Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Three unnamed Americans—a middle-aged woman and a younger couple—travel together on an overnight train to Paris. The older woman fears that the speed of modern transit will produce wrecks; she does most of the talking. Although she does not mention her absent husband, who apparently is home with their daughter, she continually asserts that only American men make “good husbands” for American women. Her main concern is for the marriage of her own daughter. Two years earlier, while the family was vacationing at Vevey, Switzerland, her daughter had fallen madly in love with a Swiss gentleman of good family and prospects, and the two had wanted to marry. The mother, however, refusing to let her daughter marry a foreigner, had forced her family to depart for the United States. Now, she tells the American couple, her daughter is still devastated by the affair; to cheer her despondent daughter, the mother has purchased a caged, singing canary.
Only the wife of the young couple participates in the conversation, giving only vague or ambiguous responses, particularly to the question of “good” American husbands. Only once does she extend the conversation by asking directly if the daughter has recovered from her lost love. She also volunteers the information that she and her husband once honeymooned one fall in Vevey; they had lived in Paris for several years before “the Great European War” forced them out. They are now returning to Paris for the first time since the war.
The young husband, who speaks aloud only once, seems satisfied to be isolated from the women’s conversation. Almost incidentally the reader discovers that he is the first-person narrator of the story, for he steadfastly looks out the train windows during the journey. He reports in such a flat, unemotional tone that the reader almost forgets that he is a character in the story until the last sentence of the story. Only as the train is pulling into Paris does he wonder whether even trivial points of existence have remained the same after the war. As the train enters the station, he finally reveals the truth of his condition and the point of the story: He and his wife have returned to Paris, the city of light and love, to begin their divorce.
First published in 1927, “A Canary for One” occurs in the early 1920s on a train headed toward Paris. Its three characters, an older wealthy woman and a couple in their late twenties, are all Americans; only at the end do we realize that the young husband is the actual narrator of the story. As they sit together on the train, the older woman initiates and then dominates the conversation. She first voices her concern that modern trains move at such rapid rates that wrecks are bound to occur but then turns to the topic of marriage, asserting that only American men are suitable husbands for American women. This, in turn, brings the woman to what is really on her mind, her daughter. While on a family vacation to Switzerland two years beforehand, she confides to the young couple her daughter had met an eligible Swiss bachelor, and the two had fallen in love. But the woman would not let her daughter wed a foreigner, and she forced the family to return to America. Her daughter, she notes, is still distraught about this, and the woman says that she has bought a singing canary to cheer he up.
Throughout the conversation, the young wife says very little, and her husband says virtually nothing at all. The young woman does reveal that she and her husband had spent their honeymoon at the same Swiss resort, and that they had lived in Paris but were then forced to leave by the coming of World War I. She adds that they are now headed back to Paris. Meanwhile, her husband merely looks out the window of the speeding train, as the passing landscape is described through his eyes. It features a wrecked train, an incinerated farmhouse, and other scenes of devastation. When the train pulls into Paris, the young man finally reveals the hidden twist: he and his young American wife are going to Paris to begin divorce proceedings.