Ernest Hemingway’s A Day’s Wait, which was published in his 1927 collection The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories, is representative of Hemingway’s short fiction in that it encompasses the subject matter and one of the more prevalent themes that Hemingway sought to capture in his writing—facing death with bravery. This time, however, death is not being confronted by a soldier on the front lines, a World War I veteran dealing with his psychological wounds, a boxer being hunted by the mob, or a matador facing a bull. In this story, the character bravely facing death is “a very sick and miserable boy of nine years” (332).
Told in the first person, the story’s plot revolves around a simple misunderstanding with complicated consequences. The boy of nine, sick with influenza, is convinced that he is going to die because he is confused about a reading of his temperature. Having attended school in France, the boy has been told that any reading above 44 degrees is deadly, and his reads 102. The boy’s father, unaware of his son’s confusing the Celsius and Fahrenheit scales, has no idea that his young son has been waiting to die all day (thus the story’s title). When the father explains it as being like the difference between “miles and kilometers,” the boy is able to release the “hold over himself” and begin his recovery.
Many have argued that “A Day’s Wait” is another in the long line of Nick Adams stories written by Hemingway, in which Adams is a kind of alter egofor the author himself. It is true that the story has some of the earmarks of a Nick Adams story—it deals with the relationship between a father and a son, much as Hemingway’s early Michigan stories do, only with Nick playing the role of a father instead of a son, and it includes a brief hunting scene. However, there are important aspects of this story that seem to indicate that it is not one of the Nick Adams stories. The first is simple enough—we do not know the father’s name, so we cannot be sure that it is Nick Adams. The second is that, with one exception, the Nick Adams stories are written in the third person. This allows readers to identify characters by name through the narrative. The one exception is “Now I Lay Me,” which is narrated from Nick’s point of view. In this story, Hemingway tells us Nick’s name in a flashback scene. Philip Young, who is responsible for the collection known as The Nick Adams Stories, chose not to include “A Day’s Wait” in the collection, yet he did choose to include “In Another Country,” a story that offers no direct evidence of being a Nick Adams story. The theory, then, seems inconclusive at best.
One could argue that the plot of “A Day’s Wait” lacks any sort of credibility, as it may seem very difficult to imagine that a young boy of nine, even in Hemingway’s world of bravery and machismo, would face his death so bravely, even telling his father that he could leave the room so he would not have to witness the death scene. But the story does seem to be set up around the idea of life and death and the thin line between the two. The father, who is unaware of his son’s confusion and fear, decides to leave him alone and go hunting. An ice storm had passed the night before, making it difficult for the father and his dog to move around, but he is able to flush out a covey of quail. The father is pleased that he killed four but is even happier that “there were so many left to find on another day” (333). The idea of having another day (and the birds’ survival) represents life, while the setting (winter, ice) and the killing of the four birds suggest death. The ice that covers the ground and trees, making them look “varnished with ice” (333), suggests that thin balance (not to be confused with “thin ice,” which would be a cheap pun) that we walk every day between life and death.
Hemingway has often been criticized for romanticizing bravery and masculinity, and it does seem rather difficult to accept the notion that a nine-year-old boy could face death so bravely only to become completely childlike again when he finds out he is not dying, but Hemingway is after a much larger point— the thin and slippery line between life and death that he wrote about so often.
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Hemingway, Ernest. “A Day’s Wait.” In The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigía Edition. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1987.
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Tyler, Lisa. Student Companion to Ernest Hemingway. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001.
Wagner-Martin, Linda, ed. Ernest Hemingway: Six Decades of Criticism. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1988.