Last Updated September 5, 2023.
If a summary acts as a means of tracing a story’s swirling arcs and epic heights, then a summary of Donald Barthelme’s “The Balloon” is essentially impossible. The story is relatively barren in terms of plot, as the tale and its single-digit page count adhere to a limited scope.
The narrator, an unnamed character responsible for twenty-two days of chaos and confusion in the New York borough of Manhattan, begins by describing a strange phenomenon for which he is responsible. Overnight, he inflated a massive balloon, large enough to reach Central Park. In the morning, the balloon grows again, straining into the sky to avoid harming the trees in the park. After its morning expansion, the balloon covers an immense area: “forty-five blocks north-south” and an uncertain span in other directions. The narrator describes how this absurd phenomenon carved a space in the Manhattan skyline, warping and wiggling to fill in side streets and wedge itself against buildings.
The balloon is a muted beast, made up of “heavy grays and browns… walnut and soft yellow.” Its surface is mottled and uninteresting, with a “deliberate lack of finish.” It is neither magnificent nor mundane; it merely is. Held aloft by helium pumped in via hidden pumps no one can find, the balloon hovers above the city and creates all kinds of “situations” the next day and in the following weeks. Bobbing sedately above the people of Manhattan, the balloon is a baffling phenomenon. Its lack of identifying material or signage exacerbates the confusion, and the balloon’s benevolent but unexplained presence leads to many reactions, or “situations,” as the narrator refers to them.
Generally, these “situations” lack tension or resolution. Instead, they are simply responses. Varied in their strength and perspectives, the opinions of the public comprise the bulk of the narrative, as the narrator records, almost from the bird’s eye view of the balloon, the city’s response to his creation. Some people think it improves the city’s appearance; others think it is an eyesore. Specialists strive to understand its significance or its origins and fail. Some people guess that it is an advertisement but cannot discern what it advertises. Children accept it immediately, seeing it as little more than a playground. Days of brainstorming and postulating are ultimately fruitless, and no one understands the balloon’s purpose.
Soon, people grow accustomed to its sedate and unthreatening presence, and the balloon becomes an integrated part of the cityscape. Its curves intersect with cross streets, and the balloon begins to serve as a visual reference point for meeting locations. The balloon’s unexplained presence becomes a source of joy and familiarity rather than confusion, and people adjust to the strange landscape of post-balloon Manhattan. Unlike many, the balloon is mutable; it changes often and randomly. It is a welcome vacation from the strict “grid” of the city and of life, so Manhattanites who feel trapped by the linearity of conventional life embrace its absurdity.
For twenty-two days, the balloon remains aloft. The story ends on the final day of its life, as the narrator speaks to another unnamed character with whom he is romantically involved. He explains to his lover, who has just returned from a stay in Norway, that the balloon was a “spontaneous autobiographical disclosure” representing his “unease” at their absence. Now, upon their return, the unease and “sexual deprivation” abate, so the balloon was deflated, its empty husk secreted away for storage in West Virginia, and stored for some future date when it is once more needed.