illustrated portrait of American author Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway

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Don Summerhayes (essay date fall 1995)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6660

SOURCE: Summerhayes, Don. “Fish Story: Ways of Telling in ‘Big Two-Hearted River.’” The Hemingway Review 15, no. 1 (fall 1995): 10-26.

[In the following essay, Summerhayes examines Hemingway's use of language in “Big Two-Hearted River.”]

We've reached a stage of modernity where it is very difficult to accept innocently the idea of a “work of fiction”; from now on, our works are works of language; fiction can pass through them, contacted obliquely, indirectly present.

—Roland Barthes

What do I want to communicate but what a hell of a good time I had writing it? The whole thing is performance and prowess and feats of association. Why don't critics talk about those things—what a feat it was to turn that that way, and what a feat it was to remember that, to be reminded of that by this. Why don't they talk about that?

—Robert Frost

It was really more fun than anything. That was really why you did it. He had never realized that before. It wasn't conscience. It was simply that it was the greatest pleasure. It had more bite to it than anything else. It was so damn hard to write well, too.

—Ernest Hemingway1

Near the end of “Big Two-Hearted River,” as Nick Adams anxiously anticipates fishing in the swamp, we find this passage: “He wished he had brought something to read. He felt like reading. He did not feel like going on into the swamp” (IOT [In Our Time] 211).2 In this moment the mimetic code seems to vacillate: to what voice can we assign these words? We put an asterisk or a question mark in the margin of our text to signify our intention to come back to the passage, because there's something perplexing in the alternatives Nick postulates for himself. There seems to be a misstep or lapse in the tone. Can we imagine Nick saying these words to himself? If so, could he be kidding? Is there a kind of rueful self-mockery at his bookish evasiveness?3

Other passages in “Big Two-Hearted River” similarly outplay obvious or direct meaning with extra possibilities. For instance, the narrator's voice and the character's voice seem sometimes distinct, sometimes merged. Or, now and then, through the migration of particular words or phrases, other voices or traces of voices obtrude from earlier stories in In Our Time or from earlier passages in this story, with confusing or distracting associations. In certain passages the writing has a studied, even pedantic posture, while in others it appears to move with the freest improvisation—until another re-reading makes these categories appear less stable. Finally, this is a text in which both character and narrator seem to be involved in the process of writing as it goes along, self-consciously, often even playfully, trying out phrases and locutions, reaching for ways to conjure verbal consciousness out of feelings and sensations. Every reader feels an unmistakeable energy in this text, an exhilaration that is not necessarily confined to the themes and the author's success in “trying to do country,” but that generates itself over and over in the writing, in the “words you don't remember.”4

Writing is often engaged in numerous other or extra activities besides those required to tell a story, or even to make the reader feel as if s/he's “there,” and these activities in themselves are also what this story is about. From this perspective, the question is not so much ‘what does it mean?’ but ‘what can we make of this text?’ in which “nothing happens and the writing is swell”?5

(This entire section contains 6660 words.)

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5 How can we “perform” it at those moments where the cleft between writing and fiction is most noticeable, and the language as language most high-spirited and playful? Questions like these, irritating or amusing from reader to reader, invite responses that deviate from our usual strategies of interpretive analysis.

What follows is a series of ruminations on passages, like the one where Nick “felt like reading” because he “did not feel like going on into the swamp,” which seem to invite a freer play of association than usual and to attract attention to the self-consciousness of the writing as writing. Reading and re-reading this way—with a kind of perverse distractibility—tends to fragment and disperse the text, of course, and to disrupt narrative sequence. Yet when we rough things up a bit we are more likely to spot those inconvenient details and patterns—loose ends, hiatuses, undecidables—that often embarrass readings that strain after complete coherence and certitude. Re-reading “Big Two-Hearted River” for forty-odd years and layering my margins with questions hasn't helped me to master the text, but it has kept it open and unpredictable and unfailingly fascinating. It so often ingeniously declines to assent to what it so often confidently asserts. Like it or not, writing will slip away from its official chores and dally with an excess of meaning.


At the climax, when Nick has lost the big trout, we read:

He had never seen so big a trout. There was a heaviness, a power not to be held, and then the bulk of him, as he jumped. He looked as broad as a salmon. … That was a trout. He had been solidly hooked. Solid as a rock. He felt like a rock, too, before he started off. By God, he was a big one. By God, he was the biggest one I ever heard of.


The vividness and immediacy of the whole passage surrounding this, including the aftermath of Nick's feeling “vaguely, a little sick” (204), don't escape us. By God, this is writing! But I can't suppress my suspicion that I'm hearing one of the innumerable fish stories I've listened to and told all my life. The biggest ever that got away! The text doesn't acknowledge any awareness of these echoes; and of course can't, like us, anticipate their return in, notably, The Old Man and the Sea. And is there an indication of something just slightly off-stride with the confusion over the narrative voice? Who says, “By God”? If it is “I,” what happened to “he”? Well, the good reader says, who has trouble with this, after all? It's probably a case of the text getting so exuberant it jumps out of the hands of the narrator. Yet that it can do so with (relative) impunity here might make us wonder where else it might be doing it without being noticed.


At its first moment of narrative the text of “Big Two-Hearted River” compromises its autonomy. The opening sentence echoes and partly reiterates the opening sentence of an earlier story in In Our Time. “The Battler” (written later than “Big Two-Hearted River” but inserted earlier into the text to replace the banned “Up in Michigan”) starts, “He looked up the track at the lights of the caboose going out of sight around a curve” (65). “Big Two-Hearted River” starts, “The train went on up the track out of sight, around one of the hills of burnt timber” (177).

The similarity in the language, like the similarity of Nick's standpoint, can't be innocent. Whether Hemingway thoughtlessly or cunningly (mis)quotes himself, any reader of In Our Time still retains some traces of Nick's reaction to being “busted” by the brakeman. And some echo still lingers, unmeasurable, of the meeting with the nightmarish Ad Francis and his companion Bugs. The language, not the narrator, tells us that Nick is not entering an idyllic fishing trip. Or not only idyllic.

The text doesn't openly acknowledge echo or trace. The voice that speaks here, like a voice momentarily booming in on a car radio from some distant station, is heard only through the reader's unwillingness to ignore it.6 Call it the reader's voice, perhaps, since it speaks on behalf of the reader who wants to hear everything a text has to say.7


Further down the opening page, Nick registers delayed shock to the discovery that “There was no town, nothing but the rails and the burned-over country” (177). The text intimates—what, surprise? dismay?—with the timing of the phrase, “The river was there.” We can hear Nick whisper to himself. We can sense the calculating narrator set up a metonymic sequence—“burned-over stretch of hillside … railroad track … bridge … river”—delaying and then delivering the punchline: “The river was there!

As if the matter were in doubt. The sentence confirms the presence of the river, and it seems to confirm also the nature of Nick's presence. He is there, too. He is really there, and this is no dream. But the sequence that sets up the sentence confirms also the presence of a narrator ordering the language, and manipulating the reader. For the reader's pleasure. Some time later, Nick “was there, in the good place” (186). The text is quoting, the reader remembering.


“Big Two-Hearted River” comes in two “Parts.” “Part One” ends, “He curled up under the blanket and went to sleep” (192). “Part Two” begins, “In the morning …” (195). Nick presumably sleeps between the two parts. When the story appears in anthologies “Part Two” immediately follows “Part One.” In In Our Time, however, the parts are separated by “Chapter XV” (“They hanged Sam Cardinella … [at six a.m.] in the corridor of the county jail” (193-4)). One of five men sentenced to be hanged, Sam has been “like that since about four o'clock in the morning”—“like that” meaning so immobilized by fear that he is unable to keep control of his “sphincter muscles” and has to be carried. He is admonished, “Be a man, my son,” by one of two priests, maybe the one who “skipped” back on the scaffolding just before the “drop” fell.

“Chapter XV” is positioned precisely where we might expect, in a certain kind of story, to encounter a dream. This text, however, will not acknowledge any such design, and leaves readers to speculate independently on whether the account of Sam's death constitutes some of the material Nick Adams's unconscious is working with at the beginning of his fishing trip: “Be a man, my son.

If so, whose voice can we speak it in? If not, then what can we make of it? Does a trace of the priest's voice linger in other admonitions scattered through the text? Should we search Nick's earlier sleep in the “island of pine trees” (183-84) for possible implications?


Lacking companions, Nick talks to himself. He is speaker and listener, actor and audience. He tosses a blackened grasshopper into the air: “‘Go on, hopper.’ Nick said, speaking out loud for the first time. ‘Fly away somewhere.’” (181) Later, making his meal: “‘I've got a right to eat this kind of stuff, if I'm willing to carry it,’ Nick said. His voice sounded strange in the darkening woods. He did not speak again” (187). Didn't want to hear his voice again? Didn't want to sound “strange”? All the same, one page later, after tasting the hot beans and spaghetti: “‘Chrise,’ Nick said. ‘Geezus Chrise,’ he said happily.” Three times the text distinguishes between Nick's speaking out loud and speaking silently:

1) an idle echo of child-like communion with an insect—(“Ladybug, Ladybug,/Fly away home”) (“Fly away, Peter, fly away, Paul”); or is this a sophisticated writer's self-conscious imitation of child-like communion, an impersonation?

2) a gratuitous self-defence, a peevish reaction to internalized judges and critics: “I've got a right.” (Be a man, my son.)

3) a burlesque blessing on a meal, saying grace by accident—“Chrise.”

The speeches, and the impulse to speak out loud, are part of the story of Nick Adams. Suppose he's taking the kind of pleasure he might take in posturing in front of a mirror, just to find out how he looks or sounds, or might look or sound to an audience. Suppose these little bits of natural behaviour don't merely enhance the narrative's reality illusion, but also provide spot-checks whereby Nick tests and confirms his identity? Or maybe not his identity so much as the high spirits (the “old feeling”) that insist on breaking out. Whose high spirits? Try the narrator too. Try Hemingway. Try language itself.


Earlier, after confirming that the river is there, Nick stands on the bridge and watches the trout “keeping themselves steady in the current” (177). We wait for more than twenty pages for “steady” to confirm its function as a word the text conjures with. When Nick releases the first trout he catches, it pauses on the bottom until Nick reaches down to touch it: “The trout was steady in the moving stream, resting on the gravel, beside a stone” (201). Another few pages on, after he has lost the big one, we read: “He thought of the trout somewhere on the bottom, holding himself steady over the gravel, far down below the light, under the logs, with the hook in his jaw” (204). The repetition of “steady” turns it inward, reinforcing its earned new power, so that it becomes, almost explicitly, a kind of admonition to himself to be steady—for example, not to “rush his sensations any.”

At the same time the repetition discreetly invites the reader to respond to language as language, writing as writing, at play with itself even as it promotes the story's negotiations with meaning. In fact, in our pleasure at the text's ingenuity in generating these recycled words and sentences, we may even forget that we are reading a “work of fiction.” Over and over the text quotes itself, plagiarizes itself, reproduces itself, and dangles invitations to its [re]reader to read it as a “work of language.”


Let's try another cast over that early scene in Seney:

Nick looked down into the pool from the bridge. It was a hot day. A kingfisher flew up the stream. It was a long time since Nick had looked into a stream and seen trout. They were very satisfactory.


In the fitful, half-perceptible oscillation between voices throughout this text, whereby from time to time we suspect that the character is aware of the language which operates his story, these words register Nick's self-conscious detachment from his activity and his commentary on it. The whole process of looking, as of inscribing the looking, holds off generalization until a series can be laid down that permits the subject to say, “They were very satisfactory,” decanting the word either for its modest precision or for its ironic value to the self-amusement Nick sometimes favors. A term like this—this term, sa-tis-fac-to-ry—is hard to come by; it has to be worried, then tested by being spoken (out loud or in one's head, it doesn't matter), which requires that the speaker choose the tone of its speaking. Like “tightened” at the bottom of the same page it invites a ludic performance, as one might imagine Henry James saying with deliberative pauses, “They were, as you might say, very satisfactory.

Until it's actually used, there's no way to establish its function. It stays ready in the reader's memory, the first of a series of words by which this text glosses its vocabulary of sensation. Almost immediately it's followed by another “found” word: “He was happy … but Nick felt happy” (179).


At the beginning of “Part Two” Nick crawls out of his tent “to look at the morning”: “There was the meadow, the river and the swamp. There were birch trees in the green of the swamp on the other side of the river” (195). For the briefest moment the text repeats Nick's earlier need to confirm that “The river was there.” But immediately in the next sentence after this the passage establishes a rhythm of pleasure and anticipated pleasure, throwing emphasis (as in a line of verse) forward on the nouns strung along the simple connectives—meadow … river … swamp … trees … green … swamp … side … river—and (presumably) recording the movement of the eyes as they pan across the landscape.

After a few more similar metonymic lists, we read, “Nick was excited.” This is the same pattern we have seen, and see repeatedly in this text: a passage of observation, meditation, listing observed details, that culminates in a conclusion about an emotional state, a generalization or signified: first “satisfactory,” then “happy,” now “excited.” As if Nick were teaching himself what he feels, and saying it: “I'm excited, that's what this is!” Also as if the narrator were demonstrating the uses of concrete and abstract, signifier and signified, show and tell.


After Nick has threaded his hook expertly through the grasshopper's body, the grasshopper “took hold of the hook with his front feet, spitting tobacco juice on it” (200). Two pages on Nick “threaded the hopper on the hook and spat on him for good luck” (202). The spitting is a mock ritual, like the “Chrise” Nick said “happily” at his first spoonful of beans and spaghetti; it's also an act of repetition by both narrator and character. Yet if mimicking the hopper parodies a primitive or childish act, it also echoes an uneasiness whose trace still lingers from “The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife,” almost 200 pages back in the text of In Our Time: “‘Don't go off at half cock, Doc,’ Dick [Boulton] said. He spat tobacco juice on the log. It slid off, thinning in the water. ‘You know they're stolen as well as I do. It don't make any difference to me’” (27). This trace of Dick Boulton's voice and gesture in “Big Two-Hearted River” is involuntary, unavoidable, part of a viscous textuality that just barely teases our memory of a misery that this final story of In Our Time methodically skirts. But the mimicry itself is a deliberate performance, a kind of play on sympathetic magic, acted out by Nick Adams for himself, signifying high spirits—or else a determination to enact ‘high spirits.’ Its self-consciousness suggests a rebuff to the symbol-making that has tempted Nick since the beginning of his fishing trip.


After the text registers the happiness that follows Nick's meditative scrutiny of the “steady trout,” we read, “He felt he had left everything behind, the need for thinking, the need to write, other needs” (179). The urgency of this exemption may be gathered by the difficulty Nick still has from time to time in resisting his “needs.”

The curiously meticulous details of cooking and eating his meal, for example (187-91), slide into silent talking—“… he was not going to spoil it all by burning his tongue”—then erupt into the burlesque blessing—“‘Geezus Chrise,’ he said happily”—and the mock announcement that “It had been a very fine experience.” As the passage proceeds into the coffee-making and an inane inner prattle—“While he waited for the coffee to boil, he opened a small can of apricots. He liked to open cans”—the narrator's writing and the character's inner monologue more and more closely coincide, until as the details about Hopkins come flooding onto the page we (and Nick) gradually realize that he is composing a story. He is writing:

Nick drank the coffee, the coffee according to Hopkins. The coffee was bitter. Nick laughed. It made a good ending to the story. His mind was starting to work. He knew he could choke it because he was tired enough.


