Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

'Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates' and Male Taciturnity in Hemingway's "A Day's Wait." (Ernest Hemingway)

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

'Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates' and Male Taciturnity in Hemingway's "A Day's Wait." (Ernest Hemingway)

Article excerpt

The plot of "A Day's Wait" is deceptively simple. A young boy, with influenza hears that his temperature is 102 degrees and mistakes the Fahrenheit reading for Centigrade, in which a temperature of 44 degrees is invariably fatal. The boy, called Schatz, spends a day bravely waiting to die before his father discovers and corrects his mistake. Many critics believe that this is all "A Day's Wait" is about, that the discovery of the boy's mistake is the climax of this story, an O. Henry-like "Wow!" at the end that resolves things rather too neatly.(1) Other critics have read Schatz as a miniature code hero, a brave little man holding tight onto himself in the face of death, an innocent version of dissipated Harry in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," staring at death at the foot of the bed.(2) This is true as far as it goes, and gives real pathos to Schatz's stoic behavior, but it is also a rather unquestioning "boys' book" idea of courage and of this complex short story.

My purpose in this essay is to suggest that the revelation of the Fahrenheit/Centigrade mistake does not resolve the central misunderstanding in "A Day's Wait." Further, I believe that the story actually questions the very values of male stoicism and taciturnity that it seems to extol. Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates, the boy's book read by father to son in "A Day's Wait," provides a hitherto neglected allusive subtext that supports these observations, commenting ironically on the story's larger actions.

At the story's conclusion, the father/narrator reveals what he and we as readers have missed: his son has been in mortal terror from the earliest moments of "A Day's Wait." The superficial reason why - the Fahrenheit/Centigrade confusion - is inadequate to explain the story's central problem, Schatz's silent endurance, and the father's blindness to a child's fear.

Look at the multiple levels of misunderstanding inherent in just three lines of a dialogue initiated by Schatz with "You don't have stay in here with me, Papa, if it bothers you" (437; my emphasis). This is male taciturnity, the code of remaining silent about deeply felt emotions, carried to extremes. Why? Because "it" is death. Simply translated, the boy is saying: "You don't have to stay in here with me, Papa, if my dying bothers you." When we remember that Schatz is addressing this sentence to a father who is calmly reading Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates and apparently waiting for him to die, this simple statement takes on disturbing dimensions. It becomes a question: "Does my dying bother you? Why don't you seem to be bothered? Don't you love me?" At the same time, Schatz offers to release his father from the necessity of being "bothered," from the extreme demands an emotional deathbed scene would doubtless make on their mutual stoicism.

The father, pleasurably occupied with the boy's book, gives this honest answer: "It doesn't bother me" (437; my emphasis). For the father, "it" means "staying with you." Simply translated: "Staying with you when you're sick doesn't bother me." That's a profession of loyalty and love, but Schatz, for whom "it" means death, hears his father say "Your dying doesn't bother me."

Too secure in his father's love to accept this "reading," Schatz assumes a misunderstanding and revises the tense of his speech to address not his present mild illness but his impending death: "No, I mean you don't have to stay in here if it's going to bother you" (437; my emphasis). Translation: "You don't have to stay in here when I start to die if my dying bothers you." Again, the boy seeks reassurance that his father is bothered by his death while offering to release him from that bother.

The obtuse father's response is potentially shattering. Believing that the boy is light-headed with fever, the father does not respond, but simply gives Schatz some pills and leaves on a hunting trip. For the child, his father's departure has only two possible interpretations, and neither is comforting. …

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