In Another Country

by Ernest Hemingway

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In Another Country Themes

The three main themes in “In Another Country” are dignity and the human condition, courage and cowardice, and alienation and loneliness.

  • Dignity and the human condition: “In Another Country” explores the idea that dignity is something that must be earned through facing the difficult truths of life.
  • Courage and cowardice: The story contrasts traditional ideas of heroism with a more humanistic view of courage.
  • Alienation and loneliness: The story examines the ways in which alienation can lead to loneliness.

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‘‘In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it anymore.’’ So begins Ernest Hemingway’s short story, ‘‘In Another Country.’’ The war he refers to is World War I; the setting is Milan, away from the scene of the fighting. The narrator is a young American man who is in the hospital to receive physical rehabilitation for the leg wounds he received while at the front. Sitting next to him is an Italian major, a champion fencer before the war, whose hand has been wounded and with whom the narrator speaks about life. At the story’s end, having learned of his wife’s death of pneumonia, the major must face the future knowing the machines cannot cure him of this different kind of injury.

Dignity and the Human Condition
In the story, the young narrator has faced death and survived. This is also true of the Italian officers who, like the narrator, come to the hospital each day to receive therapy for the wounds they have received while at the front. The narrator learns about dignity and the human condition primarily through his interaction with an Italian major. While the young narrator is fearful of dying on the battlefield, the major seems to have made peace with this possibility. He knows he must do his duty in the dignified manner consistent with being a professional soldier and, more specifically, an officer. He is uninterested in the bravado expressed by the young decorated officers. Bravery requires acting on impulse, making snap decisions based on one’s emotions. The major instead depends on control and precision. One day, however, the major breaks his composure; while sitting at the machine intended to heal his injured hand, he becomes angry with the narrator’s hope to marry in the future, irately adding that the young American ‘‘should not place himself in a position to lose [everything]. . . . He should find things he cannot lose.’’ The major then does the previously unthinkable; he breaks into tears. The narrator soon learns from a doctor that the major’s young and, presumably, healthy wife has suddenly died from pneumonia. When the major returns to the hospital, three days later—his first break in his regime of daily visits—he is a more openly vulnerable man. He sits dutifully at his machine, stands in an erect, soldierly manner, but now his dignified stance is more hard won. He has learned that life cannot be controlled, that it is filled with arbitrary tragedies, even off the battlefield, for which one may be unprepared. The major may have been prepared for his own death, like any good soldier, but his wife’s sudden passing leads him to confront life’s meaninglessness, an aspect of the human condition he, who has survived, must now struggle to face with dignity.

Courage and Cowardice
Not unconnected is the theme of courage and cowardice. While many heroes, particularly in American fiction, especially American films, are portrayed as stoic and unafraid, ‘‘In Another Country’’ depicts a more complex and humanistic type of courage. Following the unexpected loss of his wife, the major’s return to the hospital signifies his willingness to survive, even with his new awareness of chaos in the world and his inability to prevent being touched by it. His willingness to face life with this new and painful understanding can be seen as a definition of genuine courage, the kind of courage befitting a real hero. This truer, more human heroism even requires the initial shedding of tears, an act that is seen in some circumstances as a sign of cowardice.

This definition of heroism contrasts with the more traditional kind of heroics, the kind that wins medals, displayed by the brash young Italian officers. These men are seemingly proud of their naive bravado; however, because they have not dealt with the emotional consequences of the violence they have faced, they have become ‘‘a little detached’’ and withdrawn.

Alienation and Loneliness
This theme is expressed initially in the story’s title, ‘‘In Another Country,’’ which refers to being or feeling alienated from the comfort of the familiar, a circumstance which often leads to loneliness. In this story, the narrator is literally in another country, Italy, an ocean apart from his home, the United States; however, he is also apart in other ways. When he walks in the streets of Milan alongside the young Italian officers he is first accepted by, he knows the civilians who verbally abuse them do not understand what they, the officers, have faced. Though the officers and these native Milanese share the same streets, they are in ‘‘another country’’ from each other, separated by their differing life experiences. Once inside the warmth of the cafe, the narrator feels the loneliness this alienation causes disappear. Later, these same officers drift from him because they discover that some of his medals are for being an American, while theirs are for feats of bravery, acts the narrator knows his own fear of death would probably not permit him to perform. This leads to his being separate, in ‘‘another country,’’ from his former friends. Out of loneliness, the narrator maintains a friendship with the only member of the group who has not received a medal and, since he is too injured to return to battle, never will. The narrator likes to pretend this friend would be like him in battle, cautious and a little afraid. The narrator insists on imagining he and this young man are connected in this way to alleviate the loneliness he feels now that he has become alienated from the others. At the end of the story, the narrator becomes alienated from his new friend, the major, after the major experiences a loss that the narrator has not, the death of a wife to pneumonia. The major’s resulting understanding of life’s cruel lack of meaning puts him in ‘‘another country’’ from the younger, still somewhat idealistic narrator. The mind set of the major is both alien to him and lonely, yet it is inevitable to all human beings. After all, the story suggests, attempts to avoid loss are only temporary.

Themes and Meanings

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Still significant in the consciousness of the wounded men is the war, which represents both a challenge and a threat. Because of the war, the three young Italians with medals know that they are brave. In addition to representing a test, the war also heightens the soldiers’ awareness of death. The story opens with the line: “In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more.” The tall, pale Italian who has three medals is described as having “lived a very long time with death.” As a result, their experiences in the war have left them all “detached.”

The nature of courage is one of the central themes of “In Another Country.” The American officer is afraid of dying and lies awake wondering how he will behave when he goes back to the front. His fear is contrasted with the bravery of the three young Italians who earned their medals: “The three with the medals were like hunting-hawks; and I was not a hawk.” The bravery of the three “hunting-hawks,” however, is also contrasted with the courage of the major, who is not a hunting-hawk. The American does not understand the major, but he does recognize that he “had been a great fencer” and that he does not “believe in bravery.” The major’s self-discipline and courage prompt him to befriend the young American. He insists that the American learn to speak Italian grammatically. The major’s concern about speaking Italian grammatically illustrates the importance he gives to “form,” to living in terms of a strict code of behavior.

The major’s courage does not spring from the heedless self-confidence that often passes for bravery; he is willing to continue to try in spite of the likelihood of failure or defeat. Even though the major comes regularly to work with the therapy machines, he tells the doctor that he has no confidence in them.

The major’s courage in the face of his wife’s death equals his courage in accepting his disability. The death of his wife is particularly tragic as she was very young and as the major had postponed their marriage until after he had been permanently disabled from his war wounds. The major’s courage in coping with his young wife’s death is contrasted with the bravery of the three “hunting-hawks” in facing danger. In addition, the major’s compassion (for the American) sets him apart from the others.

Although war offers the challenge of living with death, those who do battle are not the only ones vulnerable to it: The death of the major’s young wife from pneumonia underlines the fact of human mortality. The major’s courage thus becomes a model of the heroism required to live.

The source for the title “In Another Country” is Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (1589), in which Friar Barnardine says to Barabas: “Thou hast committed—”; the sentence is finished ironically by Barabas, who says, “Fornication—but that was in another country/ And besides, the wench is dead.”

The title thus suggests the detachment that the young men feel after living with death during the war. The conclusion of Barabas’s speech, “the wench is dead,” brutally reinforces the tragedy of the death of the major’s young wife. The irony of her death suggests the difficulty of living with courage.

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