Big Two-Hearted River

by Ernest Hemingway

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What symbols in "Big, Two-Hearted River" contribute to the understanding of its theme?

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One of Hemingway's Nick Adams stories, "Big, Two-Hearted River" stands as a subtle and gripping psychological study of a young man home from World War I, wounded, haunted by his experiences, and struggling to hold himself together. Nick's efforts to deal with his psychological pain is developed through several symbols in the story, both major and minor.

In the first part of the story, Nick takes a train to the end of the line in the Michigan woods. He then hikes deeper into the forest, makes camp, and crawls into his tent where he feels "[n]othing could touch him." Nick has removed himself from society, isolated himself from the dangerous and traumatizing world. His tent symbolizes safety and security for him.

As he camps and fishes, Nick chooses to live in the moment. He exhausts himself with physical activity and pays an inordinate amount of attention to simple tasks. The conflict between his conscious mind and his subconscious, where painful memories lurk, is clear. When memories surface, Nick pushes them back into his subconscious:

His mind was starting to work. He could choke it because he was tired enough.

The two parts of the river symbolize both elements of Nick's mind: his conscious mind and his subconscious. The stream, where Nick fishes for trout, is sunny, shallow, and wide. It serves as a symbol of Nick's conscious mind, within which he can continue to function.

Where the stream narrows, however, it leads to a swamp where the water is deep and dark. The largest trout lie on the bottom of the swamp. The swamp is a symbol of Nick's troubled subconscious, the largest trout his most painful, most deeply suppressed memories. Fishing in the swamp was "a tragic adventure," and "Nick did not want it."

Hemingway writes subsequently: "Nick did not want to go in there now." The implication is that Nick will go into the swamp later; he will deal with his painful memories when the time is right. The story concludes with this truth:

There were plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp.

The symbolism in the story serves to develop Nick Adams as a classic Hemingway hero. Nick has been wounded, both physically and psychologically, but he endures through force of will. He cannot change what has happened to him, but he can control himself. He lives with courage, one moment at a time, one task after another. Nick will "fish the swamp" when he is ready. He will survive. Hemingway's themes of "grace under pressure" and enduring life with courage are clearly developed in the story.

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