American Culture

Donald Barthelme’s Snow White and the Postmodern Moment…

Reading Barthelme’s Snow White reminds us that PoMo is about uncertainty as much as it is about anything…

Snow White by Donald Barthelme (image courtesy Goodreads)

Donald Barthelme is a name closely associated with two of postmodern literary fiction’s most important structural/stylistic innovations: flash fiction and collage. While his reputation was built on his short stories – and Barthelme is celebrated for his innovations to that form – he also wrote novels (really, anti-novels) which, in Barthelme’s case, are constructed pretty much the same way as his stories: resistant to anything as bourgeois as a narrative structure, Snow White is composed of dozens of brief vignettes designed to force the reader to engage the text as a text. Thus, Snow White becomes not simply a retelling of the classic fairy tale, it also serves as a commentary on the fairy tale and its structuralist elements.

Barthelme’s characters have more in common with the Disney version of Snow White than with the original fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm. The dwarfs do not have names related to their predominant characteristics such as Sleepy, Grumpy, Bashful; they have ordinary names – Bill, Dan, Clem. Instead of being miners, they are entrepreneurs who manufacture exotic flavored baby food (at the novel’s close they are producing delights such as baby kimchee and baby bean thread).  As in the Disney film, Snow White does serve as the dwarfs’ housekeeper. But the entire group of dwarfs also has sex with the fair maid. Disneyland this is not.

There are other characters. There’s Paul, the “Prince Charming” character who resists his duty to rescue the heroine so vigorously that he becomes a monk and Jane, the “Wicked Stepmother” character whose plots against Snow White come to naught. Perhaps the most intriguing character is Hogo de Bergerac, who crosses characteristics of his namesake (Cyrano) with the Magic Mirror. All of these characters are interesting – none of them do anything to advance our understanding of the work.

Instead of any sort of clear narrative arc, Barthelme gives readers a series of events that occur in the lives of the various  characters. Often these events seem irrelevant to the narrative. Yet Barthelme counts on readers to attempt to gestalt a narrative from his (seemingly) random presentation of information.

It would be pointless for me to suggest to you that simply having the information Barthelme conveys would allow you to understand Snow White. That’s in large part what Barthelme is trying to convey – the irony that pervades this anti-novel is that for all the information we receive, in the end what we do (which Barthelme predicts on the last page of the work in the list of possible “interpretations” readers might have) with that information is fall back upon some familiar set of meanings which we can assign to it based on Barthelme’s information:

Snow White is the ultimate objectification of women.

Snow White is the ultimate statement of romance.

Snow White is the apotheosis of the fairy tale.

Snow White is a joke played on Western culture.

That indeterminacy makes it both a compelling and repellent work. And that might make Snow White the apotheosis of postmodernism: it turns literature’s most powerful attraction, ambiguity, into mere confusion.

And that confusion is the point. Or not. Who can say…?

3 replies »

  1. Apotheosis? Without question. I’ve written in the past about Katherine Hayles’ outstanding essay on Claude Shannon and Roland Barthes. The point she makes is that information theory, a la Shannon, was all about maximizing signal and minimizing noise. Barthes was the opposite – and when I say “Barthes,” feel free to substitute any Structuralism-derived social theory movement or associated intellectual – his mission was to MAXIMIZE noise. Anti-communication, if you will.

    If you’re interested in the full argument, here you go:

    The short version is that these people are not only a corrosive blight on our culture, they’re INTENTIONALLY so.

  2. The blight on our culture is advertising. Everything post modernists write is unavoidably against a backdrop of profitable lies, false comparisons, deliberate miscommunication of all sorts. Further, the academics, so called guardians of culture, are so afraid of being thought fallible, they help erode the culture through relativism and staunch refusal to reject the validity of anything EXCEPT the culture they are supposed to steward and nurture. We don’t blame Hemingway for the war. Why blame Barthleme for the increasingly bad trip that is our modern human experience?

    • It is not so much Barthelme as what Barthelme’s followers have done. Yes, DB wrote interesting experiments in which he messes about with philosophical concepts – especially related to language and communication. These experiments became stale after a while – even to Barthelme, I think. But his acolytes and imitators have made them almost unbearable by endlessly repeating them and insisting that only those who repeat them are “artists.” I get the joke – communication is incredibly difficult because language has been debased by – well, advertising, for one, as you note.

      But if your protests against perceived debasement of language constantly border on debasing language, too, then have you really moved the needle? An act of anti-communication is not an act of communication except in the arcane senses – the senses that those academics you chide above study.

      That, naturally, raises the question – then who’s DB’s audience? And why should that audience be privileged over others? Shakespeare set no such privileging criteria. Why does Barthelme? Or Gass? Or Barth? Or Pynchon? Or DeLillo?

      Writers are supposed to illuminate the human experience, we all have been taught – by academics – such as this writer, btw. The greatest writers illuminate the breadth of human experiences.They draw us together. They do not separate us into “those who know” and “those who don’t.” Life has plenty of other endeavors where that gets done – writing/art at its best combats that separation.

      Barthelme (and other PoMo artists) – inadvertently? purposefully? – separate rather than bring together.

      Whether this is good or bad history will decide. For my part, I think it is bad – and I say so here, forthrightly. How’s that for an academic not being relativist?