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.

"The School" is a little gem of a short-short story by Donald Barthelme. Every word is dedicated toward moving the story forward and holding the reader spellbound. Economy of words and eloquent punctuation are hallmarks of this remarkable work. An examination of the author and his innovative style, along with a close look at the specific phraseology, point of view and order of events, leads to an appreciation of how each element works together to accomplish Barthelme's surprising and certainly mystifying conclusion.

From the beginning, in the very first paragraph, Barthelme engages the reader by using the narrator, the teacher's story, jumping right into the time that 30 kids planted trees to teach them about nature's way with root systems, growth and so on. Each planted their "own little tree" and they all died and became "little brown sticks." The word, little, here lends a quality of vulnerability and is altogether depressing when the reader pictures 30 children mourning the loss of their little trees. There is a weak effort to explain the dead trees, but the teacher moves on to explain how, before the trees, all the snakes died when the boiler was off for four days because of a strike.

In The School by Donald Barthelme we have the theme of uncertainty, curiosity, comfort and mortality. Taken from his Amateurs collection the story is narrated in the first person by a teacher called Edgar and after reading the story the reader realizes that Barthelme may be exploring the theme of uncertainty and curiosity. Throughout the story Edgar remains unsure of not only what may happen a person when they die but he also appears to be unable to explain or at least isn’t truly sure as to why the orange trees may have died or why the snakes may have died or what may have been the cause for some of the other deaths that occur in the story. Also at no stage is Edgar able to answer or satisfy the curiosity of the children when asked about death rather as the story progresses the reader discovers that Edgar, just like the children, remains uncertain as to what may happen an individual when they die.

The fact that Edgar also lists so many deaths (trees, plants, animals, children and adults) in the story may also be important as by doing so Barthelme may be highlighting to the reader the inevitability of death and the pervasiveness of death in life. Though there is a sense of tragedy associated with some of the deaths that Edgar tells the reader about, particularly when it comes to Matthew, Tony and Kim’s death. Kim’s death though as tragic as Matthew and Tony’s death may also be important for another reason. By having Edgar tell the reader that ‘the cause of death was not stated in the letter we got’ and that the orphanage suggested ‘we adopt another child instead’ there is a sense that those with a responsibility for Kim’s care may not necessarily be as concerned as one would except those in authority to be when it comes to the death of a child. If anything there is a sense that Kim and his life are disposable (or replaceable) which may be the point that Barthelme is attempting to make.

The setting of the story may also be symbolically important as a school would usually be the place that is commonly associated with helping people, young and old, understand or learn about the complexities of life (academic or otherwise) and by setting the story in a school it is possible that Barthelme is suggesting that just as Edgar is unable to answer the children’s questions, likewise education as an institute or those with a responsibility to educate may not necessarily have all the answers.

The end of the story is also interesting as Barthelme appears to be not only highlighting the innocence of the children but he also seems to be introducing absurdity into the story. By having Edgar kiss Helen and for both of them to hold each other in the classroom the reader is left assuming that Edgar is prepared to accommodate the children’s request and make love to Helen, which many critics may consider to be not only inappropriate but to be also absurd. However this may be how Barthelme intended the reader to feel or think. It is possible that Barthelme, by introducing the possibility that Edgar and Helen will make love in front of the children, is highlighting how absurd it is for someone to attempt to explain what may happen a person when they die, when the reality is that nobody regardless of profession or religious persuasion can be certain as to what may happen. It may also be significant that the children rather than focusing on Edgar and Helen at the end of the story turn their attention to the new gerbil as not only is Barthelme allowing the children to be children again but he may also be highlighting how fleeting an individual’s inquisitiveness towards death actually is and rather than remain focused on death, as Edgar and the children have done throughout the story, Barthelme may also be suggesting that life, even though death remains a constant, will continue.


The Shcool

Well, we had all these children out planting trees, see, because we figured that ... that was part of their education, to see how, you know, the root systems ... and also the sense of responsibility, taking care of things, being individually responsible. You know what I mean. And the trees all died. They were orange trees. I don’t know why they died, they just died. Something wrong with the soil possibly or maybe the stuff we got from the nursery wasn’t the best. We complained about it. So we’ve got thirty kids there, each kid had his or her own little tree to plant and we’ve got these thirty dead trees. All these kids looking at these little brown sticks, it was depressing.

