(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“An Alpine Idyll” belongs at the end of the Nick Adams cycle of stories. A now mature Nick has come down from a month’s skiing in the mountains with a friend, John. They witness a peasant burying his wife and the reader experiences an epiphanic moment of recognition shared with Nick, though not with his friend.

The story opens in the early morning with two young men carrying their skis as they are climbing down from the mountains into the valley. They pass a churchyard just as a burial is ending. The narrator, who remains unnamed throughout the story but who is clearly Nick Adams, greets the priest but does not receive a greeting in return. The young men stop to watch the sexton shoveling earth into the new grave. When the sexton rests, a peasant standing at the grave takes over, spreading the soil as evenly as he would manure in a garden.

The grave filling looks unreal to the young men, and they cannot imagine being dead on such a beautiful May morning. They walk up the road to the town of Galtur; the narrator explains that they were skiing in Silvretta for a month but that with the coming of the warmer weather the skiing was spoiled. It was too late in the spring to be up in the Silvretta; they stayed too long, and the May morning in the valley seemed more natural than the spring in the high mountains.

They arrive at an inn, and, after greeting the owner, who gives them their mail, they go inside to drink beer while they read the accumulated post. During an exchange of conversation, John notes that it is no good doing a thing too long, such as skiing in the mountains in the spring. The open window draws Nick’s attention to the white road and dusty trees and the green field and stream beyond. Inside, the sunlight filters through the empty glasses. John is asleep with his head on the table. Two men come into the inn: the sexton and the bearded peasant from the burial. Both order drinks, for which, after a brief argument, the peasant insists on...

(The entire section is 811 words.)

Extended Summary

First published in 1927 as part of a collection entitled Men Without Women, “An Alpine Idyll” features the character of Nick Adams, a World War I veteran, on a skiing trip in the Austrian Tyrol with his friend John. Although not explicitly acknowledged in the story, the narrator of the tale is Nick. The story begins as the two Americans carry their skiing gear down from mountains into the valley. They come across a churchyard where a funeral is taking place. When they pass a local priest, Nick greets him, but the clergyman seems disturbed and does not reciprocate. Nick and John watch as the church’s sexton or groundskeeper shovels the dirt into a newly-dug grave and is then relieved by a forlorn peasant who carefully spreads the soil atop it. In the eyes of the two Americans, this scene of death stands in sharp contrast to the beautiful May weather; indeed, the two were forced to end their skiing trip and return to the valley below the mountains because it was so warm.

Nick and John are welcomed by the owner of a local inn where they stop for a drink while retrieving the mail sent to them during their month-long isolation in the mountains. The grave-digger and the peasant, whom they saw earlier, enter the tavern. They share a drink together, but the peasant becomes angry and leaves the inn when his companion refuses his offer to pay for the round. Nick then asks the innkeeper to join him and John in a drink. When the talk turns to the funeral, the innkeeper discloses that the dead person was the angry peasant’s wife. The sexton then joins the party, and these two locals furnish the young Americans with the background to the funeral. The peasant had brought his wife’s body into town that day, even though she had died several months ago. Until now the peasant was unable to make it through the snow-filled passes to the parish church where he wanted his wife to be buried. When the priest looked at the dead woman’s face and saw that it was horribly deformed, the peasant explained that he had first placed his wife’s corpse in a woodshed on top of some logs. When her body froze stiff, he propped it up against the log pile; and when he visited the shed for fuel, he used her gaping mouth as a hook to hold his lantern. That was, in fact, the reason for the priest’s foul mood. The priest had berated the peasant, but the simple man defended his actions, that he loved his wife, and had done nothing wrong. With this tale nearly completed, John asks when they are going to eat supper. The innkeeper affirms that the story is true and says that the peasants are “beasts” as the vacationing Americans ready themselves for a hearty meal.