Tag Archives: Donald Barthelme

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. Academia.edu. 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.

Honor Code

On my honor, I pledge that I have neither given nor received help on this assignment.


Final Essay on The Balloon

Norman Rankin

Eric Rettberg

ENLT 2514

May 6th, 2014

“I Saw the Sign”

Symbols are often used in literature. Even more, during the time when American Modernist reigned in literature, their usage of symbols didn’t stop at minute details within the story, they sometimes made major objects and even the actual structure of the story symbols. One author that we have studied that made a major “object” a symbol in their story was Donald Barthelme. More specifically, Donald Barthelme used a specific symbol to signify hope throughout the story that will be talked about in this paper. In Donald Barthelme’s story, The Balloon, the physical balloon can signify many things, but one major thing it symbolizes is the hope of the speaker. With how the balloon is portrayed and with how the speaker explains his rational for the balloon, we can see how the balloon is a symbol of hope for many, but specifically a symbol of hope for the speaker during a dark time for him.

To begin with, in Donald Barthelme’s The Balloon, we are presented with a massive object called “the balloon” that the speaker lets loose in New York. Throughout the story, many different (if you will) observations are given about the balloon too describe its form, appearance, or just all around presence in the area. For example, the balloon was referred to at different times with words such as smooth, square corners, bulging, unlimited, etc. This provides us, or rather does not provide us with, a defined shape for this balloon. This is important because it eludes at the fact that the actual physicality of this object is not as simple as that of a regular balloon or object. This not only makes us question how real (in a sense) the balloon actually is, but also that this balloon possibly means something more; as in, rather than it just being a normal object, it’s a more symbolic object left for possible interpretations. This can also be seen when we further evaluate what is said about the balloon.

Throughout the story, the balloon is treated as this grand thing that all of the people of the area notice. This presented importance of the area, along with its lack shape, holds somewhat of a religious undertone towards the balloon. A starting example of this can be seen early on when the speaker states “…there were no situations, simply the balloon hanging there-muted heavy grays and browns for the most part, contrasting with walnut and soft yellows” (Barthelme p. 605). This along with the previously presented size of the balloon provides a similarity between it and the Sun. Throughout history, the Sun has been seen as not only a symbol of hope, but it has also been an icon for religion; as it is often seen as a god, related to gods, a God in itself, or the halo that is always portrayed being behind Jesus. Some might say that this is very speculatory, however, this is a very possible interpretation of the story if we keep in mind that Donald Barthelme struggled with religion in his house (specifically with his mother). There are also points throughout the story that seem as if they can be related to how religion and discrepancies with the Sun have been viewed throughout history. For instance, a little bit after the beginning, the speaker begins telling how people saw the balloon as interesting, how they sought meaning in it, how some felt hostility and frustration towards it, and that “…secret test conducted by night that convinced them that little or nothing could be done in the way of removing or destroying the balloon…” (Barthelme p. 605-606). All of these statements seem a bit extreme if this were simply just some balloon. However, when looked at as a symbol for hope and/or religion that many find there hope in, it makes more sense because people have always had such feeling towards where others find hope and have been known to try to persecute each other for it sometimes while masking the meanings of the persecutions to the public. Despite all these interpretations given by others in the story about the speaker’s balloon, it is important to look at how the speaker describes the balloon himself.

