The Power Dynamics of the Evolution of Language in The Dead Father

Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father operates upon a series of amorphous spectrums across literary and social realms. Superficially, the text is driven by a voyage, throughout which nineteen sons and several other key progenies drag the massive, imposing Dead Father through an ambiguous landscape. The journey is allegedly motivated by their desire for the Golden Fleece, an object which would hypothetically restore the deteriorating health of the Dead Father; yet their true aim is to end his existence, as to gain the independence necessary to live in a self-satisfying manner. From the perspective of the children carrying out this powerful act of usurpation, the Dead Father signifies a complex amalgamation of oppressive hegemonic influences preventing them from attaining a sense of freedom. The patricide comments upon the modern societal rejection of antiquated, doctrine-propelled institutions; and as a work of metafiction, one of The Dead Father’s primary trepidations is with the evolution and nature of English language itself.

In order to even consider this interpretation, however, one must first examine the somewhat abstruse nature of the piece. Discussion of The Dead Father has toyed with various analyses. This has included strict emphasis upon thematic implications, such as the critique of Richard Walsh, who viewed “‘the idea of fatherhood [as] a more fundamental unifying principle in The Dead Father than any abstract allegorical formulation’” (Walsh qtd. in Asztalos 200). Others center their arguments around strictly technical stylistic elements. Indeed, the book, constructed as a work of post-modern metafiction, focuses largely upon ironic, mocking commentary, thus prompting many to examine the it by the terms of its self-referential literary form.  This perspective, as argued by Mára Asztalos, indicates that allegorical interpretation is almost entirely futile and must be virtually ignored, as “the critic or reader has to disengage the function of the brain that detects and decodes the possible allegorical and archetypal links ‘hidden’ in the text” (Asztalos 200). Truly, there may be no singular means by which to interpret the work, as it appears to exist in an nebulous state open to numerous subjective readings. This flexibility in interpretation further bolsters the argument for the book’s metafictional emphasis upon the practice and execution of language.

From the very beginning of the work, the strikingly mammoth size of the Dead Father is continually emphasized, as to give the reader a sense of the immensity and daunting nature of language relative those who depend upon it. The story’s exposition weaves together mysteriously dystopian imagery to form a concept of the Dead Father’s appearance. By one critic’s description, “the Dead Father is dead only ‘in a sense’: he is a human being, a granite monument, a gigantic ‘super-male with horns, tail, and a big penis snake’ … a strange, majestic, awe-inspiring object; a pathetic, dangerous, infantile, and paralytic old man; a figure who comes apart; a voice that takes up residence inside one’s head” (Zeitlin 199). The Dead Father’s inflated and strange appearance is not a natural construction; instead, it a fabrication resulting from the self-satisfaction that he gains from his manipulative practices, in the manner that language and its most lauded practitioners have swelled to legendary status. The Dead Father’s image of self is entirely inflated to the point where it has overwhelmed his sensibility; he remains swamped within his own perceptions, where he cannot distinguish reality from his distorted dream-like view, through which he remains seemingly omniscient.

Yet the Dead Father does not possess a truly infallible or indestructible existence. When he made a particularly critical insult aimed at Thomas, the latter is capable of felling him, while “Julie and Emma picked him up” (Barthelme 34). Though he is described as being 3,200 cubits long, these leaders of the group – whom the reader assumes measure at a standard size – are evidently capable of knocking him down and picking him up again with little struggle (4). This situation betrays how this subjectivity of perception affects the influence of the Father figure and how one interacts with him. To Thomas, Julie, and Emma, who are not intimidated by and are constantly defying his once-great power, he is of an ordinary size, perhaps even weaker or smaller than themselves. They stands in contrast to the nineteen members of the crew, who remain in awe of his magnitude as they drag him. Indeed, the crew is not in rebellion against the Dead Father but essentially work for him, later even becoming physically ill with sympathy and uncertainty as they question the ethical nature of the task at hand (91). Because they still hold him in a reverent light, their view represents an adherence to the norms of the English language, a hesitation to bring about (much less, accept) the death of an established institution.

By the very designation of his name, one may see that the Dead Father has already been condemned by those surrounding him. Though he remains mentally sentient throughout the journey and the process of his burial, his children have essentially marked him as an irrelevant entity unworthy of acknowledgement. He is “[d]ead, but still with us, still with us, but dead” (Barthelme 3). The children rebuff the Father’s once-lauded intellectual expressions and oratorical attempts, preferring to distract themselves from the tedious task at hand by their own forms of articulation, as are largely exemplified through sexual acts carried out between Thomas and Julie (159). Their vitality and shunning of the Dead Father suggests the rejection of the former tradition of language and social institutions which hinder their pleasure.

