Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Heteroglossia and Collage: Donald Barthelme's 'Snow White.'

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Heteroglossia and Collage: Donald Barthelme's 'Snow White.'

Article excerpt

Postmodern fiction in America often extends the novel beyond its conventional generic boundaries. Such writing, David Harvey explains, is "necessarily fragmented, a 'palimpsest' of past forms super-imposed upon each other, and a 'collage' of current uses, many of which may be ephemeral" (66). American postmodern writers, according to Nicholas Zurbrugg, create a literary montage that "interweaves and accepts the copresence of differing discourses and conflicting categories" (56). Horst Ruthrof describes this strategy as a "schema of 'openness,'" in which "meaning is...something on the move, a dynamic which at times is deceptively slow but never comes to rest in social discourse" (30, 32). These writers often set their formal textual innovations in the context of parody, satire, and irony, developing a form that features a carnivalesque delight in irreverence. Few authors exemplify this type of writing better than Donald Barthelme. Considered by many to be the pioneer of American postmodernism, Barthelme probably is the writer mainly responsible for bringing this free-spirited and highly self-conscious strain of writing to the forefront of American literature.

As a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, Barthelme has a well-established reputation as a writer of quixotic short stories and caricatural sketches. In addition, he has published a number of "novels," of which his first, Snow White, is a playful mid-1960s counter-cultural, incongruous reconstruction of the popularized Disney version of the traditional fairy-tale. Set in the modern-day world, Barthelme presents Snow White not as a virginal maiden, but as a tall seductive woman who habitually makes love in the shower with her attendant dwarfs. Very different from their fairy-tale prototypes, these dwarfs occupy themselves by washing buildings and by "tending the vats" (18) in which they prepare their father's recipes of Chinese baby food. Snow White self-consciously waits for her prince figure - named Paul - who is busy trying to come to terms with his destined role, his heroic form. After a series of humorous, self-conscious meditations, he enters a monastery, then quits, journeys around the world, and finally returns to New York. There, he sets up a complex underground surveillance system, complete with trained dogs, to watch over Snow White, who in turn is being conspired against by the villainous Jane, "the wicked stepmother figure" (82). True to form, the vindictive antagonist attempts to poison Snow White, but Paul intercepts the drink, consumes it himself, and dies. Barthelme's version of the tale ends with the dwarfs departing, but not before hanging one of their own clan, having found him to be guilty of "vatricide and failure" (180).

As much as Barthelme thus exhibits what Mikhail Bakhtin would describe as a Rabelaisian subversiveness, however, it is another aspect of Bakhtin's theorizing that I propose to enlist in this essay. Specifically, I intend to show how the interweaving of various discourses - which I would now emphasize also characterizes Snow White - constitutes an example of what Bakhtin has called "heteroglossia" and "dialogism." Similarly, I want to draw attention to the manner in which the mosaic or collage aspect which characterizes Barthelme's novel extends beyond mere verbal pastiche and includes the graphic in the fashion which W. J. T. Mitchell has associated with the politics of iconology. By approaching Snow White from these theoretical perspectives, I hope to demonstrate that Barthelme engages in more than superficial deconstructionist expressions of reflexivity and in more than indeterminate textual play merely for the sake of play; rather, I wish to argue, Barthelme's strategies take the form of a poetics at once his and postmodern, through which he engages in a playful retelling of a fairy tale and, at the same time, pokes fun at contemporary society by challenging conventional hierarchies of meaning, philosophic systems of thought, and psychoanalytic notions of subjectivity. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.