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Critical Essay by PeterJ. Longleigh, Jr.
SOURCE: "Donald Barthelme's Snow White," in Critique, Vol. II, No. 3, 1969, pp. 30-4.
In the following essay, Longleigh provides an analysis of Barthelme's treatment of the title character as an anti-heroine in Snow White.
As an archetypal heroine (counterpart of the anti-hero, as defined in recent criticism), Donald Barthelme's title character in Snow White is a significant example of the play of light and darkness at the heart of modern value systems. Very important is an analytic penetration into this character, for she may stand for each of us, time and flesh being like all things relative. She is a character of flux and stasis, a semi-virginal anti-heroine who is in the end revirginized in a daring apotheosis. In her we are at the nexus of the tumultuous symbolic Other, as in the last chapters of Moby-Dick, or the dream symbolism of The Tempest. Indeed, one begins to understand in the work of the seven (sic) little men, as they wash buildings, that the underside of Snow White is Soot Black. This is, perhaps, one of the first ambiguous paradoxes of the book. For instance, the group narrator (cleverly evidencing certain traits) says:
"Then we were out to wash the buildings. Clean buildings to fill your eyes with sunlight, and your heart with the idea that man is perfectable. Also they are good places to look at girls from, those high, swaying wooden platforms."
Notice the teasing duality of motive. One recalls the skeptical analyses of cause-and-effect not only in Wittgenstein's lectures at Cambridge in 1938, but also Hume's Enquiries, as well as in his better-known Treatise. Why, after all, do we act?
Donald Barthelme invites much insightful interplay of idea and dialogue. The more one brings to this tale, as one takes away, too.
Indeed, like other modernists, Barthelme aspires to pure intuition, unsullied by the older incumbrances. To get to the higher realities, one must now dispense with the lower conveniences. One must take the Kierkegaardian leap into Faith which transcends the ethical and aesthetic art forms of past eras. The result may seem to some of the more uninitiated, strange; but a true artiste knows that, epiphany-wise, he may have to wait for fit audience though few. Barthelme's fictions invite what may be the ultimate in reading and criticism: a peering into the deeper abysses of the feminine which might evade the more conventional verbal forms. One might describe it as a kind of Kierkegaardian dread on the verge of an Aristotelian catharsis.
Motive and emotion are also inter-twined in this tale of social criticism and psychology. We learn that "BILL IS TIRED OF SNOW WHITE NOW. BUT HE CANNOT TELL HER." This is a sentiment that rings true. Faced with a similar dilemma, anybody would linger on the threshold. One would not go to the shower. One would hope she will catch on.
But the female psychology, acidly etched by Barthelme, is different. Confronted with the silent language of the male, Snow White shouts: "OH I WISH THERE WERE SOME WORDS IN THE WORLD THAT WERE NOT THE WORDS I ALWAYS HEAR." Barthelme raises linguistic and epistemological questions with little effort. Language and knowledge seem the topoi, as it were, of the book, for Barthelme seems to transcend orderliness, passing into an almost mystical fire of obscurity, summed up in that further remark of the cumulative narrator who speaks for "we": "BUT ALSO PAY ATTENTION TO THE BUILDINGS, GRAY AND NOBLE IN THEIR FALSE ARCHITECTURE AND CLADDING…. HEIGH-HO." We must attend to the grace and humor of the book; also to its structure and cladding, its form, its elaboration of themes—even its denial for form! After all, as we know, when nothing is significant, everything is significant, even the denial of that statement, in the existential dimension of human anguish. A study of the mono-mythic perceptions in the novel might be fruitful.
The philosophical theme of the novel is suggested variously. First in the romantic, pathetic, so poignant cry: "'BUT WHOM AM I TO LOVE?' SNOW WHITE ASKED HESITANTLY. BECAUSE SHE ALREADY LOVED US, IN A WAY, BUT IT WASN'T ENOUGH. STILL, SHE WAS SLIGHTLY ASHAMED." Who to love! Barthelme is a novelist in the great tradition of the heart-rending query. That remarkable speech just quoted introduces the underside of love which is shame. The beautiful and the ugly, strange and familiar, under and over: all are part of the great Unity Barthelme hauntingly depicts in his stories and in this novel which positively approaches the unspeakable. (Compare the negative approach in the novels of Samuel Beckett.)
