10 Cultural Studies

Everyday Jerk: A Cultural Studies Analysis of Donald Barthelme’s “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne”

Ken Hissong

Thought-provoking literature has an impact on the culture that digests it. Donald Barthelme’s “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne” is certainly thought-provoking. The story follows one man in his life at home that ranges from a “content” night gone bad after a man’s “modest” nine drinks, to his separation from his wife, and climaxing with her attempt to “ventilate” him with a revolver. Certainly, there are things to think about. Barthelme had his own opinions about the impact his stories had on American culture. In an interview with Jo Brans, Barthelme said that if “I could clean up the world by writing about it, if I thought it could be done, I would do it, and I’d have everything tidied up within one generation, but I don’t think I have that power” (126). The power of the pen to influence culture may be less than that required to “tidy” up the world, but it certainly has an impact. While the measure of the influence that literature has on culture is debatable, the effect of culture on literature is far more evident.

Barthelme illustrates this concept in “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne.” The name of the story is taken from Henri Lefebvre. Lefebvre’s “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne” was published shortly after World War II and, in part, discusses the normal “everyday” existence of the average person (Schilling). Derek Schilling, a professor of French and the Director of the Centre Louis Marin at Johns Hopkins University, describes Lefebvre’s “everyday” as the return to “adequate foodstuffs and supplies” and to normal life (25). After the horrors of a World War, this sounds enticing. Lefebvre, however, warns that “the everyday designates the most alienating aspects of life: the repetitive nature of work and the fatigue that results from it, the burdens of commuting and housework, ideological and sexual oppression in private and in public” (Schilling 31). Lefebvre seems to think that the world traded one horror for another; war for alienation, oppression, and fatigue.

The fatigue from the everyday is the garden in which the narrator’s toxic, abusive behavior germinates. The rise of feminism and the pushback from the patriarchal powers at the time are the sun shining down, guaranteeing that the bitter seed becomes fruitful. The question then becomes just how much the narrator is a product of the culture at the time. Through the narrator’s treatment of his family and his distorted view of his masculinity, the reader is shown the downfalls of his “everyday” life. This provides a venue in which one can question how culture and the everyday could create the kind of troubled, disturbed, and abusive person that “Critique” puts on display.

In looking at the culture of a society at large, it helps to look at the smallest group unit of a nation, the family. In “Critique” the family is the breadwinner father, a stay-at-home mother, and their only child. This family makeup was romanticized during the 1950s. Steven Mintz, writing for the Organization of American Historians, disagrees with the notion that the 1950s were something to emulate. Mintz writes that “Americans are prone to romanticizing the past and confusing historical fantasy and reality” (5). The decade was an abnormality. Before then, and after, many families were made up of more than one breadwinner parent. The lower age of marriages and earlier births in the 1950s had a direct impact on the higher divorce rates in the 60s (Mintz 10). This higher divorce rate was due in part to the unhappiness of women left at home. The wife in the story was one “who had majored in French in college and now had nothing much to do with herself except take care of a child and look out of the window” (Barthelme 1). She feels hollow and that her potential is left unrealized.

The wife is not the only one feeling bereft of substance. The narrator writes that the look one wears throughout the day must be one “to confuse your enemies and armor yourself against the indifference of your friends” (Barthelme 1). He also writes about his family and himself, “in the abstract” because it makes him “comfortable” (Barthelme 3). Lefebvre would place this on the comfort provided by the times. He said of the period that the “living conditions and labor rhythms engender undeniable feelings of boredom” (Schilling 33).

It is this boredom that makes the narrator call the feeling of his night at home “contempt” before correcting himself to “content” (Barthelme 1). One of the dualities in the story is presented with the slip of “content” and “contempt.” Life is easy and secure. It is also bland. After the struggles of previous decades, this slow and easy life must have seemed quite dull indeed. The horse the child wishes to buy is a metaphor for this “everyday.” The narrator believes that the child wishes to bring a horse into the home as a pet. In attempting to explain how this would be cruel, the narrator asks his son if he wishes to bring a horse to the “confined space of a broken-down brownstone apartment…and does he, the child, want an unhappy horse” (Barthelme 2). The comfort of the times brings security, but it may also serve as a cage. A creature in a cage is bound to show its teeth from time to time.

The narrator’s abusive behavior comes not only from the boredom of his everyday, but a fundamental issue with understanding himself. During the 1960s feminism was making waves. As society was redefining what it meant to be a woman it was also having to rethink what it meant to be a man. According to Jennifer Lemon in “Masculinity in Crisis?” this made sense as “a fundamental principle of feminist theory and criticism is a critique of masculinity, and in particular patriarchal ideology, or masculinism, as the powerbase upon which institutionalized or hegemonic masculinity is founded” (63). What were men thinking about their masculine identities at this time? Many were conflicted. As the powerbase eroded so did the idea of the absolute patriarch of society and the family. However, many of the male sex roles remained. During this time, the norms became an “’invisible straitjacket’ which keeps a man bound to antiquated patriarchal notions of what he must do or be to prove himself a man” (Lemon 62). The narrator feels lucky as one who was part of the “sexual revolution” (Barthelme 3). He still is very much in control of the household, but he does so with a mad sort of reasoning. He banishes his wife to the kitchen during parties, which he excuses with “I thought you liked it in the kitchen” (Barthelme 4). He treats her as a chauffeur when an ambassador comes to town but excuses it as necessary as she does not know Spanish. These are empty excuses from someone who wishes to remain in control.

