New Historical Criticism

A New Historical Perspective of Critique de la Vie Quotidienne

Brooke Brown

The short story “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne” by Donald Barthelme was originally published in The New Yorker in 1971. Within this story, the narrator, who relies on nine glasses of alcohol a day, reminisces on a series of family conflicts that display the nature of his problems with his wife, Wanda, and their nameless child. Written in the early ’70s, the theme of turbulent domestic life was a relevant motif, both because of the personal challenges Barthelme faced in his lifetime and, on a larger scale, reflecting the experiences of many couples living in the era due to changing attitudes toward marriage and divorce. During this time, America was experiencing drastic social and political changes that brought forth equal amounts of tension and progress. “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne” succeeds in capturing the domestic tensions of the time through the perspective of a privileged male protagonist who encapsulates period typical male ignorance, which directly addresses the patriarchal and misogynistic values that persisted within the rapidly changing period.

The story opens with the speaker reminiscing in the past tense about the type of literature his former wife, Wanda, read compared to what he read. While he would read an academic journal about sensory deprivation, she would read Elle, a fashion magazine marketed for women. The male narrator criticizes the material of the magazine, even though Wanda’s interest in the magazine is made apparent as the narrator recalls her following diet instructions from the magazine to achieve the “schoolgirl look” by following the magazine enforced diet throughout her entire pregnancy (Barthelme 1). This distinction between the kinds of media they consume provides insight into the difference between how men and women were being marketed to and how they were represented in the early 1970s. American Marketing Association’s research found that there was an increase in women being portrayed more independently in the selected 1970 and 1972 advertisements when compared to those from 1958 adverts (Belkaoui and Belkaoui 172). However, multiple stereotypes of women were reinforced and maintained in 1970s advertising as having little purchasing power and could be seen playing objectified, decorative roles (171). Wanda would have been exposed to advertisements that pushed forward negative stereotypes of women as dependent and as extensions of men while reading publications such as Elle. The narrator’s acknowledgment of the difference between what they read points out the gender expectations that were meant to be upheld through targeted advertising.

The narrator is apathetic towards his life, most notably towards his own child. The child is objectified throughout the entire story, never being addressed by their name and at points being referred to as “it”. This choice of description from the speaker shows the disconnect that the father has from what he describes as “married life”. Cristina Ionica coined the characterization of the father in “Critique” as a “Latter Day Father,” which describes a father who reinforces a type of violence to reinstate their patriarchal values; however, their failed attempts to stay in control of themselves cause them to fall into a depressed and detached state (Ionica 65). As a latter-day father, the narrator is simultaneously guilty of abuse while dissociating himself from his own actions. He acknowledges when he inflicts violence on his child but refuses to recall it because of the shame (Barthelme 6). The main character’s vindictive tone in retelling such incidents eliminates his claims of credibility or innocence, despite his belief that nothing is ever his fault.

Barthelme’s depiction of the father here speaks to the reality of the expectations that men were held to as domestic partners at the time. It is true that in the 1970s, there was a rapid social change that caused a shift in the way men were expected to behave as fathers and husbands. The 1960s were when second-wave feminism began, which was a movement that brought forth the Civil Rights Act and began to challenge the expectations of marriage and, more importantly, what was expected of the man within the domestic unit as a father (Borstelmann 76). There was still much work to be done, and men continued to push back strongly in the early 1970s because they felt threatened by the new demands that were being placed on them. The implementation of a regressive, unchanging father in place of a narrator appears to be a deliberate choice on Barthelme’s side. Barthelme is no stranger to incorporating anti-masculinist themes into his writings, which he frequently achieves by creating male characters who are so obsessed with their own masculinity that they become symbols of their own destruction (Ionica 62). He conveys patriarchal structures as abhorrent and wasteful practices, which was a contentious stance to take at the time he wrote.