Who could choke it? The text presents a series of declarative sentences in which the voice of the narrator prevails: “He spilled the coffee … and shook the grounds loose. … He lit a cigarette. … He took off his shoes. …” (191) When Nick's voice is audible again, with the “satisfactory hiss” of the mosquito in the match-flame, he echoes the word used earlier, after watching the trout, to signal his equanimity.

But thinking and writing, and “other needs,” have not been permanently choked.


A sense of peril is articulated in Nick's response to the “sick” feeling brought on by the “thrill” of almost catching the big trout: “He did not want to rush his sensations any” (204). The “any” is colloquial, giving us the flavor of speech; the sentence has the ring of something said, or remembered, like a kind of learner's formula. But it is also exact, underlining the “danger” that has been intimated once or twice in the passage.

The word “rush” surfaces again two pages on, when Nick fights the next fish:

Holding the rod, pumping alive against the current, Nick brought the trout in. He rushed but always came, the spring of the rod yielding to the rushes, sometimes jerking under water, but always bringing him in. Nick eased downstream with the rushes. The rod above his head, he led the trout over the net, then lifted.

(206) [italics added]

In other words, rush, rush, rush, the manic variation on steady, steady, steady earlier. A kind of insistent underground idiom whose referent can't be quite determined, operating along the nerves, below “thinking.” “Where the Meanings, are—” Emily Dickinson says, in “There's a certain Slant of light,” and “None may teach it—Any-.”


After Nick has caught his first trout the text reverts to the pseudo-stream-of-consciousness that forms its ground narrative: “Nick had one good trout. He did not care about getting many trout.” Narrator and character blend—either might be saying/writing this—and then both disappear as discourse takes over.

The discourse takes the form of observations and deductions in which Nick runs over his fishing lore as if quoting from a manual: “The very biggest ones would lie up close to the bank. You could always pick them up there on the Black … you were liable to strike a big trout anywhere in the current” (207). Speaking to himself (“Of course,” he says, as if anticipating a question or objection), he projects himself into the activity of process informed by memory, losing himself in the collection of metonymic details by which the reader is assured of the accuracy and reality of the scene and the character is able to evade surprises or “rushes,” and lay down a pattern of calm, neutral predication.

In other words, this kind of inventory-making signifies Nick's mental state in his care to establish the facts. The river was there.


The text of “Big Two-Hearted River” persistently insinuates a concern to establish or defend a moral position. After doing his camping chores punctiliously Nick rewards himself by eating pork and beans and spaghetti, and explicitly defends himself as if answering a rebuke from some purist woodsman: “I've got a right to eat this kind of stuff, if I'm willing to carry it” (187). Similarly, after catching the small trout, he is careful to wet his hand before touching it so as not to “disturb the delicate mucus that covered him” as some other—bad—fishermen do, leaving the trout to die (201-2). Even, curiously, the interrogative of whether or not to fish the swamp twists into an apparent imperative; though “He did not feel like going on into the swamp” (211), he seems to feel, anxiously, that he's obliged to do so.

The moral edge to these matters has been introduced in the odd little passage of stereophonic narration that occurs when Nick first goes into his tent:

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.


The progression of the word “good” here is suggestive: first the simple “good” which vibrates slightly to accommodate a moral nimbus (as “a” changes to “the”—“the good place”) and then “he was … in” shifts from “the good place” to “home,” picking up the earlier “homelike” from fifteen sentences earlier. These are presumably Nick's own words, though not presumably spoken aloud. The brevity of the sentences may reflect or postulate his fatigue as well as his satisfaction and happiness; he can now venture the word “home” as he earlier ventured “satisfactory”—he has made it. Home is where “Nothing could touch him,” the camouflaged anxiety swimming along innocently, almost hidden among the other sentences. Without rehearsing the familiar Hemingway slide from good-pleasant to good-moral we may notice an urgency in the series of brief sentences to reach the designation: good-home. Two pages later, after he has eaten, the word “good” is repeated in a reprise: “There were plenty of good places to camp on the river. But this was good” (188-9). It is like learning a new language, or a new use of language.


The aggressively symbolic grasshoppers are black at the beginning of the story, prompting Nick to wonder how long they will stay “that way” (181). Later, he uncovers “several hundred hoppers” in a “grasshopper lodging house” (196) under a log, and puts about fifty of “the medium sized brown ones” into his bait bottle. The others, warming in the sun, begin to hop and fly: “At first they made one flight and stayed stiff when they landed, as though they were dead” (196).

The next sentence begins a new paragraph—which might register, like the beginning of a new verse paragraph in a poem, a momentary hesitation over the word “dead,” which we may note has been carefully avoided up to now—and corrects Nick's false impression: “Nick knew that by the time he was through with breakfast they would be as lively as ever” (196).

Nick has come to the river to experience a “live” feeling. At least the recurrence of that word, along with “life,” “lively,” “alive,” suggests that it's one of the words he/the narrator (and now the reader) says over and over to himself, silently. We have noticed near the beginning, when Nick passes the fire line, the series of images ending in “and the country alive again” (182). Much later, when the first trout strikes, Nick's fishing rod has become “the now living rod” (200). His care to touch and release the fish properly avoids the consequences of bad fishing, where in the past he “had again and again come on dead trout, furry with white fungus” (202). At his next strike, this time of the “biggest” trout, “the rod came alive and dangerous” (203). When he fishes again, again we find “the rod bending alive … pumping alive” as the trout rushes (206). And yet again, with another strike, “It felt as though he were hooked into the log itself, except for the live feeling” (209). On the following page he spreads the mouth of his sack (as he has done before, on page 207, where, “Inside at the bottom was the big trout, alive in the water”) and “looked down at the two big trout alive in the water” (210). Preparing to clean them, he reaches into the sack and brings one out, “hard to hold, alive” (211). When he is finished he washes them both and holds them in the water where “They looked like live fish” (212) before he puts them away to be eaten later.

Grasshoppers that look or act dead, but that he “knew” would be lively soon; trout that, when released, remain steady in the water until a touch brings them “alive.” A fishing rod that comes “alive,” and that can also be “dangerous.” And finally dead trout that look “like live fish.” Intermittent and casual as these citations may seem, surely they offer a verbal counterpoint to the pronounced deliberateness of the narration of the details of fishing, of walking through the country, and of making camp, as well as to Nick's mental and emotional responses.

It's as if his mind keeps returning to the actual word for encouragement or reassurance: he wills the appearance of death to be no more than appearance, and to be replaced by evidence of “life.” He wants (or the language he seeks wants) these categories not to be so distinct, so antithetical. Let there be a chance for negotiation, a little more room for maneuvering oneself back to life after “feeling” dead: some reason to say “satisfactory” or “excited” or “hungry” or “happy”—or “alive.”

The text is careful to normalize the fishing trip (and the account of it) by bringing the reader back consistently to fishing lore and expertise, but these verbal repetitions stubbornly establish an anxiety/relief pattern that reinforces and extends the explicit moments of uneasiness that begin on the opening page. As repetition dislodges the signifiers, apparently innocent in their immediate contexts, they gather like an undertow to offer another structure, of therapeutic passage and support. At the same time, maybe also as part of a therapy of writing, they playfully resist systematic consistency.


At the climax of “Big Two-Hearted River,” when Nick loses the legendary fish, the voices of character and narrator are inextricably scrambled: “By God, he was a big one. By God, he was the biggest one I ever heard of” (204). Arguably a mere blunder, the irruption of “I” underscores the urgency of the whole episode. Nick's mouth is “dry,” his heart is “down” as he reels in the empty line. His hand is “shaky.” The “thrill” has been “too much.” He feels “vaguely, a little sick, as though it would be better to sit down.” He does not want to “rush his sensations any.” Retrospectively the reader may think to understand several other puzzling details, such as his reaction to the burned over town, or his need to “choke” his mind's working, and to find an accessible language for them with this explicit vocabulary of sensation.

Finally, when a “tiny” trout rises to strike the match Nick throws into the water (205) he is able to laugh, and he sifts carefully through a healing series, beginning with his immediate sensations and then ranging out around him and back again:

He sat on the logs, smoking, drying in the sun, the sun warm on his back, the river shallow ahead entering the woods, curving into the woods, shallows, light glittering, big watersmooth rocks, cedars along the bank and white birches, the logs warm in the sun, smooth to sit on, without bark, gray to the touch. …


Now he can name his trouble: “… slowly the feeling of disappointment left him. It went away slowly, the feeling of disappointment that came sharply after the thrill that made his shoulders ache” (205). He is (or “it” is, the text says) “all right now,” like the trout he released earlier.8

Though the reader might be tempted to read Nick's contest and disappointment in heavily symbolic terms, the text itself merely resumes fishing. Nick baits up again and proceeds to catch another trout (rushed, rushes, rushes), with all the satisfaction his close attention embodies—“The trout hung heavy in the net, mottled trout back and silver sides in the meshes … heavy sides, good to hold, big undershot jaw …” (206-7). The text has recovered its aplomb, the voices continue in medley, we are back to “good”; and the lost trout, with its mythic attributes, is merely the one that got away in every fish story overheard by readers of this text.


“Big Two-Hearted River” closes with a succession of mundane, expert tasks and observations—cleaning the fish and noticing that “Their color was not gone yet” (212)—and the beginning of Nick's return to his camp. As he looks back to the river we read, “There were plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp” (212), and we might add, “Tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.”

Why he would want to fish the swamp might be a puzzle for non-fishers, since he feels “a reaction against deep wading with the water deepening up under his armpits, to hook big trout in places impossible to land them” (211). Still, as we've noticed, there's enough anxiety in the prospect for him to wish he could retreat into a book. We can take it that his mind is “starting to work” (191) again, and that he still hasn't entirely left behind “the need to write” (179):

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. He did not want to go down the stream any further today.


He is surely (to be imagined) muttering these sentences to himself as he authors his own lonely fishing/writing trip, casting a word—tragic—and reeling it back in to cast it again in a slightly altered trajectory, playing it briefly and moving on. How does it play? Is tragic a little too baldly pretentious? Does adventure slide it slightly toward the language of real sportsmen? Or does the repetition of the word set up a series that will inevitably end in self-mockery? The voice will not quite tell us, which is hardly any longer a great surprise to the reader. Traces of this voice have teased us since the opening pages of his story, like superscribed synonyms in a manuscript, revealing the craft of the discourse that lurks behind its apparent transparency and spontaneity. Nick has been putting things into words throughout this text, persistently trying out ways of saying, as if he were writing, or planning to write (as in fact Hemingway's original ending left him about to do),9 a story, this story. His voice mingles with the narrator's as they collaborate, nowhere more surely than here.

Generations of readers have submitted to what might seem to be innumerable explanations of the symbolic properties of the swamp which make fishing in it tragic and inevitable.10 Yet similar wording can be found on many newspaper sports pages during baseball season, where we often find sentences like this—“The right fielder took what should have been a routine fly ball out, and turned it into a tragic adventure by misjudging the wind”—“tragic” being one of those bits of overblown sports lingo that means that the outcome was unexpected and disappointing for the home town fans. Whether something like this is Hemingway's “source” for the odd little piece of textual improvising, “tragic” as applied to trout fishing is oddly inappropriate and inflated and sentimental (maybe like much hyperbolic sports writing of the kind spoofed by Ring Lardner, an early writer/hero of Hemingway), and invites the reader's skepticism, if not amusement. There's pleasure to be found in its cheeky intrusiveness.


The writing of “Big Two-Hearted River” moves doubly, horizontally crossing terrain and collecting images that tuck in beside others without necessarily adding up, and vertically reaching toward metaphorical substitutions that beckon with meanings and decisive conclusions. The metonymic gatherings record Nick's progressive advance into the planned and familiar but not yet reliable terrain of memory and desire. Like an outpatient recognizing his symptoms everywhere, he moves into the country by moving into the discourse of its signifiers strung like beads along a thin narrative line. The reader (and the narrator?) is not obliged to move exactly in tandem with him, however, but may jump ahead or linger or backtrack—in other words, may rewrite the sequence and redistribute its values, choosing to pick up symbolic associations or to glide past them silently, for example. The textual voice is noncommittal, or at least persists in withholding full assent to meaning as it steadily dispenses images and rhythms and sentences. The voice of the character/narrator intermittently dwells on certain words and patterns, as in telling a dream to a therapist, for the sake of finding in it some clue to unravel a personal trouble or confusion.

Suppose what's “dangerous” for Nick Adams is not just losing “the old feeling” or “rush[ing] his sensations,” but also seeing everything in radically symbolic terms. Isolated and psychologically fragile, he finds himself in “burned over” country and is immediately assaulted by insistent signs—black grasshoppers, boiled coffee, powerful trout, an impenetrable swamp. From the beginning he practices a series of rehabilitative exercises directed at restoring his composure. Frequently he talks to himself, admonishingly, as if he were performing lessons in concentration and centering. It may be that the text's self-consciousness and playfulness are ways of shifting attention away from the danger spots—the heavy thematic burden that haunts the fishing trip—toward something else that celebrates happiness and high spirits. If we are able to override some inexplicable compulsion to fish in a swamp where fishing is difficult and unproductive, then the swamp will be only a swamp, and fishing it will not be tragic but merely inappropriate or at most vainglorious.

We hear a narrator's voice that produces images that persistently dissolve their metaphorical suggestiveness into metonymy, and a character's voice we can identify by its insistence on spotting metaphorical connections with his own “case” everywhere he looks. Another voice still, the reader's, repeats and mimics and burlesques and muffles all the other voices at will, as it performs its version of the text. This is the voice that searches out all the shiftings and rustlings of the textual voice, its echoes of other texts in and out of In Our Time, and its persistent modulations of itself—all the while negotiating the text's limits and depths, keeping it open and re-readable: “nothing happens and the writing is swell.”


  1. Roland Barthes, The Grain of the Voice 176; Robert Frost, in Writers at Work 32; Ernest Hemingway, “On Writing,” NAS 238.

  2. All quotations are from the 1930 Scribner's edition of In Our Time.

  3. Jake Barnes, after all, indulges himself after fishing with a spot of reading while he awaits Bill's mockery of his use of worms. (SAR 120)

  4. “What I've been doing is trying to do country so you don't remember the words after you read it but actually have the country” (Hemingway to Edward J. O'Brien, 12 September 1924, SL 123).

  5. Hemingway to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, 15 August 1924, in SL 122.

  6. But see Robert Paul Lamb, who regards the story as “textually indecipherable,” and complains about critical “considerations of the story's location in In Our Time which fail to treat the story as an autonomous piece of literature” (164-5).

  7. In S/Z Roland Barthes writes of “the displaced voice which the reader lends, by proxy, to the discourse: the discourse is speaking according to the reader's interests.” He goes on: “Whereby we see that writing is not the communication of a message which starts from the author and proceeds to the reader; it is specifically the voice of reading itself: in the text, only the reader speaks” (152).

  8. The suspect, at best temporary nature of the condition of being “all right” has been reiterated throughout the stories of In Our Time. See my article, “You Can Say That Again: Some Encounters with Repetition in In Our Time,The Hemingway Review 10.2 (spring 1991): 47-55.

  9. “He was not thinking. He was holding something in his head. He wanted to get back to camp and get to work. … He went on up the trail to the camp. He was holding something in his head” (“On Writing,” NAS 240-1).

