Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
As in his condemnation of the unnatural male-female relationships encouraged by the war and by postwar society in The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929), Ernest Hemingway, in this very short story, questions the prevailing lack of stability and morality of that era, seeing the destruction of love and marriage as a part of the overall malaise of Western civilization. The American woman’s pride, materialism, and narrow-minded prejudices against foreigners recall American greed and isolation following World War I, as do her fears, especially of speed. She wants the world to revert to the slower pace of the past. She is not only deaf but also blind to the real emotional problems in her home and in her train compartment.
The younger couple, on the other hand, have also become isolationists: They have survived the war only to become victims of emotional warfare, which has destroyed their love and marriage. Revealing their emotional state indirectly, they do not even attempt to communicate with each other. They know that the past cannot be regained, that nothing can ever be counted on for stability again for either of them, that simply being American cannot protect them in a rapidly changing world that has abandoned the old mores and verities. When marriages are wrecked, each survivor can depend only on himself.
“A Canary for One” can be grouped with other Hemingway short stories of this same period, all emphasizing the fragility of marriage in the postwar world, where values lost their meaning and the individual lost the hope of harmony. “Cat in the Rain,” “Hills Like White Elephants,” “Out of Season,” and “Mr. and Mrs. Elliot” fall into this category.