Button, Button

by Richard Matheson


The central conflict of the story "Button, Button" is exactly as the title would have you expect. In the story, the main character, Norma, is presented with a question: Is a human life worth $50,000? She has the option to push a button, which will result in someone on Earth that she doesn't know dying, though it will also result in her winning $50,000. To her, that $50,000 means a family, a cottage on an island, a trip to Europe. The prospect of gaining so much from such a simple action draws her to do so. At the same time, Arthur, her loving husband, refuses to consider the idea on moral grounds. Though there is an external conflict between Norma and Arthur arguing, most of the story centers around Norma's internal conflict: Her alone deciding to press or not press the button.
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Plot Line

  • Exposition: The story begins with Mr. Steward arriving at Norma's door, where he quickly and calmly explains how the Button works.
  • Rising Action: As Norma allows Mr. Steward into their home to explain himself, Arthur is quick to react and show him out. Arthur's reaction especially leads into the rising action, as the reader quickly gets a sense of tension from the moment.
  • Climax: Norma is eventually alone with the button, and after arguing with herself back-and-forth, she abruptly pushes it down. It is in this moment - when she realizes what she'd done, that the tension is highest: "She shuddered. Was it happening? A chill of horror swept across her" (110).
  • Falling Action: Norma is given a call - her husband has been killed in a work accident, and she receives a call from Mr. Steward. He is unapologetic, and the shock of the news also calls into question her relationship with Arthur.
  • Resolution: The story ends without a sense of resolution - Arthur is dead, and Norma is shocked.

Verbal Irony

Another major literary device that Matheson uses in "Button, Button" is Verbal Irony. Through Mr. Steward, he presents this idea: If you push the button, someone you don't know will die. Most people will expect that to mean: "Someone you have never met before will die." But in the story, Steward actually means, "Someone you don't know completely and totally will die." It is this switching of expectation and reality that creates irony, and specifically because he is not saying exactly what he means, it becomes Verbal Irony.
What is verbal irony? - Christopher Warner

What is a Human Life Worth?

One of the major themes that Matheson tries to communicate in his story is the idea of value. How much is a human life worth? Is it worth more when it's someone you know? Or less when it's someone you don't? Norma and Arthur grapple with this question throughout the story, and the misfortune that befalls the two because of Norma's decision shows a clear idea: no amount of money is worth the tradeoff of a human life. The haunting words of Mr. Steward at the end of the story only serve to remind the reader that making deals with the devil results in only sorrow.

This makes reading the story particularly engaging and worthwhile - through such a short story, Matheson is able to force the reader to question their own morals. What would we do in that situation? Was Norma in the right? Or was Arthur? The author cleverly uses these two characters to represent each side of the decision, and through hearing them argue, we learn more about the pros and cons of the decision. Further, this sort of decision sounds like sci-fi, but it is something that comes up regularly. As we consider what we would ask for to take a human life in the story, we can also ask ourselves the opposite - what would we pay to save one? With events like the major earthquake in Nepal, such questions are always worth asking.