The highly metaphorical actions and imagery of Barthelme’s daunting father evoke those of a sacred figure made obsolete by his rapidly evolving surroundings, suggesting that the institutions once held in infallible regard are now being eschewed through the children’s actions. The Dead Father uses his accumulated might as an excuse to assume the characteristics of a deity-like figure who exploits his power in vengeful exhibitions of bitter hatred, which one may interpret as forms of highfalutin literary criticism disavowing the merits of innovative work in favor of works with classically-oriented composition. The Dead Father recounts, with great pride, his crude glory days, during which he would derive pleasure from formulating brutal punishments for those who disobeyed his strict edicts (Barthelme 9). He attempts to continue this tradition through brutal slayings: first of a series of musicians, then of animals, both of whom utilize forms of communication which undermine his linguistic power (11, 52). However, these attempts at assertion of his might only decrease his stature in the eyes of others even further.

His insecurity contributes to his obsessively possessive, domineering nature. Most significantly, it causes him to “[control] what Thomas is thinking, what Thomas has thought, what Thomas will ever think, with exceptions” (4). This manipulation extends beyond this son to all other members of his infinitely-numbered offspring; but “with exceptions” indicates the loophole in power that will allow Thomas to think independently, beyond the typical constructs of the language. With extraordinary hubris, the Dead Father asserts his might by saying, “All lines my lines. All figure and all ground mine, out of my head. All colors mine. You take my meaning” (19). By this statement, those trying to manipulate the language in new manners are automatically associated with the precedent, and their works are frequently viewed as a decline from classical values and knowledge. This attitude, and the desire for a new era, serves as the justification of the children’s quest to permanently silence the Dead Father.

In spite of his irrelevance in the eyes of his children, the Dead Father continually tries to affirm himself and his laws. In the context of the metafictional, one may see that the children’s rejection of the edicts – those strictures upon the usage of language – is blatantly manifested through Barthelme’s text itself. Most consistently prevalent is the lack of punctuation throughout the work; dialogue possesses no quotation marks and is distinguished only by line breaks. Furthermore, the author’s choice of language is effective but largely selected with a primarily functional intent, particularly in the fragmentary description of settings. Complexity arises in the conversations between Emma and Julie. In observing their discourse throughout the book, one immediately notices an incredible degree of abstraction. A small portion of just one of their interactions demonstrates its bizarre nature:

Very busy making the arrangements.

Appeals to idealism.

Grocers wearing pistol belts.

It’s perfectly obvious.

I was astonished to discover that his golden urine has a purple stripe in it.

It’s no mystery.

A few severed heads on stakes along the trail.

Polished tubes carried by some of the men.

Not sure I understand what the issues are.

String quartets don’t march very well. (150)

This ostensibly nonsensical, somewhat absurd series of lines compiles fragments reminiscent of sound bite-like snippets, pushed together into juxtaposition for aesthetic purposes. The individual lines are attention-getting and intriguing, but they merely stimulate the senses, failing to provide substantive content. This bastardization of the linguistic institution portends the future of the language in the hands of the purported new leaders, given the world which they envision. Yet despite their apparent technical flaws, the abstract collage of words leads to an unprecedented originality and creativity strived for by the children.

The vision of the mechanization of language is furthered by the mechanical left leg of the Dead Father, an accouterment evidently added with the intent of modernization. When Thomas inquires as to the reasoning behind the mechanical leg, the Dead Father says, “Machines are sober, uncomplaining, endlessly efficient, and work ceaselessly through all the hours for the good of all … They dream, when they dream, of stopping. Of last things” (Barthelme 13). The Dead Father consciously decided to don the mechanical leg in an attempt to adapt himself to the newer standards of the time, as a rare act of altruism. Indeed, the leg serves as a confessional, in which “people are noticeably freer in confessing to the Dead Father than to any priest, of course! he’s dead” (4). Even though the confessions are routinely taped and then altered and scrambled to create a feature film for public viewing, the anonymous yet overtly projected nature of the process evidently supplies individuals with a strange sense of satisfaction and comfort. A current reading of the 1975 book, when held in modern context of technological innovations, indicates a prophetic vision of the gathering and often distorted sharing of mass quantities of personal information, as frequently manifested through language and carried through the Internet. This warped development provokes ominous implications in regards to the execution of language. As Santiago Juan-Navarro describes, “The semi-mechanical nature of the Father suggests the semimechanical workings of linguistic structures, but also the mechanization of culture, a culture where private life is of public dominion. Privacy in post-modern societies vanishes as a consequence of the obscene traffic with the other’s self” (91). In spite of his attempts at adaption, the Dead Father remains outdated, superseded by the values of the younger generation, a group desperate for change.

