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Satire In The Fiction Of Donald Barthelme English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3472 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Donald Barthelme (April 7, 1931- July 23, 1989) was an American author known for his playful, postmodernist style of short fiction. Barthelme also worked as a newspaper reporter for the Houston Post, managing editor of Location magazine, director of the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, cofounder of Fiction, and a professor of various universities. He also was one of the original founders of The University of Houston Creative Writing Program.

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Barthelme continued his success in the short story form with Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts (1968). One widely anthologized story from this collection, “The Balloon,” appears to reflect on Barthelme’s own intentions as an artist. The narrator of the tale inflates a giant, irregular balloon over most of Manhattan, causing widely divergent reactions in the populace. Children play across its top, enjoying it quite literally on a surface level; adults attempt to read meaning into it, but are baffled by its ever-changing shape; the authorities attempt to destroy it, but fail. Only in the final paragraph does the reader learn that the narrator has inflated the balloon for purely personal reasons, and sees no intrinsic meaning in the balloon itself, a metaphor for the amorphous, uncertain nature of Barthelme’s fiction. Other notable stories from this collection include “The Indian Uprising,” a mad collage of a Comanche attack on a modern city, and “Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning,” a series of vignettes showing the difficulties of truly knowing a public figure; the latter story appeared in print only two months before the real Kennedy’s 1968 assassination.

Barthelme would go on to write over a hundred more short stories, first collected in City Life (1970), Sadness (1972), Amateurs (1976), Great Days (1979), and Overnight to Many Distant Cities (1983). Many of these stories were later reprinted and slightly revised for the collections Sixty Stories (1981), Forty Stories (1987) and, posthumously, Flying to America (2007). Though primarily known for these stories, Barthelme also produced four novels characterized by the same fragmentary style: Snow White (1967), The Dead Father (1975), Paradise (1986), and The King (1990, posthumous).

Barthelme’s short stories are often exceptionally compact (a form sometimes called “short-short story,” “flash fiction,” or “sudden fiction”), often focusing only on incident rather than complete narratives. (He did, however, write some longer stories with more traditional narrative arcs.) At first, these stories contained short epiphanic moments. Later in his career, the stories were not consciously philosophical or symbolic. His fiction had its admirers and detractors, being hailed as profoundly disciplined or derided as meaningless and academic postmodernism. Barthelme’s thoughts and work were largely the result of twentieth-century angst as he read extensively, for example in Pascal, Husserl, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Ionesco, Beckett, Sartre, and Camus.

Barthelme’s stories typically avoid traditional plot structures, relying instead on a steady accumulation of seemingly-unrelated detail. By subverting the reader’s expectations through constant non sequiturs, Barthelme creates a hopelessly fragmented verbal collage reminiscent of such modernist works as T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and James Joyce’s Ulysses, whose linguistic experiments he often challenged. However, Barthelme’s fundamental skepticism and irony distanced him from the modernists’ belief in the power of art to reconstruct society, leading most critics to class him as a postmodernist writer. Literary critics have noted that Barthelme, like the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé, whom he admired, plays with the meanings of words, relying on poetic intuition to spark new connections of ideas buried in the expressions and conventional responses. The critic George Wicks called Barthelme “the leading American practitioner of surrealism today . . . whose fiction continues the investigations of consciousness and experiments in expression that began with Dada and surrealism a half century ago.” Barthelme has been described in many other ways, such as in an article in Harper’s where Josephine Henden classified him as an angry sado-masochist.

