A Day's Wait Summary

Synopsis

"A Day's Wait" (1936) is a brief story by Ernest Hemingway that conveys the seemingly tragic outcome of miscommunication between a boy and his father.

Schatz is a nine-year-old boy who becomes sick one winter night. After a doctor is called, it is determined that Schatz has contracted the flu and has a high fever. It is considered only a mild case, and the doctor leaves medicine for the boy, who overhears the physician tell the father that the boy's temperature is 102 degrees. It is this information that causes the perceived conflict and misunderstanding between the boy and his father.

Schatz is put to bed, and his father maintains a steady watch over him, reading from a book about pirates. But Schatz seems unusually detached and when his father suggests he get some sleep, the boy refuses. The father reads to himself for a while, but the boy remains awake and—strangely it seems to the father—suggests that the father leave "if it bothers you." The father tries to reassure the boy, but he again tells the father to go "if it bothers you."

Thinking that the boy is simply a bit light-headed, the father leaves the room and takes the family dog for a walk along the frozen creek. The dog flushes a covey of quail, and the father kills several before triumphantly returning from the hunt to find Schatz still white-faced at the foot of the bed. After the father takes Schatz's temperature, the boy demands to know what it was. "Something like a hundred," the father responds, although it is actually still above 102. The father gives Schatz his medicine and a glass of water, but the boy still seems unusually concerned. Once again he reads to his son about pirates, but he sees that Schatz is not paying attention, so he stops. The boy suddenly asks, "About what time do you think I'm going to die?"

The stunned father is taken aback, but Schatz asks him again when he will die. The father tells him all will be okay, and calls it silly talk. But then Schatz explains: "At school in France the boys told me you can't live with forty-four degrees. I've got a hundred and two."

The exasperated father quickly explains to his son about the difference between Fahrenheit and Celsius thermometers, comparing them to miles and kilometers. The boy slowly relaxes, and by the next day "he cried very easily at little things that were of no importance."

Although the father shows genuine concern over his son's condition, he fails to recognize the boy's misunderstanding of the doctor's diagnosis and the son's mistaken belief that he would die from the high Fahrenheit temperature, confusing it with the Celsius form commonly used in many other parts of the world. Additionally, the father inadvertently confirms the boy's fears when he goes hunting after Schatz suggests he should leave.

Hemingway's ambiguous ending—the description of the boy as crying "very easily at little things that were of no importance"—suggests how easily the reader too can misinterpret information. Was this the boy's regular reaction to the little things in life (had he in fact returned to normal), or had his long day's wait for death affected him forever?