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?"
"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.