A Teacher/Students Dialogue on Ernest Hemingway's Short Story,
"A Day's Wait"
by L. Swilley
(Note: Over the last several months, in many postings on several Teachers.net sites, I have encouraged teachers of literature to use a formal-critical approach in their address to literary works and to employ a Socratic question/answer method with their students to realize such an address. I have described in general a technique for this formal treatment, but I have not yet given an illustration, using examples of verbal exchanges as they might occur in the classroom. The teacher/students dialogue below is such an illustration. Teachers who want to make the best use of this illustration should first read the very short three-page story that is the subject of this dialogue, Ernest Hemingway's "A Day's Wait," available in many collections in libraries and conveniently in several paperback editions of Hemingway's short stories. For the sake of brevity of this dialogue, the high school student-characters here are quite obviously examples of the very best. In an ordinary class, students' comments usually drift farther away from the subject at hand and require more "nudging" back to it; but there is enough drifting here to illustrate the teacher's corrective and directive role in the class dialogue. L.S.)
Teacher: I see by the grades on the brief quiz you have just taken that all of you have read "A Day's Wait" with some care, so we are ready for our discussion. Please have your text open to the story so that we may refer to it. Good. Now, how shall we begin? Alice?
Alice: Well, when I tell a friend about a film I've just seen, I say something like, "It's about this girl who, etc." Will that do?
Teacher: I think that will do just fine. What characters have we to work with in this story?
Tom: There's the narrator-father and Schatz, his son.
Teacher: Any others?
Johnny: Yes. The doctor.
Teacher: What about "they" - a group without any names. Should we consider "they" a character?
Steve: Aw, sure. Why not? And what about that dog?
Teacher: Well, what about that dog? What is a character, anyway?
(A moment of silence)
Alice (ruffling through some notes): Last week you said, "A character is anyone affecting or being affected by the events in the story."
Teacher: Very good. Now, if that definition seems reasonable, should we say that this "they" is a character? And, as Steve says, what about that dog? And the doctor?
Alice: I guess we have to. But if I'm telling a friend about this story I'm not going to mention "they" first, if at all. And certainly not the dog.
Teacher: But why not? They're characters aren't they?
Alice: There's not enough - I don't know - stuff about them to worry with - not right away, anyway.
Teacher: Then there seems to be a practical rule for our investigation here. Would anyone like to state it?
Mary: The character we talk about first should be one with a lot of stuff in the story about him or her.
Teacher: And if there's "a lot of stuff," as you say, about more than one character, which one should you begin with? Bill?
Bill: I guess the one with the most stuff.
Alice: Because there's more to work with. It's easier.
Teacher: Good. O.K., then, in this story, we can work with either the narrator-father or Schatz his son; they have the most "stuff" about them. Which one should we use first?
Sam: First? Can there be more than one to work with? Isn't this just one character's story?
Teacher: I see Alice has an answer for your question. Alice?
Alice: The last film I saw had a guy and his girlfriend. I guess I could focus on either one to tell the story of the film.
Teacher: And the facts of the film would be the same?
Alice: Well, yes - but from a different angle.
Teacher: And would you refer to all the major events of the film no matter which "angle" you chose?
Teacher: Then it must be something like looking at a ball game through one knot-hole in the fence as opposed to seeing the game through another knot-hole. All the "facts" of the game are there in both views, but the perspectives - and therefore the emphases - are different. See, Sam?
Sam: I think so.
Teacher: To apply that here: we can view all the events of the story from the perspective of any of its characters; we can see how all the events affect him/her or are affected by him/her. Any character's progress in the story of the film, narrative or play will contain all the facts of the story, but from a different perspective. O.K.?
Sam: Yes, I see.
Teacher: Let's get back to our present problem: which of the two major characters of "A Day's Wait" shall we use? Whose story shall we tell?
Ginnie: There's more about the narrator than about Schatz or anybody else. Let's use the narrator-father.
Teacher: Good. By the way, isn't it always true that the engaged-narrator's story will be the one with the most "stuff".
Bill: It has to be. He's telling us all the facts.
Teacher: Give me an example from a recent novel we read.
Bob: Oh! - uh - Nick Carraway. In Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.
Teacher: Great! Now, in our present story, we have the narrator-father. Where do we go from here?
