Last Updated on November 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 550
Few are the characters in Donald Barthelme’s “The Balloon.” Beyond the unnamed narrator and his lover, characters appear as a collection of categories, identified by their social status or opinion on the balloon. Groups of Manhattanites such as “citizens,” “experts,” “authorities,” and “children” have an important role in the narrative, though they remain indistinct and unnamed.
The narrator is responsible for the balloon; he designed its hidden valves, impenetrable surface, and muted appearance. He led a team of engineers in its construction, inflation, and eventual deflation. While the balloon is his creation, he refers to it apathetically, calling it first a “situation,” then a “circumstance,” then a “concrete particular,” before finally referring to it as a passive “something” that is simply “there.” Although he takes credit for the balloon and its imposing presence, he does not seem to take pride in it nor view it as a personal accomplishment. Instead, it was simply something he did, a “spontaneous” and necessary act stemming from a need for self-expression.
Reserved and often passive, the narrator is a keen observer. He pays close attention to how the denizens of Manhattan react and adapt to his creation. His sharp gaze makes him appear omnipotent; it is as if he is perched atop his balloon and gazing down at the confused populace below. There is a certain arrogance to his nonchalance; his actions, done on a lonesome whim, have irrevocably altered the city. However, he is unbothered by the effects of his balloon, inflating and deflating it as he sees fit.
Returning from a trip to Norway, the narrator’s lover immediately identifies the balloon as the narrator’s creation. Their absence sparks such intense emotions in the narrator that he feels compelled to absurd heights, a response which he imagines repeating in another instance of “unhappiness” when the couple becomes “angry with each other.” The deeply personal and specific nature of the balloon’s meaning highlights its absurdity: something as small as an argument between lovers can so intensely affect the entire borough.
Those living in the affected blocks are important to the narrative; their attempts to derive a sense of meaning or purpose from the balloon build toward the story’s satirization of the human need for the world to have significance. Unnamed characters fit into set categories, such as the experts, who conduct tests to determine how to remove or destroy the balloon; the authorities, who struggle to determine how to respond to the balloon’s presence; the public, who quickly adapt to the balloon’s presence and grow dulled to its spontaneous novelty; and the children, who enjoy the balloon, bouncing on it and using it as a playground.
The perspectives of the Manhattanites are varied, and this variance speaks to the individual subjectivity of each person's outlook on life. For some, the balloon is not as beautiful as the sky, even on the grayest New York evenings. For others, it is a magnificent, unexpected gift. Even others see the ever-fluctuating form of the balloon as a sign to change the mind-numbing routine of their lives. Indeed, in the eyes of these unnamed, ant-like characters, the balloon is a projected-upon beacon of subjective meaning; in short, it is exactly what they wish it to be.