How has the war changed Harold Krebs' attitudes toward work and women in the story "Soldier's Home"?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

When Harold Krebs returns from having experienced the horrors of World War I in the fields of France where many were slaughtered and gassed, he has "a distaste for everything." Krebs does not feel that he is ready for the complications of relationships with women or those of a job.

Having returned in 1919, long after many of the other soldiers have already received heroes' welcomes, Krebs finds that people have already heard "too many atrocity stories" to be interested in real tales. So he discovers that he is only listened to if he tells lies. But because of his lies, "a distaste for everything that had happened to him . . . set in." Also, Krebs acquires "the nausea regarding the experience that is the result of untruth or exaggeration." It is this repulsion that leads to his disinclination to have anything to do with women or "settling down to work," as his mother encourages him to do. Krebs avoids any relations with people so as to keep from being in a position to feel the need to exaggerate or fabricate the history of his experiences. 

Krebs yearns for time alone to heal his soul. He wants to make sense of what has happened by reading his book on the history of the battles and studying the maps of towns and fields in which he has fought: "Now he was really learning about the war. He had been a good soldier. That made a difference." When Krebs can create some order, then he may be ready for the complications that are at home. But, now "It is not worth the trouble." The girls want to talk; however,

the world they were in was not the world he was in . . . It was not worth it. Not now when things were getting good again.

Since he has started to make some sense of his last few years—years of life-threatening experiences spent in foreign lands about which no one else in his family is acquainted—Krebs wants to continue his task without complications. He feels that he must leave: "He would go to Kansas City and get a job and [his mother] would feel all right about it." He does not want to have to lie about anything; he simply wants his life to "go smoothly."

sagetrieb eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The war has primarily changed Krebs’ understanding of manhood as it had been before the war, which the narrator explains in the 4th paragraph of the story: “All of the time that had been able to make him feel cool and clear inside himself  . . .now lost their cool, valuable quality and then were lost themselves.” Fundamental to his problem, resulting from the war, is that he cannot communicate—to girls, to his parents, to anyone.  The war had been such a horrific experience for him that he returns without feeling, or maybe with so much feeling that words are inadequate to express any ideas that he has.  With words inadequate, and “normal” experience meaningless after all he had experienced during the war, he withdraws, succumbing to his mother’s desire for him to pray but realizing that, like everything else, is worthless.  Note the style of Hemingway’s writing here, which reflects the attitude of Kreb:  short sentences, little descriptors, plain language.  Hemingway often uses this minimalist style.  It developed out of his own experiences in the war, which caused him to distrust language, thinking the best way to say anything was to “undersay” it because words cannot always be trusted.  He associated this style with masculinity:  a man, according to Hemingway, should act rather than talk about acting, and if he cannot act, he should keep quiet about his feelings

dymatsuoka eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The war and his homecoming has taught Krebs to insulate himself from emotion, and that "he (does) not really need a girl.  He enjoys watching women, but does not have the energy to seek a relationship.  He "(does) not want to have to spend a long time getting (a girl)...He (does) not want to have to do any courting...he would not go through all the talking...he (does) not want one badly enough." 

This same lethargy extends to Krebs' attitude toward work.  His parents worry that he has lost his ambition.  Krebs thinks he might go to Kansas City to get a job, but only to please his mother.  As for himself, he finds himself immersed in a numb, isolated world which has little to do with the life to which he has returned.