(A moment of silence)
Bill: He's got to do something, doesn't he? Or he got to react to something? Or both.
Teacher: And that's his story?
Teacher: Then, if I say, "The narrator sees his son is very sick and he calls the doctor," that's his story?
Bill: That's not all of it.
Teacher: Oh, we need all of it?
Bill (exasperated): Well, yes.
Bill: Because that's not all his "stuff". There's more.
Teacher: O.K. Here on the blackboard I'm going to list his "stuff" (writing): he hunts, he calls the doctor, he tells his son the difference between Fahrenheit and Centigrade temperatures, he reads pirate stories -
Alice: Wait! You can't just put everything down in any order. The list has to follow the events as they appear in the story.
Teacher: Oh? Why?
(A moment of silence)
Alice: Because that's how I would tell a friend about a film-story.
Teacher: Try again.
Alice: ....ummm. Because the events won't mean anything unless they are - what? - results.
Teacher: Alice, you're marvelous. Exactly. Then any character's perspective or story is not only all that he does and reacts to, but those actions and reactions in a cause-and-effect sequence, just as they appear in the story. O.K., Sam?
Tom: So...where are we now?
Teacher: We have a main character, the narrator-father, don't we? We're now trying to tell his "story," his progress in this work. We need to place the events of the work as they occur for the narrator. Let's see...I'll draw a long horizontal line here on the blackboard; the line will representing a chart of the events concerning this character. We'll place those events and his reactions, if any, in their proper sequential places along this line. We can put down any event as long as it's in its proper place on the line. What event should we put down first, if we can, as the most important? Sam?
Sam: I think we need to know where the story's finally going, so I'd put the last event down before I did anything else.
Teacher: Sam, you're a born philosopher! And what is that last event here?
Sam: Schatz finds out he is not going to die. He starts crying and whining.
Teacher: But I thought we were telling the narrator's story.
Sam: Well,then, the narrator sees this reaction in his son; he's puzzled by the change in him.
Teacher: O.K. So we have an ending for the narrator's story. What's next?
Sam: Well, a beginning, maybe?
Teacher: Sam, if you keep this up, you'll be teaching this course next semester. But - wait - maybe that was just a wild guess. Let's have you describe the beginning of the narrator's story.
Sam: He's worried about his son's illness.
Teacher: Pretty good. But why can't I just say, for the beginning, that the narrator wakes up.
Sam: Because that doesn't have anything to do with the story.
Teacher: Try again.
Sam: Because the whole story is about the narrator's reactions to Schatz's illness.
Teacher: Aha! And - ?
Sam: And because that's how I described the end of the narrator's story.
Teacher: You're an absolute genius! Class, please: a round of applause for Sam.
Bill: Wait! Wait a minute! What about that part where the narrator goes out hunting with his dog? There's nothing there about the Schatz at all. The narrator isn't even thinking about Schatz.
Teacher: That does seem to be well off-center the story's principal business. But may we leave that until we get the rest of the events in place?
Teacher: Sam began the narrator's story with the father's concern for Schatz's health. How is that concern established?
Ginnie: Well, the narrator talks to the doctor.
Teacher: And - ?
Ginnie: And the narrator tells us about the particular medicines prescribed for the boy and what each one is supposed to do.
Teacher: And - ?
Ginnie: Oh - and the narrator stays in Schatz's sick room and tries to read to him.
Teacher: All of which says - ?
Ginnie: It says the narrator cares very much about Schatz.
Teacher: And is there another kind of emphasis of this very point?
Alice: Is it that there are no particular women mentioned anywhere - or anyone else, really? There's only that "they" and whoever's in bed with the narrator at the beginning of the story - I suppose they're all the women of the house, but you can't tell. It's like the story's all between Schatz and his dad.
Teacher: You and Sam are surely going to put me out of a job. Exactly right. The whole focus of the story is one the relationship of father and son. There's no one else given any attention; their concern is suppressed; this helps bring the father's concern to the fore. It's like bas-relief. Now, let's see; what have we got so far? "A loving father is very concerned about his sick son; he is careful with the boy's medicines; he stays with him in the sick room..." What now?
Bob: He sees that Schatz is acting strange-like.
