LiteraryFilter: Meaning of "Buried Talents" by Richard Matheson
November 29, 2008 1:58 PM   Subscribe

I recently read the short story "Buried Talents" by Richard Matheson (of "I Am Legend" fame (Amazon link). What does it mean? Short summary: a strange man is uncannily successful at beating a carnival game; when he leaves, the man running the game (who had been getting flustered), appears very ill.

Extended summary: a strange man in a dark coat beats a carnival game by consistently tossing ping pong balls into a container. The fat man running the game gets flustered as the man keeps on winning; he won't take a prize and instead just wants more ping pong balls. As the game progresses, the fat man sweats more and more and gets into worse and worse shape; his voice gets a bit faint and it seems like he's having a heart attack or something. The strange tall man eventually gets shooed away by by the fat carnival man, and leaves. The crowd supports the strange man who keeps winning, and is angry when the carnival man makes him stop playing, and is also angry to discover that most of the "prizes" aren't really available, they are "display only".

When the strange man leaves, the prize of steak knives are gone. The fat carnival man can barely utter a whisper as he offers a chance to play the game to some kid. He says "God" and doubles over in pain.

My theory is that the strange man is a metaphor for death and as he keeps landing the ping pong balls in the container, he is taking life away from the fat carnival man. He may be punishing the man for his somewhat unethical carnival game, which is designed to attract players but not really to reward winners. The "God" comment and the steak knives are obviously important. Also, the fat carnival man at some point says he's running an "honest game" and the tall man better not be trying anything shady. I'm not sure how the title ties in other than the fat man probably gets "buried" shortly after the tall man's display of talent with the ping pong balls. I think there is more meaning to the story than just a simple "death" metaphor.

posted by bangitliketmac to Writing & Language (4 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
The carnival, as both you and Matheson have observed, is a microcosm of life and death. Most people never think of this - they associate it with 'fun' - so forcing people to contemplate the dark side of the carnival is - let's face it - a horror genre staple.

Matheson is a genre writer. If you are going to analyze this story, analyze it as a picaresque, not as a psychological literary portrait.
posted by ikkyu2 at 2:35 PM on November 29, 2008

The title sounds suspiciously like an allusion to the parable of the talents.
posted by thomas j wise at 2:38 PM on November 29, 2008

Best answer: Uh, this particular Matheson story requires no metaphors. The talent of the strange man in a dark coat is telekinesis, or, rather ... he seems able to place things where he wants. First, the ping-pong balls in the game.

After the carnival man changes the rules up on the strange man in a dark coat by saying that there are no more prizes, he places the steak knives inside of the carnival man and leaves. He buries them. If I can recollect the last line of the story (it's been a while), it goes something like "It felt as though he was bleeding inside."

That's because he's now full of steak knives.
posted by adipocere at 2:42 PM on November 29, 2008 [12 favorites]

Perhaps you've been confused by teachers into believing that a story HAS a meaning -- a secret truth that is hidden inside it, which smart people can deduce. (And that there's a single meaning that is the right meaning -- or one that is better than other meanings.)

No. A story is words on paper that hopefully evoke images and sensations when read. Asking what a story "means" is like asking what the planet Earth means or what the Empire State Building means. It doesn't make sense.

However, it might be a conversational shorthand for some concepts that do make sense. I'm not a fan of the shorthand, because many people are confused, thinking the shorthand is some sort of reality. Also, since the shorthand can have several longhand meanings, it's possible for a conversation about "meaning" to get all muddled without people realizing that it's muddled. Person A and B may be using "meaning" in different ways without knowing that they are.

With that in mind, when you ask "What does this story mean?", perhaps you are talking about...

-- a message or theme the author was hoping readers would take away from the story.

There's no way of knowing if such a "meaning" exists without asking the author. And even if we ask him and he tells us, he might be lying or mistaken. It would be a bit odd for him to lie, but he might misremember his reasons for writing the story. In that case, maybe you don't care. Maybe -- even if the author is misremembering his reasons -- you're interested in his current interpretation of the story. That's fine. That means that, for whatever reason, you're interested in how authors parse their own stories. (In which case, you should ask if anyone knows about that, rather than using the confusing word "meaning.")

Many authors refuse to say whether or not they were hoping to convey some sort of hidden message. That makes sense to me (I would definitely refuse to make any such interpretive statements, were it my story). They may fear that anything they say will restrict how readers interact with the story.

-- a message or theme that will naturally spring into the minds of most careful readers.

Though I don't believe that themes exist on some cosmic level, I grant that most people who read "The Frog Prince" will feel that the story has something to do with the fact that surfaces can be deceiving -- even though that's never explicitly stated in the story. That doesn't mean that the story is DEFINITELY about the fact that surfaces can be deceiving. The story is words on paper. It just that the story TENDS to evoke that idea in most readers. If it doesn't evoke that idea in a particular reader, he's not wrong; he's just eccentric.

In the same sense, if I say, "I'm going to tell you a color and I want you to say the first word that comes to your head," and then I say, "green," you're probably going to say grass, tree, leaf or frog. But what if you say "fire engine"? You're not wrong. (I didn't ask you to name a green object.) You're just a little odd.

-- a possibly useful/interesting way of thinking about the story.

By which I mean one that an average reader might find useful or evocative. So I could say, "You can look at 'Forbidden Planet' as an adaptation of 'The Tempest'." Assuming you've read "The Tempest," it's possible that I've now given you a useful tool to think about "Forbidden Planet."

But my tools isn't RIGHT. It's not THE MEANING. It's more like me saying, "Oh, you're eating steak? You know what goes well with that? Mashed potatoes!" If you don't like mashed potatoes with steak, you aren't somehow missing the meaning of steak. You're not eating stake "the wrong way." However, I suspect my suggestion will be useful to MANY steak eaters.

When I read your description of the story, what I think of on a meta (theme) level is that it's a parable about the folly of trying to thwart fate. In that, it's similar to how I see "Oedipus."
posted by grumblebee at 3:28 PM on November 29, 2008 [3 favorites]

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