Known for his short, terse writing style, Ernest Hemingway provides a brief and pessimistic description of a wartime relationship in "A Very Short Story."
The main character, an American soldier who has been injured overseas, is never named. Cared for in an Italian hospital in Padua, he falls in love with his nurse, Luz. Luz is a very popular nurse who works more than she has to, but is admired by all the patients. The soldier and Luz sit on the roof together at night, and as their love grows, they decide to get married. Because they cannot properly wed in Italy, they decide to marry in America once he gets a job. After the war ends, he returns home to find employment. They fight about when Luz will join him. He wants her to come right away, but they eventually decide that she will return to America later, after he is settled and able to provide for her. His only purpose is to work so that they can get married.
In the traditional Hemingway style, the narrative takes an abrupt turn at this point. After the soldier has returned to America, Luz has an affair with an Italian major. She writes to her American love, explaining that she would not be marrying him because their relationship was only an adolescent, "boy and girl" attachment and she now knows real love. She intends to marry the Italian instead.
The story, however, ends with Luz neither marrying the Italian nor ever hearing back from the American, who contracts gonorrhea from a sales woman he shares a taxi with—a sudden, indeterminate ending that reveals Hemingway's dark view of relationships and intimacy.
As in so many of Hemingway's writings, the central character in "A Very Short Story" is an American soldier. In this instance, the soldier is wounded in Europe and falls in love with the nurse who cares for him in a hospital in Padua. After a brief and passionate relationship, the soldier and the nurse, Luz, want to get married, "to make it so they could not lose" the precious thing they have found, but in the context of the war there is "not enough time for the banns" to do the ceremony properly. When the soldier returns to the front, Luz writes to him, but he does not get her letters until after the armistice. After the war is over, the two make plans for him to establish himself in America and for her to follow afterward. The soldier wants Luz to come home at once so that they can be married immediately, but she insists on waiting, and they quarrel. The soldier goes to America while Luz opens a hospital in Pordenone, a town in Italy. A major in the battalion stationed there makes love to her and promises marriage; Luz, who has "never known Italians before," is swept away emotionally, and breaks off her relationship with the American soldier, writing to him that "theirs had been only a boy and girl affair." The story ends on a bitter note. Luz does not get married, and she never hears again from the American soldier, who a short time later contracts gonorrhea from a department-store sales girl.
Written in 1924 and published a year later in the United States as part of the short story collection In Our Time, "A Very Short Story" is an attempt by Hemingway to fictionalize his own unsuccessful relationship with a nurse he had met in Milan. An obvious precursor of his later masterpiece A Farewell to Arms, the story addresses themes common to much of his writing. Central to these is the futility of love in war, and the isolation of the Lost Generation. In an atmosphere tainted by the constant threat of death, complex relationships such as that between lovers are doomed. It is significant that there is no dialogue in the story; under the circumstances of the times, communion between individuals cannot develop in any depth. In Hemingway's eyes, women are inconstant and promises are empty; the ideal of marriage is unattainable, and intimacy only leads to disaster.
Hemingway's aptly named tale about wartime romance and separation covers only two pages in length and is told in a bare-bones style that seems spartan even by the author's standards.
The story opens in Padua, Italy, as a soldier (who remains nameless throughout) recuperates from an apparent wound with the help of his nurse, Luz, who has also become his lover. Luz is a night-duty nurse who helps to prepare the soldier for surgery and then shares his bed during his recuperation, a fact that is known to most of the other hospital patients.
Although the couple wants to marry, there is no time before the soldier returns to the front. Luz writes him many letters during his absence, but he does not receive them until after the armistice. After reacquainting, the pair agrees that Luz will remain behind at the hospital while the soldier returns to the United States to find a job. Luz will then meet him in New York and they will marry and begin their life together. It is agreed that the soldier will not drink or renew his old friendships in America. But on the train from Padua to Milan, the couple quarrels, and the soldier returns home with a guilty conscience.
The soldier returns to America by boat from Genoa, and Luz heads to Pordonone, where she opens a hospital. An Italian army unit is stationed in Pordonone, and Luz meets an officer to whom she makes love. She has never known an Italian before, and soon she writes her American soldier in Chicago to break the news to him: their love had only been a "boy and girl affair." She wishes him well and hopes that he will be grateful and forgive her. She still loves him, Luz says, but it is only a "boy and girl love."
In the end, the Italian major does not marry Luz, and she never receives a reply from the soldier she had nursed back to health. Instead of the soldier marrying Luz and living happily ever after, the story ends with the soldier meeting another girl—a sales girl who gives him gonorrhea while taking a ride through Lincoln Park in a taxicab.
According to several sources, the 633-word story is a fictionalized account of Hemingway's brief affair with Agnes von Kurowsky, the twenty-six-year-old nurse who befriended the eighteen-year-old Hemingway while he was recovering from injuries received from an explosion in 1919. Although both eventually returned to the United States, they never met again. Agnes von Kurowsky died in 1984 at the age of ninety-two.