  10. See Kenneth Lynn, Hemingway 102-8, for a list of “traumatic interpretations” of the story, beginning with Edmund Wilson. See also Stephen Miko, “The River, the Iceberg, and the Shit-Detector,” for a more energetic and richly amusing debunking of the inclination to “find grand symbolic portent in Hemingway's details” (525).

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962-1980. Trans. Linda Coverdale. New York: Hill and Wang, 1985.

———. S/Z: An Essay. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1974.

Frost, Robert. In Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews. Second Series. Ed. George Plimpton. New York: Viking, 1963. 7-34.

Hemingway, Ernest. In Our Time. 1930. New York: Scribner's, 1958.

———. A Moveable Feast. New York: Scribner's, 1964.

———. The Nick Adams Stories. Ed. Philip Young. New York: Bantam, 1973.

———. Selected Letters, 1917-1961. Ed. Carlos Baker. New York: Granada, 1981.

———. The Sun Also Rises. 1926. New York: Scribner's, 1954.

Lamb, Robert Paul. “Fishing For Stories: What ‘Big Two-Hearted River’ is Really About.” Modern Fiction Studies 37.2 (Summer 1991): 161-81.

Lynn, Kenneth S. Hemingway. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.

Miko, Stephen. “The River, The Iceberg, and the Shit-Detector.” Criticism 33.4 (Fall 1991): 503-25.

Summerhayes, Don. “You Can Say That Again: Some Encounters with Repetition in In Our Time.The Hemingway Review 10.2 (spring 1991): 47-55.


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Ernest Hemingway 1899–-1961

American novelist, short story and novella writer, dramatist, poet, journalist, essayist, and memoirist.

The following entry presents criticism of Hemingway's short fiction works from 1995 to 2002. See also Ernest Hemingway Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 1, 3, 6, 8, 10, 13.

Hemingway is lauded as one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century. Considered a master of the understated prose style that became his trademark, he was awarded the 1954 Nobel Prize in literature. Although his literary stature is secure, he remains a highly controversial writer, and his novels and short stories have evoked an enormous amount of critical commentary. His narrow range of characters and his thematic focus on violence and machismo, as well as his terse, objective prose, have led some critics to regard his fiction as shallow and insensitive. Others claim that beneath the deceptively limited surface lies a complex and fully realized fictional world. Although Hemingway's literary achievement has been measured chiefly by his novels The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929), and his novella The Old Man and the Sea (1952), his short stories have increasingly won critical acclaim. Today, works of both genres are widely read, and Hemingway remains one of the most imitated writers in modern literature.

Biographical Information

Born and raised in Oak Park, Illinois, by strict Congregationalist parents, Hemingway had a fairly happy, upper-middle-class childhood. By his teens he had become interested in literature, and he wrote a weekly column for his high school newspaper and contributed poems and stories to the school magazine. Upon his graduation in 1917, he took a junior reporter position on the Kansas City Star, covering the police and hospital beats and writing feature stories. Of tremendous impact to Hemingway's development as a writer was his participation in World War I as a Red Cross ambulance driver in Italy. Wounded in both legs by a shrapnel explosion near the front lines, he returned to the United States a decorated hero. He eventually returned to journalism to support himself, contributing features to the Toronto Star.

Following his first marriage in 1921, Hemingway returned to Europe to launch a writing career. For the next seven years, Hemingway resided principally in France, though he traveled frequently, covering the Greco-Turkish War of 1922 and writing special-interest pieces for the Toronto newspaper. During this period Hemingway matured as a writer, greatly aided in his artistic development by his close contact with several of the most prominent writers of the time, including Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He eventually quit journalism, though he periodically returned to the medium, serving as a correspondent during several major wars. By the middle of the 1940s, however, a variety of recurrent physical ailments had severely curtailed his creative energy. In 1960 Hemingway suffered a mental breakdown and was admitted to the Mayo Clinic for electrotherapy treatments. His depressive behavior and other illnesses persisted, and Hemingway committed suicide the following year.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Hemingway's power and originality as a writer of compressed, impressionistic sketches became apparent with in our time (1924). A series of eighteen brief, untitled chapters stemming from Hemingway's war and journalistic experiences, this work was revised, greatly expanded, and published in the United States a year later as In Our Time. The American version included fifteen complete short stories with the remaining vignettes serving as interchapters.

By the appearance of his next story collection, Men without Women (1927), Hemingway's literary reputation—as the author of The Sun Also Rises and consequent chronicler of the “lost generation”—was all but solidified. While the 1930s were Hemingway's most prolific years, he published little of lasting significance, save for the short story collection Winner Take Nothing (1933) and an assemblage of forty-nine stories, published with the play The Fifth Column, which incorporated such widely anthologized stories as “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

Critical Reception

Although Hemingway’s most significant works include such renowned novels as The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940)—as well as his Pulitzer Prize-winning novella, The Old Man and the Sea—critical response to these works has been varied. His short stories, however, particularly those in In Our Time, are consistently considered some of his finest efforts. There has been a myriad of criticism on Hemingway’s short fiction; collections and individual works have been examined from autobiographical, sociopolitical, psychoanalytical, and feminist perspectives. Hemingway’s influence as a short story writer has also been a recurrent topic of critical discussion, and his spare, understated narrative style is considered Hemingway’s literary legacy. His colorful life and work has garnered unrelenting critical and popular attention, and he is generally regarded as one of the greatest American short story writers of the twentieth century.

Robert Paul Lamb (essay date winter 1996)

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SOURCE: Lamb, Robert Paul. “Hemingway's Critique of Anti-Semitism: Semiotic Confusion in ‘God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen.’” Studies in Short Fiction 33, no. 1 (winter 1996): 25-34.

[In the following essay, Lamb contends that Hemingway uses a semiotic approach to critique anti-Semitism in “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen.”]

Hemingway's “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” (1933) seems, at first glance, a scant story; consequently, it has been the subject of only three brief scholarly essays, none of which has appeared in the past two decades. Peter Hays reads the story as a modern revision of the legend of the Fisher King; Julian Smith sees it as an analeptic tale told by Jake Barnes of The Sun Also Rises with the narrator's identity withheld; and George Monteiro believes that its main interest lies in the light it sheds on Hemingway's attitude toward Christianity and the medical profession but faults it for having an unnecessary and insubstantial first-person narrator who is not meaningfully connected to the plot.1 The main problem with these readings is that either they implicitly view the story as thin and are therefore compelled to read it through a speculative (in Smith's case, a wildly speculative) intertext, or else they are left with the important questions Monteiro raises: why tell the story through a nearly anonymous narrator?; and, what on earth can the point of the story be? The point of the story, however, is supported by these readings, for Hemingway's odd tale is all about the problems of reading a text and the consequences of misreading. Specifically, it is about semiotic confusion, a confusion caused by the failure of signifiers to point to appropriate signifieds (not merely the subtle forms of slippage that concern deconstructionists, but the sorts of wholesale aberrations that would bother most folks), and about characters who employ the wrong intertexts or misapply sign systems in their efforts to interpret signifiers.

In “God Rest You,” an older (and wiser?) narrator recalls a scene from his earlier days in Kansas City when he had been, perhaps, a reporter, hospital worker, or ambulance driver (his occupation is never specified in the text).2 The story engages the theme of semiotic confusion from the opening sentence in which Hemingway employs a narrative strategy of presenting a description that describes nothing: “In those days the distances were all very different, the dirt blew off the hills that have now been cut down, and Kansas City was very like Constantinople” (43). This sentence presents a non-map with which to locate the story by informing the reader that a present-day sense of spatial relations is unhelpful; that the one concrete image in the sentence no longer exists; and that Kansas City can best be imagined through an intertext, Constantinople, which—even if the reader has seen it—would be of no use since the narrator does not say, aside from the dirt, how the two cities are alike: As if this were not frustrating enough, the reader is immediately told: “You may not believe this. No one believes this; but it is true” (43).

Having struck a Hawthornian note in which the actual blends with the fanciful, the mundane with the uncanny, the narrator proceeds to describe a “neutral territory” of deserted city streets covered with snow in the early dark on Christmas Day. Through the smoke and snow, an incongruous, concrete image appears—a silver French racing car in a lighted show window with the words “Dans Argent” on the hood. The narrator recalls that he “believed” this to mean “the silver dance” or “the silver dancer” and was “pleased” by his knowledge of a foreign language (43). Implied in his verb tense is that the narrator now knows that it means “in silver”; but what is more important thematically is that in the very first paragraph a signifier has been misread, because of a faulty mastery of a sign system (French), and the character who misread it assumed that he read it correctly. The paragraph concludes with the narrator walking to the city hospital on the high hill (which, given the opening sentence, may very well no longer exist) where he enters the reception room and sees the two ambulance surgeons, Doc Fischer and Doctor Wilcox.

Here, the theme of semiotic confusion is further advanced by the problematizing of cultural stereotypes. Fischer is Jewish, but has sand-blond hair and “gambler's hands”; Wilcox is gentile, dark, and carries a book. The book, a medical guide, gives symptoms and treatment on any subject, and is also “cross-indexed so that being consulted on symptoms it gave diagnoses” (44). The incompetent Wilcox is sensitive about the book but cannot get along without it. Fischer, who holds Wilcox in contempt, has sarcastically suggested that future editions of the book “be further cross-indexed so that if consulted as to the treatments being given, it would reveal ailments and symptoms” (44). This would serve, he says, “As an aid to memory” (44). Wilcox's dependence on the book reveals his inability to read the physical symptoms of the body on his own. Memory (competence within the sign system) enables Fischer to read these physical symptoms, but what if the illness is emotional and cultural rather than physical? This takes us into the heart of the tale.

Fischer asks the narrator, whom he calls “Horace” (this may or may not be his real name) for “news along the rialto”—a jocular reference that further defamiliarizes the Kansas City street—and tells him that they had an “extremely interesting case” that morning: a boy who had come in the previous day seeking “eunuch-hood” (45-46). The narrator, who had been present, recalls the excited, frightened, but determined sixteen-year-old who demanded to be castrated because he suffered from “awful lust” (46). When Fischer tried to tell the boy that there was nothing wrong with him and that sexual desire is “a natural thing,” the boy replied that it's “a sin against purity” and “against our Lord and Saviour” (46-47). He also told Fischer “you don't understand” (47). Fischer was unable to get the boy to listen to him; Wilcox called the boy “a goddamned fool” (47), used a vernacular expression to tell him to go masturbate, and threw him out.3 Fischer now informs “Horace” that they received the boy that morning “self-mutilated with a razor” but not castrated because he “didn't know what castrate meant” (48). The boy may die from loss of blood, in Fischer's opinion because, “The good physician here, Doctor Wilcox, my colleague, was on call and he was unable to find this emergency listed in his book” (48).

In this event, the boy is a text that he and the doctors try to read but cannot because they employ inappropriate intertexts and/or misinterpret signifiers. The boy interprets himself as impure by applying a Biblical intertext that he has read too literally (perhaps 1 Corinthians 6: 13—“The body is not meant for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body” or Matthew 5: 28—“But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart”). In saying that Fischer does not understand, the boy insists on interpreting his body according to his own fundamentalist notions of a New Testament sign system, rather than according to less literal Christian interpretations of the New Testament or according to the contemporary secular sign system with which Fischer reads these same signifiers (perhaps a popular version of psychoanalytic theory that has filtered into American culture). In choosing a course of action, the boy again employs an inappropriate Biblical intertext that he reads in a literal rather than figurative manner, most likely Matthew 18: 7-9, in which Jesus says: “… woe to the man by whom the temptation comes! And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire.” Similar metaphorical references to removing sinful parts are found in Matthew 5: 29-30 and Mark 9: 43-48. The boy's final act of misreading demonstrates his ignorance not only of the way the body fits into Christian and secular sign systems, but also of the body as a biological text. He misinterprets his erection to mean that his penis is the body part causing his “awful lust,” and therefore cuts off his penis instead of castrating himself. Since his desire was to cast off desire, his inability to read his body as a biological text leads to failure.

Wilcox too falls victim to semiotic confusion, although with less dire consequences to himself. He misreads the boy/text because he cannot find the symptoms in his book, which interprets physical signifiers rather than emotional ones. In addition, when he tells the boy to masturbate, he employs an inappropriate medical/biological sign system in assuming that mere sexual release will solve the boy's problem. His cruelty to the boy also shows his inability to anticipate/interpret the possible alternatives the boy will take, and, once they are taken, his book does not cover the particular physical emergency. Moreover, although nominally a Christian, Wilcox fails to read the true spirit of Christianity, a fact made amply clear by his later implication that the boy's act has somehow polluted Christmas.

Fischer's reading is the most complex of all. He correctly reads the boy's symptoms as signifying an emotional disturbance. However, as a Jew he is either unable or else feels unauthorized to offer a more liberal interpretation of the New Testament that will help the boy to read and act upon his physical desires in a responsible manner, or, perhaps, he does not fully realize the persuasive force that such a literal fundamentalist reading has for the boy. Therefore, all Fischer can do is employ his alternative secular sign system in a futile effort to un-demonize the boy's symptoms. And so, the one character who genuinely cares about the boy is prevented, by his own cultural “otherness,” from helping him.

Hemingway's treatment of Fischer's otherness—which the author approaches in his characteristically indirect fashion—is explored in the final two pages of “God Rest You” and points to the larger cultural issue in this sardonically titled Christmas tale. After Fischer implies that the boy may die due to Wilcox's incompetence, and Wilcox responds by telling his colleague to go to hell, Fischer disingenuously relents while staring down at his “gambler's hands” that had, as the narrator silently observes, “with his willingness to oblige and his lack of respect for Federal statutes, made him his trouble” (49). This odd observation by the narrator, later brought into the open when Fischer says that he had been too “damned smart on the coast” (49), introduces into the text Fischer's “back story”: why this able doctor finds himself buried in a relatively lowly position as a night ambulance surgeon in Kansas City. The famous Hemingwayesque “thing left out”—omitted yet powerfully present—here as in “Hills Like White Elephants,” most likely has to do with abortions.4

Fischer's “gambler's hands” have made him into a criminal in the legal system just as, analogously, his ethnicity and religion place him outside the social pale; and both his legal and cultural otherness have as their specific analogue his current professional marginalization. This indirectly glimpsed past event, which Hemingway has both the narrator and Fischer allude to lest the reader miss its significance, illuminates Fischer's response to the boy's mutilation, which has clearly reminded him of how he tried to prevent another kind of self-mutilation on the coast (i.e., the sorts of mutilations that frequently occurred when women attempted to self-abort or else found themselves at the mercy of incompetent abortionists). In other words, what has happened to the boy bothers Fischer for the obvious reasons why it would disturb any doctor, even Wilcox (who has been drinking when the narrator enters the hospital); he has been unable to help someone in need. But it bothers him for other reasons as well. Fischer identifies with the boy because both of them, in different ways, have fallen victim to a culture of fundamentalist Christianity. And all of this helps explain Fischer's hostility toward Wilcox, who signifies, for Fischer, the hostile cultural mainstream through whose eyes he is obliged continually to view himself as a result of the double-consciousness that he has developed for his own self-protection.

