9 Marxist Criticism

The Lonesome Capitalist: Class Dissatisfaction and Alienation in “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne”

Ashlynn Mahoney

Donald Barthelme’s short story “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne” is a story about a father, mother, and child, describing the monotonous dread the father feels within his everyday life. The story was published in 1971 which was the height of soaring inflation, political upheaval, and distrust in the American government. This unrest can be seen within Barthelme’s work, with the narrator representing many thoughts that Barthelme may have had himself. “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne” illuminates the grip of a capitalist society on the average man as well as highlights the consumption, alienation, and class struggle that individuals experience in their everyday lives. While the narrator is by no means perfect, he perfectly encapsulates what it means to be a struggling human in a capitalistic society.

The father of the story is the narrator who consistently describes the struggles of his life, despite the objective wealth he owns. The most explicit state of this objective wealth is how the father has nine drinks every night. The narrator says, “There is nothing to do but go home and drink your nine drinks” (Barthelme 1). From contextual evidence, it can be assumed that the father/narrator in this story is the bourgeoise and that nine drinks each night is an indulgent expenditure. It is immediately obvious that this family has fair access to money. While this is true, the father still seems unsettled by his standing in life, asking himself “Where is the fruit?” about his labor (Barthelme 1). This is how capitalism keeps itself running, by creating a hunger for “more” in its participants no matter how good their life may be. The father’s dissatisfaction with his life despite the apparent wealth could also be attributed to Barthelme’s experiences in his own life.

As an inescapable participant in America’s capitalistic economy, Donald Barthelme was also dissatisfied with this way of life. Francis Gillen gave an explanation to this stating, “If Barthelme sees urban life as a modern inferno, it is because he understands that the tendency of our society is toward further separation… and increasingly uncertain of the boundaries between the madness in the world and the madness in himself” (Gillen). It seems that this is the exact thing the father is going through within the story. On the outside, the father should be happy as a semi-wealthy man with a wife and child. Meanwhile, it is obvious from his inner dialogue that there is a greater suffering happening at odds with this seemingly perfect life. The father’s issues with his own life are inevitably projected onto his family making the problem spiral beyond control.

The father’s relationship with his child is an issue consistently represented in the story. While the father understands his relationship with money (despite his constant drunkenness), the child does not. At one point the child asks the father if it could have a horse and the father responds by saying “The genus horse prefers the great open voids where it can roam, and graze, and copulate with other attractive horses, to the confined space of a broken-down brownstone apartment” (Barthelme 2). In this statement, the father is referring to himself by indirectly stating how he wishes to break free from the life he is living. Marx’s theory of alienation describes this feeling as self-alienation. What it means to be self-alienated is to “alienate the products of his material activity in the form of money and commodity” (Petrović 2). It should be noted that this isn’t the only type of self-alienation, but the one that is most represented in the father’s character. The father is unhappy in his “broken-down” apartment as he calls it, because he has alienated himself from the fruits of his labor including a happy family and a humble life. This theory of alienation isn’t only used contextually but is represented in the literary devices as well.

Throughout the story, the narrator slowly transitions from the first-person perspective to the second person. This is another form of self-alienation that Marx would describe as a man alienated from his human essence. Expanding on this idea, Petrović says “Man is in essence a creative, practical being, and when he alienates his creative activity from himself, he alienates his human essence from himself” (Petrović 3). It has already been stated that the father has alienated himself from his work, but slowly isolates his human essence as well. At the beginning of the story, the father says sentences like “Wanda, my former wife” (1) which is spoken in first person. As the narrator slowly voices his discontent in life, he morphs into the second person saying “So, pulling yourself together, and putting another drink in your mouth” (1). This creates an interesting dual perspective of a man who is simultaneously participating in his life but refuses to acknowledge it. Marx would argue that the moment the father rejected the fruit of his labor was when he lost his “essence” as a human being. He wants more than his perceived average life yet doesn’t believe it’s within his control in the first place. Not only is the father suffering from alienation in his regular life, he also is dealing with the results of a post-war economy.

