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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The protagonist in this story, Nick, is defined by his innocence in comparison to the other characters. He is called "kid" by the brakeman who punches him on the train, and Nick curses himself for having fallen for such a simple trick so naively:

He had fallen for it. What a lousy kid thing to have done. They would never suck him in that way again.

Ultimately, however, Nick's interactions with Ad show that he is still finding his way in the world. He laughs when Ad describes himself as "crazy," not believing him. He seems wary enough at first, knowing that he needs to be tougher than he is:

“You’re a tough one, aren’t you?”
“No,” Nick answered.
“All you kids are tough.”
“You got to be tough,” Nick said.
“That’s what I said.”

However, it is clear that Nick is being slowly charmed by Ad, unaware that the warning Ad has issued is a genuine one. It is Bugs, Ad's traveling companion, who recognizes the beginnings of Ad's craziness making an appearance and who insists that Nick "hang onto your knife."

Bugs is to Ad the sort of protector Nick really needs. Although Nick knows enough not to react when Ad demands, "hit me," it is only the quick thinking of Bugs which saves Nick from taking "a beating":

The little man looked down at Nick’s feet. As he looked down the negro, who had followed behind him as he moved away from the fire, set himself and tapped him across the base of the skull. He fell forward and Bugs dropped the cloth-wrapped blackjack on the grass. The little man lay there, his face in the grass. The negro picked him up, his head hanging, and carried him to the fire. His face looked bad, the eyes open. Bugs laid him down gently.

Bugs's gentleness is remarkable given that he served time in jail (which is where he met Ad) for knife crimes. He offers Nick coffee and addresses him politely as "Mister Adams." It is clear that Bugs is, while tough enough to survive, primarily a loving person. At the end of the story, the way he has treated Ad—and treated Nick—seems to give Nick hope. Although he has rejected hospitality, "he found he had a ham sandwich in his hand and put it in his pocket." As he moves up the track, he sees that there is a way ahead, as Bugs promised:

Looking back from the mounting grade before the track curved into the hills he could see the firelight in the clearing.


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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Hemingway's protagonist in his short story "The Battler" (published in 1952 as part of a collection titled In Our Time) is one Nick Adams, who is thrown off of a train and wanders to a nearby fire.

When Nick encounters a man who asks him how he got his bruise, Nick notices that

The man looked at Nick and smiled. In the firelight, Nick saw that his face was misshapen. His nose was sunken, his eyes were slits, he had queer-shaped lips. Nick did not perceive all this at once, he only saw the man's face was queerly formed and mutilated. It was like putty in colour. Dead looking in the firelight.

This physical description is an apt characterization of the man, whom the reader eventually learns was a former boxer. The man's condition suggests a commentary on pursuits that are destructive in nature: when one stops participating in these pursuits, he is left all but dead. Hemingway shortly after describes how the man...

(This entire section contains 295 words.)

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is missing an ear, which makes Nick sick.

Another important description is when Bugs (a black man who is friends with Nick) explains to Nick the boxer's predicament as follows:

"He took too many beatings, for one thing," the negro sipped the coffee. "But that just made him sort of simple. Then his sister was his manager and they was always being written up in the papers all about brothers and sisters and how she loved her brother and how he loved his sister, and them they got married in New York and that made a lot of unpleasantness."

Bugs explaining the circumstances in nuanced and sympathetic detail (he later explains that the boxer's wife eventually left him) reveals the depth of his character and also evokes the sympathy of the reader.