Donald Barthelme, "The Baby"

Breitkopf Michaela & Schmidt Sandra

“The Baby“ by Donald Barthelme

At first we want to give you some information about the author Donald Barthelme.
The author of the short story “The Baby”, Donald Barthelme, was born on April 7th 1931 in Philadelphia. Two years later his family went to Texas because his father got a job as an architect at the university of Houston. From 1951 onwards he wrote his first articles for the Houston Post. In 1953 Donald Barthelme was conscripted into military services and was drafted in the Korean War.
In 1961, Barthelme became director of the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston. He announced his first short story the same year. The author published his short stories at The New Yorker at first, but after a while a choice of them was released in books.
Together, the author wrote four novels and more than 100 short stories.
Moreover he is seen as a considerable exponent of the american post-modern literature.
Donald Barthelme died on July 23rd in Houston because of cancer.


The story is about a baby that tears out pages out of books continuously.
At the beginning the baby had started tearing out only one page. Later on the amount of pages rises day by day. As a punishment the parents locked her daughter in her own room and ignored the screaming and crying from behind the closed door. The more books the baby destroyed the longer Born Dancin’ had to stay in her room. She takes every chance to pull out some pages but she manages to concentrate only on the corners of the papers because she is scared of her parents’ cruel punishment. The parents still believe that their way of education is the best because later her child has to live in a world of laws and rules.
One day the situation escalates when the baby was locked for 88 hours and her mother takes the door off its hinges with a crowbar. This is the point in the story where the first doubts emerge. The child’s activity doesn’t diminish no matter what measures the parents take.
Consequently the couple accept their child with all of her behaviours.


The narrator in the short story is a First-person narrator with a limited point of view. He is a character in the story. Throughout the story he doesn’t remain neutral, but he is able to get the feelings and thoughts of the characters to the readers.
The author uses a number of stylistic devices to make his short story more effective.
To emphasize the strange behaviour of the baby, Donald Barthelme uses the simile “like a bat out of hell” (l.2). A simile is a comparison between two things with similar qualities. A bat is supposed to fly very quickly away, but the addition “out of hell” lends a supernaturally quality to the image, suggesting that some kind of evil magic could enhance that bat’s speed. The baby rushes very quickly out of her room as if she were persecuted by a devil. Born Dancin’ is really keen on tearing out some pages of every book she is close to. Her parents always lock her baby in her room that she isn’t able to catch some other books. But always the baby has the chance to get out of her room she rushes to the next book insanely.
The baby’s destiny is also linked to another stylistic device. A parallelism “It solved it by declaring that is was all right to tear pages out of books, and moreover , that is was all right to have torn pages out of books in the past. “ occurs in ll. 11-13 to embody the father’s doubt about of the way of education. The author wants the reader to pay attention to these lines through a string of phrases with more or less the same structure. This is the reversal point where the father accepts the behaviour of his little daughter. It seems that the father tries to make the best of the baby’s activity and stops punishing his daughter in future.


After reading the short story “The Baby” we were really horrified how the parents treat her own baby. We assume that a baby at the age of fourteen month hasn’t got a natural sense of justice and doesn’t know what’s right or wrong. It should be the parent’s job to explain their baby that it is not correct to tear out pages of books. Whereas it’s an irresponsible attitude to lock their child in her room for hour instead of taking care of Born Dancin’.
Especially in this time of growing up babys need love, affection and feelings of security. Nowadays many parents are overstrained in questions of education. Many children are neglected or even abused. We know that it is difficult to parent a child in these days but you have the option to get professional assistance in case of demands.


jdibrahim hat gesagt…

If the book is a symbol of education then the Baby is right to "tear the book" thus communicating the message saying: this type of education “book” I don’t like. It is bad and should be done away with. The typical children's book in America "Goodnight Moon" - the bedtime story before saying goodnight to a child- written by Margret Wise Brown and illustrated by Clement Hurd, published in 1947 is like the German "Gute- Nacht-Geschichte". Parents can no more tell their child a story, instead they read from a book. Telling a story makes a story (particularly for a child) much more interesting and fires his/her imagination than reading from a book and showing pictures (which kills their imagination and doesn't keep eye-contact with the child). Mothers and fathers should learn to tell stories, not read from books, should have time for children instead of stuffing or plugging up their children’s rooms with toys and books.

