What is the main conflict and theme in "Indian Camp" by Ernest Hemingway?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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There are two conflicts in Hemingway's "Indian Camp":  Civilized Behavior vs. Savage Behavior and Innocence vs. Maturity. 

  • Civilized Behavior vs. Savage Behavior

Nick Adams accompanies his physician father to an Indian Camp where a woman struggles in labor because her baby is breach. Dr. Adams performs a Cesarean section on her, but because there is no anaesthetic, she screams and even bites Nick's Uncle George on the arm as he holds her down. Angered by her action, George lashes out at her, calling her a pejorative term. However, he should have understood the tremendous pain that she is in and been patient with her savage reaction. When he curses the woman, George acts in a brutal and chauvinistic manner that is as uncivilized as her biting. Furthermore, it is more savage in a sense because George calls her a word fit only for animals.

After the operation, Dr. Adams checks the husband who has lain in a top bunk during all the activity. He has suffered from a severe cut to his foot. When the physician pulls back the blanket from the man's head, he finds that the man has cut his throat from ear to ear. This savage behavior is beyond the comprehension of Nick who asks why he has done such a thing. 

"I don't know, Nick. He couldn't stand things, I guess."

Nick wonders if many men and women commit suicide, trying to balance what is to be expected in life. The next morning, Dr. Adams takes Nick fishing to soothe him, and Nick trails his hand in the warm water, reassured in the presence of his parent that "he would never die."

  • Innocence vs. Maturity

"Indian Camp" is a rite of passage story as an innocent boy accompanies his father and views both birth and death. Both are rather brutal, too, as the baby boy is taken by Cesarean section, and the Indian father, overcome with anxiety and fear, slits his own throat. Having seen these existential events, Nick is taken back by the tenuous hold that a person has on life.  Maturity is clearly forced upon him, but still the child, he rejects the tragedy of life, convinced that death will not come to him.

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