(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Donald Barthelme is best known for his short fiction. Unlike traditional stories that concentrate on creating characters in a fictive world with which the reader can readily identify, Barthelme creates language objects that are self-conscious of themselves as language. Barthelme’s stories are full of parody, irony, and an infectious playfulness. The critic Wayne Stengel groups Barthelme’s stories into four major categories: identity stories, such as “Me and Miss Mandible,” communication stories, such as “On the Steps of the Conservatory,” society stories, such as “Report,” and art objects such as “At the Tolstoy Museum.” Another critic, Charles Molesworth, places Barthelme’s stories into five different categories: total incoherency, such as “Bone Bubbles,” the surreal place, such as “Paraguay,” the counterpointed plot, such as “Daumier,” the extended conceit, such as “Sentence,” and parodies of narrative structure, such as “The Glass Mountain.”

Barthelme’s early collections introduce the reader to the basic collage technique that becomes the mainstay of his fiction construction. He refines his strategies in his later collections, but he never abandons them. Guilty Pleasures and his posthumous The Teachings of Don B. contain pieces that come as close as Barthleme ever gets to traditional parody and satire. Barthelme’s playful, sophisticated technique attempts to reinvent fiction as a relevant...

(The entire section is 432 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Molesworth, Charles. Donald Barthelme’s Fiction: The Ironist Saved from Drowning. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1982.

Roe, Barbara. Donald Barthelme. Boston: Twayne, 1992.

Stengel, Wayne B. The Shape of Art in the Short Stories of Donald Barthelme. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985.