Supposedly, Ernest Hemingway once wrote a six-word story that he considered his best:
For sale, baby shoes. Never worn.
Now, I must confess that when I first read this, I thought “what’s the big deal?” But later that day the story came back to me and I started to meditate on it. And after only about 30 minutes of reflection, I can see why it is so compelling. This story is a doorway into a labrynth that is nearly impossible to escape.
I am a father of three, the youngest 1, the oldest 5. So I am relatively new to the baby thing, but certainly initiated into the club. First I notice that the story is not really about the baby, but about the seller of the shoes. I guess we are meant to assume certain things as necessary background to the story, but here is where it gets interesting.
Are we to assume the parent is selling the baby shoes? Or someone else connected to the baby? Or someone disconnected that merely owns this pair of unused shoes? Assuming the parent, it is the mother or the father?
Let’s say the shoes belong to mother. Why is she selling baby shoes never worn? Did something happen to her baby? Did the baby die in the womb? Did baby die during labor? Did baby never reach the age to wear the shoes? The baby has an untold story, and it could be anything. Was baby blessed with a surplus of shoes and therefore didn’t need this pair? It could be as simple as baby just never wore the shoes because mommy didn’t for whatever reason put them on. But the form of the story invites a different answer.
Why is the mother selling these unworn shoes? Is she done having children? How can she be sure? Was the baby her last of several children she is raising? Or was baby the first and there will be no more? Why does she have to sell the shoes? Doesn’t she care to keep such an intimate item connected to her baby? Does she not know someone who needs a pair of baby shoes, someone close to her who she wants to help? And baby shoes are cheap! She couldn’t need the money, could she? The terse form of the story and it’s key words suggest it is an advertisement. She placed the ad in the paper, which would have cost money. The windfall from the sale of the shoes couldn’t be worth the trouble. But maybe it’s the principle of the thing. Perhaps she is determined to sell her baby’s never-used shoes? Perhaps is will provide the kind of closure that giving the shoes to a friend cannot provide. After all, she might be thanked for the shoes and might even see them on another’s baby! But again, why is she selling them? Couldn’t she just throw them away? Why go through the trouble of advertising them? She must want the attention, or the pity, or to be questioned so as to explain her story. Maybe the father is gone and she has no one to talk to. Or might she just be hardened to a tragedy now after a short bit of time? Maybe a long time has past and she is at peace with her baby’s demise, and wants to buy something with the money she might receive from their sale. Perhaps, but each possibility just raises more questions.
Hemingway’s choice of words in this brief story is illuminating. It could have been baby’s shirt or dress for sale. Why did he choose “shoes”? Shoes are meant for walking. They connote hope and dreams and expectations for growth and activity in a baby’s life. These shoes were never worn. Mother’s hopes were dashed and completely unfulfilled. What tragedy! The shoes were not even worn once. Mother and father never had the opportunity to dress up their little one and take pictures, or to parade baby around the home in play-walking like a grown-up. There was never a taste of what these shoes promised. They are probably still in the box with original tags attached. Hemmingway chose the shoes of a “baby”, not a toddler, or child, or someone else. This tugs at the heart strings of every person who shares in the experience of the broken human condition. This story has universal appeal. It doesn’t just resonate with mothers and fathers, or with religious people, or with Americans. Everyone was once a baby and can relate to the pain in the background of this story. We could go on and on.
All good literature has the capacity to touch anyone’s heart with a little reflection. This six-word story is no different.