By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Banal Story’ is one of the shortest stories Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) ever wrote. Running to just two pages in most editions, the story first appeared in the Little Review magazine in 1926 before being collected in Hemingway’s Men Without Women the following year.
Despite its brevity, ‘Banal Story’ has had critics scratching their heads over its meaning for some time. Let’s analyse Hemingway’s story closely to see if we can penetrate its surface and discover what it might mean.
This presents us with our first problem with ‘Banal Story’: can we even offer a summary of its ‘plot’ when it doesn’t really have a plot to speak of? However, we might think of ‘Banal Story’ as a story divided into three parts.
The first part of the story tells of a man eating an orange as the snow turns to rain outside. The man is a writer. But as soon as Hemingway has introduced him as the story’s supposed protagonist, the focus shifts from this writer to a boxing match in Paris, which is far away from where this writer is. Then we are off to Mesopotamia in the Middle East, where the snow has fallen heavily. And in Australia, the Ashes tournament between English and Australian cricketers is about to begin. This is ‘Romance’ and ‘life’, according to the narrator.
But from this, the second (middle) section of ‘Banal Story’ shifts to a consideration of the pages of The Forum, an American magazine published between 1885 and 1950. The narrator (presumably channelling the man’s experience as he sits leafing through the magazine) summarises some of the articles and opinion pieces contained within its pages, covering a variety of topics: human overpopulation in the future, modern civilisation, the ideal type of man, whether modern poetry can be called proper art, and so on.
From this middle section, the focus shifts again: this time, to the house in Triana (in Seville, Spain) where Manuel Garcia Maera, the celebrated bullfighter, lies dying of pneumonia. The local Andalusian newspapers – perhaps in contrast to The Forum itself – covered Maera’s death in detail, paying tribute to him. Other bullfighters were relieved that he had died because he put them all to shame in the bull ring with his skill.
The narrator concludes the story by telling us that, after the funeral, many men bought coloured pictures of Maera as souvenirs, which they kept rolled up in their pockets.
Manuel ‘Maera’ García López (1896-1924) was a Spanish bullfighter whom Hemingway also praised in Death in the Afternoon, his great non-fiction book about matador culture. And his novel published the same year as ‘Banal Story’, The Sun Also Rises, is also about bullfighting.
In the end, as Hemingway suggests here, it was tuberculosis (or pneumonia brought on by weakened TB-infected lungs) rather than his job which did for Maera. He was a hero to Spanish people, like a modern-day saint whose image men want to own and carry about with them like a lucky charm.
Hemingway admired Spanish matadors like Maera, so the fact that ‘Banal Story’ ends with the bullfighter’s death and the adulation he received from Andalusians is surely of note. The three-part structure of this short story is also relevant: the first section sees the protagonist (a male writer, much like Hemingway himself) eating an orange before his thoughts wander to the inconsequential and pseudo-intellectual musings of the articles in The Forum, before contrasting (implicitly) this content with the grand heroism of Maera’s life and (difficult) death.
In this connection, too, it is worth considering how masculinity plays an important role in this brief vignette, as it does in so much of Hemingway’s fiction. Indeed, one of the questions which The Forum asks is whether American society wants men to be big and tough or whether men should be more cultured and, one supposes, sensitive. Maera, who is both brave and strong and part of a longstanding culture which Hemingway reveres, Spanish bullfighting, collapses this supposed either/or choice, showing it up to be fallacious.
The protagonist’s (Hemingway’s?) kinship with Maera in Seville is subtly pointed up by the opening detail of the story, in which he eats an orange. This detail, and the details of Maera’s death at the end of ‘Banal Story’, bookend the narrative and point to what real life experience means: sensation, rather than the pseudointellectualism indulged in by magazines like The Forum (whose style was indeed very close to the one Hemingway uses when satirising the content of the publication here).
Note also how rain helps to bring these two tableaux together: the snow is turning to rain during the orange-eating episode of the opening paragraph, while after Maera’s funeral people sit out in the rain in Seville.
One wonders whether Louis MacNeice had ‘Banal Story’ in mind when he wrote his poem ‘Snow’, which includes an account of the speaker eating an orange and indulging in the delicious and varied sensations of living (including the feelings evoked by the snow outside his window). For this is the real ‘message’ or meaning of ‘Banal Story’: that the banal or uninteresting meditations of the authors who write for The Forum are a world away from real life, which is found in the derring-do and fearlessness of modern-day heroes like Maera.
But of course, Maera, with the almost-holy celebrity worship the people of Spain shower upon him and his memory, harks back to a different age: ‘Banal Story’ contrasts the banality of modern America with the older sense of community and courage embodied by Maera and the love he inspires.
A key feature of ‘Banal Story’ is free indirect speech. This is when the voice of a third-person narrator takes on the style and ‘voice’ of one of the characters within the story or novel. It is, if you will, as if a detached third-person narrator has begun to turn into a first-person narrator, i.e. one of the characters within the story (or novel). The objectivity and detachment we associate with third-person narrators dissolves into the subjective and personal style of a character.
Here, the experience of reading The Forum is recreated not through direct quotation from its pages but through the narrator channelling the words from the magazine as they reach the mind of the protagonist and then, through him, our own consciousness as readers.