Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby

by Donald Barthelme
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Analysis

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Last Reviewed 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.

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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.

Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 715

The story includes many traditional elements of a fable: simple, straightforward narration; one-dimensional characters; uncomplicated, black-and-white logic; and a morally satisfying, didactic ending. However, unlike classic fables, which teach useful lessons, in this story the gap between the extreme action (hanging) and the vague offense it purports to correct (going “too far”) makes it difficult to take the lesson literally, or even, it would seem, seriously.

Colby is told to “be reasonable,” to conform to the commonsense norm of his friends. Reasonableness does indeed seem to be one of the group’s leading traits, as is seen in their even-tempered discussion of the numerous practical arrangements for the hanging, with its democratic weighing of pros and cons. However, reason in the service of brutality is reason debased. While they may be reasonable about some matters, for example in providing a tent in case of rain, they are notably unreasonable about others, as when concern for protecting a tree ironically obscures concern for human life. The friends appear to be logical as well as reasonable, moving directly from cause to effect (“And now he’d gone too far, so we decided to hang him”). Their logic, however, is as perverted as their reasoning. After all, they never consider any form of punishment less extreme than murder. The speciousness of this logic originates in the subtle capacity of language as they use it to disguise the nature of reality; hence their self-deluding wit, as when Colby jokes about his friends being “a little Draconian.” In the hands of this group, both language and logic are distorted, as if in illustration of George Orwell’s famous dictum that “if thought corrupts language, language can corrupt thought.”

The alliance of pseudologic and clever wordplay produces an artificial matter-of-factness of tone, a jocose, tongue-in-cheek collusion between readers and the future murderers that invites the reader to play along with the absurd notion of this hanging as social ritual, as wedding/graduation party/Bar Mitzvah. Rather than feel repulsion or moral outrage at the impending killing, readers find themselves worrying about the affair along with Howard, Victor, Hugh, and the others, sympathetically identifying with their concerns about unpredictable weather, transporting guests, and exceeding the budget.

The reader shares Paul’s distaste for having Colby jump off a chair (“that would look . . . extremely tacky—some old kitchen chair sitting out there under our beautiful tree”) and approves Tomas’s considered judgment that instead Colby should stand on a large rubber ball that “would afford a sufficient ’drop’ and would also roll out of the way if [he] suddenly changed his mind after jumping off.” After the party, the reader rejoices with the hosts that “it didn’t rain, the event was well attended, and we didn’t run out of Scotch, or anything.” Thus caught up in the group’s practical concerns narrated in a flat, unemotional manner, the reader is lulled into forgetting the viciousness of their act of “friendship.” Ordinariness of tone and focus on the mundane mask the grotesque; the reader responds uncritically by finding it palatable and involving.

It is a sly maneuver on Barthelme’s part that he winds up placing the reader in the position of Colby’s friends. Just as their distorted, inside-out “reason” carries them inexorably from one decision to the next, their humor and mock logic obscure rational thinking and overcome moral faculties so that the reader, too, tolerates and enjoys the perpetration of a legally indefensible, morally repugnant act. In fact, more than merely identifying with the characters in the story, Barthelme suggests, readers actually mimic them, for in much the same way they are gulled by the reasoning and behavior of Colby’s friends, they passively accept and comply with the actions of a government that also on occasion tends to “go too far.” The fable thus operates on more than one level. Literally, it may be absurd, a game, an entertainment, but despite the dislike of the present age for moral teaching, it also speaks to a particular condition of the world. At the end, the fable presents the moral learned by Colby’s surviving friends, but since Barthelme has inveigled his readers into recognizing that they share the friends’ capacity for easy self-delusion, it offers a lesson to everyone.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 172

Barthelme, Helen Moore. Donald Barthelme: The Genesis of a Cool Sound. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2001.

Gordon, Lois. Donald Barthelme. Boston: Twayne, 1981.

Hudgens, Michael Thomas. Donald Barthelme: Postmodernist American Writer. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2001.

Klinkowitz, Jerome. Donald Barthelme: An Exhibition. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991.

McCaffery, Larry. The Metafictional Muse: The Works of Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, and William H. Gass. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982.

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

Olsen, Lance, ed. Review of Contemporary Fiction 11 (Summer, 1991).

Patteson, Richard F., ed. Critical Essays on Donald Barthelme. New York: G. K. Hall, 1992.

Roe, Barbara L. Donald Barthelme: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1992.

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

Trachtenberg, Stanley. Understanding Donald Barthelme. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.

Waxman, Robert. “Apollo and Dionysus: Donald Barthelme’s Dance of Life.” Studies in Short Fiction 33 (Spring, 1996): 229-243.

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