murray, with Nick’s indispensable help, has demonstrated that one need not conform to the norms of conduct put before him in order to live and prosper, soaring like an eagle far above the realm of the mundane, mediocre, and perfunctory.