On a more abstract level, one is tempted to say that the boy's amputated penis is a telling symbol of Fischer's own situation. Just as the boy, if he lives, will continue to feel desire but possess no outlet for its release, so too will Fischer continue to desire to escape his cultural and professional marginalization, but with no chance of doing so. Nor will he have an outlet for helping many others, pregnant women in distress among them, in order to fulfill his sense of vocation. Metaphorically, Fischer is both the amputated penis and the amputee; he has been cut off from the larger social body and he is a man who is unable to act on his desires. It is, of course, highly doubtful that Fischer himself perceives the amputated penis in these sorts of symbolic terms, but it is also clear that this incident resonates for him in a way that it does not for the other characters.

Although Fischer is aware of his own precariousness, his resentment is such that he can only feign, not feel indifference. His anger manifests itself in his constant derision of Wilcox's medical abilities. (He is clearly the source of the narrator's information on Wilcox's sorry record in medical school, information that, in the spirit of this text, may or may not be true.) He also cannot resist baiting Wilcox, but in the passive-aggressive manner of one who understands his own powerlessness. After blaming Wilcox's incompetence for the boy's critical condition (his comment about Wilcox not being able to find the emergency listed in his book), being told by Wilcox to go to hell, and disingenuously claiming that he meant no offense—“I only meant it in the friendliest way, Doctor” (49)—Fischer's animus takes another tack:

“Well, I wish you wouldn't ride me about it [Wilcox's medical guide],” Wilcox said. “There isn't any need to ride me.”

“Ride you, Doctor, on the day, the very anniversary, of our Saviour's birth?”

Our Saviour? Ain't you a Jew?” Doctor Wilcox said.

“So I am. So I am. It is always slipping my mind. I've never given it its proper importance. So good of you to remind me. Your Saviour. That's right. Your Saviour, undoubtedly your Saviour—and the ride for Palm Sunday.”

“You're too damned smart,” Doctor Wilcox said.

“An excellent diagnosis, Doctor. I was always too damned smart. Too damned smart on the coast certainly. Avoid it, Horace. You haven't much tendency but sometimes I see a gleam. But what a diagnosis—and without the book.”

“The hell with you,” Doctor Wilcox said.


Fischer's initial witticism is intended to equate Wilcox with an ass, but it backfires because he inadvertently reminds the butt of his joke that he, Wilcox, ultimately possesses the upper hand. Wilcox seizes the opportunity, in typically blunt fashion, by calling Fischer a Jew. Confronted by his marginalized state, which relegates him to a position inferior even to the incompetent Wilcox,5 Fischer again retreats behind a mask of aggressive passivity in his exaggerated disingenuous claims that his ethnicity is so unimportant that it slips his mind. But he cannot resist repeating his joke, especially since Wilcox failed to catch it the first time around.

Yet, by returning to his “ass” joke, Fischer fails to shift the verbal exchange to safer ground, however much he manages to infuriate the less than glib Wilcox, who replies that Fischer is too smart. Wilcox's two trademark responses (“The hell with you” and “You're too damned smart”), each uttered twice in the story, have particular import for Fischer as expressions of cultural hostility to his ethnicity. The former implies that, as a Jew, he has been damned to hell by the mainstream religious culture. The latter appeals to the stereotype of the “smart Jew” (especially, to the midwestern mind, the smart Jew from the coast). Although Wilcox's response may lack conscious purpose, other than to express anger, Fischer is aware of what socially constructed forces lie behind it. Without realizing it, Wilcox has accidentally read Fischer's situation effectively. Fischer's “ass” joke may be smart, but what is the point of being smart in the wake of the boy's tragedy? And what is the point of being smart in a world in which people are judged by their ethnicity and religion, where intelligence itself can carry negative connotations? Fischer is still smarting from his unhappy past and diminished present, all because he was, in a sense, too smart.

Recognizing the ineffectiveness of his witticism, his smartness, Fischer abandons his “ass” joke and adopts a rhetorical strategy of acknowledging his own failings, of addressing Wilcox indirectly by speaking to the narrator, and of once again assailing Wilcox on the grounds of professional competence in his sarcastic comment on diagnosing without the book. In referring to the events on the coast, Fischer shifts the referent of being “smart” from the hostile host culture's anti-Semitic stereotype to a specific event, which gives it less blanket condemnatory power. By addressing Wilcox indirectly, he excludes his adversary from the verbal exchange and forces him to overhear, thus robbing him of the prerogatives of replying to direct address. And by bringing up Wilcox's medical guide, he again puts Wilcox on the defensive by foregrounding Wilcox's professional inadequacies rather than his own cultural marginalization.

When Wilcox replies, “The hell with you,” he gives Fischer the opportunity to replay their first exchange, the one in which Fischer had responded to this imprecation by pretending that he meant no offense, and then making the ineffective “ass” joke that gave Wilcox an opening to attack:

“All in good time, Doctor,” Doc Fischer said. “All in good time. If there is such a place I shall certainly visit it. I have even had a very small look into it. No more than a peek, really. I looked away almost at once. And do you know what the young man said, Horace, when the good Doctor here brought him in? He said, ‘Oh, I asked you to do it. I asked you so many times to do it.’”


This time, Fischer does not retreat behind a mask of disingenuous apology, but accepts Wilcox's curse with patient reasoning. His putative agnosticism is both a proud claim of ethnicity—as a Jew he rejects the notion of an afterlife—and a calm assertion of superiority, since hell holds no particular terror for him as, ostensibly, it would for Wilcox. Hell, for Fischer, is what happens on earth and the misfortunes, of which the boy's tragedy is the most recent, that he has had to endure. By invoking the words of the boy, who has also been victimized by the culture of Wilcox (whom Fischer insists on calling “the good physician” and “the good doctor” in a parodic allusion to St. Luke), Fischer goes beyond the specifics of Wilcox's incompetence and correctly signifies communal responsibility for the boy's tragedy, and communal guilt.

All of this is lost on Wilcox, who can only express the cultural code of anti-Semitism without really reading or understanding it; he follows Fischer's speech by adding, “On Christmas Day, too” (50), again revealing his inability to read the true spirit of Christianity. Fischer's chastening response—“The significance of the particular day is not important” (50)—is an admonition that the tragedy is communal and transcends such matters as specific faiths. But Wilcox can only seize the opportunity to invoke, once more, Fischer's otherness—“Maybe not to you” (50)—rejecting the holistic notion of a larger community that shares responsibility and guilt. Fischer may be too smart, but Wilcox is too dumb; his incompetence at medicine extends to all of his attempts to comprehend signifiers and employ sign systems. He can only express a distorted and bigoted version of Christianity that defines itself through exclusivity, not through any transcendent message of love and redemption. When Fischer comprehends this fully, when he is at last able to read Wilcox as a text and not just as an adversary, he realizes the impossibility of his situation—he is a Jew and cannot deconstruct for the Wilcoxes of the world this defining social construction—and he gives up by way of mock commentary: “You hear him, Horace? … You hear him? Having discovered my vulnerable point, my achilles tendon so to speak, the doctor pursues his advantage” (50). Wilcox's reply—“You're too damned smart” (50)—inadvertently underscores Fischer's point; the false sign system of racial chauvinism, of which anti-Semitism is a symptom, has the final word in the text, as it does in life. Once again, a Jew who has ridden an ass is sacrificed by a society in order to cover up for its own shortcomings.6

If “God Rest You,” as I have attempted to show, is about semiotic confusion—the failure of signifiers to connect with proper signifieds, the faulty mastery of sign systems, the employment of inappropriate sign systems, and the triumph of a false sign system—then this answers the questions of those critics who have seen the story as scant and/or pointless. But the question of the narrator remains. What function does “Horace” serve in the text and why is he nearly anonymous? Why did Hemingway, whose techniques of focalization and choices of perspective were invariably carefully selected and employed, choose to place this story in the hands of an “undeveloped” narrator? Although Hemingway is clearly using one of his favorite story-construction techniques, the Conradian splitting of the reader's attention between the focalizer and the main character of the tale (as in “Indian Camp” or “In Another Country”)—in fact, creating a double split, since the narrator views Fischer, who himself views the tormented boy—why is the focalizer/narrator in this story, as is not the case in the above examples, so obscure?

First, the narrator is not, as critics have complained, extraneous. His misreading of the French words on the racing car offers the first clue that the story is about semiotic confusion. Second, the friendship between Doc Fischer and the narrator (it is significant that he is “Doc” and Wilcox is “Doctor”) immediately guides the reader's sympathies toward Fischer and alerts the reader to the fact that Fischer will be the central subject of the story, the one who, in Jamesian terms, is most capable of feeling and comprehending the story's main action. Third, the narrator serves to link the foreshadowing scenes outside with the events that take place in the hospital (much as does the narrator of “In Another Country”). Fourth, the narrator provides the story's central character, Fischer, with a receptive audience for his recounting of the boy's story and for his mockery of Wilcox (if Wilcox alone were present, it is doubtful that Fischer would bother with these sorts of verbal exchanges, lacking an appreciative audience). Fifth, although we know little of the narrator, we know only slightly more about the other characters in this parable, and to add details to the narrator would obscure the few but significant details we are given about Fischer, Wilcox, and the boy. Lastly, the narrator's subsequent confusion about how to read the story's final action (Wilcox's anti-Semitic assault on Fischer and Fischer's passive-aggressive strategies of response) as well as the entire story that has unfolded before him—a confusion evident in his (not the author's) lack of a concluding statement of comprehension or sense-making—ends the story on the same note with which it began. The only difference is that the older narrator who is recounting the story is aware now, as Fischer was then, of the difficulties of producing accurate signification from the signifiers around him. This present awareness is not something that he draws attention to, just as he does not mention that he now knows what the French words meant; but the reader is in a position to grasp that the narrator has learned something, even if it is merely a humbling sense of human and societal limitations. Like the story in which it is textualized, this lesson, I should hasten to add, is hardly a slight one.


  1. There are occasional brief mentions of the story in Hemingway scholarship, and Paul Smith devotes a chapter to it (246-51) in which he reconstructs the circumstances of its creation, recounts its publication history, and offers a shrewd critique of Hays, Julian Smith, and Monteiro. Nevertheless, despite a generally positive response to the story by Hemingway scholars, the deeper significances of “God Rest You” have failed to engage the critics.

  2. Most critics identify the narrator as a reporter, presumably because Hemingway was a reporter in Kansas City. But there is no textual evidence to support such an assumption. The conflation of the author with his narrators and focalizers has long been an occupational hazard in Hemingway studies.

  3. “God Rest You” was first published in 1933 as a limited, first-edition pamphlet. In that version, Wilcox tells the boy, “Oh go and jack off.” When the story was reissued by Scribner's later that year, as part of the collection Men Without Women, a dash replaced the words “jack off” against Hemingway's wishes, and this has been the case in all subsequent reprintings. See Paul Smith (247).

  4. The only other possibility that suggests itself is euthanasia, but that would have fallen under the criminal code and not the federal statutes. Also, had that been Fischer's crime, it is difficult to believe that he would have avoided jail and/or the loss of his medical license. Of course, abortion would have fallen under state rather than federal statutes, but it is quite possible that Hemingway was simply unaware of this.

  5. There is even a small hint that Fischer may literally be Wilcox's subordinate. Although Fischer is clearly concerned about the boy in their first meeting, when Wilcox orders his colleague to “Get him out of here,” and the boy replies, “Don't touch me. I'll get out” (48), Fischer remains uncharacteristically silent.

  6. “God Rest You” may have been Hemingway's attempt to apologize for his treatment of Harold Loeb—writer, founding editor of Broom, and former member of Hemingway's circle in early 1920s Paris—who was deeply hurt by Hemingway's nasty and anti-Semitic portrayal of him as the hapless Robert Cohn in The Sun Also Rises. Like Cohn, Loeb was a Jew who had misread the social codes of his circle and was subsequently excluded from the group. Perhaps Hemingway—who often felt retrospective remorse about his truculent behavior, vicious comments, and violent feelings toward people close to him, and who occasionally expressed this guilt in self-accusatory fiction (e.g., “Cat in the Rain,” “A Canary for One,” “Fathers and Sons”)—was unconsciously atoning for his insensitivity toward his former friend in his portrayal of Wilcox and Fischer.

Works Cited

Hays, Peter L. “Hemingway and the Fisher King.” The University Review 32 (1966): 225-28.

Hemingway, Ernest. “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen.” Winner Take Nothing. [1933] New York: Scribner's, 1961. 43-50.

Monteiro, George. “Hemingway's Christmas Carol.” Fitzgerald/Hemingway Annual (1972): 207-13.

Smith, Julian. “Hemingway and the Thing Left Out.” Journal of Modern Literature 1 (1970-71): 169-82.

Smith, Paul. A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. Boston: Hall, 1989.

Principal Works

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 162

Three Stories & Ten Poems (short stories and poetry) 1923

*in our time 1924

Men without Women 1927

Winner Take Nothing 1933

The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway 1938

The Fifth Column and the First Forty-nine Stories (drama and short stories) 1939

The Old Man and the Sea (novella) 1952

The Snows of Kilimanjaro, and Other Stories 1961

The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, and Other Stories 1963

The Nick Adams Stories 1972

The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway 1987

The Sun Also Rises [also published as Fiesta] (novel) 1926

The Torrents of Spring (novel) 1926

A Farewell to Arms (novel) 1929

Death in the Afternoon (nonfiction) 1932

Green Hills of Africa (nonfiction) 1935

To Have and Have Not (novel) 1937

The Spanish Earth (commentary and film narration) 1938

For Whom the Bell Tolls (novel) 1940

Across the River and Into the Trees (novel) 1950

A Moveable Feast (memoir) 1964

By-Line: Ernest Hemingway: Selected Articles and Dispatches of Four Decades (nonfiction) 1968

Islands in the Stream (novel) 1970

88 Poems (poetry) 1979

Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters, 1917-1961 (correspondence) 1981

*Revised edition published as In Our Time, 1925.

Robert Paul Lamb (essay date winter 1996)

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SOURCE: Lamb, Robert Paul. “Hemingway and the Creation of Twentieth-Century Dialogue.” Twentieth Century Literature 42, no. 4 (winter 1996): 453-80.

[In the following essay, Lamb analyzes the dialogue in “Indian Camp,” “A Canary for One," and “Hills Like White Elephants.”]

[W]hile one can do nothing about choosing one's relatives, one can, as artist, choose one's “ancestors.” … Hemingway [was] an “ancestor.”

—Ralph Ellison (140)

In July 1961, the Saturday Review devoted a special memorial issue to Ernest Hemingway, in which writers and critics from around the world paid tribute to the recently deceased author and attempted to assess his impact on their own national literatures. Although the Hemingway mystique was given heavy emphasis, many contributors also spoke to his artistic influence. The exiled Spanish political philosopher Salvador de Madariage observed that “Hemingway's manner of writing, his direct, simple, yet forceful prose” had “exerted an undoubted influence on the new generation of Spanish novelists” (18). From Italy, novelist Carlo Levi credited Hemingway's art as fundamental “in determining the character and mode of thought of our time” (19). And Alan Pryce-Jones, the former editor of the Times Literary Supplement, asserted that there was “not a living writer in England who has been unaffected by the laconic speed of his dialogue, the subtle revelation of character that lies behind a spoken phrase” (21). Today, such claims remain undisputed; most critics take for granted that Hemingway's techniques have profoundly influenced subsequent generations of writers across the boundaries of nationality, gender, race, ideology, sexual orientation, class, religion, and artistic temperament.1

Pryce-Jones ventured that Hemingway's art, especially his innovative dialogue, might “turn out to be his enduring memorial as a writer, whatever his fascination as a man” (21). However, in the years since his death, Hemingway criticism has focused more on the biographical, thematic, and cultural content of his work than on his narrative techniques, and while it is true that his prose style has been exhaustively analyzed and countless passages of his dialogue read for content, there exists not one single systematic or even a sustained analysis of his art of dialogue. The following essay attempts to redress that neglect. Through a close examination of passages from three stories, written between 1923 and 1927, it will show how Hemingway evolved the techniques that would change the nature of twentieth-century fictional dialogue. The passages are drawn from “Indian Camp,” in which he for the first time employed the characteristic devices that distinguish his dialogue; “A Canary for One,” in which he elevated banality in speech to the level of art through the extension of repetition to dialogue; and “Hills Like White Elephants,” in which he blurred the line between fiction and drama, allowing dialogue an unprecedented constructive role in a story's composition. The essay concludes by assessing the historical and aesthetic significance of Hemingway's revolution in the writing of dialogue.


