Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 404
Donald Barthelme's short story "The Balloon" begins with a vaguely ominous description of an unusual phenomenon:
The balloon, beginning at a point on Fourteenth Street, the exact location of which I cannot reveal, expanded northward all one night, while people were sleeping, until it reached the Park.
Two aspects of this sentence stand out. First, the phenomenon described—a balloon that expands over such a large area that the narrator must use directions ("northward") to describe its movement—is fantastic rather than realistic. Secondly, the narrator apparently has some privileged knowledge of the balloon, which will not be shared with the reader. We are told what it is that the narrator "cannot reveal" to us, yet what is being withheld (namely, the exact location at which the balloon began) seems quite trivial.
The comic nature of Barthelme's story is evident in the description given of the public’s responses to the appearance of the giant balloon:
There were reactions. Some people found the balloon "interesting." As a response, this seemed inadequate to the immensity of the balloon, the suddenness of its appearance over the city; on the other hand, in the absence of hysteria or other societally-induced anxiety, it must be judged a calm, "mature" one.
What is funny here is the parody of sophisticated aesthetic response. "Interesting" is a term used to describe works of art that are, in fact, interesting only to the extent that they elude comment, having failed in some respect. Here, Barthelme gently mocks critics by having the narrator criticize the seemingly inadequate or uncomprehending responses to the appearance of the balloon.
By the end of the story, it becomes clear that the balloon is a symbol of the story itself and of art more generally. The style becomes cryptic and opaque, and the story finally, figuratively deflates. Thus, the last sentence treats the removal of the balloon in a matter-of-fact yet rather mysterious manner. The balloon is "easy" to remove, yet it is kept around for future use in a moment of crisis:
Removal of the balloon was easy; trailer trucks carried away the depleted fabric, which is now stored in West Virginia, awaiting some other time of unhappiness, sometime, perhaps, when we are angry with one another
The crisis in question is obscure. "When we are angry with one another" could be anything from a description of a domestic quarrel to a description of the human condition.