‘A Canary for One’ by Ernest Hemingway: Short Story Analysis
Just like all stories by Ernest Hemingway, one of my favorite writers of all time, even this short story titled ‘A Canary for One’ is full of hidden symbols connecting the three main characters of this story together. The narrator, his wife, and a quite deaf American middle-aged woman are the main characters in this story. The canary in question was bought by the middle-aged woman for her broken-hearted daughter back in America. The canary is the symbol of that daughter’s loneliness, her broken heart, and her plea to her mother which goes on ‘deaf ears’ literally and metaphorically. The middle-aged woman is quite deaf, can lip read to answer questions and sometimes can miss her trains in Paris because she cannot hear when it is time to board. Yet, this very same middle-aged woman ironically buys her ‘little girl’ a canary because ‘it sings well’. She cannot hear everything, even the wishes of her daughter who she dominates. This and more symbols, hidden imagery and evocative descriptions make up this story by Ernest Hemingway titled ‘A Canary for One’.
The middle-aged woman shares her compartment in a train travelling through France with another American couple. This couple, we only realize towards the end of the story, are going their separate ways once they reach their destination, because they were divorced or separated. However, the middle-aged dominating American woman keeps on claiming that American men are the best husbands especially for American woman. She ignores the narrator at first, thinking him to be a European. We hardly realize his presence in the story ourselves, until he puts in a line about his braces. Hemingway has masterfully got our attention focused on the canary because of the title. Actually, in the title of the short story, we should be focusing on the words ‘for one’ rather than ‘a canary’. This is because the American couple mentioned in the story were separated and going their different ways. The middle-aged woman does not know this and has a many-angled conversation with the narrator’s wife. It is mostly a one-sided conversation where the middle-aged woman speaks the most. The narrator is busy looking out the window at the scenes before him, which mark separation and divorce symbolic images from beginning to end. Some of these are as follows:
- The towns and cities they were passing through looked shut up and the people had not had breakfast in them yet – breakfast as a meal being a symbol of unity.
- The image of a burning farmhouse in a field in Marseilles.
- Rocks near the sea.
The burning farmhouse is also a symbol of burning relationships, and our own burning curiosity as readers, to see what will come to pass at the end of this short story. Also note the burning color of the feathers of the canary. The middle-aged woman is a control freak. She loves to be dominating and in control of everything and has a skewed way of looking at life. She is a hypocrite, for although she only wants her daughter to marry an American and does not approve much of Europeans, she still buys her semi-expensive clothing in Paris. She loves the brands of Paris, but does not like the good Swiss engineer gentleman from a well-to-do family who her daughter had fallen in love with in Vevey, Switzerland. There is a line in the text about the middle-aged woman thinking that since her daughter was quite old enough now, there was a definite chance of her measurements remaining the same for a long time to come. This is as far from the truth as possible; no ones clothing measurements stay the same forever, but this line of thinking only proves the peculiarity of the middle-aged woman’s thought processes. She is in control of her daughter. She breaks her daughter’s relationship with the Swiss gentleman and tries to entertain her as if she were not an adult but a little child, with a canary. The canary can also be symbolized as the trapped daughter who does not have any control over her affairs, not even her clothing, and is stuck in the cage of her mother’s controlling. The middle-aged woman does not like a fast-moving train, indicative that she does not like a fast life not only for herself but also her daughter. The narrator’s wife or ex-wife converses with this middle-aged woman about her time on her honeymoon in Vevey. In her case, Vevey also was not enough to cement her marriage. She is sitting in front of the middle-aged woman who is firm that only Americans make good husbands, which is ironical as she and her ex-husband sitting before her are living and breathing examples to the opposite of the middle-aged woman’s deceptive thoughts. Towards the end of the story, there is a mention of three train cars that have been wrecked. These three wrecks are the three main characters in the story. They are all wrecks and they will part going their own separate ways, most probably in this lifetime in a post World War I world, never to meet again. ‘A Canary for One’ is thus a reflective story on misconceptions that we have as people, how they can rule our lives and how because we ‘deafen our hearts and minds’ towards certain aspects of our lives, we fail to see the truth of the matter standing right before us. Take away points in this story are:
- The Swiss engineer gentleman had all the qualities of a perfect husband, except for that one point that he was a European which went against him in the eyes of the dominating middle-aged American woman.
- The various train cars toward the end of the story showing the globalization of the world as the trains from Paris would travel everywhere, yet here was a middle-aged woman with narrow minded ideas about love and relationships.
- The middle-aged woman was an exceptionally good lip reader and though deaf, loved to talk a lot.
- The narrator’s cheekiness of using the term ‘braces’ instead of ‘suspenders’ to trick the middle-aged woman into thinking that he was indeed English and probably not American which was a falsehood.
- The brands of France mentioned in the advertisements and the Black European soldiers presence showing us that this Europe was a post World War I Europe.
Ernest Hemingway is one of my favorite writers. I love reviewing his short stories and will continue to do so in the coming weeks. If you are interested in more book reviews, short story analysis and author reviews then visit my blog insaneowl.com. If you would like to buy my books, then visit my website fizapathanpublishing.us or fizapathan.com. Happy reading to you this coming week!
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