8 Postcolonial Criticism

Footsteps of a Colonizer

Erika Plascencia

Within the short story, “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne” written by Donald Barthelme, we are given subtle hints dropped by the author of the relationship between the colonizer and colonized. The representation of the family oozes the lifestyle of one of luxury, while the protagonist views it as minimalistic, often complaining about the chores of the family, he is shown as ungrateful. Throughout history, we have always viewed the education, lifestyles, and cultures of the winners to the point that everything is identical, so much so that we are unable to hear the voices of the “losers”. This essay deconstructs the lifestyle of the characters in the story, even in the present day, and the individual attempts to bring attention to these matters there can still be traces of lack of knowledge when it comes to non-U. S culture.

One of the instances we see is the wife, Wanda, becoming obsessed with following the French article “Elle”. Wanda’s mannerisms change as she follows the articles that advises on pregnancy care, which she follows religiously to the point that she personifies the Western European culture. It even seeps into the protagonist’s personality as he also continues to speak in French with his wife. This is a prime example of the culture that originated within the land being replaced by the more dominant group. This will explain how culture will get overturned and shown as history while the marginalized group will only be offered as an elective course.

However, this isn’t the only evidence at Barthelme’s attempt to bring view into the entitlement of his characters, he brings forth the attitudes and mannerisms the protagonist’s display. The protagonist has constantly criticized everything from his lifestyle to his very child, despite his life being one of luxury. For instance, we are aware of his possessions Arne Jacobsen, Danish stainless-stell flatware, and a master charge. Yet despite all this he can only complain about his life, despite himself even knowing that he is being unappreciative, “…and return to what is called the ‘living’ room, and prepare to live, for a little while longer in a truce with your circumstances- aware that there are watches worse off than you…” (Barthelme 3).

We can have a timing of as to why the protagonist behaves the way he does; on page one he briefly speaks of the Great War. Therefore, analyzing the behavior, we plunge into history of the aftermath of the Great War, where we begin to learn of the occurrence of many empires collapsing and expanding their reign. For instance, in the article “The Great War as a Global War” by the authors of Robert Gerwarth and Erez Manela mentioned the involvement of powerful countries either fighting or being fought for the sake of national self-determination. Of course, this was often exploited to expand onto indigenous lands, replacing the history of what was there. For instance, France’s involvement in North Africa, “where the mechanisms of social and political control were more or less well developed and deployed by vigilant and suspicious colonial governments assiduous in the use of racial and legal controls to uphold white ‘prestige’” (Gerwarth and Manela 797). Which is due to France’s belief in French Universalism, where it states that regardless of culture and history their idea is to bring together all French citizens, no matter where they originated from, disregarding family background into one common French identity. They quoted that during this period “…the decades that preceded the war arguably saw an unprecedented expansion of the imperial world order, as new entrants such as the United States, Japan, and Germany sought to carve out their own spheres of colonial domination” (Gerwarth and Manela 787). As we are already aware of the United States reputation for stolen lands brings attention to the comments said by the protagonist. Such as “…might curl up from the storehouse where the world’s content is kept and reach into you softened brain and take hold there, persuading you that this, at last, is the fruit of all your labors” or “…and your other hand holding on to the plump belly of the overfed child…”. Especially during the last page of the story, on page five, when Wanda and the husband are drinking and reminiscing about their marriage, “There were traces but only traces. Vestiges. Hints of formerly intact mystery never to be returned to its original wholeness. ‘I know what you’re doing,” she said, ‘you are touring the ruins’” (Barthelme 5). With the wife attempting to kill the husband, which could be seen as the marginalized group attempting to revolutionize against the ruling class. Within these instances Barthelme attempts to portray the lives of the ruling groups in power.

We must also take into consideration the type of stories Donald Barthelme has been known to write as he has been known to be a considered postmodernist. For instance, one of his other works “Cortes and Montezuma” where Barthelme gives us the interesting interaction of a European and a Mayan during the Spanish conquest of Mexico, where Montezuma mistakes Cortes the god Quetzalcoatl, who was said to be a White skinned man with a beard that promised to return. Within this interaction we see the turmoil expressed by Cortes however, overcome by greed he refuses to leave as he “…cannot leave until all of the gold in Mexico, past, present, and future, is staked in the holds (Barthelme 4). With the story ending by Cortes arresting Montezuma “kindly” before haunting him. We see through this exchange of the original culture being removed with the culture of the conquistadors, “In the Marketplaces and theaters of the city new words are passed about: tranquility, vinegar, entitlement, schnell” (Barthelme 4).

