Revisiting Hemingway’s “Banal Story”: Survey, Significance & Semiotics
by Quimby Melton
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Maybe because it presents such a radical departure from Hemingway's characteristic style or because the Little Review ignored it for over a year; 1 maybe because its scant critical heritage can be principally summed up by listing a handful of references,2 three articles and an entry in a reader's guide; maybe because Hemingway included it in Men Without Women as an afterthought 3 or because it has never been anthologized beyond the collections of Hemingway's short fiction -- indeed, it might be for all these reasons and even others that Hemingway's "Banal Story" remains hidden away as the second-to-last story in Men Without Women, overshadowed by giants such as "Hills Like White Elephants," "The Killers," and "Fifty Grand."
However, while nothing has been published on the story for nearly fifteen years, "Banal Story" is not as overlooked as it was before 1974 when the now quiescent Fitzgerald/Hemingway Annual published the first articles concerned with the story. These pioneer articles by Phillip Yannella and Wayne Kvam along with the subsequently published chapter on "Banal Story" in Paul Smith's A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway and George Monteiro's "The Writer on Vocation: Hemingway's "Banal Story'" form the story's current critical foundation. Smith's chapter and Phillip Yannella's "Notes on the Manuscript, Date, and Sources of Hemingway's 'Banal Story'" establish primary issues relating to the story such as its publication history and three dissimilar versions. 4 Wayne Kvam's "Hemingway's 'Banal Story'" and Monteiro's book article painstakingly establish the story's parallels to The Forum magazine and the death of Manuel Garcia, "the matador known professionally as Maera" (Joost 150-51), while also offering detailed interpretations of the story as a parable and self-reflexive study on the artifices of writing, respectively. Considering these articles, I agree with Smith that the extant works on "Banal Story" offer "thorough consideration of the story's manuscript, its sources, analogues, [and] structure . . ." (113). In fact, the three articles establish the story's connection to The Forum so handily and provide such precise definitions for the story's many references that they resolve a concern shared by many readers including Susan Beegel who worries "Banal Story" will continue to be "neglected because it depends on readers' understanding numerous allusions to The Forum" (141) and other, 1920s-era subjects, people, and issues.
In Smith's list of the articles' "thorough considerations," though, he includes "the intent of [the story's] parody" (113); and in offering my agreement with him on the other four points, I disagree that Yannella and Kvam adequately address the intent of "Banal Story." The Yannella article offers only two paragraphs of interpretation after a discussion of the story's manuscript, date, and sources (178); and while the Kvam article is driven by a very fine interpretation of "Banal Story" as a parable of artistic theory, it is only one consideration. Even the Monteiro article, published in the same year as the Smith text and thus not discussed in it, is in many ways only a development of Yannella's fundamental research since it defines many of the story's references and explicitly, often line-for-line, links "Banal Story" with The Forum. Therefore, given that the Kvam and Monteiro articles represent the sum of interpretations, readings of "Banal Story" are not exhausted. At two, they're hardly even attempted.
Even as he lauds the achievements of the Yannella and Kvam articles, Smith seems to believe in a continuing interest in "Banal Story." He writes that "there is more to be said" (113) about "Banal Story," specifically, an answer to "the question of what part Hemingway's reading of the Forum may have played in his decision to record the real circumstances of the death of Maera; or . . . how his reading of the death of Maera may have contributed to the creation of" "Banal Story's" reader-persona (113). Smith then concludes, believing as I do, that "if these questions are still open, then the importance of this story in the development of Hemingway's aesthetic principles deserves reconsideration" (113).
Smith's concern, like those of Yannella, Kvam, and Monteiro, centers on the relationship and interaction of the two sections of "Banal Story." Thus, I propose it as the interpretive crux of the story, critics essentially questioning why the two contrasting parts exist in the story and how they relate to one another. The previous critics draw a particular conclusion about this interaction and describe The Forum and Maera sections as "divergent" (Kvam 182) and "contrasting" (Monteiro 142). However, while the two parts of "Banal Story" are indeed radically different, they serve a single end; and as comparative symbols of "reality and romance" (Yannella 178), the story's two sections ultimately act together to create the story's fundamental, ironic statement. 5 The story's essence, therefore, is indeed in its "two contrasting parts" (Monteiro 142). However, rather than being ultimately divergent as the previous critics suggest, I argue that the sections have a mutual purpose and dependence that establish the story's essential statement about the relationship of romance and realism.