… Hemingway is the one who had the most to do with my craft—not simply for his books, but for his astounding knowledge of the aspect of craftsmanship in the science of writing.

—Gabriel García Márquez (16)

In “Notes on Writing a Novel,” Elizabeth Bowen cut to the crux of exactly why modern dialogue is so difficult to write. She observes that it must imitate certain “realistic qualities”: spontaneity, artlessness, ambiguity, irrelevance, allusiveness, and erraticness. Yet, behind the “mask of these faked realistic qualities,” it must be “pointed, intentional, relevant. It must crystallize situation. It must express character. It must advance plot” (255). It must, in other words, be truly verisimilar—like reality, but not an actual transcription of reality itself. “Speech,” Bowen goes on to say, “is what the characters do to each other”; aside from a few extreme physical acts, it is “the most vigorous and visible inter-action of which characters … are capable” (255). Consequently, speech “crystallizes relationships. It should, ideally, [be so] effective as to make analysis or explanation of the relationships between the characters unnecessary” (255). Although dialogue is not generally effective as a means of exposition, of conveying necessary information (what invariably occurs at the beginning of a play, and that takes all of the considerable artifice of the theater subsequently to overcome), it can express present relationships and, by implication, their past as well. But to do so effectively requires great talent; dialogue must imply subtly, suggestively, and never through direct statement. Usually, the way characters say something is more important than what they say.

Bowen further observes that each sentence spoken by a character must display either “calculation” or “involuntary self-revelation” on their part (256). Most good dialogue, I should hasten to add, displays both of these processes, for in fiction, as in life, it is virtually impossible not to be, to some degree, self-revelatory (no matter whether “self” is conceived of as socially constructed, dialogical, or autonomous and coherent). Generally, she states, characters should “be under rather than over articulate,” and what they “intend to say should be more evident, more striking (because of its greater inner importance to the plot) than what they arrive at saying” (256). Robie Macauley and George Lanning agree, noting that “speech, as a way of characterization, moves forward by means of partial concealment, partial exposure” (78), because what characters say may be the result of inner conflictedness, or they may be saying what they think the other person wishes to hear. In speech, they may become aware of their own confusion, or something the other person does might make them modify their original intention. They may become more confused as they speak, may end up saying the opposite of what they started to say, may even wish that they had not spoken at all. In short, all of the myriad complexities that inhere in real-life dialogue inhere as well in fictional dialogue, the one great difference being that in fiction there is an author who exercises some control over what is being expressed (or incompletely expressed, as the case may be). Dialogue, therefore, demonstrates not only communication but, more importantly, the limits of communication between characters as well.

Hemingway, with his deceptively simple dialogue, managed to capture these dynamics of real-life speech. The earliest example can be found in his first story masterpiece, “Indian Camp,” written between November 1923 and February 1924. In the deleted opening, young Nick Adams, left alone at night by his father and his Uncle George, succumbs to a vague existential dread and fear of death, and summons the men back from their fishing by firing three shots. So far, the story is about as badly written as a story can be. Nick's feelings have been directly and unsuggestively stated by an awkward psychologizing narrator; the narrative's action sequences are confused and confusing; the characters are stilted; and so many flashbacks have occurred in so brief a span of text that the unities of time, place, and action have been badly compromised.

But the fragment closes with three consecutive passages of dialogue that serve an enabling function in leading the story and its fumbling author into the realm of art. The first passage, a conversation between the two men on the lake after they hear the shots, serves no purpose—it is senselessly repetitive and oddly stagnant; it does not advance the plot; it uses unnecessary identification tags; the two characters talk alike; and the dialogue fails to fit their personalities. The next passage, in which the two men return to the camp, is a huge improvement. Each character has one speech; each speech is in character; and each reveals calculation and involuntary self-revelation as the father demonstrates his concern for his son, Nick wishes to persuade the men that there was good reason to call them back but reveals his embarrassment, and Uncle George expresses contempt and reveals his cruelty. The final passage is almost technically flawless:

In the morning his father found two big basswood trees that leaned across each other so that they rubbed together in the wind.

“Do you think that was what it was, Nick?” his father asked.

“Maybe,” Nick said. He didn't want to think about it.

“You don't want to ever be frightened in the woods, Nick. There is nothing that can hurt you.”

“Not even lightning?” Nick asked.

“No, not even lightning. If there is a thunder storm get out into the open. Or get under a beech tree. They're never struck.”

“Never?” Nick asked.

“I never heard of one,” said his father.

“Gee, I'm glad to know that about beech trees,” Nick said.

(“Three Shots” 15)

Hemingway effectively locates the scene with a precise, concrete sentence. The use of the word found (instead of saw) is suggestive. Dr. Adams has deliberately sought out a forest noise for his son, either to console him by offering a palpable reason for Nick's fear on the previous night, or, equally revealing, because he believes in his son despite the evidence and George's opinions. The ensuing dialogue accords with the speakers' personalities. Dr. Adams both respects and wishes to encourage his child's autonomy. He asks Nick if he thinks it was the trees he heard. The child, still ashamed of his earlier behavior, is warily noncommittal. Sensing his son's reticence, Dr. Adams tactfully directs the conversation away from the particular embarrassing incident onto the general topic of how nothing in the woods “can hurt you.” The “you” here refers to Nick, of course, but it also implies the more general sense of “one.” The tactic succeeds. Because his father has addressed Nick's fears indirectly, the boy no longer feels ashamed, and his curiosity causes him to engage in conversation. The subsequent dialogue about lightning and beech trees allows the two characters to settle into the security of a father-as-teacher/son-as-learner pattern of behavior. It produces a sort of catharsis, with Nick's final speech coming across almost as a sigh of relief.

By the end of the deleted opening, then, Hemingway is using dialogue to crystallize relationships, express character, and advance plot. Furthermore, in their speeches the characters display both calculation and involuntary self-revelation. Lastly, the author is turning away from narrative commentary; experimenting with omission (the events of the previous night that underlie the final scene are referred to but never explicitly mentioned); and using highly verisimilar simple discourse. In the story that follows, “Indian Camp” proper, he will employ all of these techniques and extend to dialogue, for the first time in fiction, all the devices of indirection, juxtaposition as a way of having meaning derive from proximity, irony, miscommunication, and compression.2

The final passage of dialogue in “Indian Camp” is particularly illustrative. In the story, Nick and his Uncle George accompany Dr. Adams on an unanticipated visit to an Indian camp where a pregnant Indian woman is suffering from a difficult labor. Nick is forced to assist while his father performs an emergency cesarean operation with fishing equipment and no anesthetic. After the successful operation, Dr. Adams's preoccupation turns to egocentrism, causing George to resent him. Then he discovers that the woman's husband, confined to a bunk over his wife due to a foot injury, has taken his life by cutting his throat during the operation. The discovery deflates the doctor, who suddenly concerns himself with his son's welfare; he takes Nick from the shanty, leaving George behind to await the authorities. The last passage of dialogue reads:

“I'm terribly sorry I brought you along, Nickie,” said his father, all his post-operative exhilaration gone. “It was an awful mess to put you through.”

[Q1] “Do ladies always have such a hard time having babies?” Nick asked.

[A1] “No, that was very, very exceptional.”

[Q2] “Why did he kill himself, Daddy?”

[A2] “I don't know, Nick. He couldn't stand things, I guess.”

[Q3] “Do many men kill themselves, Daddy?”

[A3] “Not very many, Nick.”

[Q4] “Do many women?”

[A4] “Hardly ever.”

[Q5] “Don't they ever?”

[A5] “Oh, yes. They do sometimes.”

[Q6] “Daddy?”

[A6] “Yes.”

[Q7] “Where did Uncle George go?”

[A7] “He'll turn up all right.”

[Q8] “Is dying hard, Daddy?”

[A8] “No, I think it's pretty easy, Nick. It all depends.”

(“Indian Camp” 18-19)

In his first speech, Nick's father admits his mistake. His use of the diminutive “Nickie” suggests that he is now concerned with Nick's anxieties, but in trying to comfort his son he also betrays his own feelings of guilt. His apology is not for Nick's having seen the dead Indian (which could not have been anticipated), nor for his thoughtlessness in having Nick attend the horrifying operation (which was his only irresponsible act). Instead, he apologizes for bringing Nick along in the first place (his least questionable decision), which undercuts the apology by passing over his truly unconscionable act. What he had previously termed a “little affair” (the operation), he now calls an “awful mess”—an understatement that covers all the events Nick has witnessed (including his father's paternal inadequacies) and, by its euphemistic nature, continues to diminish the apology. The last phrase of the statement shows Dr. Adams looking at these events from Nick's perspective (“to put you through”) in order to console him, but his guilty feelings are manifest in his use of an inert construction; a more direct admission of culpability would have been: “I put you through an awful mess.” By his need to assuage his own guilt, then, the doctor's apology is involuntarily self-revelatory: He is still mainly concerned with his own needs, not his child's.

If the doctor's initial 17-word speech is revealing, the ensuing eight questions and answers are a marvel of indirection, miscommunication, suggestiveness, and compression. Nick has conflated all of the events he has witnessed and therefore asks about the operation, although, by the end of the passage, it will become clear that what he really wants to know about is the probability of death (either his father's or his own). His father, however, is obsessed with the suicide and so, for all his newfound sensitivity toward his son and Nick's careful attention to his father, the two characters miscommunicate throughout the conversation.

Nick's first question elicits a somewhat detached response from his father, whose thoughts are elsewhere. Dr. Adams can draw on his medical knowledge to answer the question; the repetition of “very” and the understated “exceptional” give the impression of a considered, dispassionate reply. Nick's second question, however, directly presents the mystery at the heart of the story: “Why did he kill himself, Daddy?” The use of “Daddy,” which Nick previously employed when frightened by the woman's screams, suggests the anxiety beneath his outwardly calm demeanor. But his father does not notice Nick's anxiety, and he cannot, in any case, satisfactorily answer the question. His profession has equipped him to answer medical queries, not psychological ones. He answers honestly—he does not know—but he also senses that his reply is not enough to satisfy Nick, so he follows it with an explanation that is strategically vague: “He couldn't stand things, I guess.”3

From the moment Nick asks about the suicide, the dialogue takes a notable turn. The words “I don't know,” coming from so proud a man who has just performed with such competence under extreme duress, resonate with the doctor's deep sense of confusion, guilt, and deflation. For the rest of the conversation, Nick will focus on death and suicide, and he will ask questions that either cannot be answered or that his father is not in the mood to address. Dr. Adams's inability to answer these questions, and the shock he feels over what has happened, will force him back into the self-absorption he displayed during the operation. And yet, although his answers to his son's questions will be brief and somewhat perfunctory, they will have an oddly calming effect on Nick, relieving his son's anxiety. Even though the characters miscommunicate, the failure to communicate has an ironically successful result.

Nick's questions are relentless. When he catches his father in an inattentive reply, as in the answer to question 4, he immediately issues a follow-up question that reveals his dissatisfaction with his father's response. His father's preoccupation can be glimpsed in the laconic, vague nature of his replies (“Not very many,” “Hardly ever,” sometimes,” “He'll turn up,” “It all depends”). The sixth reply (“Yes.”) is particularly revealing. The absence of a question mark indicates that his father's inflection is declarative rather than interrogative; Nick has gotten his attention, but he remains lost in his own thoughts. When Nick then asks about Uncle George, a subject that his father is especially not interested in, the reply is again unspecific. The addition of the phrase “all right” resonates with the two times the expression was previously used in the story: Nick's response to his father's postoperative inquiry about how Nick liked being an intern (17) and a sarcastic remark George made about Dr. Adams being a “great man, all right” (18). Nick's use of the expression was intended to satisfy his father but revealed his lack of enthusiasm. George's use both intended and revealed his resentment of his brother. Here, Dr. Adams wishes to satisfy his son, but he unintentionally reveals his own lack of enthusiasm for answering any more questions as well as his own resentment toward George, whose earlier sarcasms anticipated the doctor's present feelings of inadequacy.

Nick, of course, cannot comprehend death. He can only feel it as absence. His first glimpse of death was in the context of the Indian father's withdrawal from life. Therefore, the anxieties he expresses in the passage concern absent fathers. The four questions he asks ending with “Daddy?” make manifest the subject of these anxieties (including his sixth question, which is intended to bring his mentally absent father back into the conversation). In his second question he asks why the Indian baby's father killed himself and receives an uncomforting but honest reply. What he really wants to know is whether he is safe from suffering the same fate as the Indian baby boy. So he continues his inquiry by a more circuitous route. His next two questions, about the frequency of male and female suicide, are unconsciously self-referential—he wants to know about his own father and mother—and the responses are comforting. But the real point of the last three questions is revealed only in their juxtaposition. The sixth question is about Nick's sense of his own father's mental absence; the seventh question is about Uncle George's physical absence, here serving as a displacement of Nick's anxiety over his own father's mortality; and the eighth question, read in the above context, might be about the probability of Nick's father's death. Ironically, his father misunderstands the question, in light of his own concerns, to be about whether the act of dying is difficult to face, and his answer is unintentionally chilling: “… it's pretty easy.” Even more ironically, however, the words do not matter, for, as the doctor says, it all “depends.”

Just what it depends on is revealed in the subsequent final two paragraphs, the second of which reiterates the images of the first: “In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die” (19). The first part of the sentence, an objective correlative for Nick's sense of immortality, placed in juxtaposition with Uncle George's absence as a representation of death, triumphs over it. Ambiguities and ironies compound. If the antecedent to the final “he” is Nick's father, a less likely possibility but one that Hemingway purposely leaves open, then all the miscommunication between the two and his father's disquieting responses have inadvertently comforted Nick. On the other hand, if the antecedent is Nick, the much more likely possibility, then another irony is created by the disjunction between Nick's sense of his own immortality and the reader's knowledge that it is otherwise.4 Moreover, it is the final turn in the screw of the passage's indirection, for it means that what Nick was really asking about all along concerned his anxieties about his own finitude, not his father's. Which means that what the whole story has been about was not the cesarean operation, the Indian's suicide, or the probability of Dr. Adams's death, but Nick's first encounter with ontological shock, the numbing realization of one's own mortality, which Hemingway omitted from the story when he discarded the opening pages, only to treat it at the end by, characteristically, having Nick deny it. And all of these matters, I might add, are compressed into just a few “simple” sentences of enormously suggestive dialogue in which two characters thoroughly miscommunicate in such subtle ways that readers of the passage, for the past seven decades, have assumed that the two were communicating clearly.


