Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

What and where is Paraguay then? Although Spanish phrases occur in several places, nothing else in the story suggests a distinctly Latin American setting. Rather, what ultimately emerges is a fantastic land that resembles more than anything else a setting in the United States at around the time the story was written. Although the various sections have little apparent relationship to one another, they are united by the mocking and whimsical tone used to satirize twentieth century civilization.

The first obvious target is the fine arts and their popular manifestations. The encounter in the section “Jean Mueller,” which is the name of a woman who identifies herself as the narrator’s host, suggests a parody of a trite scene in countless films in which the protagonist meets a mysterious woman early in the film who forebodes intrigue and adventure. The section entitled “Herko Mueller” introduces the character of Jean Mueller’s husband, who is identified as a professional “arbiter of comedy.” Barthelme uses him to caricature critics who make absurd and incomprehensible rules about drama. Art as a commodity is the subject of “Rationalization,” a splendidly grotesque description of how art in Paraguay is treated as a business problem in production, shipping, and distribution. Furthermore, as the title of the section implies, art has been rationalized; that is, it has been diminished, its vitality and originality wrung out, as it is made quickly and easily available to all the citizens of Paraguay. Finally, “The Wall,” which a footnote explains is a “slightly altered” version of a passage from Charles Le Corbusier’s “The Modular” (1954), has been inserted, apparently to serve as a self-parody of architectural jargon and concepts.

Another major area for satire is science and technological progress. “Temperature,” in describing how the activity of the citizens of Paraguay is controlled by temperature changes, is a burlesque of an elaborate scientific study that measures the precise...

(The entire section is 831 words.)