As several scholars argue, the struggle between these two issues is an important theme of Hemingway's work. 6 Therefore, for all its stylistic novelty, the theme of "Banal Story" resolutely places it with the concerns of Hemingway's larger body of work. Similarly, the way in which Hemingway presents the struggle of romance and realism in "Banal Story" -- through symbolic association -- also establishes the characteristically Hemingwayan nature of "Banal Story." Many critics have indeed interpreted Hemingway as an accomplished symbolist 7 while others have been more specific, reading him as a semiotic craftsman; 8 and it is this latter, more specific idea that I believe is especially appropriate for analyzing "Banal Story." Using semiotics, I interpret the story as a double helix composed of the story's two sections that operates by integrating the contrasting parts into a single system that presents the triumph of romance and its notions of meaningfulness and beauty, signified by The Forum section, over those suggested by realism, signified by the death of Maera section.
Saussure's semiotic, or what might be currently labeled more specifically as "semantic," evaluation best defines the nature of this double helix, namely the French linguist's belief that "the 'value' of a sign depends on its relations with other signs within the system" (Chandler 23, Saussure 80). Frederic Jameson offers an elucidation this idea, arguing that in Saussurean linguistics,
it is not so much the individual word or sentence that "stands for" or "reflects" the individual object or event in the real world, but rather that the entire system of signs, the entire field of the langue, lies parallel to reality itself; that it is the totality of systematic language, in other words, which is analogous to whatever organized structures exist in the world of reality, and that our understanding proceeds from one whole or Gestalt to the other, rather than on a one-to-one basis. (32-33)
The relationship that exists between the two sections of "Banal Story" can be defined through this aspect of Saussurean semiotics because of the following fact: one section taken without the other causes the story's fundamental argument to fall apart. Taken singly and independent of its relationship to the Maera section, The Forum section stands as a parody, a satire, or an acrid comment on idealistic, romantic literature. Likewise, the Maera section is recast as a lament or prose elegy. Therefore, the relationship and the contrast between the two sections defines their respective symbolic associations. Thus, as Saussurean linguistics argues, and "Banal Story" confirms, a symbol only has a certain meaning because of its relationship to other symbols in a given symbol system. In Saussure's evaluation of symbols, "everything depends on relations" (Saussure 121); and the fundamental statement of "Banal Story" operates in terms defined by this concept and by the fact that "the meaning of signs [lies] in their systematic relation to each other" (Chandler 22). Therefore, the contrast of The Forum and Maera sections is not the interpretive end of the story as Kvam and Monteiro imply. Rather, the two sections depend on one another to define their respective associations and operate together in a Saussurean double helix to creates the story's ultimate statement that romance triumphs over reality.
Like "Banal Story" as a whole, The Forum section itself operates through the collective interactivity of its parts. Yannella and Monteiro give too much individual value to the references and quotations in The Forum section of "Banal Story"; and even Kvam's intent to raise "Banal Story" above its literal trappings -- an intent succinctly sated in his assertion that "Banal Story" is more than "a tribute, a sketch, or a satirical attack on The Forum" (182) -- ultimately gets mired in methodically linking "Banal Story" with The Forum. This attention paid The Forum references by the previous critics, while painstakingly precise and perhaps necessary in terms of primary scholarship, is overly detailed. The Forum section, as the embodiment of romance and idealism in "Banal Story," is more complex than the single references themselves because they have their individual purposes negated into a collective function. Much like the Picasso, Gris, and Braque collages created just before World War I and composed of cutouts from publications, 9 in "Banal Story," Hemingway takes fragments from The Forum and pieces them back together into a customized, meaningful whole. Monteiro even suggests that Hemingway uses pieces of a "promotional flier for The Forum" (142) in crafting the "prize short stories" section of "Banal Story" (Hemingway, "Banal Story" 214); and while it is debatable whether or not there ever was such a pamphlet, 10 the fact that not all the lines in The Forum section can be directly traced to a single issue of the magazine suggests Hemingway selects from an extensive sampling of the periodical and pieces together the first section of "Banal Story" from many of the publication's issues and articles. In doing so, Hemingway represents the magazine at-large rather than just one issue, one article, or one of its writers. He uses many parts of the The Forum and places them together in the confidence that it does not matter what he chooses since anything printed in the publication is a consummate example of idealism and romance. In so doing, Hemingway establishes The Forum section as a symbol of idealism and romance largely because of the collective source of its components. The pieces hold a certain association with their mother publication that is key to establishing The Forum section as the signifier of romance and idealism. The linguistic theorist George Dillon succinctly expresses this idea in his hypertext chapter on Modernist collage when he writes,
As fragments, the pieces [of a collage] are parts of something else, sometimes quite identifiable, other times only identifiable by provenance ... The fragment, one might say, drags its original context with it; it points back to it as a hypertext link points to a more extensive "elsewhere."