As a writer I was astonished by Hemingway's skill. … I have never understood, to this day, how Hemingway achieved his powerful dialogue. … [W]hat Hemingway offered … was not dialogue overheard, but a concentrate of it, often made up of superficially insignificant elements—mere fragments of everyday phrases, which always managed to convey what was most important.

—Ilya Ehrenburg (20)

In the remaining stories he wrote to complete In Our Time, and in The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway continued to employ the innovative dialogue techniques of “Indian Camp.” Dialogue crystallized situation, expressed character, and advanced plot, and speeches were marked by calculation and involuntary self-revelation. Verisimilitude in dialogue was achieved mostly by indirection, banality, simplicity of diction, and pervasive miscommunication, while relevance was produced through irony, juxtaposition, and compression. But although repetition was a significant part of his prose style, he had not yet developed a technique for employing it meaningfully in dialogue.

By early 1926, however, Hemingway was working toward applying the principles of repetition that he had learned from Gertrude Stein and James Joyce. Stein's theory of repetition was designed to provide synchrony in, and remove linearity from, narrative, as the three justifications she advanced for repetition—beginning again, using everything, and the continuous present—make clear (516-22). Her influence on Hemingway's use of repetition can be seen in his passages of description, in his attention to surfaces in passages of free indirect discourse, and, unfortunately, in his somewhat amateurish attempts to imitate his mentor in the repetitions of “Up in Michigan,” “Mr. and Mrs. Elliot,” and even “Cat in the Rain.” For Joyce, repetition was employed chiefly for rhetorical poetic effects, as in the famous final paragraph of “The Dead.” Joyce's influence would be most discernible in Hemingway's pet technique of gathering up selected words and phrases from a paragraph and repeating them in a different order in a summary sentence at the end of that paragraph (e.g., the opening paragraph of “In Another Country”).5

In extending repetition to dialogue, however, Hemingway put it to unprecedented use. He managed to capture the repetitive, rambling nature of real-life speech while still exercising the selectivity that is necessary in fiction. In Bowen's terms, he made his dialogue seem irrelevant while remaining perfectly relevant. Most people in real life repeat themselves endlessly when they speak, anxious lest their auditors not catch every last detail and all intended meaning. Speech is also replete with repetitive trivial exchanges. On the other hand, the closer people are, the longer and deeper the history of their relationship, the more they tend to speak to each other in a kind of shorthand that would make their conversation incomprehensible to an outsider (or reader). As Edith Wharton states, “all that is understood between [people] is left out of their talk” in real life (73). Thus, if characters in fiction “have to tell each other many things that each already knows the other knows[,]” then the only way “to avoid the resulting shock of improbability” would be to water down the dialogue with so many irrelevant commonplaces that the reader would grow bored and frustrated (73). Wharton's own solution to the problem was to resort to summary treatment or to interlace her dialogue with narrative, which enabled her to control dialogue through narratorial access to the consciousnesses of her characters. But Hemingway found a way out of the dilemma that enabled him to rely heavily on dialogue, which, given the advantages of scenic treatment in the highly compressed modern short story, contributed to his achievement in the genre. By repeating phrases, words, sounds, and even cadences, he made his dialogue seem repetitive, while the different contexts of these repetitions changed their meanings and kept the dialogue pointed and relevant.

Although repetition can be found in The Sun Also Rises and in such stories as “An Alpine Idyll” and “The Killers,” both completed in the spring of 1926, its use was purely for the sake of verisimilitude, and it did not advance the plot. A typical example from the former occurs when the characters refer to their skiing: “‘You oughtn't to ever do anything too long.’ / ‘No. We were up there too long.’ / ‘Too damn long,’ John said. ‘It's no good doing a thing too long’” (“Alpine” [“An Alpine Idyll”] 111). Here, the repetition seems mimetic, but it must be restricted to a very brief passage or else it would interfere with the movement of the narrative (even though the idea of “doing a thing too long” is directly relevant to the story's theme). Likewise, the dialogue repetitions in “The Killers” are limited mainly to the ways in which the Chicago gunmen mimic their captives, which expresses their truculence and gives the conversations an ominous tone but does not play a part in advancing the plot.

Several months after finishing these stories, however, in August, Hemingway sat down to write “A Canary for One,” a sadly neglected masterpiece in which he introduced his new technique of repetition in dialogue. In the story, the narrator and his wife, both Americans, are returning from the southern coast of France to begin their separation (a fact foreshadowed in the story but withheld from the reader until the final sentence). The action of the narrative takes place in a train compartment, which they share with an annoying, elderly American woman who is bringing a canary home to her daughter. The story, disguised until midpoint as a third-person narrative, focuses on the behavior of the woman and on the passing scenery as the narrator tries not to think about Paris and the impending separation. The American woman, who monopolizes the story's action, is obnoxious, xenophobic, self-centered, domineering, and hard of hearing (in both the literal and figurative senses). She iterates her fear of a possible train wreck and reveals that she has ended her daughter's romance with a man in Vevey, Switzerland, because he was a foreigner, an act that has devastated her daughter. Just before the conclusion of the story, as the train pulls into the Paris station, the American woman and the narrator's wife engage in their second and last fully reported dialogue, which ends with the narrator's second and final speech. In the passage, Hemingway employs every technique in his arsenal, including repetition, to construct what is arguably the finest and most complex piece of dialogue he would ever write:

“Americans make the best husbands,” the American lady said to my wife. I was getting down the bags. “American men are the only men in the world to marry.”

“How long ago did you leave Vevey?” asked my wife.

“Two years ago this fall. It's her, you know, that I'm taking the canary to.”

“Was the man your daughter was in love with a Swiss?”

“Yes,” said the American lady. “He was from a very good family in Vevey. He was going to be an engineer. They met there in Vevey. They used to go on long walks together.”

“I know Vevey,” said my wife. “We were there on our honeymoon.”

“Were you really? That must have been lovely. I had no idea, of course, that she'd fall in love with him.”

“It was a very lovely place,” said my wife.

“Yes,” said the American lady. “Isn't it lovely? Where did you stop there?”

“We stayed at the Trois Couronnes,” said my wife.

“It's such a fine old hotel,” said the American lady.

“Yes,” said my wife. “We had a very fine room and in the fall the country was lovely.”

“Were you there in the fall?”

“Yes,” said my wife.

We were passing three cars that had been in a wreck. They were splintered open and the roofs sagged in.

“Look,” I said. “There's been a wreck.”

The American lady looked and saw the last car.

(“Canary” [“A Canary for One”] 106-07)

On the surface, the conversation seems superficial, repetitious, and awkward—just what one might expect from strangers in such circumstances. It is also a study in miniature of how to use indirection in dialogue. There are two sorts of indirection taking place here. First, the conversation appears to be about Vevey and the American lady's daughter, but it is really about the conflicted emotions experienced by the separating couple. Second, the passage amply demonstrates the wisdom of the Joseph Conrad/Ford Madox Ford “unalterable rule” regarding the rendering of “genuine conversations”: “no speech of one character should ever answer the speech that goes before it” (Ford 200-01). As Ford put it, such “is almost invariably the case in real life where few people listen, because they are always preparing their own next speeches” (201). But beneath the verisimilar surface there is calculation and revelation, character is expressed, and plot is advanced (the passage provides the emotional climax to any rereading of the story). Moreover, even the repetition here is not merely verisimilar (as in “An Alpine Idyll” and “The Killers”); by repeating words in different contexts, Hemingway changes their referents and meanings. These semic qualities accrue to the repeated words and gather force each time the word reappears.

The narrator and his wife are facing forward. He is looking out the window toward Paris and the future. His wife is looking at the American lady with whom she is speaking, and the American lady is looking backward to the rear of the train and the past. Because they are nearing the station and the external scenes he observes remind him of his approaching loss, and because he hears the two women speaking of matters that concern him, the narrator listens carefully to the conversation and, for only the second time in the story, reports it fully.

The American lady makes her comment about the exclusive virtue of American husbands in conjunction with the narrator's apparently quotidian act of getting down the bags, an act that seems to correspond to her views on American husbands but that is given ironic relevance in juxtaposition with what must surely be the narrator's sense of it as a physical step toward the separation of the couple's possessions. When the American lady repeats her observation, the wife asks about Vevey, partly to change the painful course of the conversation. Yet, by choosing to divert it with talk of Vevey, she involuntarily betrays her desire to talk about the once happy past. The American lady predictably takes the question about Vevey as a cue to talk about her daughter, and the wife goes along on that tack. But instead of conversing about the canary that the American lady has just mentioned, the wife is irresistibly drawn to asking about the nature of the broken love affair that stands, for her, as a sign of her own impending separation. When the American lady then tells of the Swiss with whom her daughter fell in love, she twice mentions Vevey, causing the narrator's wife, in a moment of weakness and out of a desire to turn from the sign of her unhappy future to the memory of her happy past, to utter the enormously understated “I know Vevey” and to reveal that it was the site of her honeymoon. From that moment on, the narrator's wife will try to hold onto Vevey and the past. At the same time, the narrator experiences her attempts, by dwelling on Vevey, to ward off the painful emotions caused by their ever-nearing separation. He, in turn, tries unconsciously to hold onto their married status by using, in his wife's remaining five speeches, the identification tags “said my wife,” although these are obviously unnecessary for the purposes of identifying the speaker.

The American lady, who could not care less about the couple's honeymoon, swiftly shifts the conversation back to her daughter's love affair and inadvertently reveals that she feels somewhat defensive, perhaps even guilty, about what she has done. As in a previous dialogue, she uses the phrase “of course” to justify her actions. But the narrator's wife is no longer interested in the unhappy daughter. She drops even the amenity of talking about the daughter and continues her spoken reverie on Vevey. Here an extraordinary event occurs. The American lady, who throughout the story has been totally oblivious to all around her, realizes that the narrator's wife wants to talk about Vevey. For the rest of the conversation she actually focuses on what the narrator's wife wants to talk about, and she responds with questions about the honeymoon and with statements that relate to what the wife says.

Part of the emotional impact of the conversation derives from the fact that if the narrator's wife makes an impression strong enough to pierce the self-absorption and alter the behavior of the American lady, then it must be quite a strong impression indeed. The wife also emerges from her near anonymity to become the center of the scene, a transformation heightened by the drum roll of “said my wife” tags supplied by the narrator. And when the wife's speeches are stitched together, they are emotionally compelling in and of themselves: “I know Vevey. We were there on our honeymoon. It was a very lovely place. We stayed at the Trois Couronnes. Yes. We had a very fine room and in the fall the country was lovely. Yes.”

When the American lady starts replying to what the narrator's wife is saying, she slips subtly into the present tense: “Isn't it lovely?” But then, in asking about the honeymoon, she returns to the past tense: “Where did you stop there?” The wife changes the verb to “stayed” (avoiding the primary meaning of “stopped”) and gives the name of the hotel. “Trois Couronnes” is deliberately chosen by Hemingway for its literary allusiveness; it is the same hotel in which Henry James's “Daisy Miller” takes place. Both stories present three American travelers, and in both stories Americans are robbed of their innocent illusions (although in “Canary” we are presented with the aftermath of the characters' initiation). “Trois Couronnes” means “three crowns,” but both James and Hemingway, with their excellent command of French, may have known that it also means “three fool's caps.” If the narrator, so closely modeled on Hemingway himself, also knows the double meaning of “Trois Couronnes,” then perhaps he is aware of the irony of the name as a reflection on the three inhabitants of the compartment.

As noted, the conversation is manifestly repetitious, which invests it with verisimilitude as the two women repeat, in various contexts, each other's phrases. The American lady, who seems incapable of meaningful conversation, is only able to parrot what the narrator's wife says. And the wife, lost in her memories, latches onto phrases used by the American lady that she herself finds, in the grip of these memories, meaningful. But, as also noted, the repetition serves a dual purpose, without which the entire passage, however mimetic, would be vitiated, as beneath the banal surface the repeated words and phrases expand in meaning because of the changing contexts in which they appear.

For instance, the words fall, Vevey, and lovely are each used four times, and the word fine twice. The American lady tells the narrator's wife that she and her daughter left Vevey two years ago “this fall.” Moments later, responding to the information that the couple had been in Vevey on their honeymoon, she says “[t]hat must have been lovely” but follows by saying that she did not know that her daughter would “fall in love with” the Swiss, changing the original meaning of fall. The wife agrees that “[i]t was a very lovely place,” slightly changing the referent of lovely from honeymooning in Vevey to Vevey itself. A second implied meaning accrues to Vevey here: that it was a place where one could “fall in love.” The American lady then agrees with the wife who has just agreed with her, but she puts her statement in the present tense—”Isn't it lovely?”—changing the referent from Vevey past to Vevey present, and calls the Trois Couronnes “a fine old hotel.” The wife then gathers up the repeated words and phrases and sums up her sense of the conversation: “We had a very fine room and in the fall the country was lovely.” In her sentence, the meaning of fine changes from “prestigious” (revealing the American lady's values) to “nice” or “lovely” (indicating the wife's values); fall once more refers to a season (although it still echoes with the previous sense of “to fall in love”); and lovely describes Vevey in the past tense (conflating lovely, fine, falling in love, the room, the countryside, and Vevey—but locating it all in the past). When the American lady then asks if the couple was “there in the fall” and the wife replies “Yes,” the conversation that began with the wife asking when the American lady left Vevey is brought full circle. Its focus has, by subtle increments, shifted from the American lady and her daughter in the present (“this fall”) to the American couple in Vevey in the past (all emphases mine).

The narrator listens carefully, the bags at his feet, looking out the window. Perhaps he too is being lured back into the past by the circular, mesmerizing conversation. But then he sees the wrecked train. When the American lady asks if they were in Vevey in the fall, his wife says yes, but now they are passing three wrecked cars. The narrator, in his second and final speech, calls their attention to the present—“Look”—and announces, “There's been a wreck.” Just as in an earlier speech, his statement seems commonplace but actually reveals his hostility and resentment: toward the American lady, the dissolution of his marriage, and the painful reliving of the happy past.

When the narrator points out the wreck, in 5 syllables totaling a mere 20 letters, his statement serves 6 functions (a remarkable example of dialogue compression). First, he indicates the literal wreck that has occurred. Second, the wreck is the physical realization of the fears about a train crash that the American lady has expressed throughout the story. Third, the couple's marriage, which the narrator's wife has been reliving, is a wreck. Fourth, the three people, like the three cars they are passing, are also wrecks (the wreck symbolizes the three characters as well as the couple's marriage). Fifth, the narrator, by his statement, wrecks the women's conversation. Lastly, since that conversation has been a reenactment, of sorts, of their previously happily married state, he has perhaps repeated in the present (especially since the story is based on the real-life first marriage that Hemingway wrecked) what he had done in the past. Certainly, his speech seems to “crystallize relationships.” What he has said is pretty much the equivalent of “Shut up!”


[Hemingway's] is an obscuring and at the same time a revealing way to write dialogue, and only great skill can manage it—and make us aware at the same time that communication of a limited kind is now going on as best it can.

