Genre: short story
Genre(s): short story; Short stories; Satires; Novels; Children's literature; Essays; Experimental fiction; Parodies
The story's narrator is a thirty-five-year-old insurance claims adjuster acclimating himself to his new role as a fifth-grade student and making the best of a situation that no one else around him seems to recognize as irrational. Through his diary entries the narrator discloses that his adult life has consisted of a grim stint in the army, when he felt his identity slipping away from him, followed by a marriage and career that both ultimately failed. His current predicament is apparently a punishment for misinterpreting his employer's stated dedication to serving its customers: he helped an elderly widow collect a claim rightfully due her. The narrator admits that since his army days, when he frequently questioned the value of apparently pointless activities, he has felt isolated from others. He yearns to be "typical" and feels that he needs "reworking in some fundamental way." Thus he adjusts his habits to his new life---he gives up alcohol, smokes only in the boy's bathroom, and petitions for a larger desk. However, the demands of adult sexuality do not subside and find gratification in Miss Mandible. The narrator's musings on the unreliability of "signs" underscore the idea that life and society promise things that are often unattainable. For example, the narrator's company's motto---"Here to Help in Time of Need"---proves untrue; his wife, Brenda (whom Sue Ann Brownly resembles in some unpleasant ways), is unfaithful to him; the American flag no longer means the same thing to everyone. Lacking confidence, unstable, and anxious, the narrator possesses traits common to many of Barthelme's characters. Some critics consider the narrator a parody of such celebrated literary protagonists as Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Underground Man, James Joyce's Stephen Daedalus, and J. D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield. Through this simultaneously absurd and poignant narrator, Barthelme explores such matters as the blurred distinction between children and adults ("There are only individual egos, crazy for love"), the arbitrary nature of social conventions, conformity, and the brutal fact that "arrangements sometimes slip ... errors are made ... signs are misread."
Miss Mandible teachers the fifth grade class to which the narrator is assigned. He suspects that she wants him sexually and that she knows he does not belong there, even though she treats the adult-sized narrator as just another eleven-year-old child. She worries about the advanced quality of the narrator's essays and asks if someone is helping him write them. She also doesn't push the issue of the desk being far too small for him. The narrator views these incidents as proof that she fears he will be sent away. The narrator's sexual attraction to Miss Mandible and belief that she desires him too are constant reminders of life outside the classroom---although at the same time the narrator considers his teacher more childlike than the worldly Sue Ann, and he notes that the classroom is a veritable cauldron of titillation. Near the story's end Miss Mandible finally gives in to her passion. The narrator reports that even though the teacher's career is ruined by seducing a "minor," she achieves sexual fulfillment. Some critics have found this ending vaguely hopeful or at least indicating that the connections human beings make with each other are valuable.
The most notable of the students among whom the narrator finds himself is Sue Ann Brownley, a girl who, "although between eleven and eleven-and-a-half (she refuses to reveal her exact age) ... is clearly a woman, with a woman' s disguised aggression and a woman's peculiar contradictions." Sue Ann expresses dominance over the narrator by kicking his ankle, and this hostility reminds him of his wife, Brenda, who left him for another man. The narrator believes Sue Ann and Miss Mandible are competing for him. Sue Ann mistakenly thinks that making him limp is a victory, but it is the teacher who has sex with the narrator in the cloakroom. Sue Ann, who discovers the pair, vengefully reports this scandal to the principal. Like another female student, Frankie Randolph (an avid reader of Movie-TV Secrets magazine), Sue Ann passionately follows the escapades of various American celebrities. The narrator muses that Elizabeth Taylor, Eddie Fisher, and Debbie Reynolds are exaggerated and shallow models of social behavior. Other students at Horace Greeley Elementary include Bobby Vanderbilt, a boy obsessed with sports cars, and Harry Broan, who is frequently teased because his wealthy father invented the Broan Bathroom Vent. He seems grateful that the narrator refuses to fight him.
Source: "Donald Barthelme: "Me and Miss Mandible"," in Characters in Twentieth-Century Literature, Book Two, Gale Research, 1995.