The Balloon by Donald Barthelme
“The Balloon” is the story of an unusual-looking balloon that was inflated by the narrator and flown over Manhattan. No one apart from the narrator knows where the balloon came from or what it stands for. It received varied responses from different people all over the city. Adults attempted to decipher its meaning but were puzzled by its ever-changing shape while children were fascinated by it and did not understand it beyond its external appearance. Authorities, on the other hand, were vexed by it’s constantly changing shape and form and tried to destroy it, but did not succeed.
“The Balloon” is a fictional story about how various people interact with art and fiction. Barthelme expects the reader to interact with his fiction just as they would interact with a work of art. He wants the reader to decipher, decode and appreciate both the hidden and exposed meaning of the story in his own unique way. The reader should engage his imagination and creativity while reading the story in order to obtain its real meaning. ‘The Balloon’ is metafiction; in that it is a work of fiction that explores and talks about the art of fictional writing and how readers should approach it.
The story that Barthelme is telling is that one should not try to define or overanalyze fiction because fiction cannot be confined to only one meaning. For it to fulfill its true purpose, it has to be allowed to be free and boundless. Through this story, Barthelme intends to show that people should not insist on finding one distinct meaning for a fictional story. In the story, the balloon’s meaning and purpose differs with each person who sees it, some enjoy it while others become infuriated with it because they try too hard to make out its real meaning. By this, Barthelme is trying to show that the meaning of fiction is a personal thing; it cannot be forced or generalized. The meaning of fiction and life changes with each individual depending on their attitudes, circumstances and imagination and thought process. In this story for example, only the narrator understood what the balloon meant, this shows that a person may put in a lot of effort in trying to comprehend a particular work of art while in reality only its creator may understand its real meaning.
According to Barthelme, the meaning of fiction should also not be defined through cultural or social lenses. In the story, the authorities may be taken to represent societal and cultural lenses; he insists that meaning is a personal and individual thing. He argues that originality, creativity and imagination cannot be defined or imposed on people; everyone has the right to respond to life. Barthelme therefore in effect tells this story in order to show that one cannot attach a label to a work of fiction or art; it has to be allowed to take its own shape and meaning.
For the reader, this principle can be applied not only to reading fiction but also to other areas in life, such as relationships. Through the story, Barthelme also intends to convey the meaning that it is okay to break tradition, be individualistic and think outside the box. One does not have to bend to societal expectations and norm. In fact, the story shows that in order to enjoy fiction, one should interact with the story on a personal level. Individuals have different personalities, attitudes and preferences. Therefore, when one tries to analyze a story through a societal or cultural lens, they lose their connection with themselves and with reality.
At the end of the story, the reader finds out that the narrator had launched the balloon into the sky as a personal way of dealing with the absence of a loved one. Therefore, all the interpretations that had been made were inaccurate. This is ending makes fun of the fact that many people had tried to construct deep criticisms about the presence and meaning of the balloon, but it had been a waste of time because none of it was right.
Barthelme, Donald. Sixty stories New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2003. Print.