Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 596
The Bumblebee Flies Anyway has another institutional setting (a hospital, as in I Am the Cheese), but there is perhaps a larger glimmer of hope, for the focus of the novel is on the meaning that the individual can make of his own life, in spite of overwhelming odds—in this case, imminent death.
As in I Am the Cheese, the tension is almost unbearable. Barney Snow is in “the Complex,” his name for a hospital for the incurably ill, but he does not know why he is there, for he is clearly not ill. All he knows for certain is that he is part of an experiment, as are the other young patients around him, and is being administered drugs under the careful supervision of the person he calls “the Handyman,” Dr. Lakendorp. The story of the novel is Barney’s attempt to piece together his past and with it the reasons that he is there.
His story is also tied up with the lives of the other terminally ill patients in his ward, such as Mazzo, Billy, and others. Barney falls in love with Mazzo’s sister, Cassie, who comes to visit her twin brother but who uses Barney for her own ends, and the relationship actually provides some relief from the clinical setting. Barney is also fascinated with “the bumblebee,” a wooden mock-up of a sports car that sits in a lot next to the hospital. When Barney finally discerns the truth—that he is just as ill as all the other patients there and is a victim of medical experiments to make him forget his past, including his earlier hospitalization—he gets the car to the roof of the hospital and makes elaborate plans to give Mazzo one last ride.
Mazzo dies in Barney’s arms, however, and Barney lets the bumblebee fly off the roof empty, in the dramatic high point of the novel and in a conclusion that gives readers some release from the gloom that has preceded it. The flight of the car becomes Barney’s transcendence from this life and from the pain and suffering that surround him.
Although The Bumblebee Flies Anyway resembles I Am the Cheese and The Chocolate War most in its bleak setting and mood, it also resembles them in its theme, the struggle of the individual to stay alive and to beat the system in even the most dire circumstances. In an institution that (under the guise of scientific experimentation to lessen suffering) is actually playing callously with human life, Barney frees himself and perhaps others; he cannot beat death (as no one can), but he helps his friend Mazzo, and his own end is clearly brightened by what he has been able to accomplish. Like Randle P. McMurphy in Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), another novel about men trapped in inhuman institutions, Barney Snow leaves a heroic echo for readers.
Cormier’s gift is his ability to sustain the tension, and reader interest, amid subjects so morbid and themes so heavy. There are problems with the novel—with characterization, for example; Cassie never really comes alive for readers as she so clearly does for Barney, and Dr. Lakendorp remains a monster instead of a human being throughout the book. Most of the elements in the novel, however, help to reinforce the powerful and poignant story. Like the most significant of contemporary adult titles, The Bumblebee Flies Anyway brings up significant social problems, not only the issue of death, for example, but also the question of medical ethics.