By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘I Bought a Little City’ is a short story by the American writer Donald Barthelme (1931-89), included in his 1976 collection Amateurs. In the story, the narrator relates how he bought a city in Texas and began making changes to it, although he soon lets the power go to his head.
Barthelme’s stories frequently incorporate faintly absurd elements, and these can be difficult to interpret. Below, we offer some words of analysis, but first, here’s a brief summary of the story’s plot.
‘I Bought a Little City’: plot summary
The story is narrated by a man who has bought the city of Galveston in Texas. He tells the citizens of the city that any changes to the city will be introduced gradually. After he has admired the city, he orders the inhabitants of a whole city block to move out of their homes and into a hotel so he can knock down their homes and build a park. However, he then consults with some of the people who lived there, asking them what sort of home they would like to have, and does his best to honour their requests.
However, one resident takes exception to the new plan, complaining that it feels like living inside a giant jigsaw puzzle. The narrator has to concede that he’s right, so he allows this man, and several others, to even off the edges of their properties so their land is in the shape of a rectangle. The narrator is pleased with this.
Next, the narrator goes out and shoots six thousand dogs living in the city. He then goes to the city newspaper offices and writes an editorial criticising his own actions. A man whose dog the narrator had shot confronts him over it, and the narrator warns the man against attacking him for killing his dog. The man realises that he is powerless to take revenge on the narrator for what happened to his dog, and settles for denouncing him as a ‘black-hearted’ man who will go to hell.
The narrator takes a shine to the wife of a Chinese man named Sam Hong, after he sees her in one of the shops. When he approaches her, she reminds him that she’s married and has children with her husband. The narrator leaves her alone and orders a policeman to go and buy him some fried chicken. The policeman considers this request beneath his dignity, but knows he must obey.
While he waits for his chicken, the narrator composes a little poem or song about the ‘little city’ he owns, summarising some of the things he’s done. Then he eats his fried chicken and, on a whim, sells the city, having realised it’s wrong to try to play God. He maintains that he has been rather restrained in exercising his power over the city, compared with the power wielded by God himself, and he confesses that he still loves Sam Hong’s wife.
In the end, the narrator takes what’s left of his money and moves to another city in Texas, where he is asked to run for the school board: a new position of power and authority. However, he declines, telling them he doesn’t have any children.
‘I Bought a Little City’: analysis
As is the case in a number of Donald Barthelme’s other stories – ‘The School’ springs to mind – ‘I Bought a Little City’ begins with relatively minor details before spiralling out to take in bigger and bigger ones. Initially, the narrator is happy to walk around his newly-acquired city and decide where the apple trees should go; by the end, he is jealously coveting a married woman and has clearly let power go to his head.
This can be seen in the nature of the narrator’s demands, which begin with good intentions, even though they disrupt the lives of some of the city’s inhabitants. When he moves the citizens out of one of the city blocks and destroys their homes, it is because he wishes to build a park which will benefit the people of the city.
But by the end of the story, he is ordering a policeman to buy him some fried chicken, simply because he knows the man cannot refuse his request. But his orders do not benefit anyone else, and arguably don’t even benefit him (other than to ensure he gets some chicken to eat).
The moral of ‘I Bought a Little City’ might be summarised by citing the narrator’s own words from near the end of the story: don’t play God. In buying the city, he mistakenly believes that gives him control over everyone who lives within it. But although he can force people out of their homes to make way for ‘progress’ (the building of the park), and can tell the police officers to fetch him food, he cannot affect the free will of the inhabitants when it comes to things like love, as the exchange with Sam Hong’s wife demonstrates.
And how should we interpret the ending of ‘I Bought a Little City’, which sees the narrator move out of the city and to a new town, where he turns down the offer to run the local school board? On the one hand, this suggests that he has perhaps learned his limitations: he should not have too much authority over other people, after his actions in Galveston.
On the other hand, his response is so commonplace (it makes no sense for him to be on the school board when he doesn’t have any children at the school) that it might not necessarily suggest any such awakening or moral epiphany, and he declines simply because the role isn’t suitable for him, rather than because he’s afraid of exercising too much power again.
But if ‘I Bought a Little City’ is, on one level, about the dangers of playing God, it is also a critique of utopian societies, and those who believe that a perfect society can ever exist. No world will ever be entirely free from crime and wrongdoing; this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t devise laws and penal systems designed to deter people from committing crime, but the narrator’s naivety in Barthelme’s story lies in thinking he can control how other people live their lives, when they need to have free will.
This lesson comes home to the narrator in his exchange with the various people who dwell within his would-be utopia. As soon as he starts to speak to them, they assert their existence not as faceless cogs in the machine of ‘society’ – a citizen, a policeman, a wife – but as individuals who have their own personalities, desires, and motivations.
Nevertheless, it seems significant that the narrator cannot shift his perception of Sam Hong’s wife as merely another man’s wife: she is denied full individuality, even as he reluctantly leaves her alone.
In this respect, we might regard Barthelme’s story as a response to earlier American utopian stories, the most celebrated of which is Edward Bellamy’s 1888 novel Looking Backward: 2000-1887. Barthelme’s narrator can plant a few apple trees and even build a park or two, but he cannot control everything within his ‘perfect’ society. The ‘lesson’ of ‘I Bought a Little City’ is that we cannot rebuild society from scratch but that we can try in small ways to make a better society out of the one we have.