The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel

by David Rabe

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Discussion Topic

The significance of Pavlo Hummel holding the grenade until it explodes in "The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel."

Summary:

Pavlo Hummel holding the grenade until it explodes symbolizes his internal struggle and desire for control over his chaotic life. It represents his confrontation with mortality and the futility of his efforts to find meaning and purpose in the brutal reality of war.

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Why does Pavlo Hummel hold on to the grenade in "The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel"?

It is not known whether Pavlo Hummel is deliberately holding on to the grenade and allowing it to explode or not. He is more likely, as he later explains to his projected alter ego Ardell, planning on throwing it back out the window but is unable to do so in time. Whatever the case, the reason Pavlo grabbed the grenade in the first place is right in the title of the play: it was his "basic training."

Because of his answer to Ardell's question as to why Pavlo did what he did, we can assume that his actions were without any kind of planning or forethought. He has simply been conditioned to act with bravado in even the most absurd and hopeless of circumstances. Ardell says that the circumstances of Pavlo's life and death are "all shit," speaking also to the military's method of taking away autonomy from soldiers during their training.

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Why does Pavlo Hummel hold a grenade until it explodes in The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel?

At the beginning of the play, the main character, Pavlo, drunk and sounding overconfident, picks up a grenade that we later find out sergeant Wall threw into the bar and holds it in his lap. The playwright repeats the scene at the end of the play as well. This time Pavlo says, just before the explosion, "Oh Christ," suggesting that he only suddenly realizes what he is actually holding in his hands.

The rest of the play, however, suggests that Pavlo always had some kind of death wish. When Pavlo asks the captain to transfer him from the medic team to a regular fighting unit, the captain says, "You want to get killed, don't you, Hummel?" Pavlo denies this, but his actions from there on seem to reinforce the captain's observation. For example, when he sees a farmer in the distance, he shoots him repeatedly and so haphazardly that he ends up shooting himself.

In some ways Pavlo doesn't seem to have much to live for. When he goes back to New York on leave, the audience finds out not only what a hard life he's had up to that point, but that the girl that he talked about in the bar, Joanna, has found someone else and is pregnant.

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Why does Pavlo Hummel hold a grenade until it explodes in The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel?

It is a moot point whether Pavlo deliberately holds onto the grenade, "allowing" it to explode, which, if true, would constitute his second suicide attempt in the play. After all, the grenade is thrown into the room through a window, and an attempt to dispose of it by tossing it back is not completely unreasonable. After the grenade mortally wounds Pavlo, his alter-ego, Ardell, questions the stupidity of his action. Pavlo responds that he was thinking about "throwin' it", highlighting his lack of forethought about the potentially devastating consequences of his action. However, his response also indicates that he didn't have a conscious death wish because he did intend to get rid of the grenade. The fact that Pavlo chooses to handle the grenade at all is arguably a function of his 'basic training'; the army has instilled a value system equating masculinity and success with action, resulting in the suppression of personal awareness to institutional (military) expectations. In this sense, Pavlo is compelled to seize the grenade without consideration of cause and effect because that would be considered a passive, 'soft' reaction. Basic training has muted Pavlo's autonomous decision making so that his thoughts and actions more closely subscribe to the mold of hyper-masculine soldier. 

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