Teacher: Should we be more specific?
(A moment of silence)
Mary: I think so.
Mary: Because of what Schatz thinks. He thinks he's going to die. That's what his dad finds out. It makes his dad tell him he isn't going to die.
Teacher: Good. But, before we go on, let's put that in the narrator's story-line - that's the story we're telling, isn't it?
Ginnie: O.K. the father discovers Schatz thinks he's going to die; the father tells him he isn't going to.
Teacher: All right, but is that the end of the narrator-father's story? Is that all we need to finish the father's story?
Jim: There's something more. Something's missing.
Teacher: Oh? What's that?
Jim: The father sees Schatz - what? - "relax," he says. The boy whines and cries after he learns he's not going to die.
Teacher: That's not much of a story, is it? As you say, Jim, we must be missing something. What could it be?
(A moment of silence)
Teacher: Well, let's summarize the steps of the narrator's experience: (writing on the board) 1) he see's Schatz acting strangely; 2) he learns Schatz thinks he's going to die; 3) he tells Schatz he's not going to die; 4) he sees Schatz relax and begin crying -
Sarah: That "acting strangely" won't work.
Teacher: Oh? Why not?
Sarah: It has to be something about the way Schatz acts when he thinks he's going to die.
Bill: Aha! Because at the end of the story you said how he acts when he learns he isn't going to die. So we need to say how Schatz is acting when he thinks he is going to die. It's like in Algebra; you have to have the same terms on both sides.
Teacher: Hold that amazing thought! And how is Schatz acting early on, when he thinks he's dying?
Jim: Well, he isn't crying.
Tom: And he's concerned about other people; he's afraid that they might get what he has and die.
Sarah: And he doesn't want his father to be "bothered" by his death.
Alice: And he's not interested in that kid's pirate story his father is trying to read to him.
Teacher: I think we're on a roll. Let's summarize: how would you characterize Schatz when he thinks he's going to die; how, when he learns he isn't?
Mary: When he thinks he dying, he's considerate of others.
Teacher: And when he knows he'll live?
Mary: Well, he's all into himself. He's like a baby.
Bill: Oh, my gosh!
Teacher: What's the matter, Bill?
Bill: His dad did it!
Teacher: Did what, Bill?
Bill: Changed him. Schatz is all - what? - quiet, brave, y'know, like a man, worried for other people. Then his dad explains he's not going to die, and Schatz turns into a whining baby, crying about every little thing. His dad ruined him!
Teacher: Now hold on to that. Let's look now at that hunting scene. A while ago, Bill said it has nothing to do with the story about Schatz. Should we still think that?
Bill: Well, yes - no, wait (looks at his text)...the narrator is jumping up and down on the bushes; he's sliding on the ice; he's got a puppy with him - gee, he's like a kid! But then - Oh Lord! - it says he's "happy to have more to kill later."
Teacher: Why does that upset you?
Bill: It's like he enjoys killing.
Teacher: Well, yes, that's what it says; he enjoys killing the birds.
Bill: But later he's killing something in his own son.
Teacher: Does the narrator know that?
Bill: Lord, no. He's helping. What else can he do? Let Schatz think he's going to die?
Teacher: But the effect of the father's news about the different thermometers is - ?
Ginnie: You know, the father doesn't see what we see, that he's reduced a brave, "ideal man" of a son into a whining boy. At the end of the story, the father seems puzzled.
Teacher: But the narrator only told the boy the truth. Schatz misunderstood those thermometers. I wonder how that happened.
Tom: He got that from those French kids, the ones he was in school with, in France.
Teacher: And because of that misinformation - or misunderstanding - from the French he was acting like a brave man?
Bill: No, not so much from the French; from kids.
Teacher: So something somehow false from kids has.....?
Ginnie: - has made him brave, like a man.
Teacher: And - the truth from his dad?
Ginnie: If we say "kids" on one side, we have to say "adult" on the other. Truth from an adult has reduced him to a child.
Teacher: But, of course, this adult is Schatz's father.
Alice: This is awful!
Teacher: Maybe. Let's think about it. Tonight's assignment: write out the narrator's story, touching on all the points we have made in today's class. Don't forget: cause and effect.
Browse through the latest posts on the High School Chatboard.