By using pieces of The Forum in his literary collage, Hemingway drags in all the idealistic and banal associations they possess because of their original placement in The Forum. Like other artists of the day, both visual and literary, "Banal Story" shows Hemingway interacting with fragments in an attempt to create a new, multi-representational whole that brings in certain associations of the original source(s).
The association each Forum link brings with it as well as the collective, rather than individual, meaningfulness of collage dictates the amount of value critics should place on the Forum references. Just as it is not necessary to trace each clipping of a collage back to its source in the slashed periodical(s) to understand the collective meaning and purpose of the collectively created product, critics need not return to The Forum to link line for line the reference to President Coolidge (Hemingway, "Banal" 215) as a suggestion of the advertisement for the fulsome Horace Green biography about "silent Cal" on the second to last page of the July 1929 issue, 11 the concern for "[o]ur children's children" (Hemingway, "Banal Story" 215) to the articles about student activism and child labor respectively printed in the December 1924 and January 1925 editions of The Forum, 12 or that the concern for "[o]ur civilization" and its possible "inferior[ity] to older orders of things" (Hemingway, "Banal Story" 215) reflects The Forum's 1925 series of articles entitled "What is Civilization?" 13 Rather than pursue this methodology, which is quite banal in its own right, it is more appropriate to the collective, collage-like nature of The Forum section that readers regard the parallels to the magazine as reflections of the general editorial vision of the magazine that Hemingway objects to, namely "its certitude on the rules for fiction and the sentimental slop it published" (Smith 111). Therefore, it is enough to know the quotations are taken from and the references are made to The Forum and that these allusions serve as excerpts from the periodical that collectively bear evidence of its banality, sentimentality, and idealism.
Interpreting The Forum section as a collage not only offers a new critical foundation; it also helps define the type of figurative association Hemingway establishes between romance/idealism and the magazine. The Forum section is crafted of pieces of a whole, and snippets of and references to the magazine represent not only one issue but the entire periodical and its editorial philosophies. This synecdotal symbol creation is all the more intriguing because the first section of "Banal Story" is composed of pieces representational in synecdotal terms. Essentially in "Banal Story," pieces are used to create a synecdoche or "the substitution of part for whole" (Lanham 97, Chandler 132-134). Therefore, in "Banal Story," Hemingway uses fragments to create a symbol wholly based on pieces representing wholes. This aspect of the story may suggest a degree of meta-symbolism or symbolic/synecdotal commentary. However, I believe this compositional technique is most important because it highlights the deep and detailed level of fragmentation present in "Banal Story" and, therefore, the degree to which it is typically Modernist and collage-like.
When The Forum section's montage of references, quotations, and questions yields to the Maera section, the two parts clearly contrast both in terms of style and tone. In the Maera section, the sentences are no longer fragmented and reflect a more typical Hemingwayan parataxis. Additionally, the subjects of the two sections contrast since Maera is a less generally known cultural icon than The Forum. He is a specifically "Spanish culture-hero" as Joost asserts (150-51). However, what the subject of the latter section lacks in Forum-esque transatlantic appeal, he makes up for in "unadorned facticity" (Yannella 178). The death of Maera is an event that needs nothing more than the expression of its events to suggest pregnancy of true meaning, and the fact that this section offers the "death of the hero" archetype (DeFalco 95 and Joost 150-51) suggests the veracity of the moment, the emotional value of the event. However, while it is the diptychal, double helix nature of the two "Banal Story" sections that creates the irony of the story, it is the way Maera dies that establishes the irony of the latter section. Maera dies of tuberculosis, not in the ring as the bullfighter hero idealistically and romantically dies. Hemingway ultimately dismantles the archetypal "death of the hero" by presenting the reality of life: heroes often do not die the way they are idealistically, or archetypally, supposed to. Realism enters the ideal vision of the death of the hero, and Hemingway sets Maera, a figure of whom Hemingway clearly "was a great admirer . . . for what he was as a bullfighter and as a man" (Kvam 188), as a contrast to the romanticism and idealism of The Forum. This contrast is the central axis of the double helix relationship: Maera the hero dies not as a hero, idealistically in the ring, but in an achingly realistic and anti-romantic way through disease; The Forum, however, lives on, questioned by Hemingway but certainly not completely undermined. It remained after all, in Carl Sandburg's words, "the barometer of American intelligence" (Kvam 183, Leach 175-77, Smith, 111) well into the twentieth century.
