Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

This unemotional verbal encounter between street people appears devoid of deeper meaning. It happens in the present, and there is no beginning or ending as in a typical short story. As one tries to make sense out of what has been written, one theme begins to emerge: that racial stereotypes are foolish.

The title introduces the main symbol in the work. Margins are the actual areas around the writing on Carl’s sign, but Edward makes them symbolize those pretentious ideas that people often have as answers to life’s problems. In a sense, margins also help delineate the narrowness of perception that people have about each other. Furthermore, these two characters might be called marginal human beings. They are outside the mainstream of society, so their allusions to literature and to psychological self-help books seem out of place.

The two characters are readers, an unexpected trait in street people. Carl has read Marcel and an avant-garde modern author named John Hawkes, who, like Donald Barthelme himself, does fragmentary sketches that have been called artistic lunacy. One assumes that Edward reads only self-help books until Carl refers to François Villon’s ideas on stealing and Edward shoots back, “Is that in ’If I Were King’?”—referring to a poem that was done to resemble Villon’s “Ballad of Dead Ladies.”

The fact that nothing is revealed about the background of these characters, except what is written on Carl’s sign, makes the reader almost painfully aware of the incongruities and prejudices of modern life and sharpens the images in this story. Both men deal with each other using stereotypes, although reality tells them that stereotypes do not apply here. As they talk, neither really processes what the other says. It might be said that this is a description of late twentieth century life in the United States.

At the end, each man gives the other a backhanded slap to the face, a probable insult. It would certainly be an odd way to show friendliness.