Formalistic Criticism toward

Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby
By

Donald Barthelme

…………………………… Mehdi HE …………………………… http://www.mehdi-he.com

Note:
The whole story was a kind of personal practice before the literary criticism mid-term exam. A group of my friends and I chose this story, and we wrote our critics, then shared it in the group and discussed. What is written below is my note in 25 May 2006. Persian translation of this story is also available in this address: http://mehdi-he.com/2006/08/blog-post_03.html

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Some of us had been threatening our friend Colby is a short story by Donald Barthelme. It is about hanging a man, named Coldby by his friends. The setting of place is a city, in early 20th century (considering the references to limousines) when there ARE laws, but there are still cruel punishments by gangs who have the power. It is a day in June. The story is remembered (and narrated) by a character, when they've threatened the guy, and eventually when they hung him in outdoor, somewhere in a bank of a river. The language is simple, easy to understand, educated and formal. It is narrated by the first person point of view, therefore it is limited, but during the story, the behavior of the narrator (who is merely an observer) shows its reliability. There are ten characters mentioned in this story; Howard, Hugh, Magnus, Tomas, Victor, Harry, Paul, Hank, Elgar and Colby himself, but the only narrator is first person point of view; I. Colby is protagonist and his friends who decided to hang him are antagonists. The theme is about cruelty of a mafia, and their killing in order to observing the rules. There is also a second theme available, which comes from the last sentence, and that is the practicability of capital punishment. At the very beginning of the story we face to a grotesque situation - where there is an odd situation that arouses horror and disgust, with the sense of humor and far to believe ideas. From the beginning -and also in the title of the story- there are words like “some of US” and “OUR friend” which bring the sense of familiarization, as we are a part of the story, although later we see it is like a confession, and we are just addressees. In first six lines there is a connotation of a gang of children who play games and exaggerate a lot. There is no special imagery except a grotesque atmosphere, and heavy words that are most likely words on a gang of boys. There are guys talking

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and discussing about their friend, Colby, to hang him because he has passed the bounds and gone too far. The story goes on when the writer narrates this strange event in a cold blood manner which is a feature of grotesque too, and we -as readers- have no way to deny the event. There is also paradoxes, while they are hanging a man, they ask him to “be reasonable, and just select a simple music to play”, and the guy accepts and helps his friends, and also where they know it is “illegal” but they are convinced of their “moral right” to hang him, and inviting people to come and see. Inviting people and having a ceremony includes drinking and the orchestra to play the music, bring to the mind the idea of a party, as if these people are a kind of god-fathers and have decided to warn other people by sacrificing their prey during a ceremony, i.e. hanging their friend in public. In the second page it becomes clear that there is no game, and they are not children. This grotesque atmosphere brings a gothic -horror- one when we realize these men are adults; one is in a car-rental business and the other is an architect, and the like. So we get that they are serious in their words. Despite the tone, there is not a dark imagery in the story; it is June and outdoor is all green. Then they talk of the kind of the wood for gibbet, and at last they decide to use an oak tree instead. This imagery of nature can have a connotation of a power which is in a wrong hand. The nature that is free of vices is going to be used as a mean of hanging. We have also imagery of the rain. Rain can wash the guilt, it purifies and they wish the weather to be rainy, although at the end we are informed of no rainy weather, which makes this killing unforgettable and unforgivable.

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As the story goes, it leads us to a point that there is a mafia group, an organization of a gang, and they gain (and save) their power by every mean, even killing. They call each other friend, and they are cruel enough to hang one for disobeying the rules, (going too far). Words like “firing squad” (which Codby asks) and a simile to Draconians (those who, like Dracon, enact cruel and strict laws) shows these men are educated; they are really serious, and ensures us in the idea of a mafia group. Then there is an opinion that they may hang him by wire (instead of rope). But the suggestion of scratching the tree (which is in the form of a gibbet) and refusing of this opinion brings again the seemingly rational, easy to talk and act atmosphere. In the story when there is a talk of rationality, it ends in a kind of fallacy. Like sophists, these people know how to use words to reach their OWN goal. In the last paragraph suddenly we face the cruelty of the truth, they hung him as it is described and there is no sense of regret. It is shocking, yes, they were unbelievably cruel! At first we may think of this narration as a rough statement to mention and warn others (let’s say to remind for new and young members of the mafia group) but two last sentences supports the mere observer narrator and the theme. It is as narrating a truth or a memory of a mafia gang.

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