Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

If paragraph 100 disrupts—without remedy—any conventional themes and meanings, what does Donald Barthelme, perhaps the leading postmodernist writer in the United States, mean by this “story”? What theme threads through it, what label defines this work? Barthelme himself resisted using conventional labels for his texts, preferring to call them “whatchacallits,” or “an Itself.” Critics who examine the work of the postmodernists say, aptly enough, that the theme of their fiction is fiction itself.

In only four and a half pages of one hundred numbered paragraphs, “The Glass Mountain” presents a fiction that examines the need for rejuvenated literary conventions. In doing this, Barthelme engages readers in linguistic play, baiting them to try proving that his text “can-too” be labeled with conventional terms, that it “does-too” express conventional themes and meanings. Takers of the bait lose. Deliberately, Barthelme designs slippery surface themes and meanings for his fictions so that they will avoid producing traditional forms, teasing traditionalists with layered text that suggests, but will not fulfill, multiple conventional themes.

In “The Glass Mountain” the fairy-tale theme works for ninety of the one hundred paragraphs before it falls apart. The climber’s observations of the streets below suggest social realism as a possible theme for the story; however, it, too, fails. In both cases, it is paragraph 100 that completely disrupts and denies the plausibility of either conventional theme because Barthelme makes the eagle central to any reading of “meaning” in the story. Paragraphs 58-60 provide that meaning, stating that the narrator risks climbing the glass mountain in order to “disenchant [a literary] symbol,” but that the late twentieth century’s “stronger egos still need symbols.” To accomplish this theme, the climber must reach the castle, and the tale-within-the-tale establishes an eagle as his means of access. Without an eagle, no conventional meaning exists: The story fractures its own internal conventions. The text’s last words, “Nor are eagles plausible, not at all, not for a...

(The entire section is 883 words.)