The Indian Uprising

by Donald Barthelme

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 588

Donald Barthelme constructs “The Indian Uprising” as a battle-scene progress report. However, the narrator, clearly one of the leaders of the city forces, shows none of the tactical or organizational skills of a military officer, and his fragmented account mixes very detailed front-line news, sentimental love talk, asides directed at persons about whom the reader knows nothing, information on torture methods, and so forth. There is no story here in the conventional sense, but rather a collage of smug observations leading to a surprising reversal in the final paragraph.

The title suggests that the subject at hand is the familiar material of countless American stories: Narratives of Indian uprisings have been best-sellers in the New World since the last part of the seventeenth century, and Hollywood has made countless cinematic versions by adding the complications of romantic love to the dangers of the fight. In the first paragraph, Barthelme echoes much of that mythology by implying that the city is a kind of El Dorado, with yellow-brick streets, that its main thoroughfares are named after military heroes, and that an anguished, morally aware couple will add a sophisticated philosophical inquiry on what makes “a good life.”

The coherence is soon upset. Sylvia proves at least part of the time to be fighting on the Indians’ side, and the narrator himself takes part in the torture session. However, through the accumulation of detail the story creates a collage of images, and through this collage the reader comes to know not so much the individuals’ motivations and fates as the general social reality.

First, there is city life itself. The scene could be any American metropolis, with its ghetto, heterogeneous population, and incredible accumulation of material goods. The list of objects piled in the barricade does much to describe an entire culture. The narrator, clearly well-off financially, defends the status quo in every sense and conveys the smugness of his urban class by his surprise that the ghetto dwellers join the insurgents, by his long list of live-in girlfriends (each of whom he has given a table made from a hollow-core door), by his preoccupation during the Uprising with his latest door project, his latest girlfriend (presumably a film star), and his personal development under the teacher Miss R. He is culturally sophisticated yet blind to the implications of the chaos around him and within him.

Second, the narrative plays with the conventional idea of the “initiation story.” The narrator admits early (echoing the dying words of Montaigne), “I decided I knew nothing.” His friends direct him to Miss R., who sets out to teach him the truth, “the litany,” “the hard, brown, nutlike word.” He fails to recognize the danger of her dress “containing a red figure,” and she makes his initiation an ironic one when at the end she represents the Indians’ Clemency Committee, which arrests him and presumably will torture him in turn.

Finally, the promise of a love story is withdrawn during the chaos of the narrative. Sylvia turns out to be the narrator’s enemy (many of the city “girls” find the Comanches attractive, it seems), no hint is ever given about his relationship with Jane, nor is much revealed about the female “you” of whom he speaks longingly several times. The most humorous mislead is the narrator’s connection with Miss R., who at times seems madly romantic, calling him “my boy, mon cher, my heart.” In this regard, her final demand that he strip makes wonderful irony of the whole theme of romance.

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