May 6th, 2014
“I Saw the Sign”
Symbols are often used in literature. Even more, during the time when American Modernist reigned in literature, their usage of symbols didn’t stop at minute details within the story, they sometimes made major objects and even the actual structure of the story symbols. One author that we have studied that made a major “object” a symbol in their story was Donald Barthelme. More specifically, Donald Barthelme used a specific symbol to signify hope throughout the story that will be talked about in this paper. In Donald Barthelme’s story, The Balloon, the physical balloon can signify many things, but one major thing it symbolizes is the hope of the speaker. With how the balloon is portrayed and with how the speaker explains his rational for the balloon, we can see how the balloon is a symbol of hope for many, but specifically a symbol of hope for the speaker during a dark time for him.
To begin with, in Donald Barthelme’s The Balloon, we are presented with a massive object called “the balloon” that the speaker lets loose in New York. Throughout the story, many different (if you will) observations are given about the balloon too describe its form, appearance, or just all around presence in the area. For example, the balloon was referred to at different times with words such as smooth, square corners, bulging, unlimited, etc. This provides us, or rather does not provide us with, a defined shape for this balloon. This is important because it eludes at the fact that the actual physicality of this object is not as simple as that of a regular balloon or object. This not only makes us question how real (in a sense) the balloon actually is, but also that this balloon possibly means something more; as in, rather than it just being a normal object, it’s a more symbolic object left for possible interpretations. This can also be seen when we further evaluate what is said about the balloon.
Throughout the story, the balloon is treated as this grand thing that all of the people of the area notice. This presented importance of the area, along with its lack shape, holds somewhat of a religious undertone towards the balloon. A starting example of this can be seen early on when the speaker states “…there were no situations, simply the balloon hanging there-muted heavy grays and browns for the most part, contrasting with walnut and soft yellows” (Barthelme p. 605). This along with the previously presented size of the balloon provides a similarity between it and the Sun. Throughout history, the Sun has been seen as not only a symbol of hope, but it has also been an icon for religion; as it is often seen as a god, related to gods, a God in itself, or the halo that is always portrayed being behind Jesus. Some might say that this is very speculatory, however, this is a very possible interpretation of the story if we keep in mind that Donald Barthelme struggled with religion in his house (specifically with his mother). There are also points throughout the story that seem as if they can be related to how religion and discrepancies with the Sun have been viewed throughout history. For instance, a little bit after the beginning, the speaker begins telling how people saw the balloon as interesting, how they sought meaning in it, how some felt hostility and frustration towards it, and that “…secret test conducted by night that convinced them that little or nothing could be done in the way of removing or destroying the balloon…” (Barthelme p. 605-606). All of these statements seem a bit extreme if this were simply just some balloon. However, when looked at as a symbol for hope and/or religion that many find there hope in, it makes more sense because people have always had such feeling towards where others find hope and have been known to try to persecute each other for it sometimes while masking the meanings of the persecutions to the public. Despite all these interpretations given by others in the story about the speaker’s balloon, it is important to look at how the speaker describes the balloon himself.
As previously stated, the balloon is symbolic of the speakers hope by its similarities to the Sun and by having religious references. We can see this more towards the very end of the story as the speaker directly gives a more personal account of his relationship with the balloon. First of all, the speaker confirms that the balloon is his in the opening sentences of the final paragraph, “I met you under the balloon, on the occasion of your return from Norway; you asked if it was mine; I said it was” (Barthelme p. 607). This is important because now we know that the speaker associates himself with the balloon, and that what it represents is directly related to the speaker. Next, the speaker explains a little bit more about the balloons representation. He states, “…having to do with the unease I felt at your absence, and with sexual deprivation…” (Barthelme p. 607); this shows that the speaker was going through a hard time in his life while he was distanced from his lover. Generally in hard and difficult times, many people will look to religion and symbols of hope to give them the reassurance they need, and to help them get through whatever situation they may be in. This highly suggests, if not considered to directly suggest, that the balloon was created so that the speaker could distract himself from his separation from his lover. This further agrees with the previous statement on people finding and having hope in something during hard times. We can further see this idea as the speaker states, “but now that your visit to Bergen has been terminated, it is no longer necessary or appropriate” (Barthelme p. 607). Just as many seek hope in hard times, many don’t go to that symbol of hope for as much comfort once they are no longer in the situation that caused them to find said hope. We can see this with the speaker because now that his love has returned, he no longer has to long for them and look to something else that reminds him of them; or in short, he no longer needs this symbol of hope because he has what he was hopeful for. Finally, an additional alluding to the balloon being hope for the speaker can be seen with the final thing the speaker states, which also relates to what was being said about no longer needing hope as much when the problem is resolved. The speaker states, “Removal of the balloon was easy; trailer trucks carried away the depleted fabric, which is now stored in West Virginia, awaiting some other time of unhappiness, sometime, perhaps, when we are angry with one another” (Barthelme p. 608). We can see that the speaker has not completely abandoned his hope, as it still exists in a place where he can locate it later. However, since all will seemingly be well now that his love has returned, he can simply hold onto his hope versus having his hope be visible and somewhat controlling of his life.
In summation, it is too simple for a reader to just assume there is no meaning behind this balloon as a possible interpretation when it is such an important aspect of the story. One possible interpretation, as reiteration, of the balloon is that it is a symbol of hope for the speaker. We can see this by the subtle religious references presented in descriptions of the balloon given by others and the speaker. We can also see how the balloon is a representation of the speaker’s hope by how the speaker describes the origins of the balloon, and how he treats the balloon after he no longer needs hope, at the end of the story. All in all, even though the symbol of hope could have been to the speaker, it is interesting that Donald Barthelme choose a balloon to represent it because it shows that people can find hope in almost anything and further brings up the question of is what the reader finds hope in any less strange than what the speaker found his hope in.
Barthelme, Donald. The Balloon. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1981. Web.