“The school” by Donald Barthelme

“The school” is a representation of literary prowess by Donald Barthelme. Every single word is bound to advancing the story and holding the audience fascinated. Eloquent punctuation and economic utilization of phrases are trademarks of this remarkable text. An evaluation of the writer and his creative style, plus a close examination of specific wording perspective and chronology of events leads to an appreciation of how every aspect work in unison to achieve Barthelme’s astonishing and undoubtedly mystifying end.

Donald Barthelme advances the themes of mortality, innocence, uncertainty, reassurance, and curiosity. The story comes from the Amateurs collections and Edger, the teacher recounts it in first person pronoun. Throughout the plot, Edger is uncertain of what happens when an individual dies; besides, he seems unable to elaborate, or at the minimum, he lacks the knowledge of the causes of the orange trees’ death, snakes, or any other deaths mentioned in the story.  Also, there is a revelation of conflict as at no stage is Edger, a qualified teacher cannot use any conventional beliefs or religious understanding to explain death.  It is probable that by not mentioning religion, Barthelme might mean that it lacks answers regarding death which aid comfort or reassure a person. In the same way, Edger cannot explain the complexities or mysteries of death to pupils. Likewise, religion might be in the same dilemma when it comes to knowledge of death.  In this situation, the truth remains that people are still afraid of explaining the topic of death.

The act of Edger mentioning cases of several deaths: adults, children, animals, plants, trees, etc. in the narration is vital as by doing such, the author might be emphasizing the pervasiveness of and inevitability of death. Though there are instances of tragedy in the demises the author lists, especially in the cases of Kim, Tony, and Matthew. Apart from being as tragic as Tony’s and Matthew’s death, Kim’s demise has significance.  By stating that the ‘cause of death is not given in the letter we received’ and the suggestion of ‘adopt another kid’ by the orphanage shows that those bestowed with the duty of taking care of Kim are really not concerned as one may expect the ones in authority should act when it comes to the matter of death.  There is a big conflict in this; the people involved with Kim’s affairs behave as if a person’s life is replaceable, something ironical and it is probably what the author is trying to advance. Barthelme views the deaths of Tony and Matthew as both tragic, the attention given to Kim’s suggest otherwise. It may be true that by associating Kim with only the orphanage and mentioning his nationality as Korean shows doubt as to whether the lives of children are given the same importance particularly those from unfortunate backgrounds of economic struggle and might be viewed as any other commodity by those given the responsibility to care.

The setting of the narrative is also symbolic as a learning institution is a place which helps all people, both young and old to learn and understand what life entails. This interesting part about symbolism you can read in the essays on symbolism. Besides, basing the text in the school context, Barthelme is signifying that Edger is not alone in lacking answers to the pupils’ queries, but education as a tool and those with the duty of educating the kids may not have all answers on various issues which affect life. This revelation is another conflict because there are basics which kids and young people, in general, expect their seniors to have answers, offer solutions or at least provide guidance which is lacking in this scenario. In the same way, Barthelme is offering zero attention to religion; he is criticizing the quality and system of education which existed in America at this time. It is also imperative to note that Edger applies the first person plural (we) at some parts of the text. In doing that may imply that it is not only him as an educator who has inadequacies in explaining matters to do with death but also symbolizes the inability of all adults in explaining the same.  Furthermore, the children’s request that Edger makes love with Helen might have an importance in this scenario.  It is possibly implying that by making love, the writer shows the need for a person (children in this context) when confronted with challenges connected with death,  to perceive a progression of life or at the minimum to have some form of alternative validation explaining the purpose of life.

The spaces and the environment which the characters take have a great importance in the story.  The teacher admits that the pupils have learned a great lesson irrespective of making a mistake in overwatering the young trees which subsequently kills all of them-a valuable experience to the audience and the pupils. Barthelme gives his elegy speed as he exposes how, shortly afterward when the gerbil, mice, salamander and the white mice die. Swiftly, a long-term pattern develops. Eventually, Barthelme surprises the reader by getting the teacher advances another lesson for the pupils from the events. It is open that they are aware of the better way of carrying those dead stuff around in plastic bags.

Next, comes the story of the puppy. The readers have no option but hold their breath because another death is imminent. The story is becoming strange as cases of deaths are rising from rodents, cold-blooded animals, plants, and the puppy is next.  The kids name the puppy after the teacher and find great pleasure building a small house shelter for it. The appealing use of the word little describes the house and the caring characteristic as they make a home for the puppy, irrespective of the inevitable forthcoming loss. The audience is vividly aware that the joy is abruptly coming to an end in sorrow, as it happens. Barthelme takes the reader up and down again and again but seems to add some dry satire and other human comments which make the audience giggle. The statement which summarises the incredible flow of events as ‘bad luck’ is an understatement at the threshold. The reader is now aware of the unprecedented number of individuals; parents, in this instance ten in total who die in various ways. Besides, there is a massive death rate for grandparents which are possibly heavier than usual, which as the Barthelme puts it should not surprise the reader that much.

The last section of the story is equally impressive as the writer emphasizes the innocence of the children as well as the introduction of absurdity in the story.  By letting Edger kiss Helen and allowing them to hold one another in front of the kids in class, leaves the reader to assume that Edger has accommodated and granted the request of the children which appears not inappropriate but absurd. Nevertheless, this is possibly what the author wanted the audience to think and feel.  It is probable that by Barthelme introducing the chance of Edger making love with Helen while children are watching is a highlight of how bizarre it is for an individual to explain what happens when people die. It is clear that no one irrespective of their religious orientation or profession can offer a precise explanation of what happens when people die.  It is imperative to note that children apart from focusing on their teachers-edger and Helen at the close of the story take their concentration to the new gerbil.  The writer does not again regard them as children but is trying to advance how short-lived a person’s inquisitiveness about death is and apart from focusing on it, as the protagonist, Edger, and the children have concentrated on it from the beginning to the end of the story. But Barthelme might be showing the audience that even if death is inevitable, life must continue.

In conclusion, this work of Donald Barthelme is a master class in literature. The author skillfully takes he readers through the flow of various events; deaths in this case in a natural and well-organized language.  The story is superb and thought-provoking. The piece is profoundly educative and highlights the weaknesses of human beings, religion, and even education in providing more detail about death.  In broad terms, it highlights the limit which humans cannot exceed.

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