—Eudora Welty (90)

With the publication of “A Canary for One,” in April 1927, Hemingway's technical innovations in writing dialogue were complete. But the question of just how far he could push his new art—to what extent dialogue could carry a whole story—remained. The answer came a month later when he wrote “Hills Like White Elephants,” a story consisting almost entirely of dialogue. A woman and a man sit outside a bar at a railway station in Spain waiting for a train to Madrid—and they talk. Unlike the characters of “A Canary for One,” these characters know each other well and thus speak in the sort of shorthand that Wharton observed would make a conversation unintelligible to an outsider. Therefore, the very premise of the story forced Hemingway to construct relevance for the reader from what should have seemed nonsense. In addition, he made his task even more difficult by omitting the actual subject of their conversation (she is pregnant, and he wants her to have an abortion); as countless critics have noted, abortion, pregnancy, and babies are never once mentioned in the story. Lastly, as if to increase the challenge, he forswore any sort of narrative commentary or access to any character's consciousness; the nondialogue is completely neutral and, with the exception of one key symbol near the end, contributes nothing toward the reader's making sense of the dialogue.

Following a brief description of the physical setting, the characters have their first exchange: “‘What should we drink?’ the girl asked. She had taken off her hat and put it on the table. / ‘It's pretty hot,’ the man said. / ‘Let's drink beer’” (“Hills” [“Hills Like White Elephants”] 39). The woman's first speech will turn out to be revealing of her character; she lacks a sense of autonomy, is possessed of precious little will, and looks to her partner to make the decisions. His reply is even more revelatory. Although she is perfectly willing to have him make the decisions, whether about drinks or abortions, he needs to believe that she is actually taking part in the decision-making process at the same time as he prevents her from doing so. Here he succeeds and is able to get her to request the beers he so obviously wants, not by directly saying that he wants them but by merely making a statement about the weather. Such successful manipulation conveys the dynamics of their relationship in the present and, we may assume, in the past as well. The first exchange, so easy to overlook, tells us virtually all we need to know about these two characters: It crystallizes their relationship and their situation; it expresses their characters; and it encapsulates the ensuing plot. It also amply demonstrates Bowen's other main points about dialogue—that it is what characters do to each other, and that it contains calculation and involuntary self-revelation—all beneath a seemingly banal, spontaneous, and utterly artless surface.

The remainder of the story leading up to the climactic exchange plays out the couple's problems as they discuss, in an extremely veiled and shorthand manner, her pregnancy and the nature of their relationship. Much of the conversation is so obscure that on the literal level it can be comprehended only in light of the entire story. For instance, early in the text when it is clear that they are having a conflict but not what that conflict is about, she says that her Anis del Toro tastes like licorice, and he seems to respond innocuously: “That's the way with everything.” She agrees, but adds: “Everything tastes of licorice. Especially all the things you've waited so long for, like absinthe.” He is caught short by her statement and can only weakly reply, “Oh, cut it out” (40). To anyone but them, the conversation is about alcohol that tastes like licorice, whereas it is really about her desire to have a baby.

Or is it? Later in the story, she seems amenable to having the “simple operation,” as he terms it, if that will make everything all right between them, by which she means if he will respond to her when she makes such statements as the hills “look like white elephants” (41). However, such a response is beyond him—it would entail a capacity to see the world through her eyes and not just his own—and so he tries to distract her by saying that if she has the operation they will be “fine afterward” (41). At the same time, he undercuts his promises even as he protests his love for her, as in the following passage:

“And if I do it you'll be happy and things will be like they were and you'll love me?”

I love you now. You know I love you.”

“I know. But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you'll like it?”

“I'll love it. I love it now but I just can't think about it. You know how I get when I worry.”

(41, emphasis mine)

Although he ostensibly says what she wants to hear, the way he says it reveals more than what he says. Not only does he avoid answering her questions, the juxtaposition of “I love you” and “I love it” speaks volumes about his true feelings.

Throughout the story, he uses language to cloak his desires in a “logic” that can assault her language of metaphorically expressed desire. Since he cannot understand her language, she either resorts to mimicking his own words and phrases back at him: “things will be like they were” (41); or responding with passive aggressive self-abnegation: “Then I'll do it. Because I don't care about me” (41); or merely negating his statements: “We can have everything.” / “No, we can't.” / “We can have the whole world.” / “No, we can't.” / “We can go everywhere.” / “No, we can't. It isn't ours anymore.” / “It's ours.” / “No, it isn't” (42). Finally, she turns to silence to avoid further verbal battering. Only he won't stop talking.

If she wants respect and understanding even more than she wants the baby, it is equally clear (if the dialogue is carefully read) that what he wants is not just for her to have the abortion but also to acknowledge that she wants to have it, that is, to feign volition, thus absolving him from any responsibility for the actions he demands. His motive is manifest in an utterance halfway through the story that he repeats, in various forms, six more times: “Well … if you don't want to you don't have to. I wouldn't have you do it if you didn't want to” (41). Her responses to these attempts at verbal manipulation range from asking him if he wants her to have the operation (making him assume the responsibility), to asking whether he'll love her if she does (forcing a concession for agreeing to the abortion), to saying that she'll do it because she doesn't “care about” herself (a passive aggressive counterattack), to asking him if they can stop talking about it (avoidance). The one and only action she will not perform is to allow him to coerce her into pretending that the abortion is her own decision.

The following passage, which begins with the sixth variation of his trademark utterance (here introduced with particular insistence), takes place after her weary plea that they “maybe stop talking” (42) and is the emotional climax of the story:

[1] “You've got to realize,” he said, “that I don't want you to do it [1] if you don't want to. I'm perfectly willing to go through with it [2] if it [3] means anything to you.”

[2] “Doesn't it [4] mean anything to you? We could get along.”

[3] “Of course it [5] does. But I don't want anybody but you. I don't want any one else. And I know it's [6] perfectly simple.”

[4] “Yes, you know it's [7] perfectly simple.”

[5] “It's [8] all right for you to say that, but I do know it [9].”

[6] “Would you do something for me now?”

[7] “I'd do anything for you.”

[8] “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?”

[9] He did not say anything but looked at the bags against the wall of the station. There were labels on them from all the hotels where they had spent nights.

[10] “But I don't want you to,” he said, “I don't care anything about it [10].”

[11] “I'll scream,” the girl said.


The techniques employed in the above passage, so representative of the text as a whole, as well as of Hemingway's art of dialogue in general, should, by now, be manifest. The gender-based miscommunication in which the man's assertive declarative statements are parried by the woman's mimicking of him (paragraphs 2 and 4), by her questions (2, 6, 8), and by her request that he stop talking at her (8) that finally explodes in frustration (11) are typical of their entire conversation. Also typical is the way he makes a general statement, the content of which is intended to pacify her (“I'd do anything for you.”), that is revealed as a lie when she subsequently asks for “something” specific (8) and is refused (10). Moreover, he again reveals his hypocrisy through juxtaposition when he initially employs “perfectly” to modify his willingness to have the baby (1) and in his very next speech uses it to modify the supposed simplicity of having an abortion (3). That juxtaposition does not go unnoticed by her, as her mimicry indicates (4).

But the most remarkable aspect of the passage is Hemingway's full-blown employment of repetition. The repetition of key words like want and perfectly and polysyllabic words that have one syllable in common (anything, anybody, any one, something) creates a powerful verisimilitude, but the contexts in which these words are used keep the dialogue relevant. Even more extraordinary are the various uses of the word it in achieving these dual purposes of dialogue. It is used 10 times, but the antecedent/referent continually changes. The first time, it refers to having the abortion, the second time to having the baby, and the third through fifth times either to having the baby or to the baby itself. The sixth time, it again refers to having the abortion; the seventh time, it refers to having the abortion or, perhaps, to her sense of their entire situation; the eighth time, it is an expletive (there is no antecedent); and the ninth time, it refers to the “knowledge” that having an abortion is simple. These uses of it not only mirror the shorthand manner by which people in real life refer to matters that they both understand (or think that they understand), it also creates the ironic ambiguity that makes for relevance. By subsuming such radically incompatible antecedents within one pronoun, Hemingway demonstrates the process by which, in dialogue, all hope of communication may become impossible.

After the woman's emotional request for the man to stop talking (paragraph 8), Hemingway allows himself two brief sentences of nondialogue that aptly sum up the man's real attitude toward his mate. Looking at the bags with labels that symbolize his desire to make her into a purely sexual object that would leave him unencumbered by the responsibilities of love and family (and mutual respect), the man tries one last time his verbally violent sentence (in a truncated form) in order to coerce her into “choosing” the abortion of her own “free will” (paragraph 10). In the sentence he uses the word care, which he had previously used in insisting that he “cared” about her. Here, he says that he doesn't care about “it,” which in its tenth and final incarnation has come to conflate the abortion, the baby, the entire conversation, and (in juxtaposition with her as “object” in the previous paragraph 9) the unsubjugated, nonsexual part of the woman's self. Her reply, and ours? “I'll scream.” Then, there is one last irony: “‘I'd better take the bags over to the other side of the station,’ the man said.” A good place for that particular symbol! And there is one last moment of possible triumph as she smiles at him in the knowledge that she has not relinquished her last small shred of autonomy. With her final speech—“I feel fine. … There's nothing wrong with me. I feel fine” (44)—Hemingway leaves his talking couple to an ambiguous fate and brings his dialogue experiment to a close.6


Hemingway systematized a treatment of dialogue in a manner now scarcely possible to appreciate, so much has the Hemingway usage taken the place of what went before.

—Anthony Powell (110)

What exactly was it that “went before” Hemingway's revolutionary innovations in fictional dialogue? For Henry James, whose theory and practice of dialogue were exemplary in the late nineteenth century, fictional dialogue was purely complementary; its proper and only function was to be “directly illustrative of something given us by another method” of presentation (“London” 1404). The idea that dialogue could crystallize situation or advance plot was, to James, ludicrous, and any attempt to have dialogue undertake such a “constructive office” he termed “suicidal” (“Balzac” 137, “London” 1404). In fact, even the notion of “really constructive dialogue, dialogue organic and dramatic, speaking for itself, representing and embodying substance and form” was an “abhorrent thing,” appropriate to the theater but never to fiction (“Preface” 1127, “Balzac” 137). Moreover, James, for whom mimesis was a paramount goal of fiction, did not believe that direct speech was capable of being mimetically reproduced, and so he called for writers to recognize “the impossibility of making people both talk ‘all the time’ and talk with the needful differences” (“London” 1404).

Hemingway, of course, owed a great deal to James, whose own dialogue served as a powerful model for the young author in its indirection, ambiguity, and portrayal of communication as veiled, partial, and difficult.7 But James's theories of fiction—despite his movement toward increased dramatization, foreshortening, and the effacement of the narrator—derived from his work in the nineteenth-century novel of manners. The sine qua non of that genre was the dense depiction of social texture and the representation of lapse of time, and dialogue for purposes other than illustration interfered with these fictional aims (“Howells” 505-06). Hemingway's prosaics, however, derived from an entirely different genre—the emerging modern short story—and they were influenced as well by his experiences in journalism, by the impressionism of Stephen Crane, Stein's theories of repetition, Joyce's complex dialogue patterns, and the imagism of Ezra Pound. The modern short story's demands for radical compression, which led to the need for a high degree of suggestiveness and implication, eliminated the portrayal of social texture and duration that lay at the heart of the novel of manners. These generic demands enabled Hemingway, perhaps even compelled him, to rely on and further compress dialogue, allowing it to assume a greater responsibility in fictional composition than ever before, even to the point of removing almost completely the minimal narrative commentary without which, James had felt, fiction would cease to be fiction and would cross over into drama. James, of course, could not have anticipated the new genre and its heavy reliance on direct speech, and even some of Hemingway's most illustrious contemporaries would find his dialogue-laden stories unseemly. Virginia Woolf, for one, criticized such dialogue in Jamesian terms in her review of the stories in Men Without Women (8). But Dorothy Parker, reviewing the same volume, fully understood that Hemingway's style was “far more effective … in the short story than in the novel” and that the new genre demanded radically different techniques of construction and representation (93).8

The Jamesian novel of manners was written for a pre-Freudian audience, and it treated the romantic egoist within a fully developed social world. Consequently, it focused on the consciousnesses of characters capable of rich perception, feeling, and self-awareness. Dialogue was akin to a game of chess, played by sophisticated characters highly skilled and inordinately sensitive to the slightest nuance. Although a great deal of miscommunication occurred, much communication took place as well. The Hemingway short story, on the other hand, portrayed transient modern individuals cut loose from their social moorings. His characters, no less capable of feeling, are much less articulate, sophisticated, skilled in the strategies of speech, and consciously self-aware. But their conversations, as I have tried to show, are every bit as complicated as those of James's characters because, however limited their consciousnesses may be, they possess the same complex unconscious motivations as any human characters.

It should go without saying that one need not be a highly developed, self-aware, social creature to be worthy of consideration, either in literature or in life. Yet, it bears noting, because from the start—with Lee Wilson Dodd's comments on Hemingway's attention to “certain sorts of people” with “oddly limited minds, interests, and patterns of behavior” (323); Wyndham Lewis's famous essay on Hemingway as a “dumb ox” whose characters are dull witted and bovine; and D. S. Savage's nearly obscene assessment of Hemingway's art as representing “the proletarianization of literature; the adaptation of the technical artistic conscience to the subaverage human consciousness” (14-15)—Hemingway's detractors have invariably based their attack on his donnée: his inarticulate characters and their class-bound cultural limitations. Such sentiments are, of course, deplorable, and one would expect today's multicultural and class-sensitive critics to denounce them with alacrity as, at the very least, elitist. But literary criticism has always had an ambivalent attitude toward the uneducated classes, defending them in principle but finding itself viscerally repelled by fiction that features such characters not as a type of “noble savage,” but from the inside in all their awkwardness and crudity. Hemingway—cosmopolitan, multilingual, bookish, and intellectual though he was—did not turn from such characters. In finding ways to allow them to speak, the writer who once jokingly referred to himself as “the Henry James of the People” (“Hadley” 556) fashioned new techniques that brought them fully into the pages of fiction.9

Admirers of Henry James are not often found appreciating Ernest Hemingway.10 The former portrays intellectually rich worlds that critics find delightful; the latter deals with unsophisticated characters who have difficulty expressing their thoughts and emotions. Moreover, in some of today's so-called “cutting edge” critical discourse, these characters are conflated with a caricatured author who seems to represent much of what is most pernicious in the unrevised canon: the physically imposing, bullying, bearded, cigar-smoking, misogynist, racist, heterosexist, white man who hunts, fights, fishes, and fornicates (and, what is worse, writes endlessly about it). Such criticism, of course, is extremely unfair. As Toni Morrison has recently observed, “it would be irresponsible and unjustified to invest Hemingway with the thoughts of his characters” (85).11 Even more to the point, she cautions against judging “the quality of a work based on the attitudes of an author or whatever representations are made of some group” (90). Morrison's advice is especially appropriate for Hemingway scholarship since, the various ideological agendas of critics notwithstanding, Hemingway's fiction continues to influence writers of widely diverse backgrounds and ideologies. For whenever we consider technique—without which, as Arnold Isenberg reminds us, there can be no art12—his presence is unavoidable. If nothing else, to go from James's use of dialogue to Eudora Welty's and Raymond Carver's, one must pass through the texts of Ernest Miller Hemingway who, during a period of 3[frac12] years, completely altered the function and technique of fictional dialogue and presented it as one of his many legacies to twentieth-century literature.


