Themes and Meanings

“The Balloon” is a good example of metafiction, a postmodern literary movement in which a writer explores the process of writing by writing stories about how stories are written. Critic Patricia Waugh, in her book Metafiction (1984), states that the purpose of metafiction is “simultaneously to create a fiction and to make a statement about the creation of that fiction.” For a practitioner of metafiction, conventional story forms are exhausted, so new techniques are created in self-conscious narratives—narratives that reveal themselves as narratives per se—exploiting the old conventions to create fresh ways of telling stories.

In a metafictional sense, this is a story about writing stories, and it also explores the relationship between the author and his work, and the public’s response to it. The balloon itself is an allegorical representation of the story that contains it, so that the reader is forced to confront and respond to the story in the same way that the citizens of New York City must confront and respond to the balloon. The balloon can represent any artistic creation—a song, a painting, a sculpture—and allusions to the balloon as having a “deliberate lack of finish” and its being a rough draft reinforce the idea that the balloon is an art object designed to provoke public and private reactions.

The balloon, like Donald Barthelme’s story, provides the community—and the reader—an opportunity to express several alternative, often...

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