The great bulk of his work was published in The New Yorker, and he began to publish his stories in collections beginning with Come Back, Dr. Caligari in 1964, Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts in 1968, and City Life in 1970. Time magazine named City Life one of the best books of the year and described the collection as written with “Kafka’s purity of language and some of Beckett’s grim humor.” At times it seems that every story Barthelme published was unique, such is his formal originality: for example, a fresh handling of the parodic dramatic monologue in “The School” or a list of 100 numbered sentences and fragments in “The Glass Mountain.” The narrator of one story states, “Fragments are the only forms I trust” (“See the Moon?” from Unspeakable Practices: in fact, statement appears several times in that story), an aspect of his writing which Joyce Carol Oates commented on in the New York Times Book Review essay of 1972 entitled “Whose Side Are You On?”: “This from a writer of arguable genius whose works reflect what he himself must feel, in book after book, that his brain is all fragments . . . just like everything else.” Barthelme expressed great irritation over the “fragments” quote being attributed so frequently to himself, rather than being understood as merely one statement by one narrator in one story.


Guggenheim Fellowship, 1966

Time Magazine Best Books of the Year list, 1971, for City Life

National Book Award for children’s literature, 1972, for The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine or the Hithering Thithering Djinn.

Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1972.

Jesse H Jones Award from Texas Institute of Letters, 1976, for The Dead Father

Nominated for National Book Critics Circle Award, PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, Los Angeles Times Book Prize, all for Sixty Stories, all in 1982.

Rea Award for the Short Story, 1988.

Statement of the Problem

Donald Barthelme is considered as one of the most appreciated and distinguished American postmodern writers. His writing features multiplicity of strategies: he variously produces fragments, dialogues, fantastic stories, collages, parodic allegories, experiments in language, critique of the media of pop culture and extended jokes. Common to much of this medley of treatments is ironic and satiric tendency which incurs nearly all of his short stories and his novels as well.

In reading Barthelme`s fiction from the ironic and satiric perspectives, these questions are raised to be answered:

How does irony change its function from destructive to constructive?

What is the effect of language in parodying the world and the fiction itself?

What is the difference between traditional way of using irony and the postmodern one? And which one does Barthelme refer to in his stories?

How does Barthelme confront the social realities of his culture? And what is the relation between author/ subject and society?

What is the fate of “individuals” (subjects) in the light of irony and satire?

Does Barthelme try to create a new world by making an alternative or he just wants to make our insights new? And what is the function of the past in the wreck of the present?

What is the function of the past in the wreck of the present?

Answering the above asked questions will be supportive to the fact that the idea at the heart of Barthelme`s fiction is irony and satire. The subject of this study is the way he uses irony as means of social criticism as well as a tool for creating new fictional constructs. His irony is absolute in a sense that the immediate object of irony is undermined, and then its opposite is undermined as well-and in much of his work the idea of undermining is undermined as well.

Significance of the Problem

Barthelme could be considered as an ironist above all else. His irony gives his writing its distinguishing tone and voice; it is his author- function. He uses irony as a means of uncovering the hidden realities of everyday life. For him society has lost its traditional centers of authority, the family and the church. Society has lost a sense of tradition, myth and ceremony. Barthelme views them as indicative of the triviality of contemporary life. With the past exerting no perceptible pull, modern man lives in the confusion, uncertainty and freedom of the present.

Barthelme`s use of irony is of utmost importance. In his early works, the purpose of irony is toward destruction; whereas in his later works, irony stands for construction. Generally, his works reveal a gradual shift from the purely negative and destructive toward the positive and creative.

Here, stands two separate works that are dissimilar in purpose and tone. His early work, “Snow White”, is considered as his major work. In this novel, he uses irony in a way to destruct the world in which Snow White leaves in. it is the consciousness of itself and its own limitations. Snow White destroys the world and at the same time destroys itself. It is written in a self-parodic style which satirizes itself as well as the world.

On the other hand, stands his later work “Come Back, Dr. Caligari” which uses irony as a way to satirize the world in order to construct a new reality. Although, both uses of irony are satiric in tone, but his later works are mild and temperate in tone and purpose.

Barthelme`s use of irony in ” Snow White” retracts-that is, destroys-everything. It retracts the past and the present, it retracts traditional and avant-garde approaches to art; it retracts the fairy tale world and the world which replaced it. It retracts by reducing everything to mere language, and finally it retracts retraction itself. His irony is a negative, subjective freedom, and it destroys by depriving the object of its reality. His irony destroys the world and at the same time destroys his own fiction, too. It destroys language, and while his fiction is made of this language, it destroys his fiction, too.

