"The Utterly Perfect Murder" by Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury's story centers around a man who, on the night of his 48th birthday, decides to get revenge on his boyhood friend and foe, Ralph Underhill. Telling his wife he is going on a trip, he boards a train and heads cross country to the town he lived in when he was twelve, intending to murder Ralph. The train provides the setting for the narrator's reminiscences about the inequity of his boyhood friendship with Ralph. During this journey, the narrator remembers how he wore the scars and humiliations that the bully Ralph gave him as symbols of their friendship.
As the narrator's train draws closer to the town where he lived as a twelve-year-old boy, he continues to search his memory for the worst thing that Ralph did to him. Finally, on the second night of his train journey, the narrator realizes why he wants to kill Ralph Underhill. He figures out that it is because Ralph never sought him out but forced the narrator to do all the work of the friendship. The narrator relives the hurt of knowing that the friendship was one-sided.
The narrator arrives in Green Town at sunset. He thinks about how this will be the perfect murder-unsolvable and apparently motiveless. He walks to Ralph Underhill's house, puts his gun in his coat pocket and knocks on the door. When Ralph opens the door, the narrator finds that time has taken its own revenge. Ralph is wizened, frail, and old. The narrator's urge for revenge dies, and he does not pull out his weapon. Instead, he symbolically shoots Ralph with whispered gunshots and turns back into the darkness. As he passes the house he was born in, he calls his 12-year-old spirit self down to join him, finally able to dispel his childhood torment.
This story addresses
- obsession with past grievances,
- abusive relationships,
- intent to commit murder.
To encourage students to
- see the past in proper perspective
- identify the appropriate levels of vindication,
- avoid or end abusive relationships,
- foster mutually beneficial relationships.
Read the story aloud. Ask students to identify problematic issues. Discuss how the issues affect the characters. Focus on the short- and long-term harm done by cruelty. Have students identify alternative ways for the characters to respond to the issues.
Use the following questions as springboards to solutions:
- How do we know Doug's relationship with Ralph has bothered him on a subconscious level for a long time? He identifies reasons for not having acted on it for years.
- Why do you think he plots murder now? Is this rational? Explain.
- Is Doug's wife's response to his midnight journey appropriate? Why/Why not?
- How could she have influenced Doug's irrationality? Had Doug actually murdered Ralph, would she have been culpable? Explain.
- Has Ralph really done anything to deserve such revenge? How has Doug convinced himself otherwise?
- Why/How does Doug "need" Ralph? How is Doug's leaving "the only unforgivable, the wounding, thing"?
- How does Doug's "shooting" Ralph provide catharsis? What does he really mean when he says, "Oh, God, Ralph, you're dead"?
- What lesson does Doug eventually learn? In what ways can you apply it to your life?
I Can't Believe I Did That
We all do things we later regret doing. Ask students to identify an instance of cruelty that they were involved in that they later regretted. Ask them to create a pictorial representation that portrays them righting the wrong. Share results with the class.
Bullies can't be bullies without victims. Have students role play responses to attempted bullying that thwart the bully. Be sure students focus on nonviolent, non-physical responses.
A Psychological Report
Instruct students to research the psychological impact of childhood events on adults. What types of events have the most traumatic effects? Instruct students to identify appropriate ways to deal with these effects. Have them report their findings to the class.
The Ten Year Reunion
Have students discuss with a parent or adult friend their tenth high school reunion. How was the adult surprised or not surprised about the differences in their classmates? Based on the discussion, ask students to write what they anticipate will be surprising at their own reunion.
Real World Connection
Adult lives rarely turn out as expected. To prove this point, have students interview ten adults about their childhood aspirations to determine which have been fulfilled. Have students devise a mathematical representation of their findings.