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Hemingway's Six: Always Mentioned, Rarely Explained

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Hemingway’s six-word story is always, always mentioned when compressed forms such as the six-word memoir, hint fiction, twitter fiction, micro fiction, sudden fiction, quick fiction, and the like are mentioned. But it isn’t often explained. Maybe it doesn’t need to be—and that’s part of its wonder, too. So I’ll ruin its wonder by giving some words of explanation, not the explanation, of course, but “a” explanation.


It is sad. Certainly. As someone who, as a husband, has experienced the pain of miscarriages (and of course I don’t know if this is what this couple has experienced), I feel that sadness. And that surely might be enough to ask from six words, yes? But I think there’s another story here, and it has to do with the decision not only to sell the shoes but to write and place the “for sale” ad. It means that this couple—who once had such faith in the world that they bought baby shoes for a baby not yet born (endnote 1)—are done with baby shoes. And they want the world to know what has been done to them, and I understand that, too, this desire for the “invisible” pain to be  made visible:  “baby shoes, never worn.”  


There are other stories for other readers. Of someone else (not the couple) selling the shoes. Of a baby born with bigger feet than planned for. Of a gift that wasn’t needed for a free-spirited family that goes barefoot (endnote 2). For me, it’s about this couple, somehow connected to the couple from “Hills Like White Elephants,” their innocence being taken from them as it was from the girl who once saw a round white belly in the distance. It is about innocence and the world’s inability to find anything to do with it but to have us lose it in the most horrific of ways.


1. Thanks for flash fiction writer Sue Babcock’s insights into this couple’s innocence: “I envision excited new soon-to-be parents rushing out and buying all those things a baby will need. And then…the baby doesn’t need shoes.”

2. Thanks to (very) short fiction writer Sue Ann Connaughton for these other possible readings of Hemingway’s famous six-word story: “The baby was so big at birth that the shoes never fit” and “Another possibility is that the parents are free spirits and all the family members go barefoot, so no need for baby shoes that were a gift.”

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