It wouldn’t have been so bad except that just a couple of weeks before the thing with the trees, the snakes all died. But I think that the snakes – well, the reason that the snakes kicked off was that ... you remember, the boiler was shut off for four days because of the strike, and that was explicable. It was something you could explain to the kids because of the strike. I mean, none of their parents would let them cross the picket line and they knew there was a strike going on and what it meant. So when things got started up again and we found the snakes they weren’t too disturbed.

With the herb gardens it was probably a case of overwatering, and at least now they know not to overwater. The children were very conscientious with the herb gardens and some of them probably ... you know, slipped them a little extra water when we weren’t looking. Or maybe ... well, I don’t like to think about sabotage, although it did occur to us. I mean, it was something that crossed our minds. We were thinking that way probably because before that the gerbils had died, and the white mice had died, and the salamander ... well, now they know not to carry them around in plastic bags.

Of course we expected the tropical fish to die, that was no surprise. Those numbers, you look at them crooked and they’re belly-up on the surface. But the lesson plan called for a tropical fish input at that point, there was nothing we could do, it happens every year, you just have to hurry past it.

We weren’t even supposed to have a puppy.

We weren’t even supposed to have one, it was just a puppy the Murdoch girl found under a Gristede’s truck one day and she was afraid the truck would run over it when the driver had finished making his delivery, so she stuck it in her knapsack and brought it to the school with her. So we had this puppy. As soon as I saw the puppy I thought, Oh Christ, I bet it will live for about two weeks and then... And that’s what it did. It wasn’t supposed to be in the classroom at all, there’s some kind of regulation about it, but you can’t tell them they can’t have a puppy when the puppy is already there, right in front of them, running around on the floor and yap yap yapping. They named it Edgar – that is, they named it after me. They had a lot of fun running after it and yelling, “Here, Edgar! Nice Edgar!” Then they’d laugh like hell. They enjoyed the ambiguity. I enjoyed it myself. I don’t mind being kidded. They made a little house for it in the supply closet and all that. I don’t know what it died of. Distemper, I guess. It probably hadn’t had any shots. I got it out of there before the kids got to school. I checked the supply closet each morning, routinely, because I knew what was going to happen. I gave it to the custodian.

And then there was this Korean orphan that the class adopted through the Help the Children program, all the kids brought in a quarter a month, that was the idea. It was an unfortunate thing, the kid’s name was Kim and maybe we adopted him too late or something. The cause of death was not stated in the letter we got, they suggested we adopt another child instead and sent us some interesting case histories, but we didn’t have the heart. The class took it pretty hard, they began (I think, nobody ever said anything to me directly) to feel that maybe there was something wrong with the school. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the school, particularly, I’ve seen better and I’ve seen worse. It was just a run of bad luck. We had an extraordinary number of parents passing away, for instance. There were I think two heart attacks and two suicides, one drowning, and four killed together in a car accident. One stroke. And we had the usual heavy mortality rate among the grandparents, or maybe it was heavier this year, it seemed so. And finally the tragedy.

The tragedy occurred when Matthew Wein and Tony Mavrogordo were playing over where they’re excavating for the new federal office building. There were all these big wooden beams stacked, you know, at the edge of the excavation. There’s a court case coming out of that, the parents are claiming that the beams were poorly stacked. I don’t know what’s true and what’s not. It’s been a strange year.

I forgot to mention Billy Brandt’s father who was knifed fatally when he grappled with a masked intruder in his home.

One day, we had a discussion in class. They asked me, where did they go? The trees, the salamander, the tropical fish, Edgar, the poppas and mommas, Matthew and Tony, where did they go? And I said, I don’t know, I don’t know. And they said, who knows? and I said, nobody knows. 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 means by which the taken-for-granted mundanity of the everyday may be transcended in the direction of – I said, yes, maybe. They said, we don’t like it. I said, that’s sound.

They said, it’s a bloody shame! I said, it is.

They said, will you make love now with Helen (our teaching assistant) so that we can see how it is done? We know you like Helen. I do like Helen but I said that I would not. We’ve heard so much about it, they said, but we’ve never seen it. I said I would be fired and that it was never, or almost never, done as a demonstration. Helen looked out the window. They said, please, please make love with Helen, we require an assertion of value, we are frightened.

