Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby

by Donald Barthelme

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 354

"Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby" is a short story by Donald Barthelme. The premise of the story is that Colby is set to be hanged by his intellectual, sophisticated, upper-class friends, who are all men. Colby's transgression is that he has "gone too far." In the beginning, this seems like a ridiculously vague reason to execute someone, but later on in the story examples are given as to how he has "gone too far." However, these reasons are just as absurd. For instance, Colby's suggestion regarding music was deemed unacceptable and this behavior further reinforced their decision to execute Colby.

The first thing that one notices is that the executioners are all intelligent and seemingly reasonable. The group of "friends" are made up of various professionals. However, the message that the author is trying to articulate is that even normal, sophisticated members of the bourgeoisie are capable of murder. This was exemplified in Nazi Germany, where brilliant practicing doctors like Josef Mengele became a participant in terrible human rights violations. Likewise, in the American South, there exists photographs of clean-cut, professional-looking people smiling in front of a man hanging from a tree branch, executed by a mob. Colby's so-called friends might be educated and cultured, but they exhibit psychopathic behaviors even in the absurdist context of the play's premise.

The other subtext in the story is the question of morality. The reasoning of the mob provokes deep philosophical questions about the law, the penal system, the judiciary system and capital punishment. Since people create laws, why would it be wrong for Colby's comrades to create their own laws and codes of morality? Who is to say that "going too far" could not be punishable by death? In a sense, the mob who is planning to hang Colby represents the jury system. After all, Colby's friends are literally a jury of his peers; they are a reflection of him and it is they who will make the final judgement regarding his life. Like an actual jury in a courtroom, the mob is made up of people from various backgrounds and professions.

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