Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Among Frederick Barthelme’s concerns in “Chroma” are the disconnectedness of modern American life, the inadequacy and unreliability of conversation and language, and the roles of the sexes. As in much of his fiction, the characters are given no histories beyond a few sketchy details. The reader never learns the protagonist’s name or occupation or how long he has been married to Alicia. The locale is never identified, except that it is an American suburb. In neither the protagonist’s thoughts nor his conversations does one get any sense of where he is from or where he wants to go. The story exists very much in its present moment (the narrator speaks in the present tense), in frequently trivial actions and conversations. Its suburbanites are disconnected both from their own histories and from one another. In Barthelme’s modern America, people are more connected to the objects and surfaces of everyday life—a barbecue seen through a window, shirts and a plastic fish bought on a shopping trip, the cover of an Artforum magazine that the narrator likes “pretty much”—than to anything else.

Conversations in “Chroma” frequently confuse the characters and the reader alike. When Heather asks the narrator if he and his wife are “still playing Donkey Kong,” he has no idea what she means; she does not either, it turns out—“I just said it.” Twice other characters speak to the narrator using words or phrases so confusing that he simply echoes them. When his wife comments on his sad expression, for example, calling him “melancholy in the mug,” he...

(The entire section is 651 words.)