Reader Response

Growing Up: A Personal Response to

“Critique de la Vie Quotidienne”

Austin Holton

As a person raised by an alcoholic father, and a mother trying to make sense of and recover from tragedy, Critique de la Vie Quotidiennerang a little too close to home. In what almost feels accusatory yet cautionary language, Barthelme tells of a man, his wife and child, and their predictable disintegration. Larry McCaffery wrote “This first level of many Barthelme stories, then, depicts a sort of personal struggle with disintegration. On the second level, however, the reader is aware that Barthelme himself is engaged a struggle with disintegration”. (McCaffery) He tells tales not too unsimilar to my own. As a man on the precipice of starting my own, the family in Donald Barthelme’s Critique de la Vie Quotidienneare the eerily similar characterizations of who we were as a family and what I never want mine to become.

The child in Critique de la Vie Quotidienne”, who was depicted as overfed, slightly spoiled nuisance, was not too far of how I view my childhood self. Each example provided in the story I can match with multiple memories as an adolescent. The child in Barthelme’s short story asking for a horse and “a film of tears is squeezed out and presented to you, over its eyes, and with liberal amounts of anathematization” (Barthelme) when he didn’t get the intended response, is a perfect example of his ungratefulness. Instantly my mind was flooded with shudder, inducing memories of my own similar behaviors. One specific behavior I recall was a time where my dad had called during an out-of-town work trip. He had said that they were headed back home and that he had a surprise for my brother and I. The worksite was a day away, so I had plenty of time to wonder and build anticipation on just what this surprise could be. I was a coil compressed, ready to be released. As his truck pulled up the lane I was already waiting by the workshop where he would stop first. I don’t remember greeting him at all. I do remember demanding to know where this surprise was. We were made to close our eyes while he unloaded it. “It” being a chair, shaped like an enormous human hand, where one would sit in the palm. The reveal did not go as either of us had expected. Anticipation and excitement turned to disappoint and tears. Loud, wailing tears. The chair still sits out front of that shop, bringing an acidic feeling of guilt and embarrassment every time it catches my eye. I was not a perfect child, nor do I think anyone has ever been, but the child in Barthelme’s story, with him being ungrateful for what he has, brought back those memories of behaviors I used to harbor.

The mother in the story was also not unsimilar my own. While she never pulled a gun on my father, there was still a good amount of yelling, door slamming, or times where she would engross herself in work to avoid being home. I believe a great deal of this behavior stemmed from the grief and anger from losing her first son. When I was only a year old, my older brother was killed in an all-terrain vehicle accident. I was too young be aware of this event and fully comprehend how it had changed everybody involved, my mother especially. She has always been an emotional person. Always very caring and loving but when she felt as if she was at risk of being hurt, she would lash out. Preferring to strike first led to the escalation of minor arguments into loud drawn-out occasions. The mother in the story really resembled this behavior when she smashed the dinner to the floor in response to an off-color comment made by the husband.

The father character in Critique de la Vie Quotidiennewas the one that hit home the most for a multitude of reasons. The first, being that my father is an alcoholic, and growing up we have seen many things that resembled behaviors in this story. One of the things that stuck out the most was the change in demeanor that drinking caused. In the story, the father character stated, “At night I drank and my hostility came roaring out of its cave like a jet-assisted banshee. I’d glare at her so hotly she’d often miss a triple jump”. The demeanor change was the most notable thing about my father’s drinking. Normally he was a goofy, caring, and sensitive person. While drinking however, he was miserable and had a sharp tongue, but the most noticeable characteristic was this seemingly permanent sneer that crept over his face as if everything had a twisted, meanspirited humor behind it.

The father in Critique de la Vie Quotidienneseemed to drink to quell the annoyance brought on by his child. One event during my childhood matches this behavior all too well. Driving back from a weekend at our grandparents’ cabin, my brother and I were sitting in the backseat. My dad alone in the front. Playful fighting between the two of us turned real. Crying back and forth at each other for miles. Abruptly, my father swerved into a gas station almost missing the corner, as if he had been resisting the urge but broke at the last moment. He came out with two brown paper bags, and we were quiet the rest of the trip.

The poor relationship (to put it lightly) between both the man and wife, and the man and child, stemmed from his bitter attitude towards family. “Our evenings lacked promise. 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” he said. I, myself, have been with my wife for ten years and we have plans of starting a family of our own very soon. The thought of feeling this way about my new family hurts to even fathom.

In an article in “The Atlantic”, Nicholas Wolfinger, who is a sociologist at the University of Utah, was cited as saying:

“… couples in which both partners are children of divorce are more likely to get divorced … If your parents stay together, they fight and then you realize these things aren’t fatal to a marriage. If you’re from a divorced family, you don’t learn that message, and after fights it seems like things are untenable. And so you bounce.” (Pinsker)

My wife and I have had our share of fights. Unlike the characters in the story who never tried to work on their relationship, we take every fight as a learning experience. We do this so next time we can handle it in a more effective way. I have changed my personal behavior as well regarding alcohol. Seeing the effects of alcohol on relationships firsthand, I no longer drink the way I used to when I was younger. Had the father in Barthelme’s story done the same, perhaps it would’ve turned out differently.

Donald Barthelme’s story, Critique de la Vie Quotidienne”, was a dark reflection of an average family that rang a little too true and reminded me of past disintegrations within my family growing up as well as a reminder, or a blueprint of the battle with disintegration that I face with my new family. While I don’t believe that this was Barthelme’s main intention while penning this story, I do think that readers with similar experiences can take solace in knowing that they are not alone. I just hope that they reflect back and strive to take steps to create a brighter future. This response was not intended to be a scathing review of my parents and childhood. I have countless joyful memories growing up with both my parents as well. No family is perfect, but all require some work and effort.

Works Cited

McCaffery, Larry. “Meaning and Non-Meaning in Barthelme’s Fictions.” Journal of Aesthetic  Education, vol. 13, no. 1, 1979, pp. 69–79, Accessed 1 May 2022.

Pinsker, Joe. “How Successful Are the Marriages of People with Divorced Parents?” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 30 May 2019,




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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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