Overview: "The Indian Uprising", by Donald Barthelme
Author: Donald Barthelme also known as: Donald Barthelme, Jr.
Genre: short story
Date: 1968

Genre(s): short story; Short stories; Satires; Novels; Children's literature; Essays; Experimental fiction; Parodies

The story is marginally structured as a report of a battle between troops led partly by the narrator and a band of "Comanches" and their ghetto-dwelling sympathizers. Between accounts of the fighting and of the torture of a captured Comanche are the narrator's disjointed observations, conversations with Sylvia (his most recent lover, apparently), yearning for an unidentified "you," and encounters with a plain, rather stern schoolteacher, Miss R. When he decides that he knows nothing, the narrator goes to Miss R for instruction, who says she reveres only the "hard, brown, nutlike word," Miss R alternates between berating the narrator and addressing him in fond endearments. Meanwhile Sylvia betrays the narrator by joining the Indians in their uprising. At the end of the story, the narrator and his friends Block and Kenneth are attacked by their enemies, with whom, the reader learns, Miss R is actually allied. She orders the narrator to remove his belt and shoelaces, suggesting that he may now be tortured by his captors.

"The Indian Uprising" is considered one of Barthelme's most intriguing and accomplished short stories. Although it is loosely structured as a kind of battle account, the story exemplifies its author's innovative, fragmented technique. Barthelme's style is a "collage" assembled from apparently unrelated observations and bits of information---the statement of the narrator in "The Indian Uprising" that "strings of language extend in every direction to bind the world into a rushing, ribald whole" is an apt description for Barthelme's philosophy. In his 1967 novel, Snow White, Barthelme suggests that the accumulated, ironically intoned details he terms "dreck" may reveal as much or more about life than more conventional, realistic narrative. surfeited with ironic humor and inhabited by characters who are only vaguely portrayed, "The Indian Uprising" parodies the mythology of American "Wild West" fiction and cinema. Commentators have interpreted the story---which first appeared during the turbulent protests against the Vietnam war---as commentary on how obsessed we are with war and how we romanticize it.

The story offers little background information about its narrator, who seems to be one of the leaders of the troops the "Comanches" and their sympathizers are attacking. He participates in the torture of the captured Comanche and describes various battle scenarios. These descriptions are interlaced with seemingly unrelated comments directed at various women in his life as well as his accounts of his visits with Miss R. His relationship with this teacher, which he initiates after deciding that he "knows nothing," seems ironic when Miss R turns out to be a member of the insurgency. Some critics have identified the narrator as a member of the well-educated, affluent urban class, too smug and self-deluded to recognize what is going on around him. His frequent comments about the table he is making from a door seemed to some critics to mean the narrator is preoccupied with trivial details even in the midst of a crisis. Others critics have focused on the narrator's relationships with women, including Sylvia---who seems to be his current lover---and a never-identified "you" who may be Sylvia or someone else. It is even possible that the uprising is a metaphor of the struggle to obtain fulfillment in love, a battle waged not against a band of savage-eyed Indians but against Sylvia. Another reviewer called the narrator an artist who destroyed himself by never internalizing social values, which left him open to the onslaught of life's "primitive" elements. At the end of "The Indian Uprising," the narrator is taken prisoner, stripped of the "bindings" of belt and shoelaces, and subjected to chaos and the unknown.

Most of the story's other characters---some critics have argued, that they are not characters at all but vehicles for Barthelme's verbal experimentation---are women, and images of love and war are closely intertwined. As the story opens, it appears that Sylvia is the narrator's main love interest, but she eventually abandons him, running off to join the Comanches and "uttering shrill cries." The story may be a metaphor for the narrator's break-up with Sylvia, whose angry words can then be viewed as the insurgent forces opposing him. The narrator also longs for an unidentified "you"; this woman is apparently a star of pornographic films and may even be Sylvia. Miss R is the teacher to whom the narrator's friends send him for further education. She is supposedly unorthodox but successful with difficult cases like himself. Her methods are bizarre---she alternately insults and cajoles the narrator, calling him "my darling, my thistle, my poppet." Miss R claims that truth lies in the "litany" and that she reveres only "the hard, brown, nutlike word." Some reviewers have felt that she parodies the traditional schoolteacher type or is an ironic reversal of this stereotype, since she turns out to be on the Indian side in the uprising. Also referred to in the story is Jane; the narrator has heard that she was "beaten up by a dwarf in a bar on Tenerife," and (despite his stated desire to remain "nonevaluative") he admonishes her for having an affair with a married man.

Other characters mentioned in "The Indian Uprising" include the captured Comanche brave, whose torture comprises a central motif in the story and who ultimately reveals his name to be Gustave Aschenbach, the name of the emotionally tortured protagonist in Thomas Mann's 1912 novel, Death in Venice; and the narrator's friends Block and Kenneth, who seem to be his co-defenders against the siege of the Indians.

Source: "Donald Barthelme: "The Indian Uprising"," in Characters in Twentieth-Century Literature, Book Two, Gale Research, 1995.

swiped from Seattle Public Library's database Literature Resource Center