Essays and Criticism
The Code in Hemingway’s “The Killers”
The purpose of this paper is to discuss Hemingway’s Code, as it is illustrated in his short story ‘‘The Killers.’’ The notion of the code in Hemingway’s literature, and in his life as well, has been a preoccupation with critics, primarily because it occupies such an important position in any analysis. The code applies to various characters in Hemingway’s novels and stories, and it is practiced by all of his heroes. One critic has defined the function of the code as consisting of ‘‘two lessons: the ability to make realistic promises to one-self, and the ability to forgive oneself one’s past.’’(1) In fact, the code seems to have a far more philosophical origin in Hemingway’s idea that man’s freedom is predicated upon his ability to control himself, to act stoically, to accept life with a measure of courage and dignity which gives it significance even when it is tragic. The code for Hemingway and for his characters transcends and supplants the moral rules of religion and natural law. The value system he suggests is certainly subjective, but, he argues, not arbitrary: ‘‘when they have learned to appreciate values through experience, what they seek is honesty and true, not tricked, emotion. . . .’’(2) According to Hemingway, then, those who have found their own code, and are living it, will know that their actions are good, and that they feel like complete humans.
‘‘The Killers’’ has several characters who seem to live more or less by the code. The Killers themselves, though stoical and self-possessed, would seem to come under the heading of those who are ‘‘too flabby in their self-indulgence, too susceptible to a variety of illusions concerning themselves and life to be allowed to take over the responsibilities of creating their own lives.’’(3) Yet they have a code nevertheless, one which Nick finds, to his horror, even the hunted man Ole Andreson accepts. Andreson seems to be much like the killers, except that his role in the drama played out by the rules of the code is to be passive. In the end it is young Nick Adams, Hemingway’s archetypical hero, who expresses the code in its most noble form. He is unable to accept the terrible inevitability of Andreson’s death; he feels that for his own self-preservation that he must leave all of these people who are able to tolerate such senseless violence. Even George, at the end, shows that he accepts the killers’ code, when he says...
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Reticence and Mental Avoidance: Keys to Escape for Hemingway’s Heroes
In Ernest Hemingway’s short stories, the protagonists frequently resort to reticence and mental avoidance when confronted with life’s trials. They say little, which obliges the reader to make inferences about their true feelings. They try not to probe the complexities of their situations, because intellectual analysis does not lead to solutions in Hemingway’s world. This pattern of speech and thought occurs in such stories as “The Three-Day Blow,” “The Killers,” and “Soldier's Home.” It represents the way that Hemingway’s male heroes manage to keep themselves going.
“The Three-Day Blow” shows Nick Adams hanging out with his pal Bill, trying to alleviate the pain of breaking up with his girlfriend Marjorie, which is described in the companion story “The End of Something.” As they sit in front of the “big fireplace” and drink “Irish whiskey and water,” they talk about everything from baseball to popular writers like Walpole and Chesterton, and Nick’s mood is relatively congenial. In the early part of the story, he does not have to confront the issue of his break-up, and he feels “proud” and “very fine” with the liquor warming his bones. Hemingway provides a snapshot of men preferring to discuss things rather than emotions, as is often the case.
But soon, Nick has to realize that talking does not alleviate personal pain. When Bill brings up the awkward topic of Marjorie, Nick initially refuses to...
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“The Killers’’ and “Big Two-Hearted River’’: Striving for Order in a Chaotic World
Ernest Hemingway’s recurring hero, Nick Adams, strives to maintain order in a chaotic world in both “The Killers’’ and “Big Two-Hearted River.’’ In the former story, Nick initially finds himself the victim of gangsters and then tries to save former boxer Ole Andreson from their murderous plot. In the latter story, Nick is alone on a fishing trip, and Hemingway’s meticulous documentation of Nick’s actions indicates the degree to which the protagonist must rely upon himself to prosper in this environment. Although the settings and tones of these stories are drastically different, in both cases, everything comes down to how Nick approaches his situation.
At the start of “The Killers,’’ Nick comes across as a wary observer, unlike the hearty athlete of “Cross-Country Snow’’ or the bantering drinker of “The Three-Day Blow.’’ He says little as little as possible when two men enter the lunch-room where he is sitting and browbeat George, the server, about the lack of variety on the menu. Max and Al’s curt, intimidating manner of speech evidently convinces Nick that the best way to keep his life safe at present is to steer clear of confrontation.
When Max tells Nick, “You go around on the other side of the counter with your boy friend,’’ Nick obeys after a meek inquiry: “What's the idea?’’ It quickly becomes apparent that this is a wise decision, since the men are gangsters, contract killers. Their...
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Waiting in “The Killers”
Rife with images of waiting, ‘‘The Killers’’ embodies a range of Hemingway’s ideas on the human condition, from his notion of ‘‘nada’’ to his code of manly behavior. By foregrounding waiting, Hemingway creates suspense, develops characters, and suggests themes that lesser writers might take twice as many pages to accomplish.
