(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 588 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“The Indian Uprising” is Barthelme’s vision of a world under siege, of civilization defined as perennially under attack from the forces of disorder that have entered into its very streets and define its mode of existence. The characters alternate an artistic café life with moments in which they torture and interrogate the Indians. The unnamed protagonist, referred to only in the first-person voice, asks a woman identified as Sylvia whether she thinks they are leading a good life. Her answer is in the negative, yet neither the protagonist nor the story suggests a means by which that life could be altered.

While the siege continues, the protagonist, whose descriptions of cafés and nightlife echo those of Ernest Hemingway writing of Paris, discusses the situation with a number of people, mixing battle reports with references to the nineteenth century French composer Gabriel Fauré, echoes of the so-called hyacinth girl in Eliot’s The Waste Land, and quotations from William Shakespeare. He stops to analyze the composition of one of the barricades (which results in a lengthy list of detritus); his conclusion is that he knows nothing. His main occupation, however, seems to be making a table.

One of his companions, a Miss R., echoes the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and discourses on the nature of words. A cavalry regiment plays music from a series of Italian composers in streets named for American military heroes (in the fashion of streets and squares in Normandy). At the end, the Indians may have completely penetrated the city, but it seems as if the protagonist is readying himself to enter prison (he is asked for his belt and shoelaces), and in any case it may not matter.

This mixture of places and times seems intended to focus attention on the only thing that ties them all together: the fact that for the inhabitants of this city, torture and battle have become normal and are integrated into daily existence. Life has become defined as the response to a threat and would have no meaning without it. On a general level, this can be read as a repetition of Sigmund Freud’s insistence that civilization is founded on repression. On a more specific level, it may be a portrait of a society that could not exist without its mobilization in war.


(Short Stories for Students)

‘‘The Indian Uprising’’ is told with a limited plot, consisting primarily of the observations, memories, and insights of an unnamed...

(The entire section is 820 words.)