Another story I want to bring into this reflection is one named “Paraguay” where Daniel Chaskes critiques it within his article “Barthelme’s “Paraguay,” the Postmodern, and Neocolonialism”. Daniel makes note that “Paraguay” is a “…mock travel guide, an outlandish exercise in fantasy, and the record of an expedition” (Chaskes 4). It is also stated from the article that the story is not the same Paraguay that exists on the maps, which Charkes explains that the story itself shows the issue in how people view non-U.S. countries/ people as subjectless and placeless. Chaskes brings attention to which group postmodernism is often applied to and he states it is white males (Chaskes 2). Even when Barthelme writes to draw attention to these issues, he still appears to be part of the masses. For instance, when Chaskes regards the knowledge Barthelme obtained to write about “Paraguay”, which he references from Edward W. Said when he speaks about occidental writers when they try to write about the East, “…Barthelme knowledge of Latin America is mostly secondhand. Barthelme had never been to Paraguay or anywhere in Latin America…” (Chaskes 9). Despite this it only continues to support the statements regarding the relationship of the colonizer and the colonized, and the way we write about non-U.S. individuals.

Within postcolonialism there are ones that have similar themes that one must know to truly be able to understand this lens. In addition, Theo D’haen article “(No) Postmodernism in the Age of World Literature” explains postmodernism beautifully and its relevance towards postcolonialism. Postmodernism is in simple terms the challenging of ideas and conventions of modernism (a literary movement that focuses on contemporary elements). Within his article he brings the attention of how there is hardly any literature that revolves around these lenses. As he quoted how “…postmodernism has largely disappeared from the critical and educational radar of contemporary literary studies…” (D’haen 318). He backs up his statements by referring to looking into amazon’s or scan databases, such as ProjectMuse and JSTOR, there has been a large decline in new material touching on the subject (D’haen 318).

Furthermore, D’haen has noted how the similarity of postcolonialisms is as they are “…reactions to postmodernism in its original form, albeit that the authors working in those more recent paradigms availed themselves at least partially of the literary techniques generalized by postmodernism” (D’haen 320). However, there are some differences between the two “whereas a postmodernist criticism would want to argue that literary practices such as these expose the constructedness of all textuality,…an interested post-colonial critical proactive would want to allow for the positive production of oppositional truth-claims in these texts” (D’haen 322). As postcolonialism sets focus on studying the aftermath and the effects of colonialism. “The way postcolonialism and multiculturalism acknowledge the relationship between the aesthetic and the political is to insist precisely on the “reality of representation.” They do so by unveiling how colonial literature, Eurocentric or “Western-centric” works of literature mis-represented US minorities and Europe’s “Others.” In return, postcolonial, or multicultural works of literature seek to re-present those hitherto marginalized because of their race or gender on more equal terms” (D’haen 324).

In essence, “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne” urges readers to question and deconstruct narratives written solely by the privileged. This gives an exploration of the dynamics between colonizers and the colonized, and therefore provides subtle hints that reveal the relationships between power, privilege, and cultural dominance. Through the lens of postcolonialism, alongside with (post)modernism, it reveals the protagonist of the short story “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne” as ungrateful and unaware of his privileged life. This perspective is meant to aid our understanding and to give literature diversity.

Works Cited

D’haen, Theo. (No) Postmodernism in the Age of World Literature. 2 Sept. 2012, journals.library.ualberta.ca/crcl/index.php/crcl/article/view/25668.

Chaskes, Daniel. “Barthelme’s ‘Paraguay,’ the Postmodern, and Neocolonialism.” CLCWeb, vol. 14, no. 4, Dec. 2012, https://doi.org/10.7771/1481-4374.1822.

Gerwarth, Robert, and Erez Manela. “The Great War as a Global War: Imperial Conflict and the Reconfiguration of World Order, 1911–1923.” Diplomatic History, vol. 38, no. 4, 2014, pp. 786–800. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26376604. Accessed 1 Dec. 2023.

Barthelme, Donald. “Critique de La Vie Quotidienne.” Jessamyn.Com: Donald Barthelme: Critique de La Vie Quotidienne, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972, www.jessamyn.com/barth/critique.html.

Barthelme, Donald. Jessamyn.Com: Donald Barthelme : Cortes and Montezuma, Penguin, jessamyn.com/barth/cortes.html.


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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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