The story opens as a father discovers that his 9-year-old boy, Schatz, has a fever. The father sends for the doctor and he diagnoses a mild case of influenza. As long as the fever doesn’t go above 104 degrees, the doctor says, the boy will be fine, and he leaves three different types of medication for the father to administer with instructions for each. Schatz’s temperature is determined to be 102 degrees.
When the doctor leaves, the father reads to Schatz from a book about pirates, but the boy is not paying attention and is staring fixedly at the foot of the bed. His father suggests he try to get some sleep, but Schatz says he would rather be awake. He also says that his father needn’t stay in the room with him if he is bothered. His father says he isn’t bothered, and after giving him his 11 o’clock dose of medication, the father goes outside.
It is a wintry day with sleet frozen onto the countryside, and the father takes the family’s Irish setter out hunting along a frozen creek bed. Both man and dog fall more than once on the ice before they find a covey of quail and kill two. The father, pleased with his exploits, returns to the house.
Upon returning home, he finds that Schatz has refused to let anyone into his room because he doesn’t want anyone else to catch the flu. The father enters anyway and finds the boy still staring at the foot of the bed. He takes Schatz’s temperature and finds it 102, as before. He tells Schatz his temperature is fine, and not to worry. Schatz says he’s not worrying, but he is thinking. When the father gives Schatz his medication, Schatz asks if he thinks the medication will help, and the father answers affirmatively.
After attempting to interest Schatz in the pirate book and failing, the father pauses, whereupon Schatz asks him when the father thinks Schatz will die. It emerges that Schatz has heard at school in France that no one can live with a temperature above 44, so Schatz thinks he is sure to die with a temperature of 102. He has been waiting to die all day.
After the father explains the difference between Fahrenheit and Celsius, Schatz relaxes, letting go of his iron self-control and the next day he allows himself to get upset over little things.
“A Day’s Wait” deals with the familiar Hemingway theme of heroic fatalism or fatalistic heroism, namely courage in the face of certain death. It is a testament to Hemingway’s skill and his dedication to this theme that he can make fatalistic heroes out of 9-year-old boys as easily as out of middle-aged has-been prizefighters on the run from gangsters and 76-year-old Spanish war refugees. The tragedy in this story is not, of course, that the hero Schatz is doomed, but that he believes himself to be doomed when he is in fact fine.
Schatz’s heroism is quietly but strikingly demonstrated in his words and actions over his day’s wait. The most dramatic manifestation of Schatz’s heroism is the difference between his demeanor during the day described by the story and his demeanor the next day. The narrator says “He was evidently holding tight onto himself about something” before the father goes out hunting, and when Schatz realizes he will be fine, “The hold over himself relaxed too, finally, and the next day it was very slack and he cried very easily at little things that were of no importance.” The little boy is stoic in the face of what he believes will be certain death; he holds his emotions in with iron self-control all day, and even suggests that his father leave the room if he is distressed to see his son dying. He also forbids anyone to come into his room out of concern for their health, even though by doing so he condemns himself to die alone.
Aside from Schatz’s own behavior, the other element of the story that makes Schatz’s heroism striking is the behavior of his father, which unintentionally worsens Schatz’s mental turmoil. Shortly after Schatz suggests that his father need not stay with him if the spectacle of his son’s death will bother him, the father leaves the house for hours to enjoy himself in the winter sunshine with the family dog, a gun, and a covey of quail. The juxtaposition of the father’s enjoyment with Schatz’s self-controlled, tragic, and solitary stoicism sharpens the reader’s sense of Schatz’s heroism.
Most Hemingway scholars believe the narrator of this story, though unnamed, is actually Nick Adams, Hemingway’s semi-autobiographical character who appears in a series of stories. Hemingway’s official biographer Carlos Baker was the first to make this claim, and the fact that original manuscripts for “Fathers and Sons,” one of Hemingway’s confirmed Nick Adams stories, calls Adams’s boy “Schatz” seems to clinch the mater.