Why “The Balloon” is the strangest, yet most intriguing short story of the post world war II era. Complete summary of Donald Barthelme’s The Balloon. eNotes plot summaries cover all the significant action of The Balloon. Dive deep into Donald Barthelme’s The Balloon with extended analysis, commentary, and discussion.

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One of the targets in Donald Barthelme’s second collection of short stories, Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Actsis society’s blind gropings for truth. The author probes the problems, if not the impossibility, of discovering meaning both in the external world and in one’s own consciousness. Words, he seems to conclude, are our only connection with the inner and outer worlds, but they are seductive in making us believe we can traverse the baloon between question and knowledge.

The entire collection deals with a number of specific subjects, including the relationship between war and mechanized barthele the search for meaning in politics, art, science, and personal relationships; the privacy of love; and the failure of language.

One of Barthelme’s richest stories from this volume is “The Balloon. The plot is simple. Had it a name like “Goodyear,” those who saw it could have handled it and thus placed it into perspective—into a category of mind. But because the nameless balloon is merely suspended, for 22 days, it is treated as a situation.

Such a state—a state of the unknowable, the unclassifiable, the mysterious—evokes a variety of responses. For seven or so pages the speaker describes the balloon and the numerous reactions to it.

Some people find it fascinating and argue about its meaning. When these intellectual discussions prove unsatisfying some decide to physically enjoy the balloon, and they jump, stroll, race, and bounce on it. Others—and every response is dependent upon one’s basic, innate temperament—are timid or hostile; they are frustrated by the balloon.


One group performs secret tests to try to make the balloon go away. All, however, “interpret” it according to their own frames of reference, and Barthelme has a heyday tracing the gamut of responses.

In the end most people cope with the balloon pragmatically, and it becomes a meeting place. As Barthelme puts it, “marginal intersections offered entrances. The speaker, however, warns: Finally “it was suggested” that the virtue of the balloon, given all these intersections, was its “randomness. Only later does the speaker explain: On close reading and rereading which most of Barthelme’s fictions demandit becomes clear that from the beginning the balloon—like one’s story, or one’s words, or one’s comprehension of life—has narthelme controlled by the speaker.

The Balloon by Donald Barthelme

The balloon is meaningful to him alone and not to his lover or even to Barthelme. He admits at the start: For instance, with his usual satire on the experts and wordplay on “inflation” bqlloon writes: Barthelme does something extraordinary here, only suggested in the volume’s other excellent stories bartuelme Uprising” and barhhelme and Miss Mandible.

Joyce defines the dramatic artist as standing totally aloof from his creation and “paring his finger-nails. He provides in the totality of the story the form of meaning—and we proceed to read the words as we ordinarily proceed to apprehend reality. But Barthelme has done this without any fixed, definable material behind his structure.

What he illustrates is how form is only form rather than meaning. In other words, the meaning of the balloon is that the balloon has no meaning. It is all air within a structure or a covering.

The Balloon

And yet the deeper irony is that the story ultimately does mean something. As the balloon is to the speaker so is the story to the balloon. Each is another level of metaphor, a description of experience, clarifying the one ba,loon.

First the balloon is the emblem or externalized symbol of what the speaker—not Barthelme—is feeling, and this is totally personal to the speaker.


The narrator gives it only the most general sexual significance, and both the reader and Bartheme remain in the dark as to its precise significance. It is the speaker’s balloon.

The balloon can also be seen as both literally and figuratively removed from life; it is a balloon both as metaphor and as concrete or imagined reality. Finally the balloon, like the story, like all words, and like life, expands and connects, and in barthepme state of infinite movement it elicits or means as many things as one can attribute to it. Bqlloon lacks an absolute and fixed meaning as it simultaneously elicits a variety of responses and significations.

To paraphrase Barthelme, it offers the possibility and the process of interpretation, where at “any intersection” one can react in any number of ways. The participant—the reader, like the lover-narrator—becomes the ultimate artist or creator, and depending upon his or her system, grid, or barthekme of reference, constructs, or manipulates, or rejects, or simply plays with whatever responses the balloon elicits.

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