This early story in a sequence that features Nick Adams as the protagonist takes place in northern Italy during World War I. Nick Adams, like Hemingway, has been wounded and is convalescing at the hospital in Milan. Among the problems he encounters is his inability to sleep. He engages in all sorts of ploys to overcome this condition, but nothing he does helps him sleep. In his restless, wakeful state at night, Nick tosses and turns, mulling over many of life’s profoundest questions. He has been face-to-face with death. He gave up his youth in that moment when his life might have ended on a battlefield in an alien land. He is not sure that his sanity is fully intact.
The last third of the story is given over to commonplace dialogue, to a conversation Nick has with John, another wounded soldier who is convalescing. As the two talk, one is reminded of the banality of the dialogue in Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives (1909), a book in which Stein sought to capture the cadences of the actual speech of working-class women. Such speech, when faithfully recorded, can be repetitious, tedious, and boring, as is much of the dialogue in this story.
This is not a weakness, however. Hemingway uses this technique to capture the tedium, the commonplaceness of life, which, aside from those rare moments of heroic action that elicit outstanding individual performance, is a pretty flat affair.
In their conversation, John is trying to persuade Nick to marry. Nick’s reflections throughout the story, however, make it clear that Nick has many questions to be answered before marriage is a viable prospect for him. He and John live on two vastly different planes, and what John suggests for Nick is what would work in John’s world rather than in Nick’s.
This story, in part, is about the inability of human beings to communicate effectively with one another. Background, upbringing, personal predilections—all of these stand between what is being communicated and what is being received. On one level, a large part of Hemingway’s writing is concerned with this problem, and it is reflection on it that kept Hemingway writing, that kept him ever trying to find the way to connect the perceptions of two people into a single, unified, mutually agreed-upon message.