Game by Donald Barthelme
In Game by Donald Barthelme we have the theme of isolation, hostility, trust, freedom, paralysis, doubt and connection. Taken from his Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts collection the story is narrated in the first person by an unnamed narrator and from the beginning of the story the reader realises that Barthelme may be exploring the theme of isolation. Shotwell is not prepared to allow the narrator to participate in his game of jacks rather he prefers to play the game alone without allowing the narrator to be involved. Also the reader discovers that both the narrator and Shotwell have been stuck in the bunker, isolated from others, for one hundred and thirty three days and it becomes clear to the reader that this isolation from the outside world has resulted in the narrator considering not only himself but Shotwell too, to be unwell. It is also interesting that while both men are in the bunker they feel the need to hold each other when attempting to sleep. This may be important as it is possible that Barthelme is suggesting that should an individual be isolated from the world around them they still have an innate need to feel comforted, reassured or connected to another human being. It is also possible that Barthelme is suggesting that it is not only individuals who may have a need to feel connected to the world around them but countries too may also have a need to feel connected to one another. Though at the time the story was published (1968) the Cold War would have been at its height and rather than the world being connected or united there was a sense of isolation or at least a sense of division particularly between America and the Soviet Union. Just as the narrator feels he may be descending into madness Barthelme may also be suggesting that the continued policy of division or non-inclusion that existed at the time between both America and the Soviet Union and the lack of any common agreement between both countries may not necessarily be a positive thing. If anything Barthelme may be suggesting that America and the Soviet Union through their desire to be considered the leading power in the world may also be on a path that many would consider to be madness (a nuclear war).
Barthelme also appears to be exploring the theme of hostility and trust or rather the lack of it. By not allowing the narrator play the game of jacks Shotwell is not only isolating the narrator but he is also ensuring that there is a degree of hostility and mistrust between himself and the narrator. This may also be important as Barthelme could again be using the characters in the story to highlight to the reader the hostility and mistrust that existed between America and the Soviet Union, again at the time the story was published. Just as the narrator may not trust Shotwell likewise America did not trust the Soviet Union. Though the narrator’s lack of trust when it comes to Shotwell is in some ways ironic as both men are supposed to be on the same side. The fact that the narrator also begins to suspect that both he and Shotwell may be part of an experiment could also be important as not only does it suggest that the narrator is beginning to have doubts as to what his true purpose in the bunker is but he may also be disillusioned with those who are in authority and may not necessarily be as trusting of them. Which is also ironic as again it would appear that the narrator does not trust those (his superiors) who are supposed to be on his side.
There is also some symbolism in the story which may be important. The bird is obvious symbolism for a missile (most likely nuclear) which in many ways is also ironic as a bird, particularly in literature, is usually associated with freedom however on this occasion Barthelme may be suggesting that rather than being used as a symbol of freedom the bird represents the capacity for destruction that existed at the height of the Cold War. It may also be symbolically important that the reader is aware that while Shotwell is playing jacks he is counting (onesies, twosies, threesies, foursies). It is possible that by providing the reader with this information Barthelme is symbolically suggesting the idea of a countdown or a period of time till the missile is actually fired. Also by having the narrator repeat himself several times throughout the story Barthelme could be highlighting not only the paralysis that exists for both the narrator and Shotwell while they are confined to the bunker but he may also be highlighting the deterioration of the narrator’s mental well-being which in all likelihood is caused by his continued isolation from others.
The title of the story is also interesting as it can refer to not only Shotwell’s playing of the game of jacks and the narrator’s desire to be allowed to play too but it is more likely that Barthelme is suggesting that the political landscape that existed at the time and the monitoring that may have taken place, by both America and the Soviet Union, may also have been treated as game-like by those in authority. Though the consequences were more severe with mutual assured destruction guaranteed for both countries should either country fire a nuclear missile at the other. The introduction of Lucy’s diamond ring may also be symbolically significant as an engagement ring would usually be used to symbolise a person’s commitment to another person or their intention to remain connected to a person. By having the narrator use the ring to write on the walls of the bunker Barthelme may be highlighting the narrator’s need to feel connected to the world or at least maintain some type of link to the world that he knows. The setting of the story may also be important as by confining both men to a small space (the bunker) Barthelme may be highlighting the lack of freedom that both men have which is also ironic as it may have been the intention of those with authority to authorize the firing of a missile, rather than taking the freedom away from its citizens (Shotwell and the narrator) may actually have intended to ensure the continued freedom of their citizens by firing a missile
The end of the story is also interesting as it would appear that both men have reached a breaking point and there is a possibility that rather than waiting for orders it is Shotwell’s belief that both he and the narrator should fire the missile. As to why Shotwell may want to do this is unclear however it is possible that Shotwell having been isolated from the outside world for so long is no longer thinking clearly or lucidly. There is also a sense that the narrator is prepared to follow Shotwell’s lead and rather than kill him as he has been instructed to do, should he notice that Shotwell is acting strangely, intends instead to help Shotwell fire the missile so that he is allowed to play a game of jacks. There is a real sense of irony at the end of the story as the responsibility for firing the missile appears to be in the hands of two men who may not be well balanced and one of them may be making his decision to fire a missile based on his desire to play a playground game. Which could be the point that Barthelme is attempting to make. Just as the narrator and Shotwell may be heading towards madness Barthelme may also be suggesting that those with a responsibility or who may have authority when it comes to the decision to fire a nuclear weapon may likewise be of unsound mind and consider their actions to be no more than a game.