I said that they shouldn’t be frightened (although I am often frightened) and that there was value everywhere. Helen came and embraced me. I kissed her a few times on the brow. We held each other. The children were excited. Then there was a knock on the door, I opened the door, and the new gerbil walked in. The children cheered wildly.

Ну, у нас всех этих детей, посадка деревьев, видеть, потому что мы поняли, что ... это была часть их образования, чтобы увидеть, как вы знаете, корневой системы ... а также чувство ответственности, заботу о вещи, индивидуально ответственное. Вы знаете, что я имею в виду. И деревья все погибли. Они были апельсиновые деревья. Я не знаю, почему они умерли, они просто умерли. Что-то не так с почвой, возможно, или, может быть, вещи, которые мы получили из питомника была не самой лучшей. Мы жаловались на это. Так что у нас там тридцать детей, у каждого ребенка была своя деревце посадить и у нас есть эти тридцать мертвых деревьев. Все эти дети смотрят на эти маленькие коричневые палочки, это было угнетающим.

Это не было бы так плохо, за исключением того, что буквально пару недель до этого случая с деревьев, змей все умерли. Но я думаю, что змей – ну, причина в том, что змей стартовал, было то, что ... ты помнишь, котел был отключен в течение четырех дней из-за забастовки, и это было объяснимо. Это было что-то, вы могли бы объяснить детям из-за забастовки. Я имею в виду, никто из родителей позволил бы им пересечь линию пикета, и они знали, что там была забастовка происходит и что это означает. Поэтому, когда все началось снова, и мы нашли змей они не были слишком беспокоили.

С херб сад это был, наверное, случай переувлажнения, и, по крайней мере, теперь они знают, чтобы не над водой. Дети были очень совестливыми с травы сады и некоторые из них, наверное ... знаешь, подсунул их немного дополнительную воду, когда мы не смотрели. Или, может быть ... ну, я не хочу думать о диверсии, хотя это приходило нам на ум. Я имею в виду, это было что-то, что пересекли наши умы. Мы думали, что так, наверное, потому, что прежде чем что песчанки умерли, и белых мышей погибло, и Саламандра ... ну, теперь они знают, чтобы не носить их в полиэтиленовые пакеты.

Конечно, мы ожидали, что тропические рыбы, чтобы умереть, и это неудивительно. Эти цифры, вы посмотрите на них криво и они кверху брюхом на поверхности. Но план урок для тропического ввода рыбы в тот момент, не было ничего, что мы могли сделать, это каждый год происходит, вы просто должны спешить мимо него.

Мы даже не должны были завести щенка.

Мы даже не должны были иметь один, это был всего лишь щенок Мердок девушки нашли под Гриштеде грузовик один день, и она боялась, что грузовик будет работать над ним, когда водитель должен был закончить свою доставку, так она засунула ее в рюкзак и принес его в школу с ней. Так что у нас был этот щенок. Как только я увидел щенка, я думала, Боже, держу пари, он будет жить около двух недель, а потом... а вот что она сделала. Он не должен был быть в классе вообще, есть какое-то постановление об этом, но Вы не можете сказать им, что они не могут иметь щенка, когда щенок уже есть, прямо перед ними, бегали по полу и не тявкай тявкай тявкай. Они назвали его Эдгар, – то есть, они назвали его в честь меня. Им было очень весело бежать за ним и кричать: “вот, Эдгар! Приятно Эдгар!” Тогда они смеяться, как ад. Они наслаждались двусмысленности. Я наслаждался его сам. Я не против шутят. Они сделали домик для него в кладовке и все такое. Я не знаю, что он умер. Чумка, я думаю. Он, вероятно, не было никаких выстрелов. Я получил его до того, как дети добрались до школы. Я проверил кладовку каждое утро, по заведенному порядку, потому что я знал, что должно было произойти. Я отдал его хранителю.

