Themes and Meanings
“Indian Camp” is first and foremost a tale of initiation. During the course of the story, Nick witnesses birth and death, the difficulty of the first and the ease of the latter. In the beginning, as Nick and his father are rowed across the lake, Nick nestles, protected and warmed, in his father’s arms. On the return trip, with his father in the bow, Nick sits by himself in the stern, now separated forever from his innocence and from the protection of his father by the experiences of the night at the Indian camp, even though it is obvious from the ending that Nick does not fully grasp, or perhaps cannot absorb, the harshness of what he has witnessed.
The story, on a larger plane, also deals with such themes as the conflict between the civilized and the savage. The doctor, as a man of reason and science, is plunged into a dark region of the primordial as he and his son are transported into the heart of the dark forest. Both as a man of science and as a father, the doctor fails to cope adequately with the primitive forces of death and life.
Nick Adams by his very name calls forth the tension between Adam, the first man, and “old Nick,” or Satan, suggesting a combination of good and evil inherent in all humankind. “Indian Camp” is the first of a series of stories about Nick Adams, and it reflects the recurring themes of the sequence: discovery and loss, innocence and experience, good and evil.