One Hundred and Four Degrees of Separation:

Hemingway’s “A Day’s Wait”

by Harry Heuser

While hardly one of Hemingway’s more complex works of short fiction, “A Day’s Wait” has been unjustly dismissed by critics who either assume that it suffices to summarize its plot, to reveal its “gimmick” (Killinger 25), or simply to repeat its ambiguous last line.  Pearsall even goes so far to deride “A Day’s Wait” as a story that “embodies a sentimental anecdote of no special importance, a trifle suitable for women’s magazines” (173).  The following analysis, avoiding the apparent misogyny and misology of the commentators aforementioned, will focus on Hemingway’s narrative devices in order to determine whether “A Day’s Wait” is a mere “trifle” or an example of the author’s existentialist weltanschauung.

The narrator of “A Day’s Wait” is the father of a nine-year-old boy who suffers from influenza.  However keen in his observations (instantly noticing that the boy “looked ill” and “walked slowly as though it ached to move”) and caring in his actions (reading “aloud from Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates”), he does not manage to penetrate the child’s psyche.  He may have been able to detect the symptoms of influenza, but he is unaware of the boy’s inner turmoil in his expectation of death, along with the disorder at the heart of this seemingly healthy relationship.

When analyzing his failure, we cannot justly accuse the father of a mere reliance on sensory experience, since he does not just observe, but also inquires “What’s the matter?” and encourages the boy to describe his condition, “How do you feel?” Still, as the child does not seize the opportunity to convey his feelings and concerns, the misunderstanding between them remains undiscovered.  Apparently, the boy is reluctant to speak freely and openly to his parent.

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