А потом был этот корейский сирота, что класс принял с помощью программы дети, все дети принесли в квартал, в месяц, такова была идея. Это было прискорбным событием, как его звали Ким и, может быть, мы приняли его слишком поздно или что-то. Причины смерти не было указано в письме мы получили, они предложили нам вместо того, чтобы взять еще одного ребенка и прислал нам несколько интересных историй болезни, но у нас не было сердца. В классе было тяжело, то они начали (я думаю, никто никогда не говорил мне ничего прямо), чтобы чувствовать, что, возможно, было что-то не так со школой. Но я не думаю, что что-то неладно со школой, в частности, я видел лучше, и я видел и похуже. Это была просто полоса неудач. У нас было невероятное количество родителей кончине, например. Там были я думаю, что два инфаркта и два самоубийства, один тонет, а четверо погибли вместе в автокатастрофе. Одним махом. И у нас был обычный тяжелый смертность среди бабушек и дедушек, или, может быть, было тяжелее в этом году, казалось, так. И, наконец, трагедии.

Трагедия произошла, когда Мэтью Уэйн и Тони Mavrogordo играли над тем, где они добывают нового Федерального офисного здания. Там были все эти большие деревянные балки уложены, ты знаешь, на краю котлована. Есть судебное дело, выйдя из которого, родители утверждают, что балки были плохо сложены. Я не знаю, что правда, а что нет. Это был странный год.

Я забыл упомянуть отец Билли Брандта, который был смертельно ножом, когда он сцепился со злоумышленником в маске в его доме.

Однажды, у нас была дискуссия в классе. Они спросили меня, куда они делись? Деревья, Саламандра, тропических рыб, Эдгар, глыб и письки, Мэтью и Тони, куда они делись? И я сказал, я не знаю, я не знаю. И они говорили, кто знает? и я сказал, никто не знает. И они сказали: - смерть то, что придает смысл жизни? И я сказал: нет, жизнь-это то, что придает смысл жизни. Потом они сказали, но не смерть, считается основополагающей данностью, с помощью которых воспринимались как должное обыденность повседневной может быть оставлен позади в сторону – Я сказал, да, может быть. Они сказали, нам это не нравится. Я сказал, что это звук.

Они сказали, гребаный стыд! Я уже сказал, это. Они сказали, будете ли вы заняться любовью с Еленой (наш ассистент), так что мы можем увидеть, как это делается? Мы знаем вас как Хелен. Мне нравится Хелен, но я сказал, что я бы не стал. Мы так много слышали об этом, они говорили, но мы никогда не видели его. Я сказал, что я буду уволен и что он не был никогда, или почти никогда, сделать в качестве демонстрации. Хелен выглянула в окно. Они сказали, пожалуйста, пожалуйста, заниматься любовью с Хелен, мы требуем, утверждение стоимости, нас пугают.

Я сказал, что они не должны бояться (хотя я часто пугали) и что там было значение везде. Хелен подошел и обнял меня. Я поцеловал ее несколько раз по брови. Мы прижимались друг к другу. Дети были в восторге. Затем раздался стук в дверь, я открыл дверь, и новый песчанки вошел. Дети дико радовались.

Stylistic analysis

Spoiler Alert

Barthelme's story is really short (about 1,200 words) and really funny (in a dark sort of way), so do yourself a favor and read or listen to it before you read anything I have to say about it.

Humor and Escalation

The story achieves much of its humor through escalation. It begins with an ordinary situation everyone can recognize -- a failed classroom gardening project. But then it piles on so many other recognizable classroom failures that the sheer accumulation becomes preposterous. That the narrator's understated, conversational tone never rises to the same fever pitch of preposterousness makes the story even funnier. His delivery continues as if these events aren't really so unusual -- "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" Until this point, the story has been laugh-out-loud funny (if you like dark humor). 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 isn't so funny when we're 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, "Is it 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:

"It isn’t death, considered as a fundamental datum, the means by which the taken-for-granted mundanity of the everyday may be transcended in the direction of -- " 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 children's speech only serves to emphasize the difficulty of articulating such questions in real life -- the gap between the experience of death and our 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. We're all in school, and school is all around us. And sometimes, like the children, we might begin "to feel that maybe there is something wrong with the school." But the story seems to be pointing out that there is no other "school." (If you're familiar with Margaret Atwood's short story "Happy Endings," you'll 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 don't want to be protected from its opposite, either.



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