A Simple Enquiry Summary

Synopsis

"A Simple Enquiry" was first published in Ernest Hemingway's short story collection Men Without Women in 1927. The story opens with a major and his adjutant sitting in a hut. It is not clear whether they are stationed at a domestic base or at war. It is March, and there is snow on the ground. The major is applying oil to his sunburned, blistered face. The delicate way Hemingway describes this act is perhaps a way of portraying the major as both rugged and effete. The major tells the adjutant, Tonani, that he is going to sleep. The adjutant proceeds to smoke a pipe and read, but then decides to finish some paper work. A soldier, Pinin, enters the hut to add wood to the fire. The major asks Tonani to send Pinin to see him. The major asks Pinin if he has ever been in love, to which Pinin replies that yes, he is currently in love. The major calls out to Tonani, who is in the next room, to see if he can hear them. When Tonani does not respond, the major confirms that Tonani cannot hear them, and repeats his enquiry to Pinin, "And are you quite sure that you love a girl?" Pinin answers that he is sure. The major asks him if he is corrupt, and slowly but surely, Pinin realizes that the major is making a sexual proposition. Pinin is embarrassed, but the major puts him at ease, telling him, "I won't touch you," and then dismisses him. The adjutant smiles knowingly, and the story ends with the major wondering whether or not Pinin was lying to him.

Given that the story is in a collection titled Men Without Women, the reader might infer that Hemingway was purposefully using homoerotic imagery with the wood on the fire, the pipe smoking, or even the oil application. However, this is subject to each reader's interpretation. Two important themes in this story are sexuality and ambiguity. In the end, the major questions whether Pinin lied, so the reader is left guessing as well. Also, the adjutant's smile as Pinin leaves could imply many things: that he knows the major is homosexual, that he himself is, that the major was testing Pinin, and so on. Thus, the "simple enquiry" is not so simple. Are these men homosexual or simply, in the absence of women, starved for affection? The hut itself, a closed off (closet) space may be interpreted as an example of Michel Foucault's "heterotopia," a space which exists between the real world and an "ideal," or Utopian world, thereby underscoring the story's themes of sexuality and ambiguity: closeted conversations and/or potential acts, considered by some (the "closed-minded") to be abnormal, taking place in literal and spatial (heterotopia) ambiguity.

Ed. Scott Locklear