“The apparent purposelessness of the balloon was vexing (as was the fact that it was “there” at all). Had we painted, in great letters, “LABORATORY TESTS PROVE” or “18% MORE EFFECTIVE” on the sides of the balloon, this difficulty would have been circumvented. But I could not bear to do so.” (Barthelme 606)
“Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan
Of tan with henna hackles, halt!” (Stevens)
According to the introductory paragraphs about Donald Barthelme, he expressed the idea that “language, rather than what language represents, could be the subject of fiction” (604). I believe “The Balloon” reflects this idea in a way. The narrator never reveals satisfactorily why the balloon is there. There are no explanatory signs on it such as those the narrator suggests in the passage above. He seems to simply be interested in the peoples’ reactions to it: wonder, anger, admiration, and pleasure among others. While I was reading this story, I had the single-minded need to discover the purpose for which the balloon was there, over New York City for twenty-two days. I became just another observer of the balloon, searching for its origin and its significance just like all the other characters. By the end I decided that that’s what the narrator wants, simply to make people think differently and admire without giving in to the desire of finding meaning in everything. The balloon has a specific meaning, possibly related to the narrator’s unhappiness, but he isn’t willing to reveal it to the rest of the world. His goal is to make the people and furthermore, the reader, appreciate the balloon for being a balloon without giving it an underlying significance.
This story made me think of Wallace Stevens’ “Bantams in Pine-Woods,” which presents a similar idea. There is no discernable meaning or plot to Stevens’ poem. The opening stanza quoted above, is gibberish, meaningless, but it sounds nice when read aloud. The poem is simply words put together in a manner that sound pleasing to read. There may be some deeper meaning, but the person who wrote the poem is the only one who can possibly identify it. Stevens, like the narrator in “The Balloon,” is hiding the profound significance from the readers. Try as we might, we can’t decipher every word and stanza to say with confidence that we understand Stevens’ meaning. It appears that his only obvious goal was to create something that can be appreciated for the way it sounds and the language itself.
Stevens keeps the reader in the dark by using alliteration of strange words and incoherent sentences. Barthelme keeps the reader in the dark by focusing on the reactions of the people living under this strange balloon. He takes the reader on a journey of various attempts by different characters to understand the balloon, but never reveals the true reason for its existence. For me, reading both of these works was a similar experience. It was like going through a maze and ending up back where you started. I continued searching for the other side but only ended up appreciating the journey.