A City of Churches by Donald Barthelme
In A City of Churches by Donald Barthelme we have the theme of acceptance, conformity, reliance, religion, paralysis and independence. Taken from his Sadness collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and after reading the story the reader realises that Barthelme may be exploring the theme of acceptance and conformity. None of the characters in the story, with the exception of Cecelia, appear to question whether it is normal or reasonable for their lives to be so heavily associated with the churches in the town. Rather they seem to completely embrace or believe it to be not only acceptable but also right that their lives are so entwined with the churches. Something that is noticeable when the reader discovers that the barber shop in Prester is located within a church. Similarly one of the restaurants in the town is also located within a church. This may be important as Barthelme could be suggesting not only do the people of Prester accept their relationship with the churches in the town and in turn their relationship with religion but that they are also prepared to conform to the accepted norms that exist within the town, that being a strong involvement of the church in an individual’s life. At no stage in the story do any of the characters (again with the exception of Cecelia) consider their own personal association or any of the associations that some of the businesses in the town have with the churches to be improper or non-progressive to either the individual or to commerce in general.
It may also be significant that the Board of Education are also housed within a church as Barthelme could be highlighting that though the board has a responsibility to educate the children (and future leaders) in the town they may not necessarily have the ability to do so, particularly if they continue to associate themselves to the churches in the town. Rather than having the capacity to educate someone free of religious persuasion, by being housed in a church it is possible that the Board of Education may be also answerable to those who run the church and as such may have to teach in accordance with the doctrine of that particular church. Which suggests that one of the fundamentals that is usually associated with education, teaching an individual to think for themselves, may not necessarily be something that is promoted within the Board of Education again due to its possible reliance to teach as the doctrine of the church may suggest. If anything Barthelme could be suggesting that each individual who lives in Prester or who runs a business in the town may be paralysed or may lack the ability to think for themselves outside the confines of the churches in town. It is also noticeable that each individual in Prester lives in a church which suggests the possibility that each individual in the town is also reliant on the churches for housing. It also seems to be a case that it is normal for people to live in the churches. Rather than find their own accommodation and grow and prosper on their own terms each individual has some association or connection to the churches in Prester which again suggests that those who live and work in Prester are reliant on the churches in the town.
Barthelme also appears to be exploring the theme of independence. Throughout the story Cecelia continues to ask Mr. Phillips questions and appears to have the ability to not only think for herself but to also formulate her own opinion. This may be important as it suggests that Cecelia has the capacity to live her life independently of others or outside the accepted norms that appear to exist in Prester. The fact that Cecelia also tells Mr. Phillips that a place of her own in Prester is ‘essential if I am to survive here’ may also be important as by introducing this line into the story Barthelme may be further suggesting that Cecelia values her independence and though she may wish to be a part of life in Prester and open a business in the town she may also want to do so on her own terms. It may also be significant that when Mr. Phillips asks Cecelia what denomination she is her reply is ‘I can will my dreams.’ It is possible that by including this line into the story that Barthelme is suggesting that rather than adhering to any particular denomination, as each individual in Prester does, Cecelia does not associate herself to any religion which again suggests that Cecelia has the ability to live independently of others or at least choose her own path in life.
The most obvious symbolism in the story is the churches which Barthelme may be using to symbolise religion and by having so many churches in Prester, Barthelme could be highlighting how reliant an individual may be on the church (or religion) not only in Prester but in America too. It is also possible, particularly if the reader bears in mind when the story was published (1972 at the height of the cold war), that Barthelme is suggesting that rather than criticizing the totalitarianism or subservience to the state that may have existed in Russia, again at the time the story was published, America as a country may also need to look inwards or reflect on its own heavy reliance or subservience to religion. The fact that Cecelia intends to open a car rental business may also be symbolically important as for the majority of people the purpose of a car whether it is a rental or not is to go from one place to another. By having Mr Phillips suggest that those who live in Prester have no need for a car rental business it is possible that Barthelme is suggesting that for the majority of people in the town things will not change. They will in essence be going nowhere which further suggests the possibility of a continued paralysis for the people of Prester. The bells that Cecelia encounters in the loft of one of the churches may also have some symbolic significance. Just as Cecelia thinks that they are impractical or out of place in the loft Barthelme may also be suggesting that religion itself has no place in an individual’s life. The fact that Mr. Phillips considers Prester to be a ‘perfect’ town may also be significant as Barthelme could be highlighting that for some people in Prester (or America) religion and an individual’s involvement with religion is essential or required for a person to believe that they can live their life in perfection. Though the reality may be that perfection for anybody regardless of which path they follow in life is not necessarily achievable.
The ending of the story is also interesting as Barthelme appears to be further exploring the theme of conformity and independence. When Cecelia leaves the church with Mr. Phillips a young man shouts ‘Everyone in this town already has a car! There is no one in this town who doesn’t have a car.’ This line is important for several reasons. Firstly by describing the man as being young Barthelme may be suggesting that Prester continues to grow or develop as it is (a predominately religious town) and rather than young people in the town questioning things they too like the older residents in Prester accept the status quo and conform to the accepted norms of the town. Whether these norms are correct is left to the reader to decide. Some may think that religion has no place in an individual’s life while others may suggest that religion provides meaning and understanding to a person’s life. The second reason this line is important is that the young man also appears to be directly attempting to make sure that Cecelia does not stay in the town which would suggest not only hostility towards Cecelia but that the young man does not have the capacity to change or to allow change in Prester, which would further highlight that each individual in Prester remains paralysed. The fact that Cecelia also tells Mr. Phillips that ‘I’ll dream the life you are most afraid of’ also suggests that unlike Mr. Phillips and the other residents in Prester, Cecelia continues to have the ability to think for herself and live independently of others without the need to associate herself with any church or religion.