Criticizing Everyday Life: The Man Beneath the Monster

Erin Nelson

Donald Barthelme’s short story “Critique de la vie Quotidienne” follows a man in his gripes with everyday life, full of disdain for his wife and child, he drinks to numb the pains of failure and he hides anger behind eloquence. It is quintessentially the open letter of an abusive father and husband, and the reader is left to guess at the author’s intention for penning the dramatic and unfavorable narrator. Author Craig Medvecky would say that the speaker of “Critique de la vie Quotidienne” fits into his description of a Barthelmean Man being, “Unable to act and on the verge of self-destruction, these men reveal aspects of a male consciousness that is above all in conflict with itself” (Medvecky 554). The narrator of the story is an archetype of this fragile on-the-edge man, who displays a cold and cruel attitude throughout the story. It could be suggested that the speaker of “Critique” hides his vulnerability underneath this cruel and unbecoming demeanor, becoming both the monster of the story and the victim. By deconstructing the monster that is on the surface of the story, the ethical conundrum that is Barthelme’s narrator is pulled into focus, and the binaries of alienation and connection, composure and vulnerability, strength and weakness play together to uncover the cruelest realities of life.

The nameless man that narrates “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne” hides behind alcohol. In a way to disassociate from his reality, the man feels that “The world in the evening seems fraught with the absence of promise, if you are a married man. There is nothing to do but go home and drink your nine drinks and forget about it” (Barthelme). His following statements suggest he feels trapped, specifying his unhappiness with his wife, and feeling without the promise of the freedom he imagines for “the genus horse”. The alcohol, which also feeds into the rage the speaker expresses later in the story, is a prominent action throughout the scenes. Ironically, while sipping away at his “modest nine” drinks a night, the speaker criticizes the world around him, but never once does he give pause to this destructive habit. He even shows his dependency on alcohol at the end of the story by alluding to how the whiskey won’t leave him, as his wife and child have, “And I, I have my J&B. The J&B company keeps manufacturing it, case after case, year in and year out, and there is, I am told, no immediate danger of a dearth” (Barthelme). This emphasizes the comfort he finds in the bottom of the bottle. The escapism he finds is critical to understanding his perceived victimhood. Repeatedly he demonstrates how dissatisfied he is with life, and yet clings to his hopelessness and coping mechanisms.

The narrator of the story presents two opposing representations of self. There is how he wishes to portray himself, and how he is actually perceived. In the opening lines of the story, he sets the tone for how he wishes to be seen, “I read the Journal of Sensory Deprivation” (Barthelme). Then he criticizes his wife’s choice of reading, Elle Magazine. By comparing their reading material, he is exposing his ego and high self-regard whilst simultaneously undermining his wife’s ability to think for herself. This becomes a pattern for the narrator throughout the story. His duality in language – painting himself as a more respectable sort of person, then showcasing how he is not – is more apparent in the argument with his wife, “you look, as I say to your wife, as the cocktail hour fades… and inquire in the calmest tones available what is for supper and would she like to take a flying fuck at the moon for visiting this outrageous child upon you” (Barthelme). The narrator uses language that is eloquent and sophisticated, which nearly distracts the reader from his fury at her for inflicting a terrible child on him. What is underneath this criticism is the narrator’s intensely felt hatred for himself. Discerning that criticizing what is around him is a criticism of his own life, and his inability to turn inward to resolve it leads to his outburst of brutish behaviors.

Barthelme writes his narrator in such a way that he is in a constant state of contradiction. The narrator conveys his unhappiness with his life multiple times throughout the story, he even goes as far as to condemn the family lifestyle directly to his wife. One intriguing instance of his duality comes from his behaviors as a father. In reply to his child’s request for a horse he disguises his desire to escape his responsibilities, “the genus horse prefers the great open voids, where it can roam, and graze and copulate with other attractive horses… and that horse, if obtained, would not be happy here, in the child’s apartment, and does he, the child, want an unhappy horse, mopping and brooding” (Barthelme). The narrator’s metaphor for himself is readily apparent, however, this is complicated later in the story when he tells of a memory where he shows a desire for connection with his son. He fixes the child’s bicycle and then proclaims, “That was a good, a fatherly thing to do,” he goes on to say that they were “loving and kind that night” and he and his child “beamed at each other contesting as to who could maintain the beam the longest” (Barthelme). This contributes to the idea that there is softness under the coarse exterior that the narrator presents. He houses a desire to be seen and recognized as a good father but struggles to build those connections. He is connected in many ways to his family, but still feels alienated and troubled by his inner thoughts and failures.

The double language used by the narrator highlights where he consistently hides the more vulnerable moments in favor of harshness and depressive thoughts. Literary critic Larry McCaffery describes this aspect of the behavior in Barthelme’s characters, “Simply stated, their fundamental problem is twofold: on the one hand they are bored with their humdrum lives and humdrum relationships with others and are therefore constantly seeking means of overcoming their rigidly patterned but ultimately inconsequential lives; on the other hand, Barthelme’s characters fear any loss of security and are unable to fully open themselves to experience” (McCaffery 79). What the reader sees unfold throughout “Critique de la vie Quotidienne” is the internal strife of the narrator. He is unhappy and self-perpetuates his misery through drinking, patterns of abusive criticism towards his family, and a desire to be perceived as a strong-willed man. The narrator, even to the end of the story, does not expose his true vulnerabilities to his wife.

Unable to achieve the great life he wishes for himself he lashes out and loses his marriage and child to divorce. The pressures of his own expectations have brought the narrator to a place of misery and while his actions in the story are brutish, the repressed emotions and underlying pain of the narrator do generate a small vote of sympathy from the reader. Barthelme’s intentions for this story are to expose the realities of life while playing with the fictitious situations, and consequently, the fears that readers might connect to. So, when the reader asks, is the narrator of “Critique de la vie Quotidienne” a monster or a victim, the answer is both. The reality is that those hidden vulnerabilities, depression, and paradoxical self-images create the perfect storm for a man who can’t control his emotions. Instead, he drinks and criticizes everyday life, uninspired to make the changes to his perspective and life to achieve what he seeks. The narrator points his fingers at everything else within the story, and never once stops to recognize his power to change it.

In examining the world we live in today and where Barthelme’s narrator fits into it, it is important to see that behind every monster, there is a person in pain. There could be endless guesses as to why the narrator struggles so much with his self-image, but the truth of the matter is that it does not matter why. Behind the mask of alcohol, there is a person struggling to be a good father. Behind violence there is shame. While it does not excuse their behavior, it does shine a light on the healing that deserves attention. Collectively, offering support and kindness to those who deserve it the least might help to break down the walls they build for themselves and move society in a direction with more kindness and love for one another.

Works Cited

Barthelme, Donald. “Critique De La Vie Quotidienne.” Donald Barthelme: Critique De La Vie Quotidienne,

McCaffery, Larry. “Donald Barthelme and the Metafictional Muse.” SubStance, vol. 9, no. 2, 1980, pp. 75–88, Accessed 30 April 2022.

Medvecky, Craig. “Reconstructing Masculinity: Donald Barthelme’s ‘Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts.’” Contemporary Literature, vol. 48, no. 4, Winter 2007, pp. 554–79. EBSCOhost,


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