"A Way You'll Never Be" first appeared in Ernest Hemingway's third collection of short stories, Winner Take Nothing, published in 1933 by Charles Scribner. The story was initially ignored or panned by critics for being plotless. However, later critics grasped the main character's conflict as internal and related it to the larger context of the Nick Adams stories, namely about a young man in search of his identity. In fact, a reading of "Big Two-Hearted River," where a psychologically damaged Nick returns home, goes a long way toward explaining the significance of "A Way You'll Never Be."
Nick Adams, recovering from a traumatic head wound, has bicycled from Fornaci to Fossalta di Piave, the scene of his wounding. He comes upon a recent battle site and, consistent with Hemingway's detestation of abstractions, names every piece of military equipment and every personal effect scattered among the swollen bodies. He is immediately challenged by a wary lieutenant who pulls a gun on Nick and threatens to keep his identification card. Nick demands to be taken to Captain (now Major) Paravicini, with whom Nick had served. Nick describes his current assignment to Paravicini. He is wearing an American uniform and is to move around the battalion "to make them believe others [Americans] are coming." Nick reveals to Para that he had to be drunk before every attack. The Major senses that Nick is not quite right or recovered. Nick says he is all right, but Para obviously does not believe him and insists Nick get out of the heat and lie down. Before doing so, Nick says, "It's a hell of a nuisance once they have you certified as nutty...No one ever has any confidence in you again."
Nick sleeps fitfully, and his confusing dream recurs. In it he recalls Paris and a girlfriend but, more important, he encounters images he has never seen—a long yellow house and a stable by a river. Night after night, he sees them and they frighten him. When he wakes up, Para is gone and he is in the company of some soldiers who again seek to establish his identity. Nick reiterates his American uniform story and says that soon American soldiers will be "swarming like locusts." He then goes into a long, disjointed discourse on grasshoppers and locusts as appropriate bait for fishing. He is clearly troubled and in the grip of a spell. One of the soldiers goes for Paravicini. He returns and has Nick lie down again. Nick closes his eyes and sees the soldier who shot him and the same long yellow house and stable by the river.
Para wants to send someone to take Nick back. Nick assures him that his spells are less frequent and that he is well enough to go back to Fornaci without an escort. Nick tells himself that he had better go so that he does not lose the way to Fornaci. Recovery is clearly a long way off.