Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“A Poetics for Bullies” subverts the generic boy’s story, exemplified by the works of Thomas Hughes and Horatio Alger, in order to depict the destructive, antisocial forces underlying the growth and affirmation of the self. Although the protagonist, Push, characterizes himself as “the incarnation of envy and jealousy and need,” he nevertheless fulfills the classic role of hero by confronting a superior adversary and prevailing through determination, grit, and ingenuity. Ironically, Push gains a deeper and more mature sense of self—the goal espoused by conventional pedagogical literature as a crucial step in the socialization process—but does so only by rejecting society and holding fast to his own antisocial characteristics.

Insecurity plagues the protagonist of a typical boy’s story, and Push’s initial covetousness betrays a longing to be other than he is. Stanley Elkin ironically has Push mask his adolescent uneasiness in a declaration of a love for the American ideal. “Do you know what makes me cry?” he asks, innocently; “’The Declaration of Independence.’ ’All men are created equal.’ That’s beautiful.” In Push’s immature view, the democratic society is a safe haven from the isolating effects of his own differences.

In the midst of the final, climactic confrontation with John Williams, Push no longer yearns to escape from himself. He says, as if emerging with a new acceptance of his own characteristics,...

(The entire section is 414 words.)