Short story: “The Balloon”

by look i have opinions

“The Balloon,” by Donald Barthelme

Appeared in the New Yorker on April 16, 1966 (subscribers can read here); apparently reprinted there on June 27th, 1994 (subscribers, etc.); available in various, often incomplete forms online (here’s an RTF that appears complete); very ably read and recorded here on Miette’s Bedtime Story Podcast; collected in Sixty Stories

About 14:22 in Miette’s reading; 1,762 words; a little less than five pages in this copy of Sixty Stories

Barthelme gently mocks our need to interpret and explain and contextualize and criticize. I think he mocks it because he loves it though.

At the end, the narrator states that the balloon’s purpose and meaning are private, emotional, and non-communicative. He has also stated explicitly that “the purpose of the balloon was not to amuse children[,]” implying that his own understanding of the balloon is the only correct one. And yet he’s gone into other people’s responses in such detail that I can’t help believing that they can be valued on the same footing with his own—that by writing all this, he is (intentionally or not) giving up his right to determine, ultimately, authoritatively, what the balloon means. He has unleashed his “spontaneous autobiographical disclosure” and others may interpret it as they will.