By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘A Canary for One’ is a short story by Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961). He began writing ‘A Canary for One’ in 1926 and it was first published the following year. It contains a number of the most characteristic features of Hemingway’s writing: clear, unadorned prose, and a focus on ordinary, unremarkable ‘events’ whose symbolism is allowed to come quietly and unobtrusively to the surface.
Because of the story’s subtleties, some analysis of this symbolism is necessary to understand what Hemingway is doing with ‘A Canary for One’. First, let’s recap the ‘plot’ of the story, in the form of a quick summary.
‘A Canary for One’: plot summary
The story is narrated by an American man who is on a train travelling through France with his wife, who is also American. One of their fellow passengers is another American woman, who strikes up a conversation with the woman.
This woman, who is middle-aged and deaf, is worried about the speed at which the train – known as a rapide in France because of its high speed – is travelling. She has a canary with her, which she bought in Sicily; it is kept in a cage in the railway carriage.
The middle-aged woman tells the couple that she initially thought they were English, but when she discovers they are Americans she is pleased, declaring that American men make the best husbands. She tells them that her daughter fell in love with a ‘foreigner’ in Vevey in Switzerland, a man whom she forbade her daughter from marrying. She bought the canary as a present for her daughter after the engagement was broken off.
At the close of the story, the narrator reveals that when he and his wife arrive in Paris, they are going to separate, their marriage at an end.
‘A Canary for One’: analysis
‘A Canary for One’ uses Hemingway’s trademark plain, unadorned style to depict what appears to be an ordinary snapshot of life: a couple travelling in a train, striking up a conversation with a fellow passenger. Using his short sentences and uncomplicated vocabulary, Hemingway briefly sketches in the bare details of the railway carriage and the three principal characters of the story.
Nothing much happens: on a train, a woman starts talking to an American couple, and then we learn that the couple are going to split up when the train arrives at its destination. As with many of Hemingway’s stories, the emphasis is not on ‘plot’ or ‘action’ but on taking a small and seemingly ordinary, even unremarkable, moment or group of moments and revealing their inner significance.
In this respect, it’s possible to detect a degree of irony in the journey that’s taking place: the train is travelling from the French Riviera up to Paris, the city of love, but the married couple in the story are coming to the end of their romance. For them, Paris represents the extinguishing of love rather than the kindling of their romance.
Of course, there’s another, more overt piece of irony in the fact that their fellow traveller’s repeated words – that Americans make the best husbands – are clearly proved hollow, even untrue, by the fact that this American husband is splitting up with his wife (though we don’t learn whether the split is mutual or whether it’s more on his or her side).
As is often the case with Hemingway’s fiction, then, there is latent symbolism in the train journey, and the fact that its destination is the capital city of love, but this symbolism arises perfectly naturally from a believable and real situation, which indeed appears to have had its origins in Hemingway’s own failing marriage to Hadley Richardson, who had been his wife since 1921.
Indeed, like much of Hemingway’s work, there is a strong autobiographical element to ‘A Canary for One’. In early 1926, Hadley became aware that Hemingway was having an affair with Pauline Pfeiffer, and asked for a separation; later that year, while Hemingway was working on ‘A Canary for One’, she formally requested a divorce. They divorced in January 1927 and Hemingway married Pfeiffer.
This background, and the end of the marriage between the two Americans in the story, provides a clue to the significance of the title of Hemingway’s story. ‘A Canary for One’ emphasises the solo over the couple; singularity or singlehood over togetherness. But of course, the canary is not for either of the married Americans but for the daughter, who is absent from the story and mentioned by her middle-aged mother.
Hemingway refused to moralise in his fiction, and so it is left to us, the readers, to decide how to respond to the woman’s behaviour towards her daughter. Is this ‘canary for one’ suitable compensation for having destroyed the daughter’s chance of happiness? Of course not. Is the mother’s controlling behaviour towards her daughter something we should find abhorrent? Almost certainly.
But Hemingway quietly lets the woman speak for herself, and through the exchanges between her and the American couple, we learn about the tragedy of the engagement that was broken off: something which the mother freely admits her daughter hasn’t got over.
The woman’s chauvinism about American men making the best husbands and how she couldn’t have her daughter marrying a ‘foreigner’ is at odds with her taste in the best and most fashionable clothes from France, which she happily has shipped over to New York. Some ‘foreign’ things are clearly okay: just not husbands for one’s daughter.
This narrow nationalism has destroyed her daughter’s life – the mother tells the couple that her daughter doesn’t ‘care’ about anything now, and refuses to eat – and the seriousness of her daughter’s misery only further makes a mockery of the peace-offering of ‘a canary for one’.
Another piece of symbolism which Hemingway allows to ‘speak for itself’, as it were, is the canary being kept in a cage. As a gift for the daughter, it is obviously already identified with her, but its caged existence echoes the metaphorical and psychological ways in which the mother’s control over her daughter’s life acts as another kind of ‘cage’.
Or perhaps it’s a mistake to analyse this canary in its cage as merely a symbol of the absent daughter. For maybe we should also view it as an extension of the middle-aged woman herself, who is similarly ‘caged’ or restricted by her own irrational prejudices. Note how she appears not to have any good foundation for believing that American men make the best husbands: she tells the couple that a friend of hers once told her that no foreigner could make a good husband for an American girl, and she appears to have taken this ‘wisdom’ to heart. But it has trapped her, as well as her daughter, in a ‘cage’ of her own making.