Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The word “wrack” came into modern English from several different sources. As a result, its meanings include destruction, the item destroyed, and that which survives destruction. Donald Barthelme’s story, like its title, brings these meanings together.

One of his frequent themes is the beginning of a love affair (as in his short story “Lightning”). A complementary theme is the ending of one, as in the divorce that lies behind “Wrack.” One commonly speaks of spouses or lovers as “breaking up,” and the breaking up of a marriage constitutes the wrack of this story. The dialogue provides suggestive evidence about many aspects of the breakup. The reader learns about the past (some happy times and a possible earlier marriage that also ended badly), the present (there appears to be no direct contact between the man and his former wife, and his son no longer visits him), and the future (sexuality is a possible consolation, but perhaps he is “too old”). Primarily, however, Barthelme appears to be interested in evoking the low-level pain of breaking up rather than its factual effects.

Another typical Barthelme theme is connected with the items mentioned by the lawyer. Barthelme is perceptive about the persistence of objects in one’s life, especially when—as here—they remain after the end of a relationship. At such a time, some once-valued objects appear merely pointless, while others are radioactive with recollections of happiness or sadness. The incoherent formlessness of such objects illustrates literally the breaking up of the relationship that once justified their collection.