Inextricably bound up with notions of time and human behavior, the act of waiting creates expectation and suspense, while providing a framework for the story’s events. The first image of waiting occurs when George tells Al and Max that the dinner they want will not be available until six o’clock. But there’s confusion about the time. Although the clock reads 5:20, George tells the men it is twenty minutes fast. Instead of awaiting the hour for dinner, the two men settle for egg dishes. After they eat, the men order the cook out of the kitchen, and Al takes Nick and Sam back into the kitchen. George next looks at the clock after Max has revealed that the two are there to kill Ole Andreson. When the motorman comes in for supper, it is 6:15. But readers are not told whether or not 6:15 is the actual time or the ‘‘fast’’ time. This confusion exacerbates the suspense, as Ole usually comes to dinner at six. A few lines later, readers are told it is 6:55, and George says, ‘‘He’s not coming.’’ Al and Max leave at 7:05.
Critics have zeroed in on the function of clock time in the story....
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Hemingway’s “The Killers”
‘‘The Killers’’ can be seen as a concise and dramatic representation of certain aspects of Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity and Werner Heisenberg’s principle of indeterminacy (or uncertainty). In general and simplified terms, relativity argues that time and mass are relative, not absolute, measurements, and that therefore seemingly fixed things, such as the motion of clocks and the shape of tables, are in fact dependent on their actual motion (as through space) and the perspective of the viewer. Lincoln Barnett explains that ‘‘there is no such thing as a fixed interval of time independent of the system to which it is referred’’ and that ‘‘the mass of a moving body is by no means constant.’’
The principle of indeterminacy, introduced by Heisenberg in the same year that ‘‘The Killers’’ was first published (1927), asserts that it is ‘‘impossible to determine with precision both the position and the momentum of a particle;’’ specifically, one cannot, at the same time, determine both the location and the speed of an electron because both measurements depend on each other and involve a small, though constant, margin of error. The more accurately one determines location, the less accurately one can determine speed, and vice versa. As the British physicist Sir James Jeans explained, ‘‘the specifications of position and motion lie in two different planes of reality, which cannot be brought simultaneously into...
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The Hit in Summit: Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers”
After an earlier unsuccessful attempt to write the story, Hemingway was finally able to set down ‘‘The Killers’’ on a day in which he was confined to his Madrid hotel room because the San Isidro bullfights were snowed out. He originally entitled the story ‘‘The Matadors.’’ In some ways, it is a pity that he dropped this title, for this is a story about a killing that does not take place only because the human being marked for death does not play his part that day. If one considers it as a planned, if not quite ritualized, killing in which the ‘‘animal’s’’ own habitual behavior (each day he comes to Henry’s lunchroom at the same hour) will bring him to his death at the hands of ‘‘professional’’ killers whose duty is to perform this task for hire, we have license to draw certain analogies between bullfighting and the events in Summit.
The bullring has become Henry’s lunchroom, the matador(s), ‘‘the killers,’’ Max and Al. Replacing the bull is ‘‘the Swede’’—the prizefighter Andreson, whose first name is, suggestively, Ole. The matador’s banderillas served up from a case and his sword mantled in cloth have their analogue in the killers’ sawed-off shotguns covered up by their tight-fitting overcoats. To say this much stretches the analogies as far as it is useful to take them. What is more interesting, however, once these broad analogies are suggested, is to see how what takes place in Henry’s lunch...
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Vaudeville Philosophers: ‘‘The Killers’’
Kenneth S. Lynn’s biography of Hemingway states that
behind ‘‘The Killers’’ lay some obvious influences: Hemingway’s firsthand acquaintance with petty criminals in Kansas City, his close observation of the men entering the back room in the Venice Cafe, and the steady attention he paid in the 20s to journalistic accounts, in European as well as in American newspapers, of the blood-drenched careers of Chicago hoodlums.
Behind the story also is Hemingway’s acquaintance by 1926 with vaudeville and with the idea of vaudeville. The connection has long been noted: in 1959, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren mentioned the ‘‘vaudeville team’’ of Max and Al, and the ‘‘gag’’ and ‘‘dialogue’’ that remind the reader of their ‘‘unreal and theatrical quality.’’ The essay is, however, only the briefest of sketches on the subject.
By the mid-1920s, entertainment had become part of visual and literary art. Music hall scores echoed in the work of T. S. Eliot; the lyrics of Broadway hits were reprinted in the pages of F. Scott Fitzgerald; and revues and Follies were described in fascinating detail in the essays of Edmund Wilson. The expression ‘‘the seven lively arts,’’ coined by Gilbert Seldes, was meant to include comics, dancers, and Krazy Kat—and to displace such bourgeois delights as grand...
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