Donald Barthelme (1931-1989)

    Contributing Editors:
    Linda Wagner-Martin and
    Charles Molesworth

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    The brevity and irony of Barthelme's work are sometimes surprising to students. Again, the high modernist quality--every word crafted for its purpose, but caught in a web of style and form that makes the whole seem artlessly natural--must be explained. Students may have read less contemporary fiction than modern and what contemporary fiction they have read may well be limited to the genres of romance, science fiction, and mystery. As with any period of art, the determining craft and language practices need explication.

    In the case of such a short selection, ask students to write about the work at the beginning of the class--and again at the end, once discussion has finished--something simple like "What were your reactions to this work?" Then ask them to compare their two answers with the hope of showing them that reading must be an active process, that they must form opinions. And in this author's case, getting his readers to respond is his first priority.

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    People's inability to learn to live in their culture, and the omnipresent romantic attitudes that society continues to inscribe, whatever the subject being considered, are the main subjects of Barthelme's fiction. At base is the belief that people will endure, will eventually figure it out. Barthelme's fiction is, finally, positive--even optimistic--but first readings may not give that impression.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    Discuss the way humor is achieved, the interplay between irony and humor, the effects of terse and unsentimental language--students must be given ways of understanding why this story has the effect it does.

    Contemporary fiction--whether minimalist or highly contrived parodic or allusive and truly postmodern-- needs much more attention in the classroom. Connections must be made between writing students already understand, such as Ernest Hemingway's, and more recent work, so that they see the continuum of artistry that grows from one generation to the next.

    Original Audience

    Anticonservative in many ways, Barthelme's fiction taunts the current society and its attitudes at every turn. The teacher will have to be subtle in not claiming that "we all" think the way Barthelme does, or the legions of all-American conservatives will be on his/her doorstep; but the fiction itself can do a great deal to start students examining their own social attitudes.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    Barthelme is given as a kind of example of metafiction, which flourished in the 1970s and 1980s. Interesting approaches can be created by contrasting this fiction with much of that by writers of minority cultural groups-- James Welch, Alice Walker --to see how such fiction differs.


    Refer to the headnote in the text for complete information and add The Teachings of Don B., ed. Kim Herzinger, 1993. Also, see The Ironist Saved from Drowning: The Fiction of Donald Barthelme (University of Missouri, 1983), by Charles Molesworth, where this story is discussed in detail.