“…is death that which gives meaning to life?” (Barthelme) Donald Barthelme depicts this fundamental question in The School. It is posed, uncharacteristically, by the children. They reveal this mature understanding of what death is, even though it’s clear that no one has explained the concept to them and, in reality, children their age wouldn’t be able to comprehend the meaning behind such a controversial question. But, considering the obscene amount of bereavement surrounding the kids, it’s no wonder they ponder this philosophical query. Barthelme addresses the issues of death, responsibility, fear, and loss of innocence, but his underlying theme is the ability to hope for new opportunities in order to gain positive results.
What’s interesting to take note of, in this particular piece, is the tone of the passage. Barthelme narrates The School in a way that makes the reader feel as if he’s listening to a friend tell a personal story. This captures the reader’s attention in the same way a play does, on those rare occasions, when a character breaks the fourth wall to address the audience directly. It makes the observer feel like part of the story.
“It wouldn’t have been so bad except that just a couple of weeks before the thing with the trees, the snakes all died.” (Barthelme) This statement reveals a tragic pattern associated with this school. Things seem to die and, sometimes, without cause. There is such a colossal amount of death associated with this class that the subject inevitably comes up in a discussion, where the children search for a more in-depth answer as to what death really is in relation to life. This extreme amount of exposure to loss destroys their innocence of the unknown. They are faced with such difficult situations that they have no choice but to search for an explanation.
The idea of the replacement of each failed class project is a metaphor for the endless cycle of life. A person is born, he lives, and then he dies. He is then replaced by another person who goes through the same cycle and it starts all over again. This is a direct correlation of what the class goes through, first with the trees and ending with the Korean orphan. Each project is replaced by a new one. The orphan is later replaced with the new gerbil that will no doubt go through the same cycle.
There isn’t an easily noticeable protagonist vs. antagonist relationship. The closest thing one might be able to relate to it is change vs. fear. There is a colossal amount of fear and little change. There is little change in the fact that the end result is always the same. There is a repetition of the introduction and degradation of new things. The journey to understanding why that is, causes fear. There’s a fear that the future might not hold anything different and that nothing will ever change. There’s also the fear that they’ll always be surrounded and affected by this curse.
The class projects show a sense “of responsibility, taking care of things, being individually responsible.” (Barthelme) Barthelme is stating simply that we are all accountable for our own actions. Many people seek to cast their failures on someone else, as if their role never mattered. Should something end badly, or unexpectedly, we have no one to blame but ourselves.
“I said that they shouldn’t be frightened (although I am often frightened) and that there was value everywhere.” (Barthelme) The point that Barthelme is illustrating here is the idea that no matter how bad things may seem, there’s always good to be found some place. The teacher, feeling just as frightened as the kids, took on the responsibility of putting on a brave face, so to speak, and allowing the children to hope for better times and future happiness. In this instance, the possibility of prosperity arrives in the form of a “new gerbil.” (Barthelme)
One should not focus on what could be a negative outcome. He should instead find comfort in the compassion of others and try to make the next opportunity count. This reaction happens at the very end. When faced with grief and overcome with fear, the narrator sought complacency in Helen’s arms. Immediately following the new gerbil enters, yet another shred of hope that change is possible.
Adversity is unavoidable. Things fall apart. Plans may fail. Expectations may not be met. It’s just the facts of reality. And anyone who dwells on the fantasy of eternal success is doomed to experience disappointment. People need to prepare for the worst in order to escape their own fear. Fear of failure can be avoided if there is acceptance that things can go wrong. When this happens it’s necessary to move forward and try harder the next time, while seeking comfort in the love and understanding that can be shown from one person to another. In other words, death gives meaning to life because it encompasses the end and expecting the inevitable makes the moments that lead up to that all the more important.