As previously stated, the balloon is symbolic of the speakers hope by its similarities to the Sun and by having religious references. We can see this more towards the very end of the story as the speaker directly gives a more personal account of his relationship with the balloon. First of all, the speaker confirms that the balloon is his in the opening sentences of the final paragraph, “I met you under the balloon, on the occasion of your return from Norway; you asked if it was mine; I said it was” (Barthelme p. 607). This is important because now we know that the speaker associates himself with the balloon, and that what it represents is directly related to the speaker. Next, the speaker explains a little bit more about the balloons representation. He states, “…having to do with the unease I felt at your absence, and with sexual deprivation…” (Barthelme p. 607); this shows that the speaker was going through a hard time in his life while he was distanced from his lover. Generally in hard and difficult times, many people will look to religion and symbols of hope to give them the reassurance they need, and to help them get through whatever situation they may be in. This highly suggests, if not considered to directly suggest, that the balloon was created so that the speaker could distract himself from his separation from his lover. This further agrees with the previous statement on people finding and having hope in something during hard times. We can further see this idea as the speaker states, “but now that your visit to Bergen has been terminated, it is no longer necessary or appropriate” (Barthelme p. 607). Just as many seek hope in hard times, many don’t go to that symbol of hope for as much comfort once they are no longer in the situation that caused them to find said hope. We can see this with the speaker because now that his love has returned, he no longer has to long for them and look to something else that reminds him of them; or in short, he no longer needs this symbol of hope because he has what he was hopeful for. Finally, an additional alluding to the balloon being hope for the speaker can be seen with the final thing the speaker states, which also relates to what was being said about no longer needing hope as much when the problem is resolved. The speaker states, “Removal of the balloon was easy; trailer trucks carried away the depleted fabric, which is now stored in West Virginia, awaiting some other time of unhappiness, sometime, perhaps, when we are angry with one another” (Barthelme p. 608). We can see that the speaker has not completely abandoned his hope, as it still exists in a place where he can locate it later. However, since all will seemingly be well now that his love has returned, he can simply hold onto his hope versus having his hope be visible and somewhat controlling of his life.

In summation, it is too simple for a reader to just assume there is no meaning behind this balloon as a possible interpretation when it is such an important aspect of the story. One possible interpretation, as reiteration, of the balloon is that it is a symbol of hope for the speaker. We can see this by the subtle religious references presented in descriptions of the balloon given by others and the speaker. We can also see how the balloon is a representation of the speaker’s hope by how the speaker describes the origins of the balloon, and how he treats the balloon after he no longer needs hope, at the end of the story. All in all, even though the symbol of hope could have been to the speaker, it is interesting that Donald Barthelme choose a balloon to represent it because it shows that people can find hope in almost anything and further brings up the question of is what the reader finds hope in any less strange than what the speaker found his hope in.


Works Cited

Barthelme, Donald. The Balloon. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1981. Web.

Comparison of Donald Barthelme’s “The Balloon” and Eudora Welty’s “Petrified Man”

“Balloon” – “As a single balloon must stand for a lifetime of thinking about balloons, so each citizen expressed, in the attitude he chose, a complex of attitudes.” (606)

“Petrified Man” – “Mrs. Pike is a lovely girl, you’d be crazy about her, Mrs. Fletcher.” (1097)

Both “Balloon” and “Petrified Man” embody the common phrase, “everything is not what it seems.” In “Petrified Man,” the characters’ are opaque; their perceptions are masked by gossip and temptation. Mr. Petrie is the epitome of this idea; he appears to be a simple man performing in a freak show. Digging below the surface, however, allows Mrs. Pike to realize that he is a hidden criminal wanted for rape. The perceptions of the characters throughout this story are open to reader interpretation, infused with a slight bias coming from the gossip of the beauty parlor. It is not until the end of the story that Mr. Petrie’s identity is revealed. In addition, the perceptions of Mrs. Pike vary as well. Leota originally believes her to be a kind woman, while Mrs. Fletcher is a bit more skeptical. In short, the view of each character is tainted by biases infused throughout the story.

This perception is similar in “Balloon.” Barthelme devotes paragraphs to explaining the diversity of reactions after he first blows up the balloon and places it onto the streets of Manhattan. The meaning of the balloon varies for each character in the story, but also the reader as well. He illustrates the deeper meaning of language throughout this story, using one word and branching the meaning to broader ideas. For example, when a man associates the term “sullied” with the balloon, Barthelme expands on the idea that this man sees the balloon as an interloper between “the people and their sky.” He complicates the idea further by suggesting that the January sky is a worse sight than the underbelly of the balloon, and this renders the man annoyed yet pleased with the sight of the balloon. Barthelme uses this as evidence for his underlying point that communication of true feelings is very difficult. In addition, the narrator illustrates that the imagery representative of the balloon to him varies for every person that comes into contact with it, and their opinions vary highly from his original intention. They give meaning to something he otherwise cited as meaningless.

These two stories relate in their perceptions. Just as the views of Mr. Petrie and Mrs. Pike change throughout “Petrified Man,” the perceptions of the balloon vary from individual to individual. However, conveying your true feelings towards someone, such as trying to get a word in in that bickering beauty parlor or illustrating your thoughts and reactions towards the balloons, is difficult, challenging, and impacted by the viewpoints and opinions of those around you.

