The School by Donald Barthelme is an interesting one to say the least. Death is prevalent in the story. The story begins by telling the reader about the orange trees the kids planted that died. Then we hear about the snakes that died because of the boiler being shut off because of a strike that was going on. What was the strike about? Next, we are told about the herb gardens that died. This time, the narrator begins to think the herbs may have been sabotaged. After the herbs we are told of the tropical fish that died. Then we are told of how the little Murdoch girl found a puppy and brought it to class, but, what do you know, the puppy died too. After the puppy, things get a bit more personal. Next, the Korean orphan exchange student the kids had been raising money for to bring to America dies unexpectedly. Then we are told of all the parents and grandparents passing away via many different methods: heart attack, suicide, drowning, stroke, and a car accident. Yet, still more death occurs as we are told about “the tragedy.” Matthew Wein and Tony Mavrogordo, the children’s classmates, were crushed by big wooden beams at a construction site. Finally, Billy Brandt’s father was murdered. One day, the kids finally ask Edgar where all of the dead things/people go. Edgar has no answer for the children. The children reply with a rather cynical response about life and death to which Edgar blindly agrees with. The children then ask Edgar to make love to the teaching assistant, Helen. After a few repeated requests, Helen and Edgar embrace and begin to kiss until a new gerbil enters through the door.
Death is everywhere in this story. It seems like everything the kids associate with dies. The interesting thing about this is that the kids are continuously given new things! Once one thing dies, it’s simply on to the next, new thing. I think that is the significance of the ending and the new gerbil. The kids, after making a brilliant deduction/realization about life and death, finally move on to a new topic, even if it is watching their teacher make love, until something as feeble as a new gerbil walks in the room. I think this is a lot like modern society. We become so absorbed and enthralled by petty things, we neglect to realize how brilliant we are and how worthwhile life is.
As for the kids quote, “…is death that which gives meaning to life?” Does death give meaning to life? Or does life give meaning to death? Or neither? Or both? I think it’s a bit of both. We want to accomplish all we can in this life before we are dead, thus death gives meaning to life. Yet, death would not be significant without life. Then again, society somewhat shuns death. It’s just a commonplace, everyday thing. That kind of reminds me of the opening paragraph of A Silver Dish and how Bellow talked about death as “peristalsis.”
Short and sweet, and definitely weird and pessimistic.