Snow White is the first of Barthelme’s four novels and is one of his most lucid works of any length, largely by virtue of the clarity with which he indicates to the reader at all points what it is that he is doing—or rather, what he is avoiding. The work includes references to what is being avoided so that the reader is aware of the avoidance.
Every reader knows the characters of the standard version of the fairy tale: Snow White, the handsome prince of whom she dreams, the wicked stepmother, and the seven dwarves who live in the forest and with whom Snow White finds refuge. Indeed, all of these have their equivalents in the characters of Barthelme’s version, along with several others not in the fairy tale. In this version of the story, Snow White is twenty-two, lives with seven men with whom she regularly has unsatisfying sex in the shower, and seems to have confused herself with Rapunzel from another fairy story, as she continually sits at her window with her hair hanging out. Her dwarves have modern names such as Bill (the leader), Clem, Edward, and Dan, and they suffer from a series of ailments, of which the most important seems to be that Bill no longer wishes to be touched. During the day, the seven men work in a Chinese baby-food factory.
The closest thing this retelling of the tale has to a prince is a man named Paul, who does not seem to want to fulfill his role of prince. Avoiding Snow White, he puts in time in a monastery in Nevada, goes to Spain, and joins the Thelemite order of monks. Ultimately he does end up near Snow White but only as a Peeping Tom in a bunker before her house, armed with binoculars. The story’s version of the wicked queen is named Jane; she writes poison-pen letters and ultimately makes Snow White a poisoned drink, which Paul drinks instead. He dies. There is another character named Hogo (for which there is not a prototype in the fairy tale), who makes a play for Snow White. She rejects him, but he ends up taking on the role of chief dwarf, which Bill has vacated.
The underlying point of the contrast generated by these modernized versions of the fairy-tale characters is clearly that which was the point of Joyce’s version of Ulysses, namely, that there are no heroes today. This, in fact, forms the center of the personality problem both of Paul, who does not want to act like a prince although he is one, and of Snow White, who is unsure about the nature of her role as Snow White: She continues to long for a prince, but at the same time she feels it necessary to undertake the writing of a lengthy (pornographic) poem that constitutes her attempt to “find herself.”
Snow White is a somewhat more accessible work than many of Barthelme’s short stories, partly because its greater length dilutes the quotations and echoes of philosophers, and partly because the use of the well-known story as a prototype gives the reader a sense of a larger structure. This frame also clears some space for Barthelme to fill with his verbal jokes, most of which are directed at pointing out to the reader how language constructs that which people take to be reality. The book also abounds in the same kind of mindless repetition of stock phrases by characters that characterizes “A Shower of Gold” and which was partly explained by “The Educational Experience.”
Snow White wrestles with cognitive incongruence as she craves physical intimacy but also worries about her social reputation. She experiences episodic bouts of mental illness manifested by these conflicting emotions and repressed behaviors. During one such episode, she secretly scribes a four-page poem and speaks only the words from Chinese fortunes in an attempt to reconcile herself. She displays further cognitive incongruence with naïve innocence as she seeks a prince and a romantic happily ever after, yet, she lives in a perverse menagerie with characters who serve to appease her lust and distract her urges with abstract art and words she has not heard...
(The entire section is 1,405 words.)