Soldier's Home Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The title of this story suggests a familiar American landmark and symbol: The soldier’s home, a place for retired military to live and relive their war experiences. In this tale, however, the soldier’s home is neither a haven for former soldiers nor an environment for reminiscing. It is the place to which Harold Krebs, a U.S. Marine who fought in World War I, returns to be alone and to face the lies that he and others utter about the war.

When Krebs returns to his hometown in Oklahoma, after having fought in various European arenas, he discovers that he has changed but that nothing in the town has changed. This dramatic difference between the returnee and those who stayed home sets up the basic conflict in the story: the dishonesty that is demanded for survival. It is demonstrated most clearly in the retelling of war stories, for the townspeople do not want to hear the truth about the atrocities of battle, preferring, instead, lies about the heroics of war. Krebs finds himself telling these lies because dishonesty is the path of least resistance, even though it causes a “nausea in regard to experience that is the result of untruth or exaggeration.”

Alienated from his family and the local people, Krebs spends his days aimlessly, sleeping late, reading, practicing the clarinet, and playing pool. He makes no effort to relate seriously with anyone, including women, because he does not want the complications or consequences of relationships. He is home, but it is no soldier’s home to which he has returned.

The climax of the story occurs during a conversation between Krebs and his mother. Initiating a discussion with her son about religion and a job—predictable maternal and midwestern topics—Mrs. Krebs leads Harold to tell still another lie. She asks him, “Don’t you love your mother, dear boy?” Harold responds with total honesty, “I don’t love anybody,” causing Mrs. Krebs to cry and revealing her inability and unwillingness to hear the truth. Nauseated by his next statement but believing that it is the only way to stop her crying, he lies and tells her that he did not mean what he said; he was merely angry at something. Mrs. Krebs reasserts her maternal role, reminding her son that she held him next to her heart when he was a tiny baby, reducing Krebs to the juvenile lie: “I know, Mummy. . . . I’ll try and be a good boy for you.” Mother and son then kneel together, and Mrs. Krebs prays for Harold.

After this emotional lie, Harold Krebs decides to leave the Oklahoma town, go to Kansas City for a job, and live his life simply and smoothly. The former Marine leaves his home.

Soldier's Home Extended Summary

The “Soldier’s Home,” in the title of this 1925 story by Ernest Hemingway, is not a retirement home for aged veterans but the childhood home of a former marine, Harold Krebs, who fought in World War I and has now returned to his mother’s house in a small, Oklahoma town. The story opens with the third-person narrator directing our attention to aspects of Harold’s life before he went to war, showing us a picture of him with his fraternity brothers at a Methodist college Harold had attended. When the wounded veteran arrives in town, he discovers that it is virtually the same as when he left it. The local folk are eager to hear about heroic war exploits, but they do not want to learn the “truth” about the atrocities of the war. Against his own gut feeling, Harold finds himself accommodating their perceptions and desires, lying and exaggerating as a means of fitting back into society. Living with his mother, Mrs. Krebs, Harold idles the days away and avoids all serious contacts. Try as he might, having experienced the ravages of the War, the ex-soldier cannot adjust to normal life.

The focal point of the story is Harold’s relationship to his mother, Mrs. Krebs. She attempts to direct her son toward a “constructive” path, suggesting that he look for a job and attend church with her. When he does not respond, she asks Harold the rhetorical question of whether he loves his mother anymore. At this moment he cannot repress his true feelings, and he replies that he doesn’t love after experiencing the savagery of war. His reaction causes Mrs. Krebs to weep. In response, the former soldier lies to his mother. He says that his answer did not reflect his true feelings, that he was merely disturbed by some unrelated event. Mrs. Krebs holds Harold as if he were an infant; he calls her “Mummy,” promises to be a “good boy,” and kneels with her as she prays for him. But Harold knows that he cannot simply revert to his pre-War self. He resolves to leave his hometown and his mother behind for work in Kansas City, where he plans to live without emotional complications and the need to “fit” the parts that other people want him to play.