Comparison of Donald Barthelme and Wallace Stevens

“The apparent purposelessness of the balloon was vexing (as was the fact that it was “there” at all).  Had we painted, in great letters, “LABORATORY TESTS PROVE” or “18% MORE EFFECTIVE” on the sides of the balloon, this difficulty would have been circumvented.  But I could not bear to do so.” (Barthelme 606)

“Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan

Of tan with henna hackles, halt!”  (Stevens)

According to the introductory paragraphs about Donald Barthelme, he expressed the idea that “language, rather than what language represents, could be the subject of fiction” (604).  I believe “The Balloon” reflects this idea in a way.  The narrator never reveals satisfactorily why the balloon is there.  There are no explanatory signs on it such as those the narrator suggests in the passage above.  He seems to simply be interested in the peoples’ reactions to it: wonder, anger, admiration, and pleasure among others.  While I was reading this story, I had the single-minded need to discover the purpose for which the balloon was there, over New York City for twenty-two days.  I became just another observer of the balloon, searching for its origin and its significance just like all the other characters.  By the end I decided that that’s what the narrator wants, simply to make people think differently and admire without giving in to the desire of finding meaning in everything.  The balloon has a specific meaning, possibly related to the narrator’s unhappiness, but he isn’t willing to reveal it to the rest of the world.  His goal is to make the people and furthermore, the reader, appreciate the balloon for being a balloon without giving it an underlying significance.

This story made me think of Wallace Stevens’ “Bantams in Pine-Woods,” which presents a similar idea.  There is no discernable meaning or plot to Stevens’ poem.  The opening stanza quoted above, is gibberish, meaningless, but it sounds nice when read aloud.  The poem is simply words put together in a manner that sound pleasing to read.  There may be some deeper meaning, but the person who wrote the poem is the only one who can possibly identify it.  Stevens, like the narrator in “The Balloon,” is hiding the profound significance from the readers.  Try as we might, we can’t decipher every word and stanza to say with confidence that we understand Stevens’ meaning.  It appears that his only obvious goal was to create something that can be appreciated for the way it sounds and the language itself.

Stevens keeps the reader in the dark by using alliteration of strange words and incoherent sentences.  Barthelme keeps the reader in the dark by focusing on the reactions of the people living under this strange balloon.  He takes the reader on a journey of various attempts by different characters to understand the balloon, but never reveals the true reason for its existence.  For me, reading both of these works was a similar experience.  It was like going through a maze and ending up back where you started.  I continued searching for the other side but only ended up appreciating the journey.

2 thoughts on “Comparison of Donald Barthelme and Wallace Stevens”

  1. I had a similar reading experience; though I didn’t completely understand the significance of the balloon, I didn’t feel as frustration as I might have usually felt. As you state in your blog post, the reader is able to appreciate the way in which this story was written and the word choices of the author, without worrying too much about some underlying message. I agree that it was not difficult to read; the language was not complicated and it didn’t contain obscure allusions, or at least none that I noticed. Now that you mention Stevens’s poem, I can also see the similarities between the two. You make a valid point when you say that if there is some hidden meaning in either piece, it is known only to the writer, and the reader’s job is simply to appreciate the words on the page. I certainly did appreciate the story, for it was a welcome change from some of the more complicated stories we have read.

  2. Jenna, I think that your suggestion that “The Balloon” functions as an experiential piece is excellent. I felt similarly as I read through the text of the story and enjoyed the manner by which I felt pulled along by curiosity, always anticipating some degree of explanation, some hint! By leaving us unfulfilled, we are immersed in the text and share in the character’s frustration, confusion, jubilation, and wonderment. Yet I also appreciate how this metafiction forces us outside the story, beyond the depicted and into the structural intention of the piece. It therefore seems a wholly-encompassing piece, one which exists at many levels of thought and observation.

    I really liked your quote selection incorporating “LABORATORY TESTS PROVE” – it was one of my favorite sections in the work! The notion of justification by some artificial, superficial sense of authority is a poignant and fascinating commentary upon society’s valuation of knowledge. Media and shallow sources of information warp how it perceives truth; sensational statistics trump any desire to examine more deeply, as they are too thrilling to ignore. Really, though, why wouldn’t they be true? If it’s posted in public, it must be accurate knowledge, right?

    Your comparison to Stevens is really on point through its connection to the reading and analysis of the art of language itself. It also reminds me of the poem we read around that time: “Glazed Glitter,” by Gertrude Stein. Stein’s rapid-fire statements do not hold back from expression; her consciousness floats freely and yet seems strangely restrained by some indefinable source, perhaps the language itself. She coerces the words to complete an effect of her designation, which reveals itself as a cocktail of uncertainty, shock, and pleasure. While it does not nearly have the cohesive metaphorical imagery of “The Balloon,” it parallels the story’s desire to arose questioning within the reader’s mind.

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