Metafiction in American Short Stories - Readers' Perception of Language and Symbols in Shattered Realities.

A Research Paper on Donald Barthelme's "The Glass Mountain"

Seminar Paper, 2006

10 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. About Donald Barthelme and “The Glass Mountain”: Representatives of Postmodernism

3. Questions on “The Glass Mountain”: Disorientation Attributable to Fragmentation

4. The Gap between Conventional Reality and the Constructed World: Language and Symbols Split and Unite

5. Conclusion

List of Works Cited

1. Introduction

Reading Donald Barthelme’s short story “The Glass Mountain” is a most puzzling and mind-boggling experience for anybody who has not done research on the author and the background of his fiction. A variety of astonishing ideas and concepts in terms of structure and content are present in the short story and raise questions on meaning, form or intention of the story. The predominant conventions of narrative order, closure and mimetic fidelity are questioned and challenged by an entirely new approach to storytelling in America.

Donald Barthelme is still considered the founder of postmodernist writing. He presented the new style even before the phrase was coined. That is why his short story “The Glass Mountain” can illustrate the idea of what should turn out to be a lasting approach in the arts and in literature.

The following research paper will first try to raise awareness of the time and present some basic ideas of postmodernist literature. It will then pay closer attention to Barthelme’s “The Glass Mountain” and try to give answers to questions which presumably every reader will ask. The 4th chapter of this paper is dedicated to the role of symbols and the differences between the world as the reader sees it and the way the narrator perceives it.

2. About Donald Barthelme and “The Glass Mountain”: Representatives of Postmodernism

Donald Barthelme was born in Philadelphia in 1931. At High School age, he began writing stories and poems and later became a regular contributor to the “New Yorker”, a magazine that would publish a great deal of his works. Among others, an essay entitled “After Joyce” inaugurated the concept of postmodernism even before that classification existed in literary history (Molesworth 2432).

One possible definition of the word “postmodernism” is as follows: “A term that is still vague. It refers to a new approach in the arts and in literature that began in the late 1950s and implies the questioning of the meaning of history and of the real, an experimentalism that includes playing with forms and meanings, and a revolt against the seriousness of the modernists and their hope for formal coherence. In literature, some postmodernists are concerned with playful exercises in fantasy and grotesquery, others explore the process of writing and the formation of texts, and others again write fiction of excess and encyclopedic mass. One point all postmodernists have in common is the expression of formal and ideological questions about the nature of fiction.” (Wagner 510)

Fiction was no longer considered a reflection or commentary on the existing world, but an object in itself that “dispenses with characters, action, plot, and fact, dispenses with them by permitting them to proliferate all over the landscape and by resolutely short-circuiting the expected order of things.” (Trachtenberg 4-5)

Not only Barthelme, but also renowned authors like Robert Coover, Ronald Suckenick or John Barth were of the opinion that the potential of conventional novels or short stories was exhausted. Consequently, it had to be replaced with a new form which was later dubbed “surfiction”, “metafiction”, “parafiction”, “innovative”, “experimental” or “absurd” fiction (Folta 3). Barthelme’s assessment of experimentalism is reflected by one of his comments in an essay entitled “A Symposium on Fiction”: “One does not choose to be a ‘conventional’ writer or ‘experimental’ writer. One writes as he or she can. It’s not conscious choice. ... One of the funny things about experimentalism in regard to language is that most of it has not been done yet.” (Gordon 19) Language plays a most important role in innovative writing, as it will turn out in the present short story. If conventional literature was exhausted, the best way to broaden would be to extend language.

“The Glass Mountain” was one of the short stories compiled in Bartheleme’s “City Life” collection, which was published in 1970. In an itemized series of a hundred sentences it tells about the unsuccessful attempt of an experiencing I to climb up a glass mountain towering over the rest of the city. His ascent is accompanied by a throng shouting swearwords at him.

What the first-person narrator perceived as offered encouragement in the 10th section is followed by “Shithead” and “Asshole”, yelled out by his acquaintances (Barthelme 39). Making his way up, he observes knights that tried in vain to climb up to the top and were being robbed of their gold teeth by the greedy crowd at the bottom of the mountain. A fairy book cited by the narrator states the “conventional means of attaining the castle” on top of the mass of glass and provides the solution to the problem of overwhelming the guarding eagle and rescue the beautiful enchanted princess from the castle.


Excerpt out of 10 pages


Metafiction in American Short Stories - Readers' Perception of Language and Symbols in Shattered Realities.
A Research Paper on Donald Barthelme's "The Glass Mountain"
University of Koblenz-Landau  (Fachbereich 2, Institut für Anglistik)
American Short Fiction
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
465 KB
Instructor's comments: - choice of very sophisticated and complicated fiction genre - choice of relevant secondary material: very good - analysis mostly combines theses from secondary material, but does not answer own questions raised
Donald Barthelme, The Glass Mountain, Postmodernism
Quote paper
Tobias Reiche (Author), 2006, Metafiction in American Short Stories - Readers' Perception of Language and Symbols in Shattered Realities., Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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