Donald Barthelme (1931-1989)
Linda Wagner-Martin and
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.
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