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Much of Barthelme`s success resides in his understanding of and interest in the social realities of American culture. He is a great pursuer of his country’s culture with all its details and limitations. He treats subjects and ideas as the disintegration of American culture, alienation and the death of the past. The social fact which Barthelme confront, is a society whose sense of past has been so diluted that it exerts no influence. There is only the present, and the present is so meaningless and aimless which exerts no enthusiasm for man to live in, therefore this is the aim of the author, like Barthelme, to depict these limitations through irony and social satire.

The ironist is primarily concerned with his own attitude toward the world rather than with the world itself; it might even seem of a radical ironist like Barthelme that his attitude toward the world has replaced the world as his subject matter. But in a very real sense, this is a contradiction in terms, since that subject-matter is itself an attitude toward the world, is taken as a response to the world. To read any of Barthelme`s stories is to recognize at once that here are the social realities of 1960`s and 1970`s, and that these stories are shaped by these realities.


Although Donald Barthelme is one of the major figures in postmodern fiction, there have not been deservedly enough researches on his fiction. This study concentrates on the use of irony and social satire in his works as well as its significance in his fiction.

In order to understand his writing, it is necessary to get familiar with the importance of postmodern irony and the impact of avant-garde in his writing. In this regard, Kierkegaard’s theory of irony and other theorists, such as Shlegel and Douglas Muecke will be used to elaborate the definition and the importance of irony in his fiction.

“Come Back, Dr. Caligari”, “Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts”, “City Life”, “Sadness” and the novel “Snow White” are the volumes which basically deal with the same concept under discussion. However, due to being bound to the limited span of time and space, only some of the stories from these series will be discussed and the novel “Snow White” will be discussed in detail.

The stories which I want to cover in my thesis are: ” Margins”, ” A Shower of Gold”, ” Me and Miss Mandible”, ” For I’m the Boy”, ” The Balloon”, ” Game”, ” Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning”, ” The Dolt”, ” The Indian Uprising”, ” Views of my Father Weeping”, ” On Angels”, ” Kierkegaard Unfair to Shlegel”, ” The King of Jazz”, ” The Death of Edward Lear”, ” Sentence” and ” City Life”.

Method and Design

This research constitutes of five chapters from which three exclusively deal wit the concept of irony and satire. The second chapter is entitled ” Kierkegaard Unfair to Shlegel: Towards a Theory of Postmodern Irony”. This chapter consists mainly the concept of irony from some theorists’ assumptions. Of most importance is Kierkegaard’s assumption: that; yes, the world is imperfect; yes, all intelligent men wish the world were better than it is. But the only moral way for a man to deal with this situation is an attempt to reconcile his vision with actuality. Kierkegaard says that irony is destructive. He believes that irony destroys by depriving an object of its reality. From his viewpoint, irony is not directed against a given object, but against a whole of existence.

Douglas Muecke has somehow the same assumptions concerning irony. First, he differentiates what we state as “verbal” and ” situational” irony. For him, verbal irony occurs when one says something, only to mean its opposite, or at least something quite different from what is apparent. His second mode of irony, “situational”, is a kind of irony in which there is no ironist, but there is always both a victim and an observer. This is a kind of dramatic irony in Greek tragedy. Then he widens his scope to include “general irony”. It is a kind of irony which confronts man when he is considering topics like, death, the future, free will, objectivity and subjectivity.

Chapter three is entitled “Snow White; the Irony of Destructivity and Negativity”. This chapter contains within itself the negative role of irony in destructing the society and the work of art. Here, Barthelme`s satires and ironies are considered to be harsh and severe. His aim is to destabilize the world around him and he also attempts to destabilize the work of art itself. Snow White does not have a plot in any realistic sense, but there is a story of sorts, which serves as a framework for Barthelme`s satiric commentary. It is stated in this chapter that “Snow White” is a book about language. It is not exclusively about language, but it puts language to more varied and complex uses. Therefore, his attitude toward the way language is used and abused is itself an attitude toward life, toward culture.

