Human Relationships in Donald Barthelme's Short Story "Game"

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About this sample

About this sample


Words: 863 |

Pages: 2|

5 min read

Published: Jun 13, 2024

Words: 863|Pages: 2|5 min read

Published: Jun 13, 2024

Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Body 1: Narrative Structure and Themes
  3. Body 2: Character Dynamics and Psychological Tension
  4. Conclusion


Donald Barthelme's short story "Game" is a quintessential example of his postmodernist style, characterized by its fragmented narrative, absurdist elements, and deep exploration of human psychology. Published in 1965, the story revolves around two men, Shotwell and the unnamed narrator, who are confined in an underground bunker with the responsibility of launching a nuclear missile if they receive the order. Their prolonged isolation and the oppressive environment lead to a breakdown in their relationship and sanity, highlighting themes of paranoia, power dynamics, and the absurdity of human existence. Through the lens of "Game," Barthelme critiques the Cold War era's anxieties and the dehumanizing effects of military protocols. This essay delves into the story's narrative structure, themes, and character dynamics to elucidate Barthelme's commentary on the absurdity of war and the fragility of human relationships.

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Body 1: Narrative Structure and Themes

The narrative structure of "Game" is disjointed and reflective of the characters' mental state, creating a sense of claustrophobia and escalating tension. Barthelme employs a first-person perspective, allowing readers to experience the narrator's thoughts and emotions directly. The stream-of-consciousness style reveals the narrator's growing paranoia and obsession with Shotwell, blurring the lines between reality and delusion. This fragmented narrative mirrors the breakdown of communication and trust between the two men, emphasizing the psychological toll of their confinement.
One of the central themes in "Game" is the absurdity of war and the dehumanizing effects of strict military protocols. The characters' situation—a pair of men isolated in a bunker, awaiting orders to potentially end the world—exemplifies the irrationality and existential dread of the Cold War era. Barthelme uses this setting to satirize the bureaucratic and impersonal nature of military operations, where individuals are reduced to mere cogs in a machine, disconnected from the broader implications of their actions. The story's title, "Game," underscores the trivialization of such grave responsibilities, suggesting that the characters' predicament is akin to a cruel and meaningless sport.
The interplay of power and control is another prominent theme. Shotwell and the narrator are bound by strict rules and routines, yet their relationship is marked by a constant struggle for dominance. Shotwell's secretive possession of the jacks—a small but significant act of defiance—becomes a symbol of his desire for control and autonomy within the confined space. The narrator's fixation on retrieving the jacks reflects his own need for order and authority, revealing the underlying power dynamics and the fragility of their enforced camaraderie.

Body 2: Character Dynamics and Psychological Tension

The psychological tension between Shotwell and the narrator drives the narrative forward, highlighting the complexities of human relationships under extreme conditions. Their prolonged isolation exacerbates their individual neuroses and insecurities, transforming the bunker into a pressure cooker of repressed emotions and unresolved conflicts. The lack of external stimuli and the monotony of their routine amplify their psychological distress, leading to obsessive behaviors and irrational thoughts.
Barthelme skillfully portrays the deterioration of their relationship through subtle interactions and the gradual unraveling of their mental states. The narrator's internal monologue reveals his growing suspicion and resentment towards Shotwell, whom he perceives as a threat to his authority and sanity. This paranoia is reciprocated by Shotwell, whose secretive behavior and refusal to share the jacks fuel the narrator's anxiety. The jacks, a seemingly innocuous game, become a focal point of their power struggle, symbolizing their desperate need for control and agency in an otherwise powerless situation.
The story also explores themes of isolation and the human need for connection. Despite their antagonism, Shotwell and the narrator are each other's only companions, bound together by their shared predicament. Their interactions, though fraught with tension, reveal an underlying dependence and a desperate desire for recognition and understanding. This paradoxical dynamic—simultaneously adversarial and symbiotic—reflects the complexity of human relationships and the inherent need for social connection, even in the most dire circumstances.
Barthelme's use of language and tone further accentuates the story's themes and psychological depth. His minimalist prose and repetitive structures create a sense of monotony and entrapment, mirroring the characters' lived experience. The occasional dark humor and absurdist elements serve to underscore the surreal nature of their situation, highlighting the absurdity and futility of their vigil. Through these stylistic choices, Barthelme crafts a narrative that is both deeply unsettling and thought-provoking, inviting readers to reflect on the broader implications of the characters' plight.

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Donald Barthelme's "Game" is a masterful exploration of the absurdity of war, the dehumanizing effects of military protocols, and the fragility of human relationships under extreme conditions. Through its fragmented narrative, psychological depth, and darkly humorous tone, the story offers a poignant critique of the Cold War era's anxieties and the existential dilemmas faced by individuals in positions of immense responsibility. Shotwell and the narrator's struggle for control and connection within their confined space serves as a microcosm of the broader human condition, reflecting the universal themes of power, isolation, and the search for meaning. Barthelme's ability to blend absurdity with profound psychological insight makes "Game" a timeless and compelling piece of literature that continues to resonate with readers today. As we navigate our own complex and often contradictory world, the story serves as a reminder of the importance of empathy, communication, and the human capacity for resilience in the face of absurdity.

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This essay was reviewed by
Dr. Oliver Johnson

Cite this Essay

Human Relationships in Donald Barthelme’s Short Story “Game”. (2024, Jun 12). GradesFixer. Retrieved July 15, 2024, from
“Human Relationships in Donald Barthelme’s Short Story “Game”.” GradesFixer, 12 Jun. 2024,
Human Relationships in Donald Barthelme’s Short Story “Game”. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 15 Jul. 2024].
Human Relationships in Donald Barthelme’s Short Story “Game” [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2024 Jun 12 [cited 2024 Jul 15]. Available from:
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