By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The School’ is probably the best-known short story by the American writer Donald Barthelme (1931-89), whose work is sometimes labelled as ‘postmodernist’ (a label he was not entirely comfortable with, but which he accepted) and, occasionally, ‘metafiction’ (a label he was less happy with).
Published in the New Yorker in 1974, ‘The School’ is a short story about death, in which a series of animals and, eventually, children die at a school. One of the teachers at the school narrates these events, and the story ends with a discussion between the teacher and his pupils about the meaning of life when all life is filled with, and must end in, death.
‘The School’: plot summary
The story is narrated in the first person by Edgar, a teacher at the titular school. He begins by recounting a failed attempt on behalf of the children at the school to plant trees, the aim being to teach them about responsibility and taking care of living things. However, all of the trees died.
This was made worse, he tells us, by the fact that a couple of weeks earlier, the snakes which the children had been looking after had died, too, after a four-day strike at the school meant the heating was switched off and the snakes died from the cold. Similarly, the herb gardens the children tended failed because the pupils overwatered the seeds.
The teacher refuses to rule out the possibility that the children had deliberately overwatered the herbs, because a number of other deaths at the school – of the gerbils, the white mice, and the salamander, which the children had been carrying around in plastic bags which suffocated the creatures – suggested that death was too common an occurrence at the school to be put down to coincidence. The tropical fish had died, too.
Edgar then recalls the puppy the class had looked after, when one of the girls had found it and saved it from being run over by a truck. This puppy, which the children named Edgar after their teacher, died a couple of weeks later, though the narrator isn’t entirely sure what caused its death: he guesses it got distemper.
The next ‘creature’ to die was a boy: a Korean orphan named Kim, who had been adopted by the school under a special program. Again, the cause of death is uncertain, but the experience puts the class, and the teacher, off the idea of adopting further orphans. Edgar starts to wonder if there is something wrong with the school, that so many living things die in it. But he chalks it up to a run of bad luck, and nothing worse. Quite a few parents of the children also die in a short space of time.
The next death the narrator recounts, however, is described as a tragedy: two of the school’s children died while playing near some large wooden beams which fell on them. The narrator isn’t sure whether the death was an unfortunate accident or due to negligence on the part of whoever stacked the beams. One of the other children lost his father, who was killed by a masked intruder in his home.
Eventually, the teacher has a discussion with his class about the nature of death. He tells the children that it is not death but life which gives meaning to life. The children ask him to make love to Helen, the teaching assistant, as they’re curious about what making love looks like. The narrator declines, but the children keep pleading, until Helen goes and embraces Edgar and he kisses her on the forehead. The children are excited by this demonstration, and cheer when the next class pet – another gerbil – arrives.
‘The School’: analysis
‘The School’ is a darkly humorous story about death, and the story’s absurd elements – a trademark ingredient in many of Donald Barthelme’s hard-to-categorise stories – invite us to contemplate our attitudes towards death. When the children ask their teacher whether death is the thing that gives meaning to life, the teacher is quick to answer ‘no’ (having been so doubtful or cagey in his responses to their earlier questions), telling them that life is what gives meaning to life.
But in a sense, both the narrator and the children are right, or at least, they’re both half-right. Our lives are defined by death, quite literally, in that the word ‘defined’ means to set an ‘end’ or ‘limit’ (from the Latin finis, ‘end’) on something.
All of our lives are quite literally defined, or ended, by death, and our knowledge of this fact – and the reminders of our own mortality which we receive, in the form of the deaths we witness around us – obviously does influence our attitude to life. But at the same time, one should not live one’s life constantly in fear of death, or trying to stave off the inevitable fact of one’s mortality.
The children seem to understand, unconsciously or implicitly, the relationship between what Freud called ‘Eros’ (life, but also the erotic, or life-giving) and ‘Thanatos’ (death), when they ask their teacher and the teaching assistant to demonstrate the act of making love (the way new life is created, after all).
On some level, they understand this deep relationship between life and death, perhaps even more fully than their adult teacher does. When the children refuse to accept their teacher’s answer that death has no bearing on life, they hit upon an important truth: that death can liberate us from the mundane nature of everyday life, if only because death reminds us that we won’t be here every day: one day, we will be gone.
The narrative voice of ‘The School’ is colloquial, even casual. Indeed, the fact that it is the teacher narrating the story to us, rather than some impersonal and detached third-person narrator, is significant because the teacher is not only involved, but possibly complicit, in the spate of deaths some of the school’s inhabitants – human and non-human – have suffered. It is almost as if the teacher is nervously trying to absolve himself of any responsibility for what has happened, putting it down to a run of bad luck, as he says at one point.
We should also bear in mind that the story begins by talking about ‘responsibility’: the children plant trees as a way of learning about individual responsibility. Is anyone responsible for this ‘run of bad luck’ the school has experienced?
The story suggests not, and the circumstances of the various deaths described are so various and unrelated (inside the school, but also outside of the school; parents, children, animals, plants; accidents and illness) that we are taken into the metaphysical, rather than the mundanely physical, in search of an answer. The children wildly cheering when their new pet is brought into the school suggests that, having dwelled on death together, they are ready to get back to life and the living.