‘A Day’s Wait’ is one of Ernest Hemingway’s shortest short stories, running to just a few pages. It was published in 1927 in his collection The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories. In just a few pages, ‘A Day’s Wait’ covers a number of key features of Hemingway’s work as a whole, and so despite not being one of his best-known stories, it’s oddly representative of his oeuvre as a whole.
You can read ‘A Day’s Wait’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis below.
‘A Day’s Wait’: plot summary
The story is narrated by an unnamed father of a nine-year-old boy named Schatz. The boy falls ill with influenza. He tells his father he has a headache and when his father feels the boy’s forehead, it’s clear he has a fever.
The doctor comes to examine the boy and tells him that his temperature is 102 degrees. However, the boy mistakenly thinks the doctor means 102 degrees Celsius rather than 102 Fahrenheit. Because he believes his temperature is much higher than it is, Schatz becomes convinced he is going to die from the illness, as he had been told in school that any temperature over 44 degrees would mean certain death.
The story’s title, ‘A Day’s Wait’, refers to the boy’s day spent waiting to die, as he believes he will. However, the father, who narrates the story, doesn’t realise that boy believes he is approaching imminent death, and simply ascribes his son’s strange behaviour (such as staring straight ahead) to the illness. The father tries to read from Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates to keep his son entertained in his sickbed, but Schatz doesn’t seem to be listening. Then the father goes out with his dog for a walk, and shoots quail.
When the boy’s father returns and talks to his son, he realises his son’s mistake and explains it to him – using the analogy of confusing kilometres with miles to explain the difference between Celsius and Fahrenheit temperatures – and the son feels relieved and begins his recovery.
‘A Day’s Wait’: analysis
In a number of ways, ‘A Day’s Wait’ typifies Ernest Hemingway’s style and subject matter: the first-person narration of the father character is offered to us in short, simple, clipped sentences and plain language, and a number of recurring Hemingway themes – the macho pursuits represented by the father’s hunting trip and the pirate book – are present.
The first-person narrative style also helps to sow the seeds of the plot twist. Because the father only finds out about his son’s mistake near the end of the story, we remain as much in the dark about the boy’s behaviour as the father is, until it is explained at the end with the reference to the mix-up over thermometer scales. ‘A Day’s Wait’ functions almost like a miniature mystery story: why is the boy responding to an ordinary and largely unthreatening bout of influenza in such a strange way? Is it a result of the effects of fever?
It is worth remembering that Hemingway himself had been a young man when the so-called Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-20 killed millions of people around the world, including many young and healthy people. Although the case of flu which Schatz suffers from is much less severe and clearly non-lethal, one wonders whether the recent memory of the Spanish flu lurks somewhere behind ‘A Day’s Wait’.
In ‘A Natural History of the Dead’, Hemingway wrote of the horrors of seeing someone die from Spanish influenza, as he did at the end of the First World War after he had been shadowing Red Cross nurses in Europe. He mentions the sufferer drowning in mucus and becoming a child again. Perhaps surprisingly given his well-known ‘macho’ persona, Hemingway was all too aware of the horrors of influenza in his own lifetime and it’s likely that his memory of the Spanish flu pandemic stuck with him when he wrote ‘A Day’s Wait’ some time later.
Although Schatz’s fear of dying is unfounded in his case, and the result of a naïve misreading of his temperature, we might analyse his response as symbolic (or symptomatic, we might say) of a whole generation’s increased horror of the potential deadliness of influenza.
In this connection, the fact that the boy’s odd response to his illness strikes many readers and critics as improbable (wouldn’t the boy say something, or scream, or cry, rather than simply wait placidly to die?) lends credence to the idea that ‘A Day’s Wait’ is operating on some symbolic level.
And, of course, just like his father, Schatz the nine-year-old embodies the curious combination of outward machismo and inward sensitivity which we associate with so many Hemingway characters. The boy is sensitive enough to believe that his end has come, and although he is in error, his erroneous position is founded on his school learning and (partial) knowledge of temperature scales. But he is also outwardly stoic enough to want to meet his (perceived) death with equanimity. In many ways, although it is his father who goes hunting, it is the son who most clearly represents the ‘Hemingway character’ in ‘A Day’s Wait’.