Like "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," which was written at approximately the same time, "The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio" is a story of loneliness, suffering, and endurance. Set in a hospital in Montana run by a convent of nuns, it focuses on Mr. Frazier, who has broken a leg and whose recovery is not proceeding quickly. Day after day, he lives the hospital life, mostly confined to his room, and occasionally interacting with the staff and other patients. One of Mr. Frazier's daily contacts is Sister Cecilia, who pops in and out of his room, engaging in brief conversations about herself and the other patients, especially her new patient, Cayetano.
It is through Frazier, Sister Cecilia, Cayetano (a gambler), and one of Cayetano's friends that Hemingway's theme is realized. Each of these characters suffers pain, loneliness, disappointment, or disillusionment. The nun, who had longed to be a saint, believes that her dream will not be realized. She deals with life by praying, for everything and everyone. Cayetano has accepted that his life will never be more than what it is; he is a small-time gambler with no luck. He suffers from his gunshot wound, enduring his suffering without complaint, just as he endures his bleak future. Cayetano's friend is bitter and cynical in his own disillusionment, dismissing religion as "the opium of the poor." He believes in nothing, he says.
Frazier endures his own pain stoically throughout the story, his defenses intact, although "[h]is nerves went bad at the end of five weeks." He gets through his days with the occasional social contacts; he gets through his nights alone with his radio, moving from station to station as the night wears on. The people, Frazier decides, have many forms of opium to ease their suffering: religion, economics, liquor, gambling, ambition, education, sex--all offering relief from the emptiness of life. For Frazier, life is being "operated on without an anaesthetic [sic]". Opium of any kind, he concludes, is to be desired.