Marriage is an important theme in this story. The narrator speaks about his marriage to Wanda in the past tense, introducing her as his “ex-wife”. Their relationship has an obvious strain due to the man’s boredom with domestic life and his drinking problems, which neither of them directly addresses. In relation to Barthelme’s own experiences, he has been married and divorced multiple times throughout his life, only settling down after his fourth wife. Having had many marriages, Barthelme was able to draw from his own experience of strained and failed marriages. By the time “Critique” was published, he had already divorced and remarried multiple times. His relationship with his wife, Brigit, at the time, was described as “damaged beyond repair” (Daughtery 524). In the early 1970s, the viewpoint on divorce began to change drastically. It became more common for couples to get divorced compared to previous decades. Demographics showed that divorce rates increased over time, particularly between 1960 and 1980 (Clark 70). This is reflected in the story, where the narrator and Wanda share drinks after their divorce. The spite between them is hardly resolved, though, as the male speaker never apologizes for the abuse and often jumps to justify his actions that he put her and their child through. However, they both benefit from the separation in the end: Wanda is free from her husband and able to “study Marxist sociology,” and the protagonist escapes from the clutches of domestic life. The depiction of a divorced couple in the story represents the rising divorce rates in the 1970s as well as Barthelme’s own experiences with failed marriages.

Another glaring aspect of this work is the speaker’s need for alcohol to get through the day. Even while the father holds his child in his lap, he keeps his nine glasses of alcohol close in the other hand, depending on it to keep him sane (Barthelme 3). This detail is not seen as a problem but rather a simple necessity for him to function as a father and husband. The protagonist of the narrative frequently states that the abuse goes both ways, yet his internal dialogue reads like an alcoholic rant. The narrator’s dependency on alcohol is also reflective of Barthelme’s own life. His issues with alcohol had manifested years before he began to write short stories, according to his ex-wife Helen (Daughtery 285). She recounted that he became reliant on alcohol to get through his projects, similar to how the speaker in the story leans on his nine glasses a day. In general, the viewpoint around alcohol consumption was lax, and the laws of the time reflected that. Previous restrictions on alcohol sales had been loosened, making it easier than ever in America to purchase liquor (Borstelmann 297). The seriousness of the matter is not completely overlooked, as during a post-divorce conversation in which the couple drinks together and exchange their wishes for health, Wanda attempts to shoot him, but the bullet instead hits the bottle of scotch, which was the source of their marriage’s failure. The harm of alcoholism is acknowledged through the characters’ actions; however, none of them speak of it outright. The attitude around drinking in “Critique” reflects Barthelme’s own struggles with alcoholism as well as the relaxed regulations of the time that often minimized the seriousness of alcohol consumption.

In “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne” the depiction of men’s roles as fathers and husbands brings attention to the patriarchal standards of the time. As a postmodernist writer, Barthelme uses the absurd inner dialogue of the male protagonist to convey the attitudes and opinions many men in the 1970’s would have and does not shy away from portraying them as ridiculous while trying to perform acts of toxic masculinity. Donald Barthelme depicts violent men as aware and willing agents of an oppressive patriarchal system, as people who recognize the motivations and ramifications of their actions and gain pleasure from their violent acts, rather than as innocent embodiments of a natural aggressive instinct. His method of writing makes it difficult to ignore the problems within the speaker’s frame of thinking, which succeeds in calling out the many issues of the period. This short story captures the social and political climate that it was written in and confronts the issues within it using a touch of irony and absurdity.

Works Cited

Belkaoui, Ahmed, and Janice M. Belkaoui. “A Comparative Analysis of the Roles Portrayed by Women in Print Advertisements: 1958, 1970, 1972.” Journal of Marketing Research, vol. 13, no. 2, 1976, pp. 168–72. JSTOR, Accessed 19 Apr. 2023.

Borstelmann, Thomas. The 1970s: A New Global History from Civil Rights to Economic Inequality. Princeton University Press, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central, Accessed 25 Apr. 2023.

Clark, D. (Ed.). (1991). Marriage, Domestic Life and Social Change: Writings for Jacqueline Burgoyne, 1944-88 (1st ed.). Routledge. Accessed 26 Apr. 2023.

Daughtery, Tracy. Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme. Macmillan Publishers, 2009. Scribd, Accessed 26 Apr. 2023.

Ionica, Cristina. “The Nagging Father: Donald Barthelme’s Narrative Framing of Gender and Family Violence.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, vol. 56, no. 1, 2014, pp. 61–76. Accessed 26 Apr. 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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