Fairy Tale Influences in Donald Barthelme’s Short Fiction

The following is an excerpt from a longer work on the influence of fairy tales in contemporary short fiction.

Donald Barthelme (1931-1989) was a contemporary writer best known for his weird and witty short stories. The short story “Game” can be understood as a kind of modern fairy tale.

“Game” is the story of two men, Shotwell and the narrator, trapped in an underground bunker. They hadn’t planned on being in the bunker for very long, but when the story begins they have been in the bunker for one hundred and thirty-three days. The two of them have the power to launch a nuclear missile, though that is never explicitly stated. “If certain events take place upon the console, we are to insert our keys in the appropriate locks and turn our keys…If we turn our keys simultaneously the bird flies, certain switches are activated and the bird flies,” (Sixty Stories, 56). Each man has one key for one lock. Both men have been instructed to watch the console, but also to watch each other. If either behaves strangely the other is under orders to shoot him. Not only does each man have a .45 issued to him, but they each also have a concealed firearm. Shotwell plays jacks by himself, refusing to allow the narrator to play. The narrator writes descriptions of natural forms on the wall (4500 words describing a baseball bat in one instance) using a diamond in a ring he bought for a woman. Neither man can tell if the other’s behavior constitutes as being ‘strange’. They both attempt, at different times, to reach both locks by themselves, but the locks are placed too far apart for just one man to reach. The narrator claims to know what Shotwell wants to do (turn both keys and let the bird fly), but he refuses until he gets his turn with the jacks.

“Game” opens with an image of Shotwell and his jacks. While it does not provide the immediate distance from reality that a fairy tale beginning does, the opening to “Game” does show what the narrator’s focus is. The narrator is obsessed with Shotwell’s jacks, he even goes so far as to attempt to pick the lock on Shotwell’s attaché case to get to them. The second paragraph of “Game” gives the reader their first glimpse into the world these characters inhabit. Both men are trapped in an underground bunker, waiting for a prompt from the console which never comes. In short, the narrator and Shotwell are trapped (it is worth noting that their situation is similar to that of the fairy tale hero being trapped in the deep, dark woods). In the opening two paragraphs the reader knows this is a story about isolation and the effects it can have on a person. However, the opening of this story isn’t fully realized until the ending, when the potential consequences of the narrator’s obsession with the jacks are revealed. “…I understand what it is Shotwell wishes me to do. At such moments we are very close. But if only he will give me the jacks. That is fair. There is something he wants me to do with my key, while he does something with his key. But only if he will give me my turn. That is fair. I am not well,” (Sixty Stories, 60). If the narrator gets his turn with the jacks, then the bird will fly. Thus, the very first image in “Game” contains all the stakes of the entire story (and being a story about nuclear weaponry the stakes are high indeed). Not only does the opening of “Game” function in the same manner as the openings of fairy tales by introducing the reader to the truth of the world, but it also presents the central image and conflict as well.

There are only two real characters in “Game”: the narrator and Shotwell (there is a third character, Lisa, but she is only mentioned in one, albeit telling, line). The two characters are quite similar in many respects: they both want the bird to fly, they both have concealed weapons which take up “a third” of each man’s attention, and they have both tried, all alone, to turn the keys at once. While both of these men are enduring incredible stress from being trapped in the bunker for such a length of time, Shotwell is holding up better than the narrator. Shotwell’s activities strengthen, or at the very least maintain, his connections with the outside world (in the form of working on his business administration degree program), while the narrator uses his last item from the outside world (a diamond ring for Lisa) and inscribes descriptions of natural forms on the walls. Just as in fairy tales these two characters can be seen as simple representations of a single, more complex character. Isolation is a difficult thing to endure, and the characters in “Game” could be interpreted to be an isolated person’s desire to give up (the narrator) and their desire to fight on (Shotwell). By Shotwell refusing to give in to the demands of the narrator (in the form of the jacks) the determined aspect of the character wins out over the aspect that wants to give up. If, however, Shotwell were to give in and allow the narrator to play with the jacks it would have disastrous consequences for the world of “Game” and for the person stuck in isolation.



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