Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Big Two-Hearted River” is perhaps the best example of Hemingway’s theory of omission, which he discusses in Death in the Afternoon (1932):If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above the water.

It is best if readers encounter “Big Two-Hearted River” first at the end of In Our Time, after reading the related stories of Nick Adams growing up, going to war, and being wounded. However, even if they read the story isolated in some anthology, readers should sense from the curiously tense surface that “Big Two-Hearted River,” despite its content, is no boy’s adventure story.

The meaning of the story lies in Nick’s ability to build a good camp and to fish well and thereby tap the restorative powers that nature holds. Just as in the fishing scenes in The Sun Also Rises (1926), in which Jake Barnes and his friend Bill are able to escape the meaningless whirlwind of Paris life in the pure and tranquil fishing in the mountains of Spain, so Nick in “Big Two-Hearted River” can return to his Michigan woods to recover from the violence and trauma of war and to gain some control over his life. Although Nick shows no scars, his psychic...

(The entire section is 561 words.)