Sunday, May 8, 2011

Donald Barthelme

Donald Barthelme was born April 7, 1931 to Donald and Helen Bechtold Barthelme in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  He was the first of five children and soon the family moved to Texas for his father to work.  Donald Barthelme would marry four times and have two daughters from his last two marriages.  Barthelme would move back and forth from Texas to New York to write and publish works.  He would die July 23, 1989 due to cancer and even have some of his work from early on be read at his funeral.

"Me and Miss Mandible" Summary and Interpretation

"Me and Miss Mandible" was first published in 1964.  Although it is written as a journal entry over several weeks, it is a little difficult to follow.  The first sentence makes the reader's stomach churn a little bit because that narrator says, "Miss Mandible wantes to make love to me but she hesitates because I am officially a child" (Barthelme).  He goes on to list the things that make him seem as though he is a child, her gradebook and the records in the principal's office.  The "true age" of the narrator, according to him, is thirty-five.  He has been in the Army and is over six feet tall.  Aside from the beginning of the story being completely absurd, later the narrator discusses the fact that a fellow "student" is also interested in him.  The absurd and disgusting part of that is that he actually thinks that he likes her too.  It is never revealed exactly what was done or what has occured to have an older man in a childs class but he does mention that he was married before and that the last thing that he remembers is having an argument with his wife.  At one point, the narrator mentions that perhaps he could re-learn things and be better.  He can feel Miss Mandible fighting her feelings for him.  The final entry is the man trying to convince the school that he is not a child because he and Miss Mandible were caught in the cloakroom. 
In a sense, the narrator is trying to find himself again after his wife has had an affair with another man.  He is re-learning all the things that he might have missed while a child.  The children call him teacher's pet and one even tries to start a fight with him. 

"Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby" Summary and Interpretation

"Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby" which was first published in 1973, is a story that represents and extreme situation.  Some "friends" have decided to execute one of their friends for "going too far".  It is never revealed exactly what was done to warrant such a tradgic event from the "friends".  The humor in the story is presented in the first paragraph when Colby is asked what kind of music he wants played at his funeral.  When he answers the question he is told that he needs to "be reasonable" because the amount of time and money that would have to go into a song like that would go over budget.  This of course is absurd because the friends themselves aren't being reasonable.  "Hugh was worried about the wording of the invitations" is the first line of the second paragraph (Barthelme).  The boys are worried about the authorities finding out which would play into the minds of anyone breaking the law.  The narrator is absurd in his answer as he feels that Colby was their friend and that he "belonged" to them (Barthelme).  The friends continue to discuss the event and talk about what he will be hanged with and jump off of.  The final paragraph has a "friend" that had been silent the whole time finally speak up just to ask if they should hang Colby with wire instead of rope.  This makes Colby uncomfortable and the narrator tells Hank that that isn't a good idea because it would be bad for the tree and the environment.  The final sentences in the story talk of the event being well attended and that since that day, no one had gone that far again.
While the reader is never really told what Colby had done to deserve a hanging, there are bits of humor in the story.  The story is obviously absurd in that it has children haning another child that is supposed to be their friend.  The story has a paragraph that talks about tradition and "June hangings" and makes the reader think of wedding traditions.  There is a sense of realism in that the boys don't want the authorites to find out, but everything else about the story is absurd and a classic Barthelme writing.

Summary and Interpretation of "The School"

Published in 1974, "The School" is narrated by the teacher of a classroom that has lost numerous people and things in the course of a school year.  The reader is first introduced to a classroom that has planted trees that have died.  The narrator notes that it wouldn't have been so bad if the snakes hadn't died just a few weeks prior.  The reader can relate to things that may have happened while he or she was in school and found out that a class pet had died.  "These details are realistic and relatable" (Brock).  The narrator takes it to extremes when he mentions that everything that is living that comes in contact with the children ends up dying.  There is the loss of the plants and animals and also a loss of parents, grandparents, and even a few of the children themselves.  The final paragraphs of the story are of the children looking for answers to questions that as young children, shouldn't know or think to ask.  " And they said, is death that which gives meaning to life? and I said, no, life is that which gives meaning to life.  Then they said, but isn't death, considered as a fundamental datum, the mean by which the taken-for-granted mundanity of the everyday may be transcended in the direction of -" (Barthelme).  These questions are obviously too advanced for children that wouldn't know that death is a part of life and therefore absurd.

Summary and Interpretation of The First Thing The Baby Did Wrong

Published in 1987 with works in Forty Stories, which would be the last publication that Barthelme would get to see happen before his death, "The Baby" is a great example of Postmodernism work.  The story "deals with the all-too-real concept that when a baby is born into a family, the dynamics of the family shift and the parents are no longer in control" (Brock).  The narrator, who is later identified as the father, has set a rule that if the child tears out pages from books, it will be punished by being sent to it's room for four hours for each page torn.  This does not stop when the baby grows and is able to tear more and more pages from the books.  "I felt that if you made a rule you had to stick to it, had to be consistent, otherwise they get the wrong idea" (Barthelme).  While every parent in the world would find that one statement to be true, one cannot help but to see the absurdity in making a baby stay in it's room so long for just a torn page.  Humor emerges when the narrator makes a statement that there are plenty of things in the room to keep the child busy, if the child were to use her time wisely.  The child starts to look ill and the mother is concerned about the fact that the child had not been able to eat while she was confined to her room.  The reader can tell that even the mother of this child finds this behavior of the father absurd.  "The longest we ever kept her in her room consecutive was eighty-eight hours, and that ended when my wife took the door off its hinges with a crowbar even though the baby still owed us twelve hours because she was working off twenty five pages" (Barthelme).  There are times when the child would run out of her room running to the first book she would see and rip it apart.  By the last paragraph, the father decides that tearing pages out of books and having torn pages out of books is alright noting that "one of the satisfying things about being a parent-you've got a lot of moves, each one good as gold" (Barthelme).  This statement is where you can see the dynamics of the family change.  The child's behavior has set the new rule because the narrator has grown tired of the punishment having the opposite effect.
This story is a great example of Postmodernism writings by Donald Barthelme.  It has taken an issue that most parents deal with and made it absurd and humorous at the same time.

Escaping Through Literature

Though all of Donald Barthelme's stories are a bit absurd, they also possess a sense of humor.  While reading his stories, the readers will find themselves able to visualize what is happening in each story and have the knowledge that most of the things happening in each story could or would never happen.

All citations (Brock) are from handouts in class.
All citations (Barthelme) are from stories read at

I hope you have learned something that you did not know or perhaps it was reinterated.  Please take the time to tell me your thoughts and/or suggestions for making this better.  Thank you.