Supplementary Discussion of Donald Barthelme's "The School"

  You are not assigned a specific question to answer in supplementary discussion, but feel free to use any of the question below or create your own. 

You are required to post to 5 supplementary discussions over the course of the semester. You can do more for extra credit, so long as you do it in the scheduled timeframe.

13 Questions To Ask of Every Story: 

1.          What makes this story “literary”? 

 

2.          Why is this story considered one of the best stories of the past hundred years? If it’s an old story, why has it endured?

 

3.          Why do you think this story was considered one of the best / most iconic stories at the time of its publication? What made it a “successful” story?

 

4.          Plot: What is the “rich ground situation” (conflict) of the story? What happens to complicate this ground situation?

 

5.          Plot: What is the climax of this story? How does the moment irrevocably change everything?

 

6.          Character: In what ways does the writer show character?

 

7.          Character: In what ways does the character drive the action of the story?

 

8.          Point of view: Why do you think the writer chose this particular point of view for the story? How does the point of view function to establish distance or make us feel a certain way?

 

9.          Setting: How does the setting work within the story? What are the key places, and in how does the writer describe them?

 

10.      Pick three of the best lines in the story. Why are they good lines?

 

11.      Do a little bit of research on this author. Is this story a good example of his/her work? Is there anything else you learned that could add to our understanding of the story?

 

12.      What do you think the reader is supposed to take from the story? What can we, as writers, learn from studying it?


13. How is this story similar to others we've read? How is it different?

Comments

  1. 5. Plot: What is the climax of this story? How does the moment irrevocably change everything?
    The climax of this story is when the puppy dies. It changes the entire mood of the piece going from a teacher talking about his classroom ( of what I'm assuming are grade schoolers) and the pet dog they have to discussions about death and the meaning of life. After the dog dies, we learn about parents dyeing as well as fellow students which is drastically from them talking about planting trees.
    -Michael

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    1. That is a point of high tension. I would have said that the shiest tension, for me, is when the kids ask the teacher to make love with the assistant. There was no going back after that request!

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  2. 10. Pick three of the best lines in the story. Why are they good lines?

    1. "We weren't even supposed to have a puppy." This line was so well placed that it was almost comedic which I believe was the point, despite how dark it was.
    2. "Then they said, but isn't death, considered a fundamental datum, the means by which the taken-for-granted mundanity of the everyday may be transcended in the direction of-". I like this line because it is obvious that the children aren't saying this but it is a way for the author to reflect his ideas of death in the story and possibly show the purpose of the narrative.
    3. "Then there was a knock on the door, I opened the door, and the new gerbil walked in. The children cheered wildly." This is probably my favorite line of this story because it is so weird but also brilliant. The way I took it was that death is a natural part of life and things will continue on after it. All of the things at their school kept dying but yet, more things kept coming in that would eventually die. It was a representation of the circle of life.

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    1. Ack, I don't know who wrote this. Please identify. . .

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    2. Whoops, that was me! Sorry!
      -Bailey

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  3. I think what makes this piece so compelling is that it has this veneer of a casual, conversational tone, but the speaker’s own anxieties become more and more clear as the piece goes on. I think that having the speaker’s anxieties creep up on them slowly (feigning casualness while talking about the puppy, then Kim, then the family members, then Matthew and Tony, then Bill—) makes that dread about both what is going on at the school that leads to an uncanny series of deaths, and death itself. It makes the speaker’s actions with Helen at the end surprising and convincing. Yes, what they’re doing is irrational and incredibly inappropriate, but given how distressed the speaker is, there’s a sense that they too are looking for something to keep their mind off of this question that they can’t answer. They’re so close falling off the edge of this existential dread that they’ll do anything to step away from it. There’s such tension at that moment that they are going to do something incredibly harmful and stupid, that when the gerbil comes in—regardless of the fact that the speaker knows the gerbil will die—there’s a sense of relief, and the two step back from a point of no return.

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    1. I really like how you phrase this, like they're on the cliff of existential dread, about to fall off, and are rescued by the gerbil.

