Big Two-Hearted River Summary
“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 trout, Nick will try to hold himself together in the next days as he recovers from the war in the restorative environment of these north woods. Nick “felt happy. He felt he had left everything behind, the need for thinking, the need to write, other needs. It was all back of him.” Hiking toward the woods, Nick finds that the grasshoppers “had all turned black from living in the burned-over land”; even the insects have learned to adapt here.
Little else happens in part 1. Nick walks away from the charred land into the woods, naps, and—like Rip Van Winkle—awakens to a new adventure. He finds a good campsite by the river, pitches his tent, and crawls into it “happy.”He had not been unhappy all day. This was different though. Now things were done. There had been this to do. Now it was done. It had been a hard trip. He was very tired. That was done. He had made his camp. He was settled. Nothing could touch him. It was a good place to camp. He was there, in the good place. He was in his home where he had made it. Now he was hungry.
Nick cooks dinner over his fire and, while he makes coffee, he thinks of Hopkins, a friend who deserted Nick and others when he became rich. “His mind was starting to work. He knew he could choke it because he was tired enough.” Nick crawls into his tent and goes to sleep.
In part 2, Nick cooks and eats his breakfast, packs himself a lunch, and heads into the river. He hooks and then loses a huge trout (“He had never seen so big a trout”), but his “feeling of disappointment” slowly leaves him, and he catches two other trout. Nick sits on a log to eat his lunch and observes that the river narrows and flows into a swamp farther downstream.Nick did not want to go in there now. He felt a reaction against deep wading with the water deepening up under his armpits, to hook big trout in places impossible to land them. In the swamp the banks were bare, the big cedars came together overhead, the sun did not come through, except in patches; in the fast deep water, in the half light, the fishing would be tragic. In the swamp fishing was a tragic adventure. Nick did not want it....
(The entire section is 1,198 words.)