Hemingway tells the story from the point of view of the young American, but in the objective or pseudo-third person. By telling the story from the American’s point of view yet not making him the narrator, Hemingway manages to objectify and distance the surface of the narrative without affecting the intimacy established between the reader and the American.
The restraint with which the characters experience and voice their emotions is reinforced by the stylistic restraints that Hemingway imposes on his narrative. The central issue of the story, that courage is necessary for life as well as death, is not revealed until the end, when the doctor explains the tragedy of the death of the major’s young wife. The major’s intense grief at his wife’s death is conveyed by language that avoids labeling the emotion he feels: “The photographs did not make much difference to the major because he only looked out of the window.” The American may or may not understand the major’s bitter loss, but the reader inevitably perceives the major’s emotional wound and his courage in not giving up.
Hemingway uses images to suggest the feelings of his characters; the emotions of the characters are conveyed indirectly by what they see. The mood or tone of the story is established in the first paragraph, in which the dead game outside the shops is described as “stiff,” “heavy,” and “empty.” The American’s awareness of death controls the way he experiences the streets of Milan. Death is a haunting refrain playing quietly under the surface of the narrative. Though the hospital is “very old and very beautiful,” the American observes: “There were usually funerals starting from the courtyard.”
Irony is used quietly, but with force. The American comments that the wounded men are all very polite when they go to sit in “the machines that were to make so much difference.” Because these men are the first to use the machines, the photographs of restored limbs that the doctor first shows the men and then puts on the wall do not inspire great confidence. The machines are not likely to restore their limbs; in any case, nothing can ease the internal wounds epitomized by the suffering of the major.
In spite of his lack of confidence in the machines, the major continues to come to sit in them, even after his wife’s death. His regular attendance is like his interest in having the young American learn grammar. The major’s discipline and courage in the face of almost certain defeat are powerfully underscored because they are never overtly mentioned.