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Some of Us Have Been Threatening Our Friend Colby, by Donald

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Matthew Contino

on 19 July 2016

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Transcript of Some of Us Have Been Threatening Our Friend Colby, by Donald

Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby, by Donald Barthelme
A Rhetorical Analysis
The entirety of the humor is encapsulated by the first two sentences of the piece:
Details on what Colby actually did and his friends' attitudes towards him (obscured by the narrator's matter-of-fact delivery of their comments) remain vague throughout the story, denying any opportunity to judge the accusers and accused and so leaving no room for moralizing. As a result, Barthelme is in complete control of how we perceive the characters and their reasoning.
The structure is straightforward, following the pace of the conversation between the friends and expertly mixing dialogue with description. Remarks and ideas that would otherwise be seen as outrageous or provocative are glazed over in an over-the-shoulder fashion, compounding the incongruity of the whole scenario further.
The Overarching Joke
Image by Tom Mooring
Rhetorical Analysis, Matt Contino
"Going too far, he said, was something everybody did sometimes. We didn't pay too much attention to his argument."
Although Colby is adamantly against his own hanging, he only negotiates with his friends within a sphere of polite and constrained social etiquette, not the desperate candidness that people would typically respond to death threats with. The others, in return, shut down nearly all of his input and pleas but insist on doing right by him as his friends and making the event an enjoyable and tasteful one, though are hesitant to spend more than a few hundred dollars on avoidable expenses, such as a hangman.
I said that although hanging Colby was almost certainly against the law, we had a perfect moral right to do so because he was our friend, belonged to us in various important senses, and he had after all gone too far.
The group moralizes in such a skewed and flimsy way that it’s laughable, but the friends agree and outnumber Colby, who is prevented by the “social etiquette” of the circumstance, created by the tone of the narrator, from resisting too ardently. So their word is as good as law, ironically.
To summarize,
Some of Us
is a short story by Donald Barthelme, published in 1973, in which a group of friends agree that one of them, Colby, has "gone too far" and that they should hang him, discussing the morals, logic, and taste of the event. It's primary message seems to be the worthlessness of reason when serving brutality.
"Some of us had been threatening our friend Colby for a long time, because
of the way that he had been behaving. And now he'd gone too far, so we
decided to hang him."
The violent and jaded ideas presented by the group are juxtaposed by a mild and polite tone of the narrator, leaving a sense of incongruity that is funny in how unsettling it is, and unsettling in how funny it is. In other words, content is radically contradicted by presentation.
Benign Violation
Considering the radically opposing themes in the story, it isn't difficult to see benign violation at work here. The morbidity of the subject matter is offset by the benign tone of the narrator, but the harmless civility is made unsettling by the discussions it's accompanied with.
Eventually we are fully immersed in the inverted reality Barthelme has created.
Something is eventually considered to be in poor taste, though it seems arbitrary at this point. Murder has become a matter of taste and reputation and democratic and majority reasoning have taken on a much darker tone than we know them for.
"At the mention of "wire," Hank, who had been silent all this time, suddenly spoke up and said he wondered if it wouldn't be better if we used wire instead of rope -- more efficient and in the end kinder to Colby, he suggested. Colby began looking a little green, and I didn't blame him, because there is something extremely distasteful in thinking about being hanged with wire instead of rope -- it gives you sort of a revulsion, when you think about it."
Intended Audience
The work addresses the social norms and etiquette that all societies have in some form as well as the form of execution that becomes antiquated if a society has developed adequately, so the demographic for this piece to be as communicative and funny as it is is notably broad, though Americans likely have the most familiarity with the social interactions within the story.
Though the short story is typically only presented in collections, Barthelme has received numerous awards from institutions such as Time and The National Book Award.
"Donald Barthelme may have influenced the short story in his time as much as Hemingway or O'Hara did in theirs. They loosened the story's grip on the security of plot, but he broke it altogether and forced the form to live dangerously. O'Hara played with the brand names of our things, and Donald Barthelme plays with the brand names of our ideas. While Hemingway and O'Hara worked with specific feelings, he works with the structure of our emotional makeup."
-Anatole Broyard, New York Times Critic
"I said that although I thought the whole thing ought to be done really well and all, I also thought four hundred dollars for a gibbet, on top of the expense for the drinks, invitations, musicians, and everything, was a bit steep, and why didn't we just use a tree -- a nice-looking oak, or something? I pointed out that since it was going to be a June hanging the trees would be in glorious leaf and that not only would a tree add a kind of "natural" feeling but it was also strictly traditional, especially in the West."
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