Notice that the anti-heroine is named "Snow White." Yet she writes "a dirty poem four pages long." That a Snow White woman could write a four-page dirty poem was, needless to say, unthinkable during the Victorian epoch; and the myth of pure woman is exploded in this vibrantly styled novel. That Snow White would not let the little men read the dirty poem is a further insight into the feminine mystique. Barthelme's anti-heroine is the epitome. Why wouldn't she let them look at it? We are never told; but the motive is obvious. The poem was her ace in the hole, too much for the little men. Snow White exclaims: "I AM TIRED OF BEING JUST A HOUSEWIFE." This is the trauma of so many women in our time. The inner emasculation leads to outer protest; but notice that the outward protest is spoken silently—a stunning insight. In this novel, modern psychology, philosophy, and linguistics interact in a setting which Barthelme calls "This ball of half-truths, the earth."
Social criticism has, of course, been grist for the novel's mill ever since its inception. Consider the form and function of Don Quixote, the thought and theme of Tom Jones, the significance and sorrow of Great Expectations, the depth and desperation of Crime and Punishment, and the colorful insights of James Baldwin. Half-truths are the stuff human wisdom is made of. That the earth is a "ball of half-truths" is itself a half-truth. But to purge the half-truth is to complete the half-truth, giving it its essential nature via an enthymeme of the Absurd.
Having questioned profundities such as language, love, and the duties of a housewife, Snow White drops her hair out the window as she asks the ultimate question: "WHICH PRINCE?" thus raising the philosophical problem of verification. She utters this question while "brushing her teeth." The oral fixation is, of course, of utmost import. (An artist selects details like that.)
But before we go further into the psychological analysis of the anti-heroine in flux and stasis, we must consider the overall narrator, so that we understand the tale, continuum-wise. The plural narrator is, frankly, an embodiment of the universal unconscious, presented in the particularized form of seven little men, prototypes of the seven types of racio-universal unconsciousness. In the middle distance, the fictional shading becomes enchanting, as the Sisyphus-like labor of the narrators, cleaning buildings that grow always dingy in the expanding waste-land civilization, indicates the importance of ritual cleansing. Often the libidinal sector of the unconscious symbolism comes to the fore, as in Snow White's hanging her hair out of the window. The darker impulses of her collective unconscious are symbolized by the blackness of her hair. One might mention Harry Levin's The Power of Blackness; but more important is our realization that she hangs her HAIR out at the window, and that blackness grows from the HEAD of Snow White. Thus from the rational part springs the symbol of the libidinous part. Yet her skin is snow white. SNOW, mark you! If we examine the color symbolism of the novel in this light, we notice that as Snow White melts, the colors grey, as black of hair and white of skin start to merge into what T. S. Eliot called an "objective correlative."
Reviewing Ulysses, Eliot insighted that "In using the myth, in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him." And now magnificently Mr. Barthelme has selected his controlling myth, underpinning the contemporary tale with this great archetypal vision, like a figure in the carpet, or rug.
The mythic import of beauty (Snow White) versus the beast (Jane), of the One finding happiness with the Many, and of that life being transcended when finally another One (the Prince) unites the implicit divisiveness of the Seven, as One coalesces with One. The number symbolism paradoxically mounts as the numbers themselves grow less. This upward trend is suggested early in the tale by the little men's cry of "HEIGH-HO"!
The Prince is thus a Christ Figure: by waking Snow-White-Eve, he promises redemption (i.e Love), giving the Little Men (Mankind!) a hope for a better tomorrow. So Eve becomes Mary, and is taken to his castle by the Christ-Prince who may or may not also be a Fisher King. Notice that Barthelme has many scenes laid in the shower, superbly introducing the water symbolism.
One of the burning issues in the book is whether or not Snow White has a Castration Complex. The issue is never discussed in the novel, of course. Barthelme uses images, rather than abstractions. Notice that Snow White lives in a world of men. She seems incapable of renunciation and ideal-formation which might resolve her conflicts over the female component in her overall makeup. Secondary Narcissism is the logical outcome. Thus we see that Snow White is having sublimated homosexual relations with the little men.
If we undertake retrospective analysis, we suddenly recognize the similarity of Barthelme's vision to that of Sophocles, who also dealt with profound psychological states. For indeed, though Oedipus goes blind, Barthelme makes Snow White visible. And though in Oedipus at Colonus the hero is reported to have gone underground (compare Ralph Elision's Invisible Man), in Snow White the anti-heroine is subsumed into the heavens, revirginized. What could be a more compelling end?
This section contains 1,644 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)