The narrator’s excuses are empty, but he may also bear a tinge of regret for the abusive treatment of his family. The narrator feels guilty about beating the child, or at least he claims so after the fact. During an argument that the father attempts to resolve with patriarchal reason, his son begins to “snigger” and tells him that “[y]ou’ll be sorry” (Barthelme 3). The father then shows regret for his domineering behavior as he cries out “I’ve been sorry all my life” (Barthelme 4). The necessity of the abuse came after the child responded, with a wise look on his face, “[n]ot without reason” (Barthelme 4). The father’s “shame” may be real, but his conscience did not override his need to dominate a child who was attempting to assert authority of his own. In these ways, the reader can observe a conflict in masculinity. The father attempts to negotiate with his son and even apologizes. This shows the new progressive man. Yet, when push comes to shove and his power is blatantly challenged, he beats his son and reasserts dominance.

The narrator refuses to recount the abuse “because of the shame” (Barthelme 4). It must be noted, however, that the father does not step away from his position as head of the household or change his ways in the slightest. He only speaks to the pressure and anxiety of his everyday family life. The anxiety he feels is the changing of the tides and the pressure is the stripping away of power

One way to retain his patriarchal power in the eyes of his family and community is to perform traditionally male tasks, such as when the narrator fixes the child’s bike. The family certainly sees value in the display as everyone “was loving and kind that night” (Barthelme 4). While sex roles may be changing there is still value seen in a provider. The narrator goes to an event at his son’s school and finds himself wanting to take home and protect a little girl whose father’s home is full of cockroaches (Barthelme 4). There is an idea still present that manhood can, and should, be assessed by how a man cares for his family. Lemon refers to this issue, the idea that society is ready to change the power structure and bring down the patriarchy but also still places value on masculinity as the “crisis of masculinity.” The narrator remains abusive and his masculinity toxic, but he feels that he must excuse it and use logic as a backdrop for why he can, and should, behave the way that he does. This is a small consolidation for those living with him.

The narrator’s toxic behavior leads to his divorce. He does, however, try to excuse away how and why his marriage dissolves. His ex-wife remembers his treatment of her and says that she was “jettisoned, abjured, thrown away” (Barthelme 4).  The narrator replies to this by saying there “has been a sixty percent increase in single-person households in the last ten years” (Barthelme 5). He wonders if they are part of a trend. The narrator’s statistics provide him with comfort. The media holds one of the keys to understanding cultural attitudes towards any subject. Not only does it permeate throughout society, but the message it gives is often contradictory and unclear (Lemon 63). Barthelme would agree. He has a particular disdain for television as it “has had a vulgarizing effect” (Barthelme and Brans 125). Yet, male “victimized” status was pure illusion. These same men with their masculinity in crisis “are in general advantaged by the current social structure in most western societies” (Lemon 68). The erosion of patriarchal power was far from complete. Male issues with masculinity came in part from themselves as “roles for both sexes are largely defined by the dominant group(s) in society” (Lemon 68). The masculinity crisis was then caused by those in power, men. Barthelme illustrates this concept quite well. The narrator creates a world of misery for himself. He pushes others away from him, treats his wife as a servant, and speaks to his child with annoyance and derision. In the end, he is left with nothing but his scotch and his excuses.

Is the “everyday” of “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne” so different than now? Feminism has advanced and family life has changed. Patriarchal power has diminished but is still very much present. What has not changed at all is the conflict within society that creates a place for a character like the narrator of the story. We still have those who cling to their power and stick a boot in the face of any who try to rise up. They also still excuse their behavior. They use statistics and the media. They attempt to flip the script and make themselves into victims. Perhaps this is always how power structures are eroded. It takes society time to get comfortable with a new power balance. Any progressive step made is still one over hurdles composed of antiquated ideas, power struggles, and stubbornness. Created by this cultural tug of war will always be characters like the “everyday jerk” of “Critique.” They are like the narrator’s J&B, “there is, i am told, no immediate danger of a dearth” (Barthelme 5).

Works Cited

Barthelme, Donald. “Critique De La Vie Quotidienne.” Jessamyn.com: Donald Barthelme: Critique De La Vie Quotidienne, http://jessamyn.com/barth/critique.html.

Barthelme, Donald, and Jo Brans. “Embracing the World: An Interview with Donald Barthelme.” Southwest Review, vol. 67, no. 2, 1982, pp. 121–37. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43469435. Accessed 24 Nov. 2023.

Lemon, Jennifer. “Masculinity in Crisis?” Agenda: Empowering Women for Gender Equity, no. 24, 1995, pp. 61–71. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/4065897. Accessed 30 Nov. 2023.

Mintz, Steven. “Introduction: Does the American Family Have a History? Family Images and Realities.” OAH Magazine of History, vol. 15, no. 4, 2001, pp. 4–10. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25163456. Accessed 21 Nov. 2023.

Schilling, Derek. “Everyday Life and the Challenge to History in Postwar France: Braudel, Lefebvre, Certeau.” Diacritics, vol. 33, no. 1, 2003, pp. 23–40. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3805822. Accessed 20 Nov. 2023.

Zimmerman, Jonathan. “‘One’s Total World View Comes into Play’: America’s Culture War over Alcohol Education, 1945-1964.” History of Education Quarterly, vol. 42, no. 4, 2002, pp. 471–92. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3218090. Accessed 1 Dec. 2023.

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Beginnings and Endings: A Critical Edition Copyright © 2021 by Liza Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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