It is no secret that in the 1970s people were dealing with high inflation rates and uneven economic growth. In the story, the father describes a time before the “Great War” which is referencing World War Two. The Federal Reserve describes this period of high inflation as “four economic recessions, two severe energy shortages, and the unprecedented peacetime implementation of wage and price controls” (Bryan). Any average man during this time would have been affected by these unfortunate circumstances and the father is no exception. When his child made death masks from household items the father, enraged, states, “the child had wasted flour and water and no doubt paper too in this lightsome pastime” (Barthelme 3). Making masks seems like a regular childish activity, yet the father viewed it as wasteful despite that the only ingredients used were flour and water. This reaffirms the idea that the father is alienated from his material possessions because he truly believes that this is a detrimental blow to his person. One could argue that it was out of selfishness that the father didn’t want the child making masks, but the society the father lives in would say otherwise. The father lives in a fearful mindset that the hard-earned fruits of his labor are being spent on something unnecessary. This seems contradictory when compared to the father’s mindless consumption of material products.

The narrator in this story creates a victim complex for himself by creating a narrative in his mind that he is blameless for the blatant consumption of money and projects these issues onto his family. For example, at one point the father complains that “there are only three dollars there- not enough to cover a sortie to the bordel” (Barthelme 2). Essentially, he is complaining about having no money to go to the brothel. In comparison, when his wife needed to correct her overbite, he “wouldn’t pay for the apparatus” and when she needed a new frock he “hid the Master Charge” (Barthelme 5). The father assumes that he has money to go to a brothel yet refuses to pay for the necessities of his wife. It seems that the father is in complete control of the funds and reveals another power dynamic within the story. The story is about father versus capitalism but on a deeper level it can also be considered mother versus father versus capitalism.

When evaluating this story’s social dynamics there is the father’s obvious cynicism for work in his life as discussed, but it also depicts the wife’s struggle for power. The second wave feminist movement was happening in the 1970s, but there was still a large wage gap and gender disparity which was represented within the story. Expanding on the idea of capitalism vs father vs mother, is the scene where the narrator has his wife chauffeur him to the Argentine Embassy. Wanda (his wife) states, “You made me drive the car in a chauffeur’s cap, and park the car, and stand about with the other drivers outside while you chatted up the Ambassador” (Barthelme 5).  In his effort to look refined and noble, the father degraded his wife in the process. This irony might have been purposeful on Barthelme’s end as this isn’t the first time that Barthelme has included a struggling relationship between husband and wife. Some critics view this as a satirical take on the socioeconomic status between men and women. In his analysis of Barthelme’s “For I’m the Boy” critic John Domini describes the main character’s relationship with his wife. He says, “Meanwhile Bloomsbury suffers flashbacks to the growing coldness between his wife and him, and to his adultery” (Domini 4). Comparisons can be drawn between these two characters, and it seems that Barthelme is being ironic in his representation of social status. While the fathers are battling the bourgeoise, the wives are battling the fathers themselves. Barthelme challenges the status quo in his works by highlighting how not only men suffer under capitalism, but women as well.

“Critique de la Vie Quotidienne” isn’t just a story about a man’s issues with his family, but about how these issues are directly related to capitalism and Marxist theories. The father deals with the struggle of alienation from his work and his essence as a human, a post-war economy, mindless consumption of money, and power dynamics with his wife. These issues aren’t shown in grand gestures but are minute details that can be caught while reading the story. Much like real life, the effects of capitalism on the average man are not obvious and grand but are miniscule and affect people in their regular lives. “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne” directly translated to English is “Criticism of daily life” which is exactly what Barthelme achieved when writing this story.

Works Cited

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

Bryan, Michael. “The Great Inflation.” Federal Reserve History, 22 Nov. 2013, www.federalreservehistory.org/essays/great-inflation.

Domini, John. “Donald Barthelme: The Modernist Uprising.” Southwest Review 75, no. 1 (1990): 95–112. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43470161.

Gillen, Francis. “Donald Barthelme’s City: A Guide.” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 18, no. 1, 1972, pp. 37–44. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/440693. Accessed 1 Dec. 2023.

Petrović, Gajo. “Marx’s Theory of Alienation.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. 23, no. 3, 1963, pp. 419–26. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/2105083. 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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