Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

In The Bark Tree, the disconnected, violent lives of modern men create disconnected, violent times, which in turn create even more violent, disconnected lives. As the boredom and frustration build inside the characters, they find no outlet for these feelings, until at last they turn to war. A disregard for their own flattened lives leads Queneau’s characters to devalue the worth of their fellows, so much that they wish to humiliate or destroy them. Ernestine’s death can easily be forgotten, and the death of Potice, a man killed in a street accident, can be made into a source of entertainment. Nothing remains of those who have died to mark their passage through this world.

The lack of connection between characters creates sufficient inner turmoil to start the ridiculous war between the French and the Etruscans, when thousands are killed for absolutely no reason. The war, like every other event in the novel, is a diversion, although longer lasting, that passes the time.

A second theme is that of the deadly sameness of modern life. At the beginning of The Bark Tree, unnamed characters go through the motions of life like so many marionettes. They follow certain motions, until death ceases the charade. Only original thinking or the gift of some unexpected event such as Etienne’s near death can propel these people into true life, which has a few major diversions or adventures, if not much meaning. As Ernestine dies, she recalls her life, telling the others gathered around her of the inconsequential events of her earthly existence. Her only adventure—the only thing that gave her life some flair—was her ill-advised marriage to the lecherous Old Taupe, but at least she had an adventure. Her death, Queneau hints, is similar to the later, meaningless deaths of the other characters.