The School by Donald Barthelme
In The School by Donald Barthelme we have the theme of uncertainty, innocence, mortality, fear, curiosity and reassurance. Taken from his Amateurs collection the story is narrated in the first person by a teacher called Edgar and after reading the story the reader realises that Barthelme may be exploring the theme of uncertainty and curiosity. Throughout the story Edgar remains unsure of not only what may happen a person when they die but he also appears to be unable to explain or at least isn’t truly sure as to why the orange trees may have died or why the snakes may have died or what may have been the cause for some of the other deaths that occur in the story. Also at no stage is Edgar able to answer or satisfy the curiosity of the children when asked about death rather as the story progresses the reader discovers that Edgar, just like the children remains uncertain as to what may happen an individual when they die. It may also be a case that Barthelme is exploring or highlighting an individuals need to be reassured or at least an individual’s desire to understand what death is and the bigger question as to what may happen when an individual dies. It is also interesting that at no stage in the story does Edgar or the children draw on any of the commonly accepted beliefs or explanations that are usually associated with religion and religion’s understanding of death. It is possible that by not drawing on the influences of religion in the story Barthelme is suggesting religion itself may not necessarily have any answers (about death) which will help reassure (or comfort) an individual. Just as Edgar is unable to explain the mysteries or complexities of death to the children likewise religion too may not necessarily be able to explain or reassure an individual when it comes to understanding death. The reality being that many people still remain afraid when it comes to the subject of death.
The fact that Edgar also lists so many deaths (trees, plants, animals, children and adults) in the story may also be important as by doing so Barthelme may be highlighting to the reader the inevitability of death and the pervasiveness of death in life. Though there is a sense of tragedy associated with some of the deaths that Edgar tells the reader about, particularly when it comes to Matthew, Tony and Kim’s death. Kim’s death though as tragic as Matthew and Tony’s death may also be important for another reason. By having Edgar tell the reader that ‘the cause of death was not stated in the letter we got’ and that the orphanage suggested ‘we adopt another child instead’ there is a sense that those with a responsibility for Kim’s care may not necessarily be as concerned as one would except those in authority to be when it comes to the death of a child. If anything there is a sense that Kim and his life are disposable (or replaceable) which may be the point that Barthelme is attempting to make. Unlike Mathew and Tony’s death, which Edgar describes as tragedies, Kim’s death the reader suspects is not viewed in the same manner. It is possible that by associating Kim with not only the orphanage but by also telling the reader that he is Korean, Barthelme is suggesting that there may not necessarily be the same universal humanity afforded to all children and if anything some children, particularly those who are not as fortunate as others may be seen by some in authority as being different or not as important as everybody else and may in fact be considered to be no more than a commodity by those with responsibility for their care.
The setting of the story may also be symbolically important as a school would usually be the place that is commonly associated with helping people, young and old, understand or learn about the complexities of life (academic or otherwise) and by setting the story in a school it is possible that Barthelme is suggesting that just as Edgar is unable to answer the children’s questions, likewise education as an institute or those with a responsibility to educate may not necessarily have all the answers. Just as Barthelme excluded religion and its teachings from the story it also possible that he is criticizing the system of education that may have existed in America at the time the story was published (1976). It may also be important that Edgar refers to himself in the first person plural (we) for parts of the story as by doing so Barthelme could be further suggesting or highlighting not only the inadequacies of Edgar as an educator to explain death to the children but also the inability of adults in general to explain to children the nature of death. It may also be symbolically significant that the children ask Edgar to make love to Helen. It is possible that by doing so Barthelme is highlighting the need of an individual (in this case the children), when confronted with the complexities that are associated with death, to see a continuation of life or at least to have some type of validation as to what may be the purpose of life.
The end of the story is also interesting as Barthelme appears to be not only highlighting the innocence of the children but he also seems to be introducing absurdity into the story. By having Edgar kiss Helen and for both of them to hold each other in the classroom the reader is left assuming that Edgar is prepared to accommodate the children’s request and make love to Helen, which many critics may consider to be not only inappropriate but to be also absurd. However this may be how Barthelme intended the reader to feel or think. It is possible that Barthelme, by introducing the possibility that Edgar and Helen will make love in front of the children, is highlighting how absurd it is for someone to attempt to explain what may happen a person when they die, when the reality is that nobody regardless of profession or religious persuasion can be certain as to what may happen. It may also be significant that the children rather than focusing on Edgar and Helen at the end of the story turn their attention to the new gerbil as not only is Barthelme allowing the children to be children again but he may also be highlighting how fleeting an individual’s inquisitiveness towards death actually is and rather than remain focused on death, as Edgar and the children have done throughout the story, Barthelme may also be suggesting that life, even though death remains a constant, will continue.