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  4. 9. Setting: How does the setting work within the story? What are the key places, and in how does the writer describe them?

    In truth it's the lack of setting in which it shines, and how the emphasis is on the moral of it. This idea that death is to be embraced not hidden from.

    It's patchwork in a way, you pick it up as you go through the story! From the orange trees and herb garden letting you know that there is an outdoor space. To the exchange program making you think it likely won't be in a small town. These small pieces let you build the picture, but also make you realize that not everything needs to be written down or explored in a piece. If you have something to say, you can make it quick and concise.

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    1. You're right--the setting is spare here, but he gives us just enough to build a mental picture.

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  5. 3. Why do you think this story was considered one of the best / most iconic stories at the time of its publication? What made it a “successful” story?

    I feel as though it's important to first point out that I absolutely gel with this. The story's humor, the writing and the way it's portrayed, and the direction this story takes is class. Each of these however similarly track with their theme: absurdity. From what little second hand exposure I've had from the time this story came out, it seems like that type of writing has been popularized, and if I'd to guess why, I'd point my finger at a bleak pair of wars that did little to entrance an audience already sick: the Korean and Vietnam wars. This type of writing alongside the humor granted and the innocent insights by the teacher's students were as strange as they were enticing.

    This may be unrelated, but this type of writing is similar to another British author that I'm currently reading now: Douglas Adams. His style is very similar to Donald Barthelme, and the coincidental timing of both of the story's publication seems too good to pas up to make a comparison.

    Tomio

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    1. I wouldn't have thought to connect Douglas Adams with this, but I can totally see that! I really like absurdity in stories.

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  6. 12. What do you think the reader is supposed to take from the story? What can we, as writers, learn from studying it?

    I'll tell you what I took away from it, that this is my favorite story that we have read so far. I love dark comedy, and this story had me for real loling. But it also deals with some very serious topics, and does so in an amazing way. The narrative starts with an immediately identifiable situation, a failed gardening experiment. It escalates to ill-fated class animals, but the narrator's tone keeps it in the realm of humor. It isn't until the line, "And then there was this Korean orphan", that things take a drastic turn. Given what we know about the pattern of the story so far, we don't need any further information to know what is going to happen, and the line is delivered so well I both laughed and dropped by jaw at the same time. But this isn't the end and the story becomes more and more tragic. But the narrator's voice is so conversational and believable, that we get suckered into to this world, as horrible as it is. The out of nowhere, the elementary age kids ask about existential concepts that adults would have a hard time articulating. The moment is so absurd that it jerks the reader out of the world, and it is supposed to. We realize we are the children in the school called life, learning these hard lessons. We are scared of death and demand answers. When none come, we look for things that give meaning to life, and we can choose to revel in these things, like relationships, such as between the teacher and the aide, or the children cheering for the new hamster they get to care for.

    As a writer, we can take great things from this to. When we talked about literary stories being concerned with wording, this story is exactly that. The author makes us feel exactly how he wants to with what words he chooses. We laugh at the beginning because he is stumbling over his words, like this is just a goofy story, then without us realizing it, he stops using the ellipses when human victims come into the story, making us become more somber. Then he draws us out of the story by making the tone no longer conversational, but questioning. It makes for a beautiful weird moment that can certainly teach us.

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    1. Glad you liked it! I really love it, too. And you're right that his use of language is so purposeful and careful, even when it feels like he's kind of having fun with us.

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  7. 3. Why do you think this story was considered one of the best / most iconic stories at the time of its publication? What made it a “successful” story?

    I believe the shocking dark nature of the story is what captured people's attention and made it one of the best. The story describes these terrible deaths and so so many of them, but we never know exactly what happens. The innocence of the children parallels with the image and issue of death, which I think can make people ask a lot of philosophical questions about the meaning of life. And the children themselves ask about the meaning of life, and even though the teacher doesn't know he says no to all of their ideas. The contrast between the teacher as a character and the children he has to teach brings a different kind of darkness because he has to explain and deal with their emotions relating to death.

    -Taylor

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    1. Agreed. The subject matter and what happens near the end make it memorable.

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