(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Big Two-Hearted River” is one of the best stories by one of the greatest short-story writers of the twentieth century. “The story was about coming back from the war,” as Ernest Hemingway later explained in A Moveable Feast (1964), “but there was no mention of the war in it.” Unless the reader knows In Our Time (1924, 1925), Hemingway’s first collection of short stories, “Big Two-Hearted River” will not make complete sense. The first five stories in that collection describe the young Nick Adams growing up in and around the northern Michigan woods, while the middle stories (and most of the interchapters that preface every story in the collection) concern Americans in Europe during and immediately following World War I. “Big Two-Hearted River” concludes the book and brings Nick Adams back from the wounds and trauma of war to the regenerative natural setting of woods and water, where, as a boy, he first learned about the world. “Big Two-Hearted River” is a boy’s adventure of camping and fishing, but it is finally a story of a man’s healing.

The story is broken into two parts (in In Our Time, they appear as separate stories in the table of contents and are divided by a brief interchapter), but there is very little plot in either. Part 1 opens as “The train went on up the track out of sight, around one of the hills of burnt timber.” This is Nick’s last contact (except in his thoughts) with other humans. Nick has been dropped off in what remains of Seney, a once thriving lumber town that has been deserted and burned over and now resembles (although Nick does not say so) the war zone that he has so recently left. “Even the surface had been burned off the ground.”

At a bridge across the river, Nick looks down on “the trout keeping themselves steady in the current with wavering fins.” Like the...

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Extended Summary

Published in 1925 as part of Hemingway’s In Our Time collection, “Big Two-Hearted River” takes place in the forests of northern Michigan a year or two after the end of World War I. The main and only character in this story is Nick Adams, who we know from previous tales in the Nick Adams series. He has recently returned from the War and its horrors. Nick goes to the woods, where he grew up as a boy, planning to camp and fish. As the story begins, he is dropped off in an abandoned logging town that has been burned to the ground and watches as a train moves out of sight. This will be Nick’s last contact with civilization in the story, as he immerses himself in the natural world.

Nick crosses a bridge and notes how the trout in the water below steady themselves with their fins, adapting to the river’s current. He then sees grasshoppers in the nearby fields that have turned black from living on the scorched land, but they too have adapted to their altered environment. As he moves further away from his normal life, Nick feels happy, sensing that he has left everything, including the need to think, behind him. Indeed, as he locates a campsite and sets up his tent, the tale’s third-person narrator tells us that “he had not been unhappy all day.” The reason for Nick’s positive mood is that he has been totally involved in the series of physical tasks required to make camp, cook dinner, and the like. His chores at a temporary end, Nick thinks of a one-time friend named Hopkins who left Nick’s circle when he became rich. But he is able to choke off these thoughts because he is tired; he crawls into his tent and sleeps.

On the next morning, Nick cooks breakfast and walks to a nearby stream where he fishes for trout. When he loses a huge trout from his hook, Nick’s mood turns dark, but he again chokes off his normal mentality and catches two other fish. As he eats his lunch, Nick notes that the river turns into a swamp further downstream and reasons that many large fish probably congregate there. But he does not want to go down to the swamp where “fishing was a tragic adventure.” He simply cleans his catch instead and goes back to his campsite. In the last line of the tale, the narrator relates Nick’s thought that “there were plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp.”