The form of In Our Time defies precise description, and critics have long expressed divergent views: Is this just a collection of short stories? Or is it a more or less tightly woven story-cycle? Or is it really an experimental novel whose form reflects the typical technical and stylistic concerns of the high tide of modernism in the 1920s? It would seem that the latter view — even if the debate is unlikely to be resolved to the satisfaction of all readers — holds the greatest promise for deeper understanding of the form, style, and techniques of In Our Time.
The problem of defining the book's form is somewhat exacerbated by the fact that certain stories — or, in the modernist view, chapters of this experimental novel — have been extracted from their context and so frequently anthologized that they seem to stand alone and have acquired reputations as great short stories; for example, "Indian Camp" and "Big Two-Hearted River." However, while these may to some degree work as short stories, it is clear that our engagement with them is much richer when they are viewed in the contexts of the complete In Our Time, Consider what the reader brings to "Big Two-Hearted River" if he or she has followed Nick's process of growing up, of being wounded in the war, and so on — matters that the reader of the story alone would know nothing about. Clearly, without the novelistic contexts of Nick's bildungsroman, the depth or understanding of each and every story or chapter of In Our Time is radically diminished. This is the most telling argument for the work's unity, and for its status as a modernist experimental novel.
Modernist works typically employ techniques of understatement, omission of crucial facts and connections, elimination of explanatory linkage between segments or episodes, strategies of ironic juxtaposition and...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Although it is unique in form and style, In Our Time deals with a familiar subject of universal and timeless relevance: a young person growing up, embarking on a quest for meaning and peace in a tension ridden and war-ravaged world. Discussions might usefully begin with comparison of other works which follow the same pattern and, more specifically, move to other works which appeared in the 1920s and reflect similar or disparate reactions to World War I (e.g., John Dos Passos, Three Soldiers, 1921; e. e. cummings, The Enormous Room, 1922). Hemingway's sense of disillusionment with the war, and the ensuing sense of a "lost generation" that pervades the 1920s (even though Hemingway disavowed the fashionable "lost generation" notion), might also be compared to the experience of the Vietnam generation. In classrooms, for example, students who are Vietnam veterans or relatives of veterans often comment on how Krebs (in "Soldier's Home") experiences precisely the same sense of alienation that is familiar to Vietnam veterans.
1. Why and how does Nick feel immortal after witnessing a violent death in "Indian Camp"? Isn't this an unusual, unexpected conclusion?
2. Is the central character of "On the Quai at Smyrna" callow, hardened, insensitive to the suffering around him? Consider carefully his attitude, and the exact tonality of his voice. (You may wish to take into account the fact that this story was added to the second edition...
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Pervasive concerns of In Our Time include the following: societal and personal effects of war and violence, necessary confrontations with death, with questions of mortality and immortality, and the complexity of human relationships in families (especially among fathers, mothers, and sons) and in marriage or the relationships of couples. More than half of the stories in this closely-connected story-cycle (or experimental novel — please see "Techniques") deal with the experience of Nick Adams, portraying key moments from childhood to maturity, following him as he grows up, feels acutely the tension in his parents' relationship, breaks up with his girlfriend, leaves home, goes off to war and is badly wounded, and finally returns home.
In Our Time also participates deeply in the primary social concern shared by many major literary works which appeared in the aftermath of World War I: to wit, the sense that Western Civilization was morally and spiritually bankrupt, and that the war itself was the most striking evidence of that bankruptcy. T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922), for example, was the most influential work of this period and was a major influence on In Our Time. Eliot's profound depiction of The Waste Land and the imperative quest to rediscover values to live by (compassion, order, and self-discipline paramount among these values), to struggle with the moral and spiritual chaos of The Waste Land and find a...
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Since the very identity of In Our Time is bound up with the fact of its startling freshness, its originality, both in terms of technique and subject matter, there are few literary precedents. In the most general terms, of course, there have been very many bildungsroman novels that deal with a young man growing up and going off to experience the horror of war. But if the reader seeks more specific literary models the closest precedents may be found in James Joyce's Dubliners (1914), an intensely modernist and highly wrought story-cycle, and in Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio (1919), a story-cycle or loosely structured bildungsroman. Hemingway knew and was influenced by both of these writers, both of these works.
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The Nick Adams Stories (1972) is the most complete compilation of stories in which Nick figures importantly. The collection includes the specifically Nick centered stories of In Our Time as well as sixteen additional Nick Adams pieces. Although this collection has been criticized for its faulty editing and misleading chronological rearrangement of the Nick stories, it is useful to have such pieces as "Three Shots" (which is closely related to "Indian Camp") and "On Writing" (which is closely related to "Big Two-Hearted River"). In fact, "Three Shots" and "On Writing" were cut by Hemingway from the original manuscript version of "Indian Camp" and "Big Two-Hearted River." "On Writing" is important for what it tells us about Nick's decision to become a writer; more generally, it is one of Hemingway's most valuable statements on the art of writing. To have an overall sense of the Nick Adams chronicle, the reader should know the material in The Nick Adams Stories (much of which also appears in The Complete Short Stories).
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The only significant film based on In Our Time is Brian Edgar's short film (thirteen minutes) of "Indian Camp," which closely follows the text of the story and faithfully but creatively translates fiction into film. It had its world premiere at the International Hemingway Conference in June 1990 and has since been shown at major film festivals and used extensively in classrooms.
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