When he comes home from World War I, Harold's actions at first are motivated by the desire to belong, once again, in his home town. He tries to pick up the threads of his old life. Realizing that his neighbors want to hear glorified stories of the war, Harold lies to please them and to fit into their lives. He keeps to himself the truth of what he has experienced in war. Harold goes along with his mother's controlling behavior in his attempt to belong at home once again. When he finally defies her, makes her cry, and leaves home, he is motivated by the need to face the truth about his life as it now exists and to get on with it, wherever it leads him.
Mrs. Krebs' behavior is primarily motivated by fear. She does not want to hear about the war, no doubt because what her son has experienced is too fearful to contemplate. She worries about Harold and watches his behavior continually. Mrs. Krebs fears that Harold will not pick up his life at home again and be the boy she sent off to war. Her fears are realized at the end of the story when Harold goes away.
In this unforgettable short story, Ernest Hemmingway presents us with one soldier returning from the horrors of World War I to his home. However, it is clear that his experiences have changed him utterly and he is unable to fit in to society in the way expected of him. Soldiers who came back from the horrors of this war were often termed "shell shocked," as suffering from profound physical, psychological and mental confusion, exhaustion and despair. Of course, now we know this as post-traumatic stress disorder, yet at the time this condition was not understood by a society who expected the soldiers to enter back in to meaningful roles and old, regular routines.
Thus we can understand the detached way that Krebs is shown to live his life. His desire to "live along without the consequences" shows how, having seen the terrible consequences of war, Krebs wants a quiet and easy life, without the dangers of intimacy and responsibility. The conversation with his mother at the end of the story in particular shows the conflict between Krebs and society at large. She wants her son to settle down and get a job, but Krebs wants to postpone making any significant decisions. He is shown as a character who, thanks to the war, has lost his faith, his ability to love and also his desire to be fully involved in life:
He had tried so to keep his life from being complicated. Still none of it had touched him. He had felt sorry for his mother and she had made him lie.
Thus Hemmingway presents us with an "anti-hero," a character who abandons himself to hopelessness, stagnation and disillusionment.