What themes and symbols exist in the story "Indian Camp" by Ernest Hemingway?  What is Uncle George's significance? 

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samcestmoi's profile pic

samcestmoi | (Level 1) Associate Educator

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“Indian Camp” is a coming-of-age story in typical Hemingway miniature – straightforward and minimalist, with any themes and symbols laid bare and unadorned within the severity of the narration.  This starkness makes it a bit more difficult to pick out these elements, but they become obvious if you look hard enough.  In this story Nick accompanies his father on a trip to deliver a baby to a Native American woman experiencing complications with the birth.  The story both begins and ends with a trip in a canoe at dawn – at first, Nick is nestled in the crook of his father’s arm as they cross the river; at the end of the story, he is alone in the stern of the boat.  This difference symbolizes the change effected in him by what he witnesses during his father’s work – he enters the camp as a sheltered youth, and leaves as a boy who has witnessed the rude reality of life and death.

The action of the story takes place in a Native American camp perhaps to emphasize the equality of all human beings in birth and in death – the two events that we all experience the same, despite our race or our social status or our wealth.  The story takes place at a time in American history when the Natives were regarded as “savages,” and were often the object of racial slurs, as evidenced by Uncle George’s exclamation when the laboring woman bites him out of her own pain.  And yet despite the injustices they suffer, their lives are worth the same as any man’s, and cause the same complications.  Uncle George’s aforementioned reaction is in stark contrast to Nick’s questions at the end of the story, when he asks if “ladies always have such a hard time having babies,” and if “many men kill themselves.”  From this we can assume that Nick, and Nick’s father, respect the Native Americans and consider them equal to the white man, such that they make no distinction between Indian ladies and white ladies, or Indian men and white men – they are all just men and ladies.  This is an important representation of a shift in social thinking, and further emphasizes the equality of all humanity in these things – in birth and in death.

We see in the story as well the difficulty of birth, of being born, of living, compared with the ease of dying.  Life is a struggle, and often requires the help of others; it depends on cooperation and skill.  Dying, on the other hand, can be done alone, and is so simple and independent a concept that one’s death can be undergone in secret – for one to live in secret, that is a difficult feat in contrast.  This concept renders important  the fact that the infant’s father’s death is a suicide – it throws the loneliness of death, the singularity of death, in sharp relief against the partnerships of life.

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ms-mcgregor's profile pic

ms-mcgregor | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Uncle George is a symbolizes the prejudice of American society against Indian culture. When the pregnant Indian woman bites him, George calls her a “damn squaw.” Her “assault” on him is an instinctive and primitive
reaction to pain; his response is a culturally-conditioned display of racial bias. "Indian Camp" was the first of the "Nick Adams" stories Ernest Hemingway published. It is basically the beginning of a coming-of-age story for Nick who sees life, from birth to death, in one day. The story also includes a contrast between so-called "civilized" society and an Indian culture that includes an empathy for others that Nick cannot understand.

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