Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 251

In The Battler by Ernest Hemingway, loyalty is the main theme. This story is told from the point of view of Nick, a man just thrown off of a passing train who shares a meal with Ad and Bugs. This perspective allows us to see the unlikely friendship between Ad, a former prizefighter, and Bugs, who met Ad in jail. At the time this story was written black and white people were still segregated and a friendship between the two men would have been unlikely, but we see that it was a true and loyal friendship. Ad has not been quite right in some time, in part because of all the fighting he did, and also because his wife left him. When they got out of jail, Bugs looked up Ad and has become a caretaker of sorts for him. In return, Ad pays for their life, and they keep each other company.

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After Bugs, Ad, and Nick have shared a meal, Ad threatens Nick and tries to incite him to fight.No matter what Ad does, Bugs looks out for him. He even hits Ad over the head to keep him from fighting Nick, and he makes sure that Nick can’t hurt Ad if he does decide to fight. He cooks food for them both and keeps him safe. Ad’s ex-wife is also loyal; even though she left him, she still sends him money to make sure that he is OK. Their loyalty toward one another is unending.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 566

Superficially, little happens in “The Battler,” which was initially titled “A Great Little Fighting Machine.” Although the story is little more than a vignette, it is touching in its simplicity and is remarkably psychologically sensitive and penetrating. Three unremarkable people come together by accident. Out of this brief chance encounter emerges a touching story of loyalty and camaraderie similar to John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1937), in which George takes care of the retarded Lenny. Ad is not retarded; rather he is addled by the injuries he sustained in his fighting career. The character is based on two prizefighters whom Ernest Hemingway knew—Ad Wolgast and Bat Nelson. Bugs is based on Wolgast’s black trainer.

“The Battler” is one of the many Nick Adams stories for which Hemingway gained early recognition. In these stories, Nick is consistently a catalyst rather than a central figure. He enters a situation, causes something to happen, observes it, then departs relatively unchanged. The story unfolding in “The Battler” belongs to Ad and Bugs. The basic conflict is that of a man, Ad, against the world. Life has not dealt him the best hand, yet his salvation comes from the loyal devotion of his friend, a sensitive, courteous, genuinely caring person. Bugs is unfailingly patient, yet he knows the limits that he must impose on Ad to save him from himself.

“The Battler” demonstrates how two men, each bearing his own burdens, can form a symbiotic relationship that enables both to survive. Bugs is called “nigger” and has undoubtedly suffered the humiliation of racial discrimination. Hemingway shows subtly that Bugs understands his place in a society that discriminates against him solely on the basis of his pigmentation. Hemingway always has Bugs refer to the other two characters in the story as “Mr. Francis” and “Mr. Adams,” not as “Ad” and “Nick.” Although Ad is the former prizefighter, Bugs is the story’s strong character. Without him it is doubtful that Ad could continue his hobo existence. It is also possible that if Bugs were not burdened by the responsibility that he has accepted for Ad, he might have a better life for himself. Nevertheless, Bugs is committed to Ad for the long haul. He is uncomplaining, although he is realistic in dealing with Ad.

Nick Adams merely passes through a situation. He stumbles into it without planning to do so, is briefly engaged in it, then, having observed its dynamics, he departs at the appropriate time. The story is thematically tight. Hemingway wastes no words in its telling. He shows more than he tells, revealing character convincingly yet almost incidentally. The result is a story that has remarkable thematic and structural coherence. In this story, as in the other Nick Adams stories, the central character is one of society’s rejects. Society has used and discarded Ad Francis. This is the fate, seemingly, of those who battle against society. Ad’s descent began presumably because he passed his manager off as his sister. His eventual marriage to her evoked a public outcry that destroyed the marriage and essentially ended Ad’s career. Outraged at the injustice of what happened to him, Ad then became uncontrollably violent, picking fights and eventually ending up in jail. On his release, Bugs rescued him and has devoted himself to controlling him to spare him further difficulties, yet coddling him like a dependent child.

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