In “A Day’s Wait,” a sick nine-year-old boy, called “Schatz” (German for “darling” or “treasure”) by his father, confuses Fahrenheit with Celsius and imagines that his temperature is fatally high. This false assumption is left uncorrected for an entire day as the boy fearfully waits to die. His father, meanwhile, spends the day enjoying himself outside, utterly unaware of the terror his son is facing. Hemingway’s short story is thus a tragedy of miscommunication; the boy wouldn’t have endured so many hours of solitary fear had he spoken up to his father, or had his father done more to inquire into his son’s state of mind. In this way, Hemingway illustrates how the failure to communicate openly and honestly can result in a knowledge gap, to be filled with painful confusion and misunderstanding.
The sick boy tries to suffer in silence from the very beginning of the story. At first, he refuses to go back to bed or to admit that he’s ill, even though his father seems sympathetic and attentive to his discomfort. In fact, the father, who narrates the story, speaks quite tenderly of his son, noting how he initially looks “a very sick and miserable boy of nine years.” Nevertheless, even when the boy hears the doctor note that his temperature is 102 degrees and mistakenly thinks that he will die of such a high fever, he still says nothing. Having heard his French classmates say that a fever of 44 degrees (Celsius) was fatal, the boy thus believes his 102-degree fever (Fahrenheit) certainly means death, not knowing that different temperature scales exist. The boy’s insistence on keeping to himself allows his macabre imagination to go unchecked, thus suggesting how silence creates an opening for trauma.
Of course, the miscommunication at the heart of the story is hardly the boy’s fault; both his father and doctor also fail to communicate clearly and openly with the child in their care. When his father and the doctor leave the room after examining the boy, they discuss his condition in great detail—noting, for instance, that a flu is going around and that it is “nothing to worry about if the fever did not go above one hundred and four degrees.” This simple fact would certainly alleviate the boy’s fear, but neither adult explains this diagnosis to the boy. When the boy and his father do talk to each other, they don’t speak of his condition in any meaningful way. When the boy’s father asks him, “How do you feel, Schatz?” he responds merely, “Just the same, so far.” He doesn’t explain his feelings about being close to death, and though his father can tell that something is wrong, the latter doesn’t pry. The father notices that his son seems “very detached” and that he is “looking very strangely,” yet when the boy repeatedly urges his father not to stay in the room with him, he doesn’t question his son about his odd behavior nor prompt him to confess what’s going on. Instead, he tells himself that “perhaps [the boy] was a little lightheaded” and leaves to give him some space. He only imagines physical causes of his son’s discomfort and fails to look into signs of emotional turmoil. The adults’ silence on the matter of his health reinforces the boy’s idea that he, too, must remain silent, and he thus continues to keep his distress to himself.
Indeed, while neither the boy nor his father is trying to hurt the other, miscommunication only breeds distrust in the story. Because the boy began his day by insisting to his father that he was “all right” when he was actually feeling sick, he may suspect his father of lying in the same fashion when his father says, “Your temperature is all right […] It’s nothing to worry about.” The boy continues to lie to his father when he claims, “I’m taking it easy,” when he clearly isn’t. He doesn’t believe that the medicine will work, and even when his father assures him that “You aren’t going to die […] People don’t die with a fever of one hundred and two,” he refuses to believe him until his father explains exactly how different types of thermometers and temperature scales work. Having spent all day hiding his true feelings, the boy knows how people are capable of dishonesty and fears his father is lying.
It is only when the boy and his father talk openly that the former’s fear is overcome. The boy asks when he is going to die, in response to which the father finally pushes his son to elaborate on what he’s thinking about. This is how the father learns that, because the boy lacked vital information—that is, because he was making assumptions amidst a sort of silence—the boy had misunderstood the difference between Celsius with Fahrenheit, and that his fever reading on the latter was nothing to be concerned about. The boy’s father then tries to explain the measurements by comparing them to miles and kilometers, using clear, explicit communication to assuage the child’s fears. Of course, if they had been more willing to discuss both the illness and their feelings from the beginning, there never would have been such a needless misunderstanding. Instead, a prolonged miscommunication born of mutual silence created traumatic consequences.
Silence and Miscommunication ThemeTracker
Silence and Miscommunication Quotes in A Day’s Wait
After a while he said to me, “You don’t have to stay in here with me, Papa, if it bothers you.”
“It doesn’t bother me.”
“No, I mean you don’t have to stay if it’s going to bother you.”
I thought perhaps he was a little lightheaded and after giving him the prescribed capsules at eleven o’clock I went out for a while.
At the house they said the boy had refused to let any one come into the room.
“You can’t come in,” he said. “You mustn’t get what I have.”
“Your temperature is all right,” I said. “It’s nothing to worry about.”
“I don’t worry,” he said, “but I can’t keep from thinking.”
“Don’t think,” I said. “Just take it easy.”
“I’m taking it easy,” he said and looked straight ahead. He was evidently holding tight onto himself about something.
I sat down and opened the Pirate book and commenced to read, but I could see he was not following, so I stopped.
“About what time do you think I’m going to die?” he asked.
“About how long will it be before I die?”
“People don’t die with a fever of one hundred and two. That’s a silly way to talk.”
“I know they do. At school in France the boys told me you can’t live with forty-four degrees. I’ve got a hundred and two.”
He had been waiting to die all day, ever since nine o’clock in the morning.
“Poor old Schatz. It’s like miles and kilometers. You aren’t going to die. That’s a different thermometer. On that thermometer thirty-seven is normal. On this kind it’s ninety-eight.”
His gaze at the foot of the bed relaxed slowly. The hold over himself relaxed too, finally, and the next day it was very slack and he cried very easily at little things that were of no importance.