It is commonplace to notice that Ernest Hemingway used nature as a reflector of his characters’ moods and feelings. “An Alpine Idyll” is a story whose meaning hinges on an evocative description of a pastoral scene out a window that Nick observes while reading his mail. It is an especially telling scene because it so expertly illustrates Hemingway’s pictorial style, a style he likened to the paintings of Paul Cezanne.
This passage opens with the sun streaming through the window and through the half-full beer bottles on the table. It ends with Nick’s attention drawn back inside the window to the empty beer glasses on the table and to John asleep with his head resting on his arms. What Nick sees outside the window does indeed look like a painting described plane by plane: the white road and dusty trees, the green field and stream beyond, the mill with the untended log bobbing in the water, the five crows—one separate (like Nick) looking at the others in the green fields—the porch of the inn and the men sitting on it and finally, John asleep at the table. It is as though a motion picture camera were making an excursion out into nature and back in again; Nick ties together his own life and thoughts with the Cezanne-like outdoors, and the empty/full tension of the Jan Vermeer-like still life indoors.
The log rocking in the mill water recalls the peasant’s wife, frozen and unattended in the woodshed. The wetness and greenness of the fields and stream contrast with the cold sterility of the mountains that Nick has left behind. All this is made clear through Nick’s painterly synoptic vision. The scene is a moment of calm recognition that is broken by the arrival of the peasant and the sexton, who will tell their strange story of death—a story that, like the gravesite scene that greets the young men just down from the mountain, provides both protagonist and reader with a grim reminder of life’s final obligation.