The Stories of Hemingway Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Evaluation

Ernest Hemingway, who ranks with William Faulkner as one of the indisputable giants of twentieth century American fiction, wrote more than fifty short stories. Together they constitute probably the greatest, certainly the most widely known and influential, work in the genre during that period, and a dozen or so, including “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” “In Another Country,” “A Way You’ll Never Be,” “The Killers,” “A Clean Well-Lighted Place,” and “Big Two-Hearted River,” are unsurpassed and unsurpassable today or at any time. Perhaps most at home in the short-story form, which in his case constitutes an unusually large portion of a major writer’s work, Hemingway used it for artistic purposes and achievements of the highest order.

Hemingway’s first short-story publication of note was IN OUR TIME, a collection containing fourteen stories bounded and interspersed by brief interchapters on violence coldly observed at bullfights, in World War I, and especially in the Graeco-Turkish War, which Hemingway had recently viewed as a war correspondent. Eight of the stories have Nick Adams for their protagonist—a character Hemingway employed frequently, not only here but also in numerous later stories—and are arranged chronologically, tracing Nick’s development from childhood to maturity. Because stories about Nick begin and end the collection, and since the other six stories are placed so that the events in them correspond temporally to stages in Nick’s growth, IN OUR TIME has a narrative unity similar to that of an episodic novel. As a quasi novel, the book belongs in a category with James Joyce’s DUBLINERS and Sherwood Anderson’s WINESBURG, OHIO. It belongs there not merely because of its narrative organization but also because, like them, it is thematically unified around a concern with what Joyce called paralysis, the spiritual plight of modern man; only where Joyce and Anderson chose a specific geographical place, Hemingway, more ambitiously, chose “our time,” a vague but readily available temporal location, as the setting for that theme.

Though collected again in multiples of fourteen in MEN WITHOUT WOMEN (1927) and WINNER TAKE NOTHING (1933), and then finally gathered in a largely complete edition in THE FIFTH COLUMN AND THE FIRST FORTY-NINE STORIES (1938), a collection containing the first three collections plus seven other stories, Hemingway’s stories after IN OUR TIME are not bound together chronologically and narratively. Thematically and stylistically, they are, however, as collections or separate stories, continuations of IN OUR TIME; all his stories, indeed his entire work, nonfiction as well as long and short fiction, are confined to a narrow range which is surveyed repeatedly and thoroughly. That narrowness is evident everywhere in his work, and so in his subject, which Hemingway defined in the introduction to MEN AT WAR (1942), a collection of war stories and accounts he edited, where he wrote:When you go to war as a boy you have a great illusion of immortality. Other people get killed; not you. It can happen to other people; but not to you. Then when you are badly wounded the first time you lose that illusion and you know it can happen to you. After being severely wounded two weeks before my nineteenth birthday I had a bad time until I figured it out that nothing could happen to me that had not happened to all men before me. Whatever I had to do men had always done. If they had done it then I could do it too and the best thing was not to worry about it.

The wound, that affliction through which man becomes aware of his mortality, of his finite limitations, or, in traditional Christian parlance, of his fallen state and spiritual futility, is the definitive encounter with reality upon which all Hemingway’s short stories, and other fiction as well, are closely focused.

IN OUR TIME initiates Hemingway’s inquiry into this authentic and authenticating moment. In the first story, “Indian Camp,” Nick is present when his father, a doctor, performs a Caesarian operation on an Indian woman who has suffered long, agonizing labor pains. Nick, unable to watch the operation after his first curiosity passed, rejects its relevance for himself, and instead, after the delivery, while crossing a lake in which he trails his hand, feels sure...

(The entire section is 1825 words.)