The Einstein Escalation: Barthelme’s Big Bang Theory of Rising Action

“The Einstein Approximation,” the fourteenth episode of the third season of the long-running sitcom The Big Bang Theory (originally aired February 1, 2010), begins with Dr. Sheldon Cooper in his living room struggling with some kind of physics problem laid out on a whiteboard, which he is trying to look at from his periphery so as to “engage [his] superior colliculus.” Later that day in the cafeteria of the university where he works, he continues to struggle with his problem of why electrons act like they have no mass when they move through a graphene sheet. He takes some lima beans from Raj’s tray to use as a model for carbon atoms, overriding Raj’s protests that he needs to eat them or he can’t have his dessert, and then some peas from Leonard’s tray to model the electrons. Later that night, Penny and Leonard are returning from their date roller skating when they walk into the apartment and slip on some marbles scattered all over the floor. Clearly in pain, they demand to know what Sheldon is doing. More concerned that they’ve ruined his model than for their potential injuries, Sheldon explains that he needed something bigger than peas. Later that same night, Leonard is asleep in bed with Penny when he gets a phone call; he confirms that he is Sheldon’s roommate and goes to the mall where Sheldon has broken in and is mired in a child’s ball pit. When Leonard asks what he’s doing, Sheldon responds, “Size ratio was all wrong. Couldn’t visualize it. Needed bigger carbon atoms.” When Leonard then threatens to drag Sheldon out, Sheldon swims through the balls, repeatedly evading him. In the next scene, Sheldon once again wakes up a sleeping Leonard and Penny to announce that he “figured out how to figure it out.” He says he needs to get a menial job to occupy his basal ganglia and free his prefrontal cortex to work in the background on his problem. After things go poorly seeking potential jobs at the unemployment office, Sheldon starts bussing tables at The Cheesecake Factory where Penny works. When he drops a pile of plates, their fracture pattern induces the problem-solving epiphany that the electrons aren’t acting like particles when they move through the graphene, but rather like a wave. 

What could this episode have in common with Donald Barthelme’s classic short story, “The School”? In this piece, a second-grade teacher describes all the things that have died in his class over the course of a particular school year. The first thing described as dying is some orange trees planted “as part of their education,” though before that there were snakes that died because a boiler was shut off during a strike, then an herb garden that was overwatered, then some gerbils, some white mice, and a salamander. Next to die are some tropical fish, then a puppy, then a Korean orphan. Then we learn that a lot of the students’ parents happen to be dying this particular year. Then a couple of students from the class itself. The students start asking the teacher where all the dead have gone, and if “death [is] that which gives meaning to life?” To which the teacher responds that “life is that which gives meaning to life.” They then ask if he will make love with the teaching assistant Helen because “we require an assertion of value”; the teacher declines but does hold Helen. As he’s doing so a gerbil knocks on the door, inducing the children to cheer.    

George Saunders analyzes Barthelme’s story in his essay “The Perfect Gerbil” as a demonstration of what he declares the most difficult part of the classic model for narrative structure, Freitag’s triangle: rising action.


Personally, I prefer the inverted checkmark model that doesn’t represent the falling action as proportionate to the rising:


According to Saunders, Barthelme “sets up a pattern (things associated with our school die) then escalates it.” The problem is that the reader quickly recognizes the pattern, and thus is “ready to be bored.” Per Saunders, the writer would be assuming the reader is dumb if they were to believe that this pattern is enough to satisfy. Barthelme avoids this pitfall by inserting surprising moments to keep us going as he escalates the pattern. The action is at the lowest tension level when trees die. But then an animal (in this case snakes), being a more sentient creature, escalates the action of the story’s deaths. When we get to the puppy, we’ve risen from small animals to larger ones that we might feel more for. Then there’s a significant leap when we get to the “dead Korean orphan,” escalating to people from animals. The deaths creep closer to the class itself when the parents start to die. Then, actual members of the class themselves. The story then breaks the pattern to comment on the pattern when the students ask the teacher about death’s meaning. Now we’re ready for the end, which is where the story perhaps most significantly subverts the pattern pitfall.