Dr. Jamshid Ibrahim
Bremen - Germany

jdibrahim hat gesagt…

Tearing pages or corners of pages from books is a metaphor signalizes illness. The Baby (the patient) shows her parents there is something wrong with their treatment of the illness i.e. parental education. In stead of understanding the symptom which is a semiotic language communicated by the Baby (since it can’t speak to explain what’s wrong) the father reacts by imposing punishment as part of his education. This is a general metaphor and can be applied to all areas of human life including medicine. Medical doctors/educators often don’t understand the symptoms and apply the wrong treatment. You go for an illness and get another one.( traditional education/medicine and side effects).
Parents are supposed to understand or at least to try to understand why the Baby tears pages and goes on tearing pages in spite of punishment. Symptoms are a language which communicates a message and needs to be interpreted correctly in order to deal with the problem. Tearing pages can mean:
I am angry
I don’t like your education
I don’t like stuffing my room with toys
I don’t like you to tell me a story by reading from a book
Please help me

In stead the father prefers to stick to rules because as he understands the Baby will cope with law and rules better when it grows up. Ironically the very laws which are imposed by adults are abolished and declared wrong later. Changing the rules by saying it is/was right to tear pages means the Baby was right. The Baby was punished although according to the new rules now it did just the right thing. Adults are invited to understand a problem (if there is any) before reverting to law and punishment. We feel now it is time to punish the father for punishing the Baby ignorantly.

Finally the question is: why of all other objects does the Baby like tearing pages from books? The Baby stops tearing pages and starts tearing corners to avoid punishment. This means the Baby knows how to continue destroying books without the risk of being punished. The Baby has learnt (experience) how to show child maltreatment without the risk of getting grounded (German: Stubenarrest. This type of maltreatment (confinement to its room for such a long time: Stubenarrest) is nothing but imprisoning a child. Tearing books may also suggest that at least some of them (books /education /medical treatment) should be torn (abandoned) because they are simply wrong and misleading.

Wordsworth said: The child is the father of the man. Bad education and treatment in childhood is a serious issue. The Baby’s personality and identity is formed b at such an early and vital stage of human life by wrong education in spite of its cries of help and symptoms of mental disorder. Once a tree grows crooked it cannot be straightened easily

Jamshid Ibrahim
Bremen Germany

rip hat gesagt…

Thanks a lot for your extensive comments on the interpretation of Barthelme's story. We appreciate your contribution.

jdibrahim hat gesagt…

Babies usually need to develop their sensual and physical skills. By tearing the book the Baby can develop its finger skills. The book is theoretical, not practical, and useless for the Baby. Maybe they have already read useless books which the Baby now tears away. In his despair the father unfortunately goes from one extreme to the other. They (the Baby and the Father) represent different generations and different needs. In addition rules don’t help to develop the Baby’s imagination and thinking. On the contrary they stop them because rules are like machines or robots.

Dr. Jamshid Ibrahim
Bremen - Germany

Dr. Jamshid Ibrahim hat gesagt…

The Baby (additional remarks)
Rules are set by adults but ironically the very (stupid) rules are not only changed but reversed: In the beginning the baby was not allowed to tear pages but in the end the baby and the father not only tear pages but also smash windscreens. Education goes from one extreme to the other. In the same way children were brought up in the western world (Germany). Before the 60s parents were very strict (Zucht und Ordnung, Ordnung muß sein……) but after the 60s children’s education went to the other extreme: anti-authoritarian. Children were not only not afraid of their parents’ and teachers’ punishment but were disrespectful to a certain extent as well.. Education is unable to come up with the right dose of what should be allowed or not allowed. The limits are blurred. “The carrot and stick method” was criticized but no reasonable alternatives were suggested. This shows lack of understanding and insight. The baby must have been extremely confused when the father reversed the rules.
Different generations have different educations styles. We start from very conservative and strict education style and go to anti authoritarian. Parents have always been in a dilemma. In the beginning only fathers were present but now fathers are absent. Divorce rate has gone up and as a result there are more lone families (single parent families) than nuclear families. Right of custody is usually given to mothers and children grow up without fathers. Now fathers’ roles are restricted to financial support. This development has to lead to more step families and more conflicts.
It seems that highly educated parents of the generation of book readers don’t know how to educate and deal with children. The baby is right to tear the very books the parents believe would help them with their education. Some mothers and fathers say from experience that they only learn to educate children after the third or the fourth child. However, the standard family in the western world (Germany) is only one and a half children and maybe a dog or a cat. Finally the word “tear” is a word play : tear a book and shed tears.

Dr. Jamshid Ibrahim
Bremen - Germany

Karen Kilroy hat gesagt…

"The Baby" has nothing to do with books. This is a story about parenting. That you can choose to be the dictator, you can choose to set up impossible expectations for your child, you can choose to take stupid expectations of society in a literal way and lay those down as law. OR you can choose not to! Every decision is as "good as gold." You can choose to love your child and just go smash windshields together!