'A Canary for One' is a short story by Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) that was written in 1926 and first published the following year. It embodies many of Hemingway's distinct writing characteristics, such as clear and unadorned prose, and a focus on seemingly ordinary events that gradually reveal their underlying symbolism.
To fully comprehend Hemingway's intentions in 'A Canary for One,' it is essential to analyze the story's symbolism. Before delving into the analysis, let's provide a brief summary of the plot.
A Canary for One: Plot Summary
The story is narrated by an American man traveling with his wife on a train through France. Among their fellow passengers is a middle-aged American woman who strikes up a conversation with the man's wife.
This middle-aged woman, who is both deaf and concerned about the train's high speed, carries a canary in a cage. She purchased the canary in Sicily and keeps it with her in the railway carriage.
Mistaking the couple for English initially, the woman is pleased to discover they are Americans. She expresses her belief that American men make the best husbands and shares a story about her daughter's failed engagement to a "foreigner" in Switzerland. The canary was meant to be a gift for her daughter after the engagement was broken off.
Towards the end of the story, the narrator reveals that he and his wife will separate upon reaching Paris, effectively ending their marriage.
A Canary for One: Analysis
'A Canary for One' employs Hemingway's characteristic plain and unadorned writing style to depict what may seem like an ordinary snapshot of life: a couple engaging in conversation with a fellow train passenger. Hemingway uses concise sentences and simple vocabulary to provide a brief description of the railway carriage and the three main characters in the story.
Emphasis on Subtlety and Symbolism
The narrative does not rely on significant events; instead, it focuses on a woman initiating conversation with an American couple on a train, eventually revealing the impending separation of the couple upon their arrival in Paris. Hemingway's intention, as with many of his stories, is not to emphasize plot or action, but rather to uncover the hidden significance of seemingly mundane moments.
In this context, an element of irony is present in the journey itself: the train is traveling from the romantic French Riviera to Paris, known as the city of love, yet the married couple featured in the story is approaching the end of their romance. For them, Paris represents the extinguishing of love rather than its flourishing.
Furthermore, there is a clear irony in the repeated claim made by their fellow traveler that American men make the best husbands. This assertion is contradicted by the fact that the American husband in the story is separating from his wife (although it remains unclear whether the decision is mutual or initiated by one party).
Autobiographical Elements and Symbolism
As is often the case in Hemingway's works, the train journey and its destination, the city of love, hold symbolic significance. This symbolism arises naturally from a believable and authentic situation, likely drawing inspiration from Hemingway's own failing marriage to Hadley Richardson, whom he married in 1921.
Indeed, 'A Canary for One' carries a strong autobiographical element. In early 1926, Hadley became aware of Hemingway's affair with Pauline Pfeiffer, leading to their separation. Later that year, while Hemingway was working on the story, Hadley formally requested a divorce. They divorced in January 1927, and Hemingway subsequently married Pfeiffer.
This background, combined with the dissolution of the American couple's marriage within the story, sheds light on the significance of the story's title. 'A Canary for One' emphasizes singularity or being alone, rather than togetherness as a couple. However, it is crucial to note that the canary is intended for the absent daughter mentioned by her middle-aged mother.
Moral Interpretations and Symbolic Elements
Hemingway refrains from imposing moral judgments within his fiction, leaving readers to form their own opinions about the woman's treatment of her daughter. Can a 'canary for one' serve as sufficient compensation for her daughter's shattered happiness? Certainly not. Is the mother's controlling behavior towards her daughter something we should find objectionable? Most likely.
Hemingway allows the woman to express herself through her interactions with the American couple, providing glimpses into the tragedy of her daughter's unresolved pain from the broken engagement.
The woman's chauvinistic views on American men as ideal husbands contradict her affinity for fine French fashion, which she happily imports to New York. While she embraces certain "foreign" aspects, she rejects foreign husbands for her daughter.
This narrow nationalism has devastated her daughter's life. The woman reveals that her daughter no longer cares about anything and refuses to eat. The severity of her daughter's despair undermines the symbolic gesture of offering 'a canary for one' as a peace offering.
Another symbolic element that Hemingway allows to speak for itself is the canary confined within its cage. While already associated with the absent daughter, the canary's captivity echoes the metaphorical and psychological constraints imposed by the mother's control over her daughter's life.
Perhaps it would be misguided to view this caged canary solely as a symbol of the daughter's absence. It can also be seen as an extension of the middle-aged woman herself, who is similarly confined by her irrational prejudices. Notice how she lacks substantial evidence to support her belief that American men make the best husbands. She recounts how a friend once told her that no foreigner could be a suitable husband for an American girl, and she has unquestioningly internalized this "wisdom." This self-imposed belief has trapped both her and her daughter in cages of their own making.