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The American woman having bought a canary in Palermo is bringing it back for her daughter who has lost interest in life because she cannot marry the man she loves. This American woman talks to a younger couple in the compartment with her on the train, who are also Americans; however, she does most of the talking--a "canary for one." Furthermore, as she talks, she hardly notices that the younger couple never speak to each other. Instead, the man gazes sullenly out the windows of the passing train, looking out upon charred fortifications, train wrecks, and a burned farmhouse. He remarks, "Nothing had eaten any breakfast." While the taciturn husband spends his time looking out windows, the wife, however, does agree with the older American woman that American men make the best husbands.
It is not until the end of the story that the reader realizes that the man has been narrating the story, and he and his wife are returning to Paris in order to "set up separate residences," where they may have "a canary for one." However, there are no longer any songs for them. Thus, the bird and its little cage are symbolic of the solitary life to come a life symbolized by the gulf of understanding between the couple.
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