What are some of the themes, symbols, and historical context of the story?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator


Written in 1926, Ernest Hemingway's "The Killers" is a story set in the historical period of Prohibition when organized crime was at its rampant with such larger-than-life figures as Al Capone and Dutch Schultz controlling the bootlegging industry.  In addition, Hemingway's disillusionment with American in the wake of World War I is also present in this narrative of two professional killers.


Hemingway uses gangster-like dialogue, as well, to characterize the killers.  They are disinterested in where they are; they are just there to do a job.  The triviality of their discussion also indicates their callousness and cold-blooded nature:

"This is a hot town," said the other.  "What do they call it?"


"Ever hear of it?" Al asked his friend.

"No," said the friend.

Their conversation later is peppered with insults, wisecracks, and slang. For instance, they demean the black cook and call Nick "bright boy."  Nor do they answer any questions directly:

"What do you think it's all about?"

"I don't know."

"What do you think?"

Max looked into the mirror all the time he was talking.

"I wouldn't say."

Other characters reveal their personalities in their speech, as well.  When George speaks he indicates his desire for uninvolvement, while Nick displays his naivete in his words of incredulity.


Typically, masculinity is a theme.  The gangsters ridicule the cook George as he serves food, telling him he will make someone a good wife. And, they tease Nick about being a mere boy.

Chaos is also a theme as the killers come to town to kill Old Swede, knowing that he eats at Henry's at six o'clock, yet they ask the name of the town, and when told, Max says that he has never heard of it.  Similarly, Nick confuses Mrs. Bell at the boardinghouse with Mrs. Hirsch, who is the owner.  These differences in the appearance of the world and the reality of it greatly confuses and disturbs Nick.

In addition, there is the theme of Crime that is prevalent.  With the mob bribing policemen in the big cities, no one was safe.  Max and Al's flouting of their errand to kill with no worry of reprisals suggests that there is little that any one can do about the prevalence of crime.  George's sense of resignation to this state is also disturbing as he says that crime is someone else's responsibility.  He even delegates Nick to warn Old Swede.  Nick's response is that of Hemingway himself:  disillusionment.  He wants to run away from the town rather than accept its gratuitous dangers:

"I wonder what he did?" Nick said.

"Double-crossed somebody.  That's what they kill them for."

"I'm going to get out of this town," Nick said.

"Yes," said George.  "That's a good thing to do."

"I can't stand to think about him waiting in the room and knowing he's going to get it.  It's too damned awful."

"Well, said George, "you better not think about it."

Read the study guide:
The Killers

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