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"The Devil Is a Busy Man"

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“The Devil Is A Busy Man” is the shared title of two stories featured in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. They contain no explicit emotional or sexual dysfunction, like many of the other stories, but they expose just as much about human nature. Here DFW riffs at once on human cynicism and on the nature of family relationships, in the first story using the voice of a child, and in the second story that of a benefactor who wishes to remain anonymous.

Summary

  • The first story under this title consists of a boy explaining his father's dilemma in getting rid of old things he finds in the shed or cellar. The father first tries to get rid of the things for free, but no one will take them. The father then puts very low prices on the items and is able to get rid of them very quickly.
  • The second story under this title is a person telling in very vague terms of a kind deed he has performed. He is vague because he does not want to brag about having done the kind deed. It eventually comes out that he has given a young married couple some money, hoping to remain anonymous. In a conversation with the husband, however, he accidentally lets it slip that he was the benefactor. This causes him to become very self-conscious about how he handled the situation, and he subsequently thinks he came off as sly and insincere in the way he told the husband.

Themes

  • Self-Consciousness/Appearance. The anonymous benefactor has done a kind deed, but he thinks that if his beneficiaries know that it was him, then the deed will no longer come off as sincere. He is concerned that if he comes off as too openly proud of his good deeds, the sincerity of his actions will be questionable.
  • Cynicism. The customers in the first story salivate at bargain prices, but are suspicious of the seller when the same item is free. This speaks of the human impulse to distrust something that is "too good to be true." In the second story, cynicism is explored through a sort of meta-cynicism. The benefactor is cynical in that he is concerned that his beneficiaries will be cynical of his intentions should he tell them he was the one who gave them the money.

Title

Perhaps the devil is in all of us to make us so cynical, so skeptical of one another. We tend to try to take advantage of one another, to exploit someone to get a deal. The devil must be busy if he is present in all of us, making us feel in such a way.