Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Donald Barthelme’s stories recurrently take up the theme of the incomplete life. Usually the life is incomplete because the protagonist lacks someone to love and be loved by. The story either develops that kind of life or, as in “Lightning” finds for the protagonist the woman he has sought. Barthelme, however, seldom has in mind a long-term relationship. The emphasis is put, rather, on the excitement, the novelty, and the anticipation evoked by awakened desire and the sense of unspecified possibilities.

Connors is characterized as deserving and ripe for such a discovery. He is enthusiastic, hardworking, and open to change. He was a good reporter in the old days and brought those qualities even to the reporting of business news. Though the public relations job dampened his enthusiasm, he was still “very fond” of the company’s amiable chief executive officer. The reader sees him eagerly doing research on his struck-by-lightning project and sympathetic to the kindly people he encounters but not to the Nazi bigot.

Edwina is presented as Connors’s ideal woman. Of his wife, the reader learns only that she complained about the low pay of his reporter’s job and that the public relations salary permitted him to enjoy “briefly” his wife’s “esteem.” On the other hand, Edwina is beautiful and amusing and undemanding. Her first name suggests that she is Edward Connors’s counterpart, while her black femininity complements his white masculinity. Best of all, perhaps, their relationship has progressed only to the hopeful moment of the offered back rub when the story ends; there is no suggestion of any letdown or boredom to come.