The School by Donald Barthelme


This study guide will help you analyze the text “The School” by Donald Barthelme. We will show you examples of elements in the text that will be relevant for your analysis. In these notes, we will focus on the summary, structure, characters, setting, narrator and point of view, language, theme and message.

Presentation of the text

Title: “The School”
Author: Donald Barthelme
Published in: “The New Yorker”
Date of Publication: 1974
Genre: Short Story

Donald Barthelme (1931-1989) was an American author of short stories and novels. He was also a journalist, a university professor, and a museum director. He is considered a Postmodernist writer, most of his fiction being constructed using absurd, surreal elements.


“The School” by Donald Barthelme starts with a school teacher, Edgar, who wonders why the trees in the school garden project have died without any apparent reason and describes both teachers’ and children’s frustration with the situation. Edgar then recalls some recent occurrences in which snakes, plant gardens, gerbils, tropical fish and a puppy named Edgar all died without understandable reasons.

But the list of sudden and inexplicable deaths continues with a Korean orphan the class adopted and sent money to, with parents and grandparents as well as two school children, Mathew and Tony. The children in Edgar’s classroom ask Edgar where all these plants, animals and people go after death, but the teacher has no answer for them. The children want to know whether death is what makes life meaningful, but Edgar argues that life has meaning in itself without death. The children are disappointed by the teacher’s answers and ask him to make love with his teaching assistant Helen. Edgar refuses, trying to convince children not to be afraid of death and to find value everywhere. Helen comes in, and she hugs and kisses Edgar in front of the children. However, their attention is distracted by a new gerbil which comes in the class.

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The School by Donald Barthelme

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  • 12/09/2021