Tuesday, March 3, 2020
Analysis of The School by Donald Barthelme
Analysis of 'The School' by Donald Barthelme Donald Barthelme (1931- 1989) was an American writer known for his postmodern, surrealistic style. He published more than 100 stories in his lifetime, many of which were quite compact, making him an important influence on contemporary flash fiction. The School was originally published in 1974 in The New Yorker, where it is available to subscribers. You can also get aÃ free copy of the story at National Public Radio (NPR).Ã Ã Spoiler Alert Barthelmes story isÃ short- only about 1,200 words- and really funny and darkly funny, so its worth reading on your own. Humor and Escalation The story achieves much of its humor through escalation. It begins with an ordinary situation everyone can recognize Ã¢â¬âÃ a failed classroom gardening project. But then it piles on so many other recognizable classroom failures that the sheer accumulation becomes preposterous. That the narrators understated, conversational tone never rises to the same fever pitch of preposterousness makes the story even funnier. His delivery continues as if these events arent really so unusual Ã¢â¬âÃ just a run of bad luck. Tone Shifts There are two separate and significant tone changes in the story. The first occurs with the phrase, And then there was this Korean orphan [Ã¢â¬ ¦] Until this point, the story has beenÃ amusing. But the phrase about the Korean orphan is the first mention of human victims. It lands like a punch to the gut, and it heralds an extensive list of human fatalities. What was funny when it was just herbs and gerbils isnt so funny when were talking about human beings. And while the sheer magnitude of the escalating calamities does retain a humorous edge, the story is undeniably in more serious territory from this point forward. The second tone shift occurs when the children ask, [I]s death that which gives meaning to life? Until then, the children have sounded more or less like children, and not even the narrator has raised any existential questions. But then the children suddenly voice questions like: [I]snt death, considered as a fundamental datum, the means by which the taken-for-granted mundanity of the everyday may be transcended in the direction ofÃ The story takes a surreal turn at this point, no longer trying to offer a narrative that could be grounded in reality but instead addressing larger philosophical questions. The exaggerated formality of the childrens speech only serves to emphasize the difficulty of articulating such questions in real life Ã¢â¬â the gap between the experience of death and ourÃ ability to make sense of it. The Folly of Protection One of the reasons the story is funny is discomfort. The children are repeatedly faced with death the one experience from which adults would like to protect them. It makes a reader squirm. Yet after the first tone shift, the reader becomes like the children, confronting the inescapability and inevitability of death. Were all in school, and school is all around us. And sometimes, like the children, we might begin to feel that maybe there [i]s something wrong with the school. But the story seems to be pointing out that there is no other school. (If youre familiar with Margaret Atwoods short story Happy Endings, youll recognize thematic similarities here.) The request from the now-surreal children for the teacher to make love with the teaching assistant seems to be a quest for the opposite of death an attempt to find that which gives meaning to life. Now that the children are no longer protected from death, they dont want to be protected from its opposite, either. They seem to be searching for balance. It is only when the teacher asserts that there is value everywhere that the teaching assistant approaches him. Their embrace demonstrates a tender human connection that doesnt seem particularly sexualized. And thats when the new gerbil walks in, in all its surreal, anthropomorphized glory. Life continues. The responsibility of caring for a living being continues even if that living being, like all living beings, is doomed to eventual death. The children cheer, because their response to death is to continue engaging in the activities of life.