The simple fact that Maera dies and The Forum lives on presents a world where true beauty dies and false beauty survives. Therefore, while at their most basic interaction the two sections of the story interact with one another to present idealism and realism, this is merely the first step. The step that completes the story's meaning is the realization that romance and not realism has durability in the world. Maera, the signifier of true beauty, dies and is "buried . . . in the tomb next to Joselito" (Hemingway, "Banal" 217) while The Forum, the signifier of idealism and romanticism, lives on. The final lines of "Banal Story" describe Spaniards lining tombs with the heroes of their culture, and there is not even the suggestion of hope that another bullfighter of Maera's aptitude will come again. At the end of the story, readers are left with only an image of the tomb and the Spanish mourners, and the memory of the bullfighter hero is relegated to the tomb and "colored pictures" (Hemingway, "Banal" 217) rolled up and put away in the peasants' pockets. Ironically, these pictures of Maera are strikingly similar to the types of photo-portraits and drawings of prominent business, athletic, intellectual, and political figures The Forum published in nearly every issue. Thus, at the end of "Banal Story," Hemingway relegates the memory and essence of Maera to a Forum-like portrait in the final triumph of romance over reality achieved through the interaction of "Banal Story's" romantic-realistic double helix.
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- "Banal Story" "lay in the Little Review's offices for well over a year before it was published in their Spring-Summer 1926 issue" (Smith 111). ↩
- See Carlos Baker 184, Sheridan Baker 56, Beegel 14, DeFalco 95, and Joost 150-51. ↩
- See Smith 111: "Hemingway too seems to have lost interest in it. It does not appear in his preliminary tables of contents for Men Without Women until January 1927 . . . and only there in parentheses and last place. In May he offered it rather apologetically to Max Perkins: he wrote that he had forgotten it and that it 'wasn't much but I remember Edmund Wilson writing that he liked it so it might be worth getting hold of'" (Hemingway, Letters 251). ↩
- That is, the manuscript (January 1925), Little Review (Spring-Summer 1926), and Men Without Women (October 1927) versions of"Banal Story." For a discussion of the differences between the manuscript and Little Review versions, see Yannella; and for a discussion of the differences between the Little Review and Men Without Women versions, see Kvam. In my analysis, I follow Monteiro's lead in using the Men Without Women version as the standard. ↩
- The irony of"Banal Story" is another issue common to the scholarship surrounding it. See Monteiro 146, Smith 111-12, and Yannella 178. ↩
- See Beversluis, Howell, Martin, McCormic, and O'Neal. ↩
- See Elia, Peirce, Prasad, Stephens, and Wyrick. ↩
- See Rother's conclusion and, more extensively, Brenner, Hillenaar, and Lamb. ↩
- For examples of and discussion about these collages, see Waldman. ↩
- Monteiro provides no evidence of a flier and admits that he has"not found any such flier promoting The Forum for 1925" (143). However, he assumes there was one and, in doing so, overlooks certain contents of The Forum itself. He nearly addresses this issue directly, asserting that"an examination of the contents of the magazine for  shows that Hemingway has real targets in mind" (143). The year mentioned in this caveat, though, is perhaps too narrow since in 1924, The Forum sponsored a short story contest that was first mentioned in the February 1924 issue and advertised on the last page of the September 1924 issue. The Forum then published the winning story (see Mosley) in the November 1924 issue. Therefore, it very well may be that Hemingway did not need any phantom bulletin to compose this section of"Banal Story" since The Forum itself could have easily provided him with the source. ↩
- See The Forum 72.2 (July 1924): 146. ↩
- See Gonzales, Hunter, and Lovejoy. ↩
- Including Indian, Medieval European, Classical Greek, Ancient Egyptian, Chinese, and other perspectives, this series of articles attempts to modify the American view of other civilizations as backward and/or inferior. It was printed in The Forum, volumes 73 and 74 (January – October 1925). Additionally, Yannella (177) and Monteiro (144) both cite and discuss this series' link to The Forum section of "Banal Story." ↩