Chapter four is entitled “Later Stories, the Irony of Construction”. This chapter shows a shift in Barthelme`s works, from earlier to later stories. Whereas in “Snow White”, he uses irony as a way to destroy the world around him, but in later stories, he does not try to reconstruct the world; instead, he tries to create a purer version of what is destroyed. In Snow White’s purity of purpose, the satiric tone never falters; in the later work, the subtle and varied tones resulting from strange combinations of elements function to create fictional constructs which allow us to view reality from different, multiple, often bizarre perspectives. Sometimes this view is itself satiric, but often, it is a view entertained only for the sake of its strangeness or newness.

The difference between Barthelme`s previous work and some of the stories discussed in this chapter is precisely that in these later stories he treats a number of subjects which touch him personally. The subject is itself important, is treated with a certain respect. And it therefore provides greater resistance to irony. Often the ironist himself becomes emotionally vulnerable, something which adds a new dimension to many of these stories.

Unlike Snow White, which we can sense at once is satiric from the outset, many of the later stories do not reveal their intent until the end; we must put together all of the pieces of the puzzle and examine the whole picture. Even then, the finished picture often seems, in an intriguing way, clear, but it still is out of focus. What is clear is that the elusive methods of these later stories are indicative of Barthelme`s growing concern for his craft. He is still the social satirist he was in Caligari and Snow White, but he has combined the satirist’s instinct to destroy with the artist’s need to create.

Review of Literature

Barbara Louis Roe in her thesis called ” The Short Works of Donald Barthelme”, talks about the use of parody in Barthelme`s fiction. She believes that Barthelme had two main reasons for using parody in his fiction. One of them was a generic change in fiction and the other one was to invent new structures which were appropriately suggestive of contemporary notions of non-linear time and multiple perspectives of space. According to her, Barthelme`s inventive fictions are, unlike the parodies, not about the world; they are of the world. Character, plot and point of view are fragmented to suggest multiple possibilities for their reconstruction.

Mark Caughlin in his thesis ” Irony is Liking Things; Donald Barthelme`s postmodern poetics” argues that Barthelme must first and foremost be understood as an ironist, and in order to contextualize his work, he has formulated a theory of postmodern irony that borrows more from the philosophy of Shlegel and Husserl than from traditional literary theory. He also contends that Barthelme employs language as an object, and that from the avant-garde and pop art traditions, as well as from the late modernism, Barthelme has learned to express language as manifestation rather than as meaning.

Charles Cullum in his dissertation “Freedom and Identity: the Comedy of Donald Barthelme”, considers several tenets, which are in fact types of values. He believes that there are positive values in Barthelme`s fiction. By doing this, he separates himself from the majority of Barthelme critics, who allow Barthelme`s irony to overshadow any affirmation of value in his work.

According to Cullum, the first of these tenets as the Heideggerian notion of acceptance of existence as it is. This tenet of acceptance, accepts not just the pleasant aspect of life, but also the unpleasant.

The second tenet underlying Barthelme`s celebration of human freedom and difference, is that man’s traditional cause for sorrow, his mortality, or temporality, is, in fact, the very ground of his freedom.

The third tenet is that action, rather than passivity, is essential to life.

The fourth tenet underlying Barthelme`s celebration of freedom and identity is that human life offers, for all practical purposes, a field of infinite possibility. Actual limitations on human life, such as the many obvious physical limitations, are, like temporality, merely the ground or context of that field of possibility and, in fact, make possibility possible.

The fifth and extremely important tenet is that imagination and memory play vital roles in human life. Cullum believes that, through the imagination, one can, in Barthelme`s fictive world, distract the self into another.



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