Comparison of Donald Barthelme’s “The Balloon” and William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow”

“But the purpose of the balloon was not to amuse children.” (Barthelme, 605)

“So much depends


a red wheel

barrow” (Williams)

Upon reading Donald Barthelme’s short story “The Balloon,” I immediately was reminded of the sensation of reading William Carlos Williams’s famous poem “The Red Wheelbarrow.” Stylistically, the two are rather different, in that Williams writes using short, simple words to describe the innocent object, while Barthelme composes and entire story, complete with generally ordinary sentence structure and grammar, describing an equally innocent, yet more absurd object.  Williams’s expression of the state of a red wheelbarrow is completed in one sentence, one thought, yet Barthelme details the balloon’s presence through the opinions and actions of various people. The more important part of the comparison comes from examining the reactions of the reader to the two descriptions. First, the authors both employ a degree of absurdity in their writing. Williams writes that “so much depends” on such an ordinary object as a red wheelbarrow. The addition of the word “so” gives the poem its absurdity through it’s implication that the wheelbarrow is of significant importance to the reader, the author, and to the world. How much can we honestly expect to depend on a child’s playtoy? The absurdity in Barthelme’s story comes from the idea that one could actually blow up a balloon large enough to cover the entire Manhattan skyline without any significant consequence. In this sense, both stories assume some degree of fantasy. The imagery associated with the wheelbarrow “glazed with rain / water / beside the white / chickens” creates a mystical scene. Additionally, the image of a giant balloon on which people stroll and jump tells us that we are not to take the story literally.

This poses a problem, however, as we are never offered a satisfactory explanation for the balloon’s existence or its enormity. The reader wastes much cognition on pondering the hidden meaning of the balloon, questioning the symbolic nature of the balloon. Like the citizens of New York, who develop various interpretations to the reason behind balloon’s existence, the reader also convinces himself of a deeper significance. In this way, I think both Williams and Barthelme succeed in their writing. We will never know exactly what depends on the red wheelbarrow, but we are afforded the opportunity to decide for ourselves exactly what it means to us. In the same way, we will never know the narrator’s purpose for installing the massive balloon, but we are given the ability to interpret it how we please. Our predictions regarding the symbolism of the balloon and the wheelbarrow are never confirmed nor denied.

Barthelme Compared to Hemmingway

“The balloon, beginning at a point on Fourteenth Street, the exact location of which I cannot reveal, expanded northward all one night, while people were sleeping, until it reached the Park.” (Barthelme 604)

“The marvelous thing is that it’s painless,” he said. “That’s how you know when it starts.” (Hemmingway 1021)

Barthelme’s opening paragraph struck an immediate connection with Hemmingway’s opening to The Snows of Kilimanjaro. In The Balloon we are immediately thrown into the middle of a scene that we know nothing about. Barthelme presents us with a massive balloon of unknown location and unknown reason that is expanding across the city. At first we are given no notice of who caused this to happen or why this was necessary but throughout the story we are given more and more information until at the very end we finally understand the reason for the balloon. This seems a very Hemmingwayesque way to begin a story. Similarly, The Snows of Kilimanjaro opens with a vague dialogue talking about a pain and horrible odor the reader initially knows nothing about. Hemmingway zeroes on the immediate problem-Henry’s imminent death- just as Barthelme zeroes on the immediate issue of the balloon. By tossing the reader directly into the middle of a scene the author creates a sense of intrigue that he can then go on to reveal.

Another similarity between the two stories came to mind in regard to the attitude of the narrator in The Balloon and Henry in The Snows of Kilimanjaro. In the passage above the narrator tells us in a teasing way that the balloon has an “exact location of which I cannot reveal.” He then goes on to boast how he alone controls the expansion of the balloon. The way the narrator claims he saw no reason to not allow the balloon to continue its growth seems very smug and suggests the narrator holds a self-satisfied sense of power. This assertion yields the view that in light of the rest of the story being dedicated to observing other people’s reactions, the narrator is expecting and looking forward to seeing a response from others. In this very same way, Henry seems to say just the things that he knows will elicit a response from his wife. In both cases, the sense of power the two characters hold gives them the satisfaction of watching others respond.

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.