In "Indian Camp," why does Nick think he will never die? Why is he so sure about it?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Ernest Hemingway's short story "Indian Camp," Nick, his father, and his uncle George are rowed across the lake to the Indian camp by two young Indians. Nick's father is a doctor, and they are going to the Indian camp because a woman is pregnant and having a difficult time with a breech delivery. Among the shanties in the Indian territory, they locate the one in which the Indian woman is enduring a painful and prolonged labor. Her husband rests in the top bunk of the same bed. He has cut his foot badly with an axe and has "rolled over against the wall," as if to remove himself from the birth taking place in the lower bunk.

Nick asks his father if he can give the pregnant woman something to ease her pain, but his father replies that he does not have anything. Nick's father operates on the woman, and several Indian men and Nick's uncle restrain her as she writhes in pain. She gives birth to a baby boy. During much of the procedure, Nick cannot bear the sounds of her pain or the sight of her blood. He "was looking away so as not to see what his father was doing."

After the birth, Nick's father checks on the baby's father only to find that he has slit his own throat and is dead. Although Nick's father tells Uncle George to take Nick away, it is too late. Nick has already seen the man and knows that he is dead. As they return home, Nick questions his father about why the man killed himself:

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

"Do many men kill themselves, Daddy?"

"Not very many, Nick."

"Do many women?"

"Hardly ever."

"Don't they ever?"

"Oh, yes. They do sometimes."

Death versus life (and birth) is a prominent theme in this short story, as it is in many works by Hemingway. Hemingway's somewhat ironic philosophy of grace under pressure implies that the author disdains the Indian father who lacks the courage to endure difficult times and chooses death over life. Moreover, it is unclear what the man "couldn't stand." The poverty? The responsibility of new fatherhood? The painful foot injury? The prospect of an interminable life with little joy? Regardless, his act is the antithesis of Hemingway's exalted view of stoicism and grace under pressure. However, Nick is a young child and is not faulted for wanting to look away.

That Nick also cannot fathom why a man would choose death over life reflects his youthful and optimistic view of life. Moreover, the aspects of the life that he witnesses in the shanty village—the dirt, the poverty, the lack of proper medical attention, and the stench (upon entering the shanty, the narrator notes, "the room smelled very bad")—are so foreign to him that he cannot identify with the dead Indian man. He feels that the man's life and death are so alien to him that he, Nick, will never die. By the end of the story, he is even more convinced of this.

In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die.

Just as the contrast between Nick's life and life in the Indian camp is stark, the contrast between the dark, frightening scene heading to the woman's bedside and Nick's trip home is clear. Nick and his father return in daytime, when it is peaceful and tranquil on the lake.

The sun was coming up over the hills. A bass jumped, making a circle in the water. Nick trailed his hand in the water. It felt warm in the sharp chill of the morning.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Hemingway's "Indian Camp," Nick Adams witnesses a difficult but ultimately successful birth and then, immediately afterwards, the results of a grisly suicide. At the end of the story, sitting in the stern of the boat with his father, rowing, he feels quite sure he will never die.

Nick's age is not clear, but his questions and his father's answers suggest he is a fairly young child. At this point in life, children are much more likely to be concerned that their parents will die and leave them alone than to consider their own death, which seems an impossibly distant event. Nick has his father's strong, reassuring, and capable presence to depend upon and is reassured after his first encounter with death. Moreover, that encounter was with a violent and self-inflicted death, and, as his father confirms for him, this is very rare. Everything about what he has just witnessed, including the fact that the dead man was an Indian, is entirely alien to him and his life. It seems scarcely surprising that he does not connect himself with such an instance of death.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

At that moment in the story's conclusion, Nick does feel certain that he will never die. The psychology of his feelings is no doubt complex. First of all, Nick is young. The young generally view death as the companion of old age, and when one is young, growing old is something that happens to others. Furthermore, the passing of time is experienced differently by the young. In a young life, two days can seem an eternity; the passing of sixty, seventy, or eighty years is incomprehensible. 

However, inside the shanty after his father had delivered the baby, Nick saw a different face of death; he saw the blood and the horror of a man's having cut his own throat. Once outside and back in the boat on the lake, the very real sight of that leaves Nick's mind quickly as his familiar world surrounds him:

The sun was coming up over the hills. A bass jumped, making a circle in the water. Nick trailed his hand in the water. It felt warm in the sharp chill of the morning.

It is at this point in the story, "[i]n the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing," that Nick disassociates himself with death. Death, as he has just seen it, has nothing to do with his world--and therefore, nothing to do with himself.

Nick believes it, but on a deeper psychological level, perhaps he believes it because he must believe it. Considering the horror and the brutality he has just experienced, psychological denial would explain his certainty. In another Nick Adams story, "Big, Two-Hearted River," Nick appears as a young man returning home from the war, working hard to repress memories of that which he cannot endure to relive, another form of denial and a Hemingway motif.

 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team