Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 883

If paragraph 100 disrupts—without remedy—any conventional themes and meanings, what does Donald Barthelme, perhaps the leading postmodernist writer in the United States, mean by this “story”? What theme threads through it, what label defines this work? Barthelme himself resisted using conventional labels for his texts, preferring to call them “whatchacallits,”...

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If paragraph 100 disrupts—without remedy—any conventional themes and meanings, what does Donald Barthelme, perhaps the leading postmodernist writer in the United States, mean by this “story”? What theme threads through it, what label defines this work? Barthelme himself resisted using conventional labels for his texts, preferring to call them “whatchacallits,” or “an Itself.” Critics who examine the work of the postmodernists say, aptly enough, that the theme of their fiction is fiction itself.

In only four and a half pages of one hundred numbered paragraphs, “The Glass Mountain” presents a fiction that examines the need for rejuvenated literary conventions. In doing this, Barthelme engages readers in linguistic play, baiting them to try proving that his text “can-too” be labeled with conventional terms, that it “does-too” express conventional themes and meanings. Takers of the bait lose. Deliberately, Barthelme designs slippery surface themes and meanings for his fictions so that they will avoid producing traditional forms, teasing traditionalists with layered text that suggests, but will not fulfill, multiple conventional themes.

In “The Glass Mountain” the fairy-tale theme works for ninety of the one hundred paragraphs before it falls apart. The climber’s observations of the streets below suggest social realism as a possible theme for the story; however, it, too, fails. In both cases, it is paragraph 100 that completely disrupts and denies the plausibility of either conventional theme because Barthelme makes the eagle central to any reading of “meaning” in the story. Paragraphs 58-60 provide that meaning, stating that the narrator risks climbing the glass mountain in order to “disenchant [a literary] symbol,” but that the late twentieth century’s “stronger egos still need symbols.” To accomplish this theme, the climber must reach the castle, and the tale-within-the-tale establishes an eagle as his means of access. Without an eagle, no conventional meaning exists: The story fractures its own internal conventions. The text’s last words, “Nor are eagles plausible, not at all, not for a moment,” leave for analysis the actual meaning of this whatchacallit: the standard fiction-about-fiction theme of postmodern texts.

Barthelme builds this theme on a writer new to the neighborhood and bent on climbing the mountain of conventional literature to disenchant the dictates of literary tradition. He hints that traditional literature has a dearth of symbols for the “stronger egos” of postmodern society (in the story, his “acquaintances”). The story views these vulgar, mean, waspish people sympathetically, treating them to just over a quarter of his text, while disdaining other people who come, seemingly to laud the mountain, giving them but an eighth of the paragraphs. In back-to-back paragraphs, two ambiguous—and possibly slanderous—references to those people demonstrate the trickiness of finding meaning in this story: In two short paragraphs the narrator (having said, “Everyone in the city knows about the glass mountain,”) says, “People who live here tell stories about it. It is pointed out to visitors.”

The meaning of both paragraphs seems crystal clear, but in juxtaposition, because the climber plans to “disenchant” canonical literature at its source, they raise questions: Does the first mean that people who promote the canon (canon makers) tell its stories, or does it mean they tell lies to protect it? Does the second mean tours to the canon are given to “tourists” (students), or does it mean tourists/students are given warning about the lies canon makers/protectors tell? Such is the slippery nature of theme and meaning in “The Glass Mountain.”

Read as a theme about fiction-making, all one hundred paragraphs fit comfortably together. Perhaps the theme means, as Barthelme seems to make clear, that no rules should be placed on how humanity uses imagination to produce fiction. In paragraph 87, he quotes English writer and critic John Masefield: “In some centuries, his [humankind’s] imagination has made life an intense practice of all the lovelier energies.” To Barthelme, creativity (companion of imagination) comes from the unconscious and provides any “magic” found in fiction. Ruled by conventions, fiction is, of necessity, produced and framed by conscious acts. By Barthelme’s definition, then, it can have no magic. The fact that the narrator’s thoughts turn, specifically, on literature and its conventions in a third of the text supports the validity of this theme.

If disenchantment with authoritative canonical control is the theme, problematic paragraph 100 makes sense, as the narrator uses the conventions of canonical form to enable himself to reach and liberate its enchanted symbol (paragraphs 97-99). In paragraph 100, a shift in narrative voice distances readers from the story to present its moral: Literature must be rejuvenated, allowed new realities, and made accessible to postmodern people who still need symbols that literature best provides. To convey a moral, Barthelme borrows and erases the most authoritative symbol available—the eagle—depicting it as lean-headed (bald) and ruby-eyed. As the story’s single designated escort to the archives of canonical literature and sole guardian of its captive symbol, these adjectives suggest that the eagle has been invested with excessive power, both political (guard duty) and economic. It thus appears safe to suggest that this story’s theme is liberation of literature from the cumulative authority of convention that controls access to the high tower of literary aspiration. It is that eagle as symbol of authoritative control, not a fairy-tale princess, Barthelme’s story disenchants.

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