Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In all of Donald Barthelme’s work, the objects of day-to-day existence are charged with meaning. In “A Shower of Gold,” Peterson’s life is trivialized by television. Peterson attempts to defend himself against the despair of modern life by donning the armor of disbelief in absurdity, only to provoke a frontal attack from an incredibly bizarre series of absurdities—from the President who wields a sledge hammer to the violent stranger who makes music from the anguish of cats.

Peterson, who sees himself as a minor artist both in his sculpture and in his life, embraces his inferior status, but at the same time believes that better things are possible for himself and his television audience. In affirming descent from royalty and the gods, he lays claim to an inheritance of dignity and self-worth that lies waiting if only modern people will acknowledge the absurd and, in so doing, escape its tyranny.

In many of his works, Barthelme blows the whistle on the age of unreason by immersing his readers in what he calls “dreck,” the ocean of trivial, pointless things that trap modern people in a sea of psychological emptiness. When Barthelme shows Peterson welding radiators and switchboard together into art, he depicts perhaps humanity’s noblest aspiration: to build order out of chaos, to chisel beauty out of the stone of ugliness, to recast the trivial into the consequential.

Peterson is Barthelme’s Everyman, so buried under the sensory overload of modern living that be cannot determine where his own insanity ends and the world’s insanity begins. In Peterson’s world, everything is equally important, so everything is equally trivial. Peterson longs for direction and some sense of priorities. He finds hope only in the reassurance of his heritage, those better times to which all people might return if they would but eschew television and the isolation it spawns. “How can you be alienated without first having been connected?” Peterson asks, as Barthelme asks in “A Shower of Gold.”