Study Guide

Margins

by Donald Barthelme

Margins Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Carl, an African American man, is standing in front of a men’s store on Fourteenth Street near Broadway in New York City. He has brown sandwich boards over his shoulders, and on the boards is a handwritten message. It says that the wearer has spent five years in an Alabama jail for stealing a dollar and a half; that he did not steal the money; that while he was in jail his brother was killed; that his mother ran away when he was little; that in jail he learned to preach; that he bears witness to eschatological love; and that because no one will give him a job because he has been in jail, he is asking for handouts. Some of the sign does not make perfect sense; sentences are run together, and in one place, the words “Pepsi Cola” appear for no apparent reason.

Carl must be proud of his sign, however, because it ends with the statement that a patent has been applied for. In the same sentence he remembers his preaching and asks God to deliver humankind from evil.

Edward, a white man, criticizes the margins around Carl’s handwriting on the sign and tells Carl that those margins reveal personality. In Edward’s hand is a book about handwriting analysis, from which he reads about the meaning of wide and narrow left and right margins. Ignoring Carl’s disbelief in such things, Edward tells him that a sign with wide margins all around it reveals a person of delicate sensibility who is a loner, loves color and form, and lives in a dream world of good taste. Because Carl’s sign matches that description, he must be that kind of person.

When Carl asks Edward if he is sure that he has it right, Edward tells him that he feels as if he is trying to communicate across a huge gulf of ignorance and darkness. Carl resents being darkness, so they spar about that, then Edward begins to criticize the way that Carl makes his letters. His m’s and n’s are pointed rather than rounded, indicating aggressiveness and energy, but the fact that they are pointed at the bottom shows negative traits such as sarcasm and irritability. His capitals are small, which shows humility, and the big loops on his y’s and g’s suggest exaggeration...

(The entire section is 895 words.)