Study Guide

Snow White

by Donald Barthelme

Snow White Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Snow White is the first of Barthelme’s four novels and is one of his most lucid works of any length, largely by virtue of the clarity with which he indicates to the reader at all points what it is that he is doing—or rather, what he is avoiding. The work includes references to what is being avoided so that the reader is aware of the avoidance.

Every reader knows the characters of the standard version of the fairy tale: Snow White, the handsome prince of whom she dreams, the wicked stepmother, and the seven dwarves who live in the forest and with whom Snow White finds refuge. Indeed, all of these have their equivalents in the characters of Barthelme’s version, along with several others not in the fairy tale. In this version of the story, Snow White is twenty-two, lives with seven men with whom she regularly has unsatisfying sex in the shower, and seems to have confused herself with Rapunzel from another fairy story, as she continually sits at her window with her hair hanging out. Her dwarves have modern names such as Bill (the leader), Clem, Edward, and Dan, and they suffer from a series of ailments, of which the most important seems to be that Bill no longer wishes to be touched. During the day, the seven men work in a Chinese baby-food factory.

The closest thing this retelling of the tale has to a prince is a man named Paul, who does not seem to want to fulfill his role of prince. Avoiding Snow White, he puts in time in a...

(The entire section is 598 words.)

Snow White Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Snow White wrestles with cognitive incongruence as she craves physical intimacy but also worries about her social reputation. She experiences episodic bouts of mental illness manifested by these conflicting emotions and repressed behaviors. During one such episode, she secretly scribes a four-page poem and speaks only the words from Chinese fortunes in an attempt to reconcile herself. She displays further cognitive incongruence with naïve innocence as she seeks a prince and a romantic happily ever after, yet, she lives in a perverse menagerie with characters who serve to appease her lust and distract her urges with abstract art and words she has not heard before.

These seven characters are “dwarfed” by Snow White, who equates all seven of them to only two whole men. Moreover, she does not consider them as men in the conjugal sense, even though they stimulate her in the shower and accompany her to bed at night as she dons black vinyl lingerie in the privacy of her boudoir. For the most part, the men respect and try to protect Snow White. They work and earn a sizable income cleaning buildings, making plastic buffalo humps, and tending vats of Chinese baby food (a recipe and legacy handed down by their father, of whom little is known). They worry about Snow White as they venture out in the red-light district to satisfy their own lust in a psychedelic sea of women. One of them feels twinges of guilt but justifies their behavior as betrayal not to Snow White but to the shower.

Bill is the leader of the seven, a strong personality who grows tired of and even sickened by Snow White’s behavior. Her long black hair, which she hangs out the window to dry, triggers in Bill some repressed memories of childhood trauma involving scoutmasters who had threatened him. The scouts had told him the story of a black horse who would devour him in his sleep for disobeying their directives. (They had told Bill to use mud to clean the camp cookware.) Bill later confronts...

(The entire section is 807 words.)