Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 452

The narrator’s autobiographical revelations bear a strong resemblance to the author’s own life. Like his protagonist, Donald Barthelme was a brilliant student at a Gulf Coast university (the University of Houston) in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, was drafted and served in Korea, returned to civilian life as a writer and editor for his alma mater, and by the early 1960’s had moved to New York, staking his career on his unconventional, radically creative intellect and imagination. Given this sort of clear authorial presence in the story, as well as the quirky incisiveness of the narrator’s commentary, the reader may reasonably enough identify the narrator with the author.

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It is probably more accurate to think of the narrator as a persona, or character mask, through which the author speaks (and thus the “you” to whom the narrative is addressed is also the reader in addition to some hypothetical listener within the story). The effect of montage, or overlapped planes of meaning, is central to Barthelme’s method and outlook. Nothing is ever quite literally itself in a Barthelme story, because, for the author, fact and illusion, appearance and reality are not absolute, mutually exclusive categories. Truth, if it can be known at all, must be approached obliquely through satire, irony, and ambiguity. Thus, the author leads the reader, like Alice through the looking glass, into a strange world of wacky events and imaginings, non sequiturs, and unsettling parody of contemporary society.

The thematically most significant aspect of the story lies in its application to the U.S. quest to reach the moon in the 1960’s. Published in 1966, on the eve of the Apollo program, which led to the lunar landings three years later, the story raises fundamental questions about the nature of this quest—the motives involved; the unforeseen dangers and consequences to human society; the mythic dimension of the whole enterprise. Such concerns tend to be obscured within the community of technical expertise because of its preoccupation with method and quantitative judgment—not the “why” of things, but the “how.” In this story, Gregory (the promising MIT student) clearly is identified with this community. However, his competence in arcane subjects such as “electron-spin-resonance spectroscopy” is ironically undercut by the naïveté and urgency of his personal quest for self-knowledge. The narrator, in contrast, knows that all mortals are fallible; that the truth is never quite as clear-cut as the scientific approach assumes; and that even the current technological quest for the moon is really an aspect of humankind’s age-old fascination with the heavens. Thus, his “moonstruck” obsession with the moon may be more “sane” than is the scientist’s linear, one-dimensional understanding of this momentous undertaking.

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