One Hundred and Four Degrees of Separation: Hemingway’s “A Day’s Wait”
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.
Indeed, the father seems most comfortable when he is able to count, list, and measure items. First, he informs us that the boy is “nine years” old. He twice states the time, lists the “three different medicines” and makes “a note of the time to give the various capsules.” Most prominently, he repeatedly mentions the boy’s temperature, once with the minute precision we may expect from a physician. To be sure, all these measurements may be interpreted as an indication of the father’s dedication, as well as the narrator’s reliability. And yet, his meticulous counting seems to imply a need to account for, to vindicate his inaction, and to excuse his ignorance of the child’s trial. The repetition of the doctor’s diagnosis, the words of a man who “seemed to know all about influenza and said there was nothing to worry about,” serves as another “proof” that the child was never in any imminent danger. Again, the father is mainly concerned with the treatment of physiological phenomena rather than psychological problems.
The details in the description are not restricted to the circumstances involving the child’s illness; references to measures occur throughout the narrative. When the father leaves the boy in order to go hunting, he describes the scene at some length. We are being informed that he “fell twice,” it is twice pointed out that he “killed two” quails and that he “missed five” others. Thus, the narrator’s indulgence in nugatory detail stands in sharp contrast with the single, crucial fact that has not been transmitted, namely the difference between measuring temperature in Fahrenheit and Celsius.
When the misunderstanding is discovered at last, the father explains and illustrates this difference by mentioning “miles and kilometers” three times. It becomes clear that he, claiming to understand that the boy “had been waiting to die all day,” is eager to repeat simple explanations in an attempt to handle a complex situation that requires the utmost sensibility by counting instead on clean, clear, and comforting methods of measurement. He deals with the math, not with the aftermath of the boy’s harrowing experience.
Throughout, the boy is addressed as “Schatz,” a German term of endearment that does not have the warmth and innocence of “Liebling” (“darling”), but, in its literal translation, means “treasure.” Thus, in the eyes of the father, the boy is a piece of valued property that can be estimated and evaluated like a precious collectible. In its current condition—pale, sick, and feeble—the child may be of less value to the parent, who, after all, is an outdoorsman, a hunter defying the elements, ice and snow, and forcing nature into subordination.
Hemingway uses various juxtapositions, contrasting the boy’s immobility indoors with the father’s hunting outside, the child’s fever with the imagery of the “bare ground [. . .] varnished with ice,” and the son’s needless anguish with the father’s mindless killing. Whereas “Schatz” believes that he will not live to see tomorrow, the father passes time with transient entertainment, “happy” in the thought that “there were so many [quails] left to find on another day.” Parent and child seem to live in entirely different worlds. We also learn that “Schatz” confounds Fahrenheit and Celsius because he is accustomed to the latter. He relies on something he learned from one of his peers “[a]t school in France,” not from his parent. A boarding school outside the father’s supervision seems to play an important role in the child’s life. It is advisable, therefore, to question the reliability of the narrator, and to look for further signs of estrangement between father and filius.
When we listen more carefully to the dialogue between parent and child, it becomes clear that the former is too easily satisfied with the laconic answers of the latter. “Schatz” gives many clues about his state of mind. His answers are ambiguous and deserve the father’s, as well as the reader’s, attention. Presuming himself in mortal danger, the son does not seek the father’s support, but allows him to leave, “if it bothers” or “if it is going to bother” him. The boy may have reason to believe that his caregiver will consider his child’s death an inconvenience, a nuisance. The parent does not ponder the peculiarity of the remark, but, having repeated it, quickly concludes that “perhaps he was a little lightheaded after giving him the prescribed capsules.” The father does nothing to encourage the boy’s reflection upon the situation. When “Schatz” tells him that he “can’t keep from thinking” the father advises him: “Don’t think [. . .] just take it easy.” When the narrator finally observes that the boy “was evidently holding tight onto himself about something,” he does not probe further, but administers another capsule instead. Again, the father tries to treat physiological rather than psychological problems.
It is important to realize, then, that the father is an unreliable narrator. In order to fathom the distance between parent and child, we have to distance ourselves from the storyteller, because if we continue to trust the father’s observations and comments, if we merely slither over the “glassy surface” of the situation, we will indeed have to dismiss “A Day’s Wait” as a shallow, sentimental anecdote. After all, the narrator tries to convince us that “the hold over [the boy] relaxed,” that the problem is solved after the misunderstanding has been clarified. The father also tells us that, afterwards, his son “cried very easily at little things that were of no importance.” Why should we go on to allow the father to determine what is important in the life of his son, and what, if anything, should be dismissed as “little things?” For, if we continue to trust the father’s perception and interpretation of the situation, we will probably arrive at at a conclusion similar to the following:
The significant thing is that facing death (or so he thought) made the little things unimportant to him, and that when death was removed as an imminent threat, he relapses into ordinary childishness. (Killinger 25)
The expression “ordinary childishness” indicates that the critic does not question the role of the narrator but considers the voice of an adult to be more authoritative than that of a nine-year-old child. Yet, compared to the child’s internal struggle, the father’s mindless shooting of quail appears to be a rather immature diversion.
The boy’s behavior at the end may be a sign of the utter exhaustion he experienced in his first encounter with death. His breakdown may be attributed to his epiphany, the realization that he was alone in this ordeal, and may always be existentially alone, even in the physical presence of the father. Significantly, the father tells us first that he “sat at the foot of the bed.” Then, returning from his short hunting excursion, he finds the boy still staring “at the foot of the bed,” and later observes that “his gaze at the foot of the bed relaxed slowly.” Instead of seeing his father, the child seems to notice an apparition of death. In the absence of the parent, “Schatz” becomes aware of the mere illusion of protection and security.
Even though the father remarks that the boy “seemed very detached from what was going on,” we now detect the very root of the child’s trial, namely that the father is detached from what is going on in the mind of his son.
Killinger, John. Hemingway and the Dead Gods. U of Kentucky P, 1960.
Pearsall, Robert Brainard. The Life and Writings of Ernest Hemingway. Rodopi, 1973.