A story begs the question of how to extract meaning from a series of events, or a pattern. What does all of this happening in this particular order mean for the readers and/or characters? Well, the obvious culmination of the pattern would be: more death. A more extreme version of death than has come before. Maybe the most strictly logical conclusion to this pattern would be for the entire class to die, and then the teacher himself. But this isn’t emotionally satisfying. Barthelme then escalates the action past the action of the pattern, a path opened up by the commentary on the pattern, when the questions are raised, What is the meaning of death? Of life? The lovemaking option is thus introduced. We find meaning in each other, even in characters who appear out of nowhere and have not been set up at all–in this case Helen’s sudden appearance is suddenly appropriate. Then Barthelme ascends (or escalates) to the truly great when he doesn’t stop here but makes yet one more action escalation–the gerbil that knocks on the door. This is essentially life returned from the dead, as the gerbil was one of the things mentioned to have died earlier. Really, it seems, Barthelme could have used any of the things mentioned earlier appear knocking at the door to reinforce the message of how lovemaking leads to the cycle of birth, that life goes on after death, etc., reinforced pleasurably in the fact that it “knock[s]” on the door like a person, but somehow more is achieved when Barthelme reaches for one of the things that’s lowest on the story’s rising’s action Freitag slope, the gerbil. This seems a better choice than the lowest on the slope, the tree, and the next lowest, the snake, which some (or at least I) would be unable to attribute human…attributes to. Which then leaves the gerbil.

One may not be able to extract as much meaning from “The Einstein Approximation,” but one can at least extract a study in structure. A problem that needs resolving is immediately presented–not why electrons behave as if they have no mass when they move through graphene, but that Sheldon the genius can’t solve this problem. The action rises through his stages of trying to solve it. The pattern established in his attempted solutions is modeling the carbon atoms and their electrons. He first uses peas for the electrons, then marbles, then balls from the ball pit. Each time he works on one of these models, the stakes of the consequences they cause rise. First, by taking the peas, he annoys his friend Raj, who wants to eat them. With the marbles he does more than just annoy his friends, he potentially injures them when they slip and fall; the effect the use of his model has is more extreme. In the ball pit, this effect again escalates in extremity when Sheldon becomes something of a threat to society by breaking into a public place when it’s closed and invades an area that’s supposed to be reserved for children; the threat to himself also rises because he could have been arrested. Logically, the next step in the pattern should escalate this threat further, but the real job of an ending is not to escalate the rising action according to the next logical step, but to change the pattern in a way that resolves it; this happens when Sheldon breaks the plates at The Cheesecake Factory and realizes the solution to his problem. He leaves the mess for Penny to clean up, but this is arguably a less extreme consequence than the threat he represented by breaking and entering.

The other pattern in the action, aside from an escalation in the extremity of the consequences of his modeling, is an escalation in the size of the models themselves. We go from peas to marbles to ball-pit balls: each of these round objects is larger than the last. We would expect from the logic of that established pattern to keep getting increasingly large spherical objects; the writers both fulfill and subvert this pattern with the final stage in the action, the breaking of the plates. This is a fitting subversion of the pattern in that the plate is a round object and so shares that property with the previous objects, and is larger than the last round object in the sequence, but its being a flat round object as opposed to spherical breaks the pattern, and the pattern is further broken in the breaking of the plates themselves; none of the other spherical model objects broke. This shift in the shape pattern also appropriately replicates the solution to Sheldon’s problem–his precise mistake is that he’s been using round spherical objects to model the electrons, treating them as particles when he should have been treating them as a wave. The plate is the perfect object to resolve the pattern also in that he is not using it intentionally as a model; he only recognizes it as a model accidentally, when he drops them.

There’s something fitting in Sheldon’s solution to how to solve his problem in that it’s essentially to stop trying to figure it out. This is a good approach to fiction-writing as well: when you’re trying to generate your rising action pattern and figure out what the final step in this pattern should be that will successfully subvert and resolve the pattern, trying to impose this final step consciously will likely prevent you from being able to discern the perfect ending. The discovery of the ending must be accidental to be surprising. Barthelme’s insertion of Helen the teacher’s assistant when she did not exist before is his equivalent of Sheldon’s dropping the plates. Sheldon gets mad at the customers who clap when he drops the plates instead of when he intuits meaning from the dropped plates, but perhaps those customers were applauding the right moment all along. As writers, we must be willing to drop, and break, the plates we have picked up.    


One thought on “The Einstein Escalation: Barthelme’s Big Bang Theory of Rising Action

  1. Pingback: Saunders in the Bardo – the pva creative writing review

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