A Viewer's Guide to Barton Fink

by David S. Cowen

SPOILERS AHEAD, kids

Barton Fink is a movie with complex symbolism, plot twists, hidden meanings, and a helluvalot of funny jokes. If you haven't seen Barton Fink, or if you have only watched this once, this coming discussion will make the Barton Fink feeling much less exciting. So don't read it if you haven't seen it, OK? Much of Barton Fink can be explained by looking at the wallpaper. Yeah, the wallpaper. From the opening and closing credits, showing the wallpaper in its splendid beige beauty, it is one of the more important symbolic elements in the film.

1. So why does the wallpaper peel?

This is, for all intensive purposes, a symbolic joke. Both Barton and Charlie Meadows emotional states are represented by two of the elements: water and fire. The first time we catch wind of this (pun intended), Barton is entering the Hotel Earle. We see a shot of waves crashing against a large rock...and the water dissolves into the floor of the Hotel Earle, as though the brown carpeting were sand. Throughout the film, Barton looks at the picture of the girl -- sitting by the water, and crashing waves come up in the soundtrack. Plus, the movie ends at the shoreline.

Charlie's emotional fire symbology is a bit more apparent. It gets hotter and hotter all through the film as Charlie's temper rises. At the high point of his anger, literally, flames erupt behind him. The man sweats -- it's HOT...water is purged from his body.

We know there are pipes behind the walls. This is one of the most important threads in the film -- early on, when Charlie is talking about hearing the lovemaking couple Barton hears earlier, Barton leaves the room. Charlie cringes in sadness, and says "Seem like I hear everything in this dump. Must be the pipes or something." When Barton comes back in, Charlie quickly hides his anger at having to be subjected to the sounds of lovemaking.

Later, Charlie hears lovemaking again. Barton starts yelling about W.P. Mayhew when Audrey comes over -- which would have to wake up Charlie. When Audrey and Barton roll onto the bed (with a hilarious reference to the old film code that in a lovemaking scene, a man had to have at least one of his feet on the floor), the camera pans over and enters the bathroom. The sounds of Barton and Audrey are echoed by the pipe... the sound has carried over into the now-awake Charlie's room.

When cold _water_ is carried through pipes in _hot_ weather, condensation forms on pipes -- we all know that. If the pipe is directly behind wallpaper, the sweaty condensation gets through the wall into the wallpaper's glue, loosens the glue, and the wallpaper peels. What a dump.

2. Why does Charlie kill?

Hotel Earle is hell -- literally and figuratively. Water dissolves in it, Chet comes up from the underworld, the letter 6 is repeated in triplicate when Barton boards the elevator. "A day or a lifetime," the stationary reads (notice, the pencil on the stationary has no lead. Not a good place to start writing, eh?)

Charlie Meadows is the hotel's resident fallen angel. And I don't use "fallen angel" in a sense of referring to big Satan himself, Charlie truly is a fallen angel in all senses of the word. All Charlie wants to do is help people, wants to keep people out of hell, keep them from the ways he feels. Notice, the man sells FIRE insurance. And hell yeah, he believes in it.

Most of the early parts of the film are spent with Charlie trying to help Barton. Despite being annoyed at Bartons noise complaint, Barton's fake sympathy ("I thought you might be...in distress.") makes Charlie think he might be an OK guy, that Barton could help fill some of the loneliness in his life. So, Charlie pines to be Barton's muse. "I could tell ya some stories!" he says, offing to give Barton inspiration. Charlie demonstrates wrestling to Barton, seeing that Barton didn't have a clue. "I'm not a mad man, Bart...I'm not mad at anyone. I just try to help people out. I just wish they'd do the same for me."

And this doesn't happen. Barton ignores Charlie, instead ranting about modern theatre, interrupting him any time he's going to tell Barton something useful. Charlie gets ignored by everyone, or everyone is a hostile force in his life. "Opportunities galore," he says, talking about his sexual exploits -- but you know this isn't true. The same housewives he talks about there are found murdered by the end of the film. Any sort of emotional contact with a woman is blocked by his weight ("that's my cross to bear"), despite the fact that he has an interesting, lively personality. When he hears the "lovebirds" down the hall, this brings out a crushing pain in him about what he'll never have.

But what brings out a worse pain is the night Barton and Audrey make love. Coupled with the pain of hearing the lovemaking, Charlie feels that Barton has abandoned him as his muse -- Barton has instead chose Audrey as his muse, even though Charlie has a better, more genuine idea of what happens in a wrestling pictures.

In the end of the film, the way Charlie confronts Barton with this is brilliant. When Barton asks him why he killed Audrey, Charlie erupts "Because YOU DON'T LISTEN!" and the pus oozes out of his ear. In a way, this symbolizes graphically a sexual release for Charlie (much like killing Sport is a sexual release for Travis Bickle, in Taxi Driver). The wallpaper glue also probably represents sexual fluids. Charlie has given up hope. He's trapped in hell for no reason, because all he's ever tried to do was good, and gotten shit on. So he kills, to release the pain.