Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 520

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Because readers have no guidance from Amy Hempel’s narrator as to what to think about anything or anyone in this narrative, they must become more involved with the story than is typical in order to come to a conclusion. Although there are no explicit or overt explanations or evaluations, many clues are embedded in the text. The story appears to be about relationships, specifically those of a divorced father with his children, in whose lives he has been only marginally involved. It is no small matter that the title of the story coincides with the epitaph for the father’s tombstone or with the general connotation of what it means to have a “quiet day” with or without others. Normally quiet time is set aside for some kind of healing, for getting in touch, for listening to inner voices, or for trying to hear better what others are saying. In this story the day is far from being a quiet one; there is much talking going on. The quietness appears to apply to a lack of direct communication and to the soundless situations of a dismembered family and dislocated relationships.

The story also appears to be about the many ways people communicate various feelings without ever speaking the exact words, as well as how people rarely say what they really mean or really feel, but tend to fall into ready phrases, expected responses, innuendo, or euphemism—say it any other way but do not say it outright. The most obvious example of this latter theme lies in the joke that the young girl tells. Even the joke has to be “translated,” and therefore is not given in direct speech. In the scenario of the joke, two people are spared execution either because they do not see the problem or because they say nothing. Only the person who recognizes the problem and, more to the point, acknowledges it aloud, suffers negative consequences—he dies. He dies for the knowing and for the telling, for the seeing and saying, for his pointing it out to others.

Many other verbal clues exist in the text of the story, clues that give meaning both to the events and to the characters’ behavior, but also that reflect the methods by which this story is told. “But you could read things wrong” might refer both to the father’s reading of his children as “all right” or “not all right” and to the reader’s interpretation of the story. “Thinking you’re invisible because you closed your eyes” might reflect the condition of thinking that pretending makes something so, or that ignoring something makes it cease to exist. There is a pun embedded in the description of the new type of arm wrestling that the family considers seeing: “The best anyone could hope to see would be dislocation.” Within the new rules of the sporting event, the worst that can happen now is that someone’s shoulder might be “dislocated”; in the arena of life, if “dislocation” is the best that one can hope for, then everyone in the story must indeed be “all right.”

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