The Dead Father makes other efforts to retain his power over the generation of his children and assert his resiliency. In several amusing but pathetic endeavors, he tries to participate in sexually charged activities with the women; yet he is frequently condemned by Julie as “an old fart” and reprimanded by Thomas with a rap upon the forehead (Barthelme 10, 55). The Dead Father protests such behavior, proclaiming, “You should not rap the Father. You must not rap the Father. You cannot rap the Father. Striking the sacred and holy Father is an offense of the gravest nature. …” (55). These statements harken back to the notion of the Dead Father as figure once held in sacred, infallible regard, one who could not be swayed by even the mightiest storm. Yet his children ignore his declarations as they sit around the dinner table, and Thomas inquires after the mustard; they are weary of his egotistical, cruel nature. Their indifference stems from their knowledge that the Dead Father, from their perspective, has already died; and though this dreary journey must be continued, they already control the nature of what happens. As the controllers – arguably, the authors – of the journey, they have the already have the ability to sedate the Dead Father’s old customs, in favor of composing their lives through their own means of expression.

It may seem that, by burying the cargo they have dragged behind them for so long, they have disposed of their worries; yet the inclinations of mankind indicate that this is not the last time that such a burden will exist. The interposed work A Manual for Sons, originally a Barthelme piece published in The New Yorker magazine, is interwoven into the story by appearance of a strange character named Peter Scatterpatter, who presents the volume to Julie and Thomas (Juan-Navarro 93). The work operates as a guide for sons to realize how to tolerate the oddities and power-hungry natures of their fathers. The fathers prevent their progeny from advancing, as their strictures are indissoluble. The Manual states, “Fathers are like blocks of marble, giant cubes, highly polished, with veins and seams, placed squarely in your path” (Barthelme 129). Yet in spite of the hindrances, the Manual condemns patricide as an unnatural and serious infraction, “first because it is contrary to law and custom and second because it proves, beyond a doubt, that the father’s every fluted accusation against you was correct: you are a thoroughly bad individual, a patricide! – member of a class of persons universally ill-regarded” (145). A son cannot escape his heritage; in spite of any efforts to distance himself from his father, he will inevitably remain a derivative, “a paler, weaker version of him” (145). While Julie discontentedly rejects the book for its “relativist” approach, its message is clear: all humans will continue to behave in a manner similar to that of their predecessors and draw upon their influence (146). One may claim to reject historical practices; but the existing habits of greed, jealousy, and megalomaniac tendency will continue as long as gain may be obtained. Though Thomas executes the Dead Father’s will as merely a witness – thereby not allowing him to derive benefit from it – he has already asserted a position of superiority (164). Thomas, in spite of the fact that he seeks to distance himself from the Dead Father, has not merely deprived, but actually obtained power from the Dead Father. Throughout the journey, Thomas stripped the Dead Father of his identity, taking for himself “‘phallic objects’” that had composed the Dead Father’s dignity – a silver belt buck and “his sword, his passport, and, finally, his keys” (Asztalos 205). This gradual conversion asserts the inevitable transformation of Thomas into the Father. Though by disposing of the Dead Father through burial the children had hoped to relieve themselves of the struggles he imposed, nature and fate collectively bind them to experience such difficulty again. In spite of any progress or change that may be experienced after the disposal, there is only temporary respite. In social cyclicality, Thomas too will exhibit the negative characteristics of the Dead Father. Their problems may have been temporarily assuaged by the patricide, but they are not – and will never be – truly solved.

By this reasoning, the “father” of language itself will never be disposed of; and any efforts at revitalizing it will merely be reconditioned versions, perhaps even travesties, of the once-prevalent tradition. By this cyclical state of things, nothing has been avoided or evolved. The Dead Father acknowledges the need for the revitalization of knowledge; but while it employs a dark humor in the upheaval of an antiquated system, it also recognizes the inevitable circumstances of repetition which will continue to arise from human nature. Creativity through the transgressive overthrow of the Dead Father and his antiquated ideals, may be the only means by which to achieve some semblance of innovation. One journal quotes Barthelme as asserting, upon the idea of the “ineffable”: “If there is any word I detest in the language, this would be it, but the fact that it exists, the word ineffable, is suspicious in that it suggests that there might be something that is ineffable. And I believe that’s the place artists are trying to get to, and I further believe that when they are successful, they reach it” (Giles 638). This task remains daunting. Language should continue to be manipulated and experimented with as long as humans exist; but ultimately, the restrictions that it presents to artists and laymen alike tragically dictate that no work, no matter how groundbreaking, will ever achieve the prized ideal of true originality.

Works Cited

Asztalos, Mára. “Barthelme’s Twisted Fathering: On Donald Barthelme, The Dead Father.” AnaChronisT 12 (2006): 198-219. EBSCOhost. Web. 3 May 2014.

Barthelme, Donald. The Dead Father. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975. Print.

Giles, Paul. “Dead, but Still with Us.” Commonweal 118.19 (1991): 637-640. EBSCOhost. Web. 1 May 2014.

Juan-Navarro, Santiago. “About the Pointlessness of Patricide: A Lacanian Reading of Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father.” Estudos Anglo-Americanos (1990-1991): 88-102. Web. 3 May 2014.

Zeitlin, Michael. “Father-Murder and Father-Rescue: The Post-Freudian Allegories of Donald Barthelme.” Contemporary Literature 34.2 (1993): 182-203. EBSCOhost. Web. 1 May 2014.

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