I Bought a Little City by Donald Barthelme

I Bought a Little City - Donald BarthelmeIn I Bought a Little City by Donald Barthelme we have the theme of aspiration, independence, freedom, control and reality. Taken from his Amateurs collection the story is narrated in the first person by an unnamed narrator and after reading the story the reader realises that Barthelme may be exploring the theme of control. Throughout the story there is a sense that the narrator (with the help of others) is attempting to control or reshape the landscape of Galveston. Not only does he knock down entire blocks of buildings but he also seems to have the ability to tell the local law enforcement officers what to do. An example of this is when he tells one police officer to get him some chicken. If anything rather than running a democracy the narrator is acting as if he were a dictator. All changes made in the city, including the shooting of six thousand dogs, is to suit his own interests. What is also interesting is that despite the narrator’s desire to control everything, he is unable to control the residents in the city. This is noticeable when he falls in love with Sam Hong’s wife. However his love remains unrequited.

This may be important as Barthelme may be suggesting that it is easier for an individual (or an organisation) to control the development of a city. Its design and shape. Yet when it comes to an individual, control is not as easy. It may also be important that Sam Hong’s wife is never named. She is simply described as Sam Hong’s wife. It is possible that by not naming her Barthelme is suggesting symbolically that she belongs to someone else and not to the narrator. Who the reader is aware owns the city though not necessarily any of the inhabitants of the city. Though the narrator appears to be running a dictatorship (control of the newspaper included) he has no control over the freedom of those who live in the city. It may also be important that there are some residents in Galveston who like the narrator have aspirations that many would consider to be grandiose or impractical. An example of this is the layout of the houses and streets that are designed by Bill Caulfield. Though some residents appreciate the design there are others who prefer a more normal layout. This may be important as it suggests that for some in the city their individuality remains intact. They are not prepared to adhere to the plans and structures put in place by either the narrator or Bill Caulfield. They remain independent.

Which may be the point that Barthelme is attempting to make. No matter how much control an individual (or organisation) has over another individual there will still be some people who will be determined to remain independent of those around them. The reality being that it is impossible to control an entire population of a city or a country. Sam Hong’s wife being a prime example of this. As too is the man who challenges the narrator for shooting his dog (Butch). Both remain outside the control or influence of the narrator and neither appear to follow the aspirations of the narrator. Who the reader is aware has begun to create little rhymes for himself which border on the ridiculous. Which again may be the point that Barthelme is attempting to make. It is possible he is suggesting that the running of a city or the control of a city by one individual who is not answerable to others is a ridiculous prospect and one that should be avoided. The narrator appears to be corrupted by his own sense of power. Adhering to his own version of the law rather than a law that is commonly accepted by others.

The ending of the story is also interesting as the narrator appears to have an epiphany and realises that the task before him is too much for one man. He is unable to control the city, despite his initial desires to do so. The moment of realization for the narrator appears to be Sam Hong’s wife’s refusal to leave her husband. It is at this point that the narrator, though he believes he can control the city, also realises that he cannot control the individual (Sam Hong’s wife). It is as if he loses interest in his goal of running the city now that he knows all he has managed to do is reshape the landscape and nothing else. Rather than having absolute control as he wishes to do, he realises that his efforts are pointless. What may also be important is that the narrator appears to have learnt a lesson from his exploits in Galveston. When he is asked to run for the school board in Galena Park he refuses to do so. The reader left suspecting that the narrator is not only wary of absolute power but may also be conscious of the futility of trying to control others. Having failed to do so in Galveston. Though there is still an element of impracticality in the narrator’s life which he has previously shown while owner of Galveston. His excuse for not running for the school board is that he doesn’t have children. Which may leave some readers believing that the narrator may not have fully learnt any lessons from his time in Galveston.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "I Bought a Little City by Donald Barthelme." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 28 May. 2016. Web.


  • Interesting piece. I first came across this story read aloud on a podcast. You don’t really show how fundamentally weird DB is! Funnily enough I mentioned the story in my piece earlier this week on ‘The Indian Uprising’.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Simon. DB is an interesting writer (if not weird). When I first read one of his stories last year I put the book down because I didn’t know which way to take him. For this story he borders on the ridiculous and absurd, something I probably should have placed a further spot light on. In all likelihood that was probably the point that DB was trying to make. Whereas I focused on the practicalities of (or lack of) the protagonists actions. I’ve yet to read The Indian Uprising but it is on my TBR list.

  • Thanks for your review. Though it is a simple enough short story but reading your review enhanced my understanding of it.

  • I really enjoyed your analysis of this story and thank you for bringing it to my attention. However, I think the last line is less about lessons learned or unlearned, but rather an enlightening process that has taken place within the character. He has been separate and outside the community so much that he has not learned to integrate. His superiority in everything (which I believe to be symbolism for the bureaucratic situations we sometimes feel tied down by in this country) has left him without a happy and fulfilled life that would have included a beautiful wife and children (which I believe to be symbolic of the lust for power over internal satisfaction). Just my thoughts. Thanks again.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment and insight Tiffany. I didn’t see the link (as you have) at the end of the story with regards to the narrator’s happiness or the fact that his life remains unfulfilled. I had directed my focus elsewhere without giving thought to the full significance of the final line and the fact that the narrator doesn’t have children (or a wife).

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