Social Concerns / Themes

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 341

The Dead Father fully supports Barthelme's claim that in the contemporary age, physicist Werner Heisenberg's "uncertainty principle is our song of songs." Although his treatment of the necessity of living in a permanent state of uncertainty is comic, Barthelme's undermining of all forms of authority and authoritative discourse is just as serious as it is playful. His novel grotesquely exaggerates the father's size only to better emphasize his ridiculousness as a caricature of Freudian Oedipal conflict. The Dead Father everywhere implies what one passage in the inserted "A Manual for Sons" makes explicit:

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Your true task, as a son, is to reproduce every one of the enormities touched upon in this manual, but in attenuated form. You must become your father, but a paler, weaker version of him. The enormities go with the job, but close study will allow you to perform the job less well than it has previously been done, thus moving towards a golden age of decency, quiet, and calmed fevers . . . Fatherhood can be, if not conquered, at least 'turned down' in this generation — by the combined efforts of all of us together.

The novel undermines not only the authority of the symbolic father (Freudian, Christian, social, and political) but of males in general, of the author (who diffuses his presence and thus defuses his power to control the narrative and the reader's understanding of it), of meaning (the entire novel trembles on the edge not of significance, which it anticipates and thus short-circuits, but of silliness) and, as in Snow White's questionnaire, of the authority of the reader who carries his or her own dead father in the form of antiquated modes of reading and understanding. What the novel ultimately offers in the place of all it debunks is not the golden age promised in "A Manual for Sons" but a clearer perception of the factitiousness of all framing devices. Momentary delights to be found, or rather made, within the acceptance of limitations include limited redemption and reinvigoration, achieved by means of "the sweet sensuality of language."

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