Barthelme: Unconscious Revelations

Darin NeuBerger

Much of Barthelme’s work criticizes the flaws of society and art in the times each piece was written. Through a satiric lens postmodern-realism approach he is able to show people’s flaws, egos, and desires in their rawest forms. In regard to Barthelme’s short story “The Angry Young Man,” Jaroslav Kušnír says “Barthelme [is able to show] the inadequacy of art for the masses and the idea of a working class and vernacular poetics in the postmodern period.” Likewise, “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne” exposes economic disparities and shows how the narrator’s “destitute” causes him to no longer care. However, there is much evidence to suggest that Barthelme’s intense analysis of human interaction is a result of his inner intellectualization. He prefers to analyze and interprets his childhood, rather than react in an emotional manner to it. As a result, through the characters in “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne,” Barthelme has exposed his subconscious feelings and desires relating to his own childhood. When Nancy Chodorow’s psychological theory of childhood gender norms is applied to Barthelme’s short story, many inferences can be made about the characters’ pasts, futures, and present motivations. This leads the reader to a better understanding of how Barthelme is shaped by his own childhood.

Nancy Chodorow argues that all elements of family roles and relations can be traced back to each individual’s gender-assigned role. She states that, “In theory, a boy resolves his Oedipus complex by repressing his attachment to his mother. He is therefore ready in adulthood to find a primary relationship with someone like his mother.” Thus, the heterosexual male’s romantic relationships will continue to be influenced by the unconscious desires and fears the man had with his mother. This contentious relationship with his mother is then to be continued with his spouse or partner.

Additionally, Chodorow proposes that “Men defend themselves against the threat posed by love but needs for love do not disappear through repression.” This can lead to isolation and confusion. Opposingly, it is girls who “retains her preoedipal tie to her mother…and builds oedipal attachments to both her mother and her father upon it…Women try to fulfill their need to be loved, try to complete the relational triangle, and try to reexperience the sense of dual unity they had with their mother.” Of course, variance from Chodorow’s theory is not impossible, especially when considering children with only one caretaker and non-heterosexual individuals. However, the couple in “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne” obeys Chodorow’s theory, revealing not just Barthelme’s unconscious desires, but showing the characters, themselves, to follow Chodorow’s philosophy.

The narrator is perhaps the most important of these characters when trying to understand Barthelme. It is worth noting that the narrator is not explicitly Barthelme. However, it is highly plausible that the author may still have unintentionally written about some similar experiences or relationships. Phillip Lopate goes as far as to claim that the photograph of Barthelme in his obituary “wore the same expression he wrote about in his story, ‘Critique de la Vie Quotidienne.’” Lopate’s analysis suggests that Barthelme has projected himself into the unnamed narrator’s head. However, the characters may all represent a different aspect of Barthelme’s psyche. It is inaccurate to simply state that the narrator is Barthelme. The narrator is purely in denial. For instance, after fixing the child’s bicycle he says how “that brought [him] congratulations, around the fireside,” and that it “was a good, a fatherly thing to do.” Barthelme would not have written this satiric scene if he was in denial, because satire is meant to criticize and those in denial think there is nothing to be criticized.

It is also worth noting that Barthelme was often critical of his own father, even writing a novel ironically titled The Dead Father. It seems more reasonable for Barthelme to have used sublimation to reverse the roles of his childhood. By immersing himself in his father’s shoes he gains the power he never had, while simultaneously the child in the story is able to escape in the loving arms of the mother. Opposingly, Barthelme may have written “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne” from the perspective of an objectively careless father as a means to satirize his own father’s faults, weaknesses, and misguided lifestyle.

The narrator prioritizes putting himself in the center; Whether that be through nine bottles of alcohol, telling the child to sleep by his feet, or talking with the Ambassador. The narrator’s focus is on the “competitive.” He achieves a sense of happiness when he pushes back against or outdoes Wanda and the child. He lives by the id, never approaches the ego, and the seven-year deal he makes with Wanda reveals his misguided superego. Chodorow says “For boys, superego formation and identification with their father, rewarded by the superiority of masculinity, maintain the taboo on incest with their mother, while heterosexual orientation continues from their earliest love relation from her.” However, Chodorow also believes that individuals have the ability to change and grow. But the narrator instead chooses to deny that he had wronged Wanda and pushes her away, the same way Chodorow’s theory asserts that males repress their feelings toward their mothers. Through isolation, he even is able to find joy in his mundane life, but nevertheless a joy he cannot share with others.

Chodorow’s theory can be applied to Wanda and her son as well, which can be seen in the child’s limited attraction to either parent or, the mother, Wanda’s disdain for her husband, which are amplified by the narrator’s inability to see his own faults. Chodorow says, “Male dominance in heterosexual couples and marriage solves the problem of women’s lack of heterosexual commitment and lack of satisfaction by making women more reactive in the sexual bonding process.” This lack of control in Wanda’s situation is what leads her to aim the gun at the narrator. Given Chodorow’s theory that family relationships repeat themselves, the wife in the story probably had a father similar to the narrator and the narrator a mother alike his wife.

Chodorow’s theory would suggest the child will likely grow up to marry someone similar to the parent of the opposite sex. Chodorow says this society run by males “propels men into the nonfamilial competitive work world place,” while “women’s mothering also reproduces the family as it is constituted in male-dominant society.” She claims this is why women are unable to become the dominant ones in heterosexual relationships, which actually is very reminiscent of Wanda and how risky it was for her to escape with the child. However, the child’s gender was never specified. As Chodorow says boys imitate their fathers and girls imitate their mothers, the child desires both seemingly equally. It “crept into bed” between the both of them, obeys them both without preference, and mostly keeps to itself. It only goes to its parents when needing comfort or wanting something it cannot get:

And so, newly cheered and warmed by this false insight, you reach out with your free hand (the one that is not clutching the nine drinks) and pat the hair of the child, and the child looks up into your face, gauging your mood as it were, and says, “Can I have a horse?”

Significantly, this suggests that the child never developed an Oedipus complex for the parent of the opposite sex. Chodorow’s theory says that a child without a need to mimic either parent with not grow to be like either one. Alike, a child without an unconscious attraction to one of its parents will not grow to have a spouse or lover reminiscent of that parent. In a sense, through adulthood, the child is destined to escape and never return to this family which has neglected and left it empty.

Barthelme perhaps exposes his repressed childhood anxieties in “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne.” It is irrelevant whether Barthelme intended to criticize his own father with this piece. Chodorow’s psychological theory says that the narrator is a part of Barthelme’s inner psyche, of which he cannot let go. The child’s lack of gender and draw to either parent infers its escape from the arguably cruel parents, which may reveal Barthelme’s unconscious desire to escape his past, if not a need to use denial to rewrite his own childhood. While Barthelme’s intentions for writing the piece can never be rightfully identified, his psyche is left smeared across the text and left for the reader’s interpretation. And without saying it explicitly, Barthelme acknowledges that the pain of the child is shared between the two.

Works Cited

Chodorow, Nancy (1997). “The Psychodynamics of the Family”. In Nicholson, Pamela (ed.). The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory. Psychology Press. pp. 181–197. ISBN 978-0-415-91761-2.

Kušnír, Jaroslav. “Contesting the Real in American Fiction: Donald Barthelme, ‘The Angry Young Man’ (1992).” Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies (HJEAS), vol. 16, no. 1/2, 2010, pp. 59–71, Accessed 2 May 2022.

Lopate, Phillip. “The Dead Father: A Remembrance of Donald Barthelme.” The Threepenny Review, no. 46, 1991, pp. 6–11, Accessed 30 Apr. 2022.


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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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