Barthelme Compared to Hemmingway

“The balloon, beginning at a point on Fourteenth Street, the exact location of which I cannot reveal, expanded northward all one night, while people were sleeping, until it reached the Park.” (Barthelme 604)

“The marvelous thing is that it’s painless,” he said. “That’s how you know when it starts.” (Hemmingway 1021)

Barthelme’s opening paragraph struck an immediate connection with Hemmingway’s opening to The Snows of Kilimanjaro. In The Balloon we are immediately thrown into the middle of a scene that we know nothing about. Barthelme presents us with a massive balloon of unknown location and unknown reason that is expanding across the city. At first we are given no notice of who caused this to happen or why this was necessary but throughout the story we are given more and more information until at the very end we finally understand the reason for the balloon. This seems a very Hemmingwayesque way to begin a story. Similarly, The Snows of Kilimanjaro opens with a vague dialogue talking about a pain and horrible odor the reader initially knows nothing about. Hemmingway zeroes on the immediate problem-Henry’s imminent death- just as Barthelme zeroes on the immediate issue of the balloon. By tossing the reader directly into the middle of a scene the author creates a sense of intrigue that he can then go on to reveal.

Another similarity between the two stories came to mind in regard to the attitude of the narrator in The Balloon and Henry in The Snows of Kilimanjaro. In the passage above the narrator tells us in a teasing way that the balloon has an “exact location of which I cannot reveal.” He then goes on to boast how he alone controls the expansion of the balloon. The way the narrator claims he saw no reason to not allow the balloon to continue its growth seems very smug and suggests the narrator holds a self-satisfied sense of power. This assertion yields the view that in light of the rest of the story being dedicated to observing other people’s reactions, the narrator is expecting and looking forward to seeing a response from others. In this very same way, Henry seems to say just the things that he knows will elicit a response from his wife. In both cases, the sense of power the two characters hold gives them the satisfaction of watching others respond.

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