  1. One need only mention Hemingway's influence on authors as different as Isaac Babel, Sean O'Faolain, Dorothy Parker, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, William Faulkner, Elio Vittorini, Nathalie Sarraute, Albert Camus, Heinrich Böll, Eudora Welty, Cesare Pavese, Ralph Ellison, J. D. Salinger, Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, John Munonye, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Edna O'Brien, Gabriel García Márquez, and Toni Morrison.

  2. Lest I appear to be belaboring the obvious, it is important to repeat that I am aware that critics have thoroughly examined Hemingway's employment of these devices in his narrative prose and that they have also explored the genealogy of these techniques in terms of influences. But narrative prose and direct speech are very different elements of fiction, and no one has ever shown how Hemingway extended these techniques to dialogue. In other words, it is not my intention merely to rehash imagist poetics or Hemingway's “tip of the iceberg” theory but to provide the first systematic examination of his dialogue techniques.

  3. Dr. Adams's reply is suggestive. He consciously means to say that the Indian was emotionally unable to go on living, but he employs an idiom with the word stand, reminding the reader of the Indian's injured foot that prevented him from joining the other Indian men outside the shanty and forced him to be a silent witness to his wife's ordeal. The Indian father's injury is a sign of his helplessness, and perhaps functions in Dr. Adams's speech as a subtle indication of the helplessness that the story's other father now feels.

  4. Hemingway often employed such referential ambiguity in his dialogues, as I will later show, in order to reproduce the ways in which people miscommunicate (a technique he may have learned from reading Henry James's The Awkward Age). He also, on occasion, used it for an ironic effect. For instance, just before Dr. Adams discovers the suicide, he announces: “Ought to have a look at the proud father. They're usually the worst sufferers in these little affairs” (18). The intended referent of “proud father” and “worst sufferer” is the Indian father, but the statement is unintentionally self-referential, since Dr. Adams is the only father in the story who is proud (albeit in another sense), and he is, at that moment, the most insufferable of the characters. “Little affairs” is meant as an understated reference to the brutal operation, but it also refers to the baby and, on a metatextual level, to the story itself.

  5. For a variation on the technique, see the sixth paragraph of “A Canary for One,” in which Hemingway takes four phrases from the second sentence and rewords and repeats them in a different order in the last sentence. Although Stein exerted a powerful influence on Hemingway's prose, repetition as a literary technique was very much “in the air” after the war. Hemingway had been experimenting with it as early as 1920, two years before he met or read Stein, in his journalism for the Toronto Star Weekly. See Reynolds, Young Hemingway, pp. 191, 213-14.

  6. Their fate is all the more ambiguous because we do not know if there is any significance to his taking the bags to the other side of the station. For a complementary reading of the dialogue in “Hills” that explores how the two characters' inability to communicate derives from gender-based linguistic, ontological, and epistemological differences, see the excellent article by Smiley. My only point of contention with Professor Smiley is that I see the man's verbal acts as consciously manipulative and sinister, while she views them as a social construction of which he is mainly unaware and therefore somewhat victimized. I also think that the narrative's action hinges on the woman's refusal to feign volition in the abortion decision, in effect defending what little autonomy she has left, rather than on her desire for love and/or the baby. I do, however, fully agree that the rhetoric of both characters is strongly gender based and very representative, and that gender lies at the core of their relationship and its difficulties.

  7. It was Hemingway's most influential mentor, Ezra Pound, who compelled the young writer into the works of Henry James, an instruction abetted by the fact that Hemingway's first two wives were James enthusiasts. Although Hemingway alternately ridiculed and praised James and was loath to acknowledge any influence (which was his usual response to any writer who had truly mattered in his development), and although the impact of James on Hemingway would not be fully felt until the late 1940s and 1950s when Hemingway was desperately trying (and failing in his attempts) to write Jamesian novels, nevertheless early in his career James's texts had shown him, as Reynolds has observed, that “the significance of … dialogue appears frequently in the white space between the lines” and that “it is what the characters do not say that is highlighted by their conversation” (Paris Years 30).

  8. Regarding the purposes of fictional dialogue, there is a clear distinction between the views of James, Wharton, and Woolf, who were primarily novelists, and of Bowen, Hemingway, and Welty, who were completely at home in the modern short-story genre. The notion that dialogue should be limited to an illustrative function was especially at odds with the new genre. Bowen addressed the critical point of difference:

    Each piece of dialogue must be “something happening.” Dialogue may justify its presence by being “illustrative”—but this secondary use of it must be watched closely, challenged. Illustrativeness can be stretched too far. Like straight description, it then becomes static, a dead weight—halting the movement of the plot.

    (“Notes” 256)

    Bowen, who greatly admired James, felt that James's short stories, for all their virtuosity, represented a “dead end” in the genre's development that could neither be imitated nor advanced upon. See her introduction to The Faber Book of Modern Short Stories (1936), reprinted in Collected Impressions, p. 39. For a discussion of the peculiar demands of the modern short-story form and why James found these and the consequences of compression inhospitable, see my “Observations on Hemingway, Suggestiveness, and the Modern Short Story,” The Midwest Quarterly 37.1 (Fall 1995): 11-26.

  9. John Ciardi reminds us: “What counts, as I see it, is the way in which the GIs of World War II lived and died with Hemingway dialogue in their mouths. … Their language was not out of Hemingway but out of themselves. Yet it justified his power as nothing else could” (32).

  10. Despite the fact that they were both prominent in the old canon and were often linked thematically, James and Hemingway have always seemed to appeal to different audiences, as the famous exchange of letters in 1955 between Leon Edel and Philip Young, at the time the two leading critical champions of James and Hemingway, respectively, makes clear. For their exchange, see Folio 20 (Spring 1955): 18-22; reprinted in Hemingway: A Collection of Critical Essays. Robert P. Weeks, ed. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1962. 169-74.

  11. Although Morrison explores the ways in which the Africanist presence influences the form and content of Hemingway's texts, she is quick to add that “there is no evidence I know of to persuade me that Hemingway shared [the racist views of one of his characters]. In point of fact there is strong evidence to suggest the opposite” (86).

  12. Isenberg observes:

    Art is nothing if it is not control. But we control only those of our acts whose outcome we foresee; and we foresee no result unless we have been over the ground before. It is technique, therefore, that gives direction to impulse and marks the difference between art and caprice.


I wish to thank several wonderful friends and scholars who have, in different ways, inspired this essay and/or contributed to its final form: Warner Berthoff, Kermit Vanderbilt, Marc Dolan, Debra Jacobs, Wendy Flory, Dick Thompson, and Patsy Yaeger.

Works Cited

Bowen, Elizabeth. “Notes on Writing a Novel” [1945]. In Collected Impressions. New York: Knopf, 1950. 249-63.

Ciardi, John. “The Language of an Age.” Saturday Review 44 (29 July 1961): 32.

Dodd, Lee Wilson. “Simple Annals of the Callous.” Book review of Men Without Women, by Ernest Hemingway. Saturday Review of Literature 4 (19 Nov. 1927): 322-23.

Ehrenburg, Ilya. “The World Weighs a Writer's Influence: USSR.” Saturday Review 44 (29 July 1961): 20.

Ellison, Ralph. “A Rejoinder” [1964]. In “The World and the Jug.” In Shadow and Act. New York: Vintage, 1972. 107-43.

Ford, Ford Madox. Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance. Boston: Little, 1924.

Hemingway, Ernest. “An Alpine Idyll.” In Men Without Women. [1927]. New York: Scribner's, 1970. 109-15.

———. “A Canary for One.” In Men Without Women. 103-108.

———. Letter to Hadley Mowrer. 25 Nov. 1943. In Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters 1917-1961. Ed. Carlos Baker. New York: Scribner's, 1981. 554-56.

———. “Hills Like White Elephants.” In Men Without Women. 39-44.

———. “Indian Camp.” In In Our Time. [1925]. New York: Scribner's, 1970. 15-19.

———. “Three Shots.” In The Nick Adams Stories. Ed. Philip Young. New York: Scribner's, 1972. 13-15.

Isenberg, Arnold. “The Technical Factor in Art.” Journal of Philosophy 43.1 (1946): 5-19. Rpt. in Aesthetics and the Theory of Criticism: Selected Essays of Arnold Isenberg. Eds. William Callaghan et al. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1973. 53-69.

James, Henry. “The Lesson of Balzac” [1905]. In Henry James: Literary Criticism: French Writers, Other European Writers, The Prefaces to the New York Edition. Ed. Leon Edel. New York: Library of America, 1984. 115-39.

———. “London Notes” [1897]. In Henry James: Literary Criticism: Essays on Literature, American Writers, English Writers, the Preface to the New York Edition. Ed. Leon Edel. New York: Library of America, 1984. 1387-1413.

———. “Preface to The Awkward Age” [1908]. In Henry James: Literary Criticism: French Writers, Other European Writers, The Prefaces to the New York Edition. Ed. Leon Edel. New York: Library of America, 1984. 1120-37.

———. “William Dean Howells” [1886]. In Henry James: Literary Criticism: Essays on Literature, American Writers, English Writers, The Preface to the New York Edition. Ed. Leon Edel. New York: Library of America, 1984. 497-506.

Levi, Carlo. “The World Weighs a Writer's Influence: Italy.” Saturday Review 44 (29 July 1961): 19.

Lewis, Wyndham. “Ernest Hemingway: The ‘Dumb Ox.’” In Men Without Art. London: Cassell, 1934. 17-40.

Macauley, Robie, and George Lanning. Technique in Fiction. 2nd ed. New York: St. Martin's, 1987.

Madariaga, Salvador de. “The World Weighs a Writer's Influence: Spain.” Saturday Review 44 (29 July 1961): 18.

Márquez, Gabriel García. “Gabriel García Márquez Meets Ernest Hemingway.” New York Times Book Review (26 July 1981): 1, 16, 17.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992.

Parker, Dorothy. “A Book of Great Short Stories.” Book review of Men Without Women, by Ernest Hemingway. The New Yorker 3 (29 Oct. 1927): 92-94.

Powell, Anthony. Messengers of Day. Vol. 2 of To Keep the Ball Rolling: The Memoirs of Anthony Powell. New York: Holt, 1978.

Pryce-Jones, Alan. “The World Weighs a Writer's Influence: England.” Saturday Review 44 (29 July 1961): 21.

Reynolds, Michael. Hemingway: The Paris Years. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989.

———. The Young Hemingway. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986.

Savage, D. S. “Ernest Hemingway.” In Focus Two. Eds. B. Rajan and Andrew Pearse. London: Dobson, 1946. 7-27.

Smiley, Pamela. “Gender-Linked Miscommunication in ‘Hills Like White Elephants.’” The Hemingway Review 8.1 (1988): 2-12. Rpt. in New Critical Approaches to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. Ed. Jackson J. Benson. Durham: Duke UP, 1990. 288-99.

Stein, Gertrude. “Composition as Explanation” [1926]. In Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein. Ed. Carl Van Vechten. New York: Vintage, 1972. 513-23.

Welty, Eudora. “Looking at Short Stories” [1949]. In The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews. New York: Vintage, 1979. 85-106.

Wharton, Edith. The Writing of Fiction. 1925. New York: Octagon, 1966.

Woolf, Virginia. “An Essay in Criticism.” Book review of Men Without Women, by Ernest Hemingway. New York Herald Tribune Books 9 (9 Oct. 1927): 1, 8.

Further Reading

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DeFazio, Jr., Albert J. “Current Bibliography: Annotated.” Hemingway Review 21, no. 2 (spring 2002): 159–67.


Adair, William. “Hemingway's ‘A Veteran Visits His Old Front’: Images and Situations for the Fiction.” ANQ 8, no. 1 (winter 1995): 27-30.

Discusses approaches to teaching “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” in the classroom.

Berman, Ron. “Vaudeville Philosophers: ‘The Killers.’” Twentieth Century Literature 45, no. 1 (spring 1999): 79-93.

Considers the “Vaudeville philosophy” in “The Killers.”

Bond, Adrian. “Being Operated On: Hemingway's ‘The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio.’” Studies in Short Fiction 34, no. 3 (summer 1997): 371-78.

Argues that injury is a plot element in “The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio.”

Bosha, Francis J. “Ernest Hemingway and The New Yorker: The Harold Ross Files.” The Hemingway Review 21, no. 1 (fall 2001): 93-9.

Offers a close reading of “My Own Life.”

Bush, Lyall. “Consuming Hemingway: ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ in the Postmodern Classroom.” The Journal of Narrative Technique 25, no. 1 (winter 1995): 23-46.

Addresses approaches to teaching “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

Carter, Steven. “A Note on Hemingway's ‘Ten Indians’ and Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury.The Hemingway Review 20, no. 2 (spring 2001): 103-06.

Determines the influence of “Ten Indians” on Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury.

Carter, Steven. “Hemingway's ‘A Canary for One.’” The Explicator 55, no. 3 (spring 1997): 154-55.

Examines the self-destructive behavior of the canary in ‘A Canary for One.’

Cioe, Paul. “Teaching Hemingway's ‘Hills Like White Elephants’: A Simple Operation?” Eureka Studies in Teaching Short Fiction 3, no. 1 (fall 2002): 101-05.

Discusses approaches to teaching “Hills Like White Elephants” in the classroom.

Cohen, Milton A. “Soldier's Voices in In Our Time: Hemingway's Ventriloquism.” The Hemingway Review 20, no. 1 (fall 2000): 22-9.

Explores the extensive number of soldier's voices in In Our Time.

Dubus, André. “A Hemingway Story.” The Kenyon Review 19, no. 2 (spring 1997): 141-47.

Investigates the influence of Hemingway's “In Another Country” on André Dubus.

Felty, Darren. “Spatial Confinement in Hemingway's ‘Cat in the Rain.’” Studies in Short Fiction 34, no. 3 (summer 1997): 363-69.

Compares the manuscript drafts of “Cat in the Rain” to the final draft of the story.

Griffin, Peter. “A Foul Mood, A Dirty Joke: Hemingway's ‘Cat in the Rain.’” The Hemingway Review 20, no. 2 (spring 2001): 99-102.

Explicates a dirty joke contained in “Cat in the Rain.”

Kravtiz, Bennett. “‘She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not’: The Short Happy Symbiotic Marriage of Margot and Francis Macomber.” Journal of American Culture 21, no. 3 (spring 1998): 83-7.

Probes the symbiotic relationship between love and hate in “The Short Happy Life.”

McKenna, John J., and David M. Raabe. “Using Temperament Theory to Understand Conflict in Hemingway's ‘Soldier's Home.’” Studies in Short Fiction 34, no. 2 (spring 1997): 203-13.

Uses temperament theory to investigate conflict in “Soldier's Home.”

Nolan, Charles J, Jr. “Hemingway's Puzzling Pursuit Race.” Studies in Short Fiction 34, no. 4 (winter 1997): 363-69.

Provides a close reading of Hemingway's “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”

Nyman, Jopi. “Getting One In: Masculinity and Hemingway's Boxing Stories.” ZAA 47, no. 1 (1999): 54-63.

Investigates the representation of masculinity in “The Battler” and “Fifty Grand.”

Pfeiffer, Gerhard. “‘She Expected, Absolutely Unexpectedly’: A Freudian Wordplay in ‘A Very Short Story.’” The Hemingway Review 21, no. 1 (fall 2001): 100-01.

Briefly discusses a Freudian pun contained in “A Very Short Story.”

Smith, Paul. “A Summer of Submissions: Hemingway's Postcard Notes.” The Hemingway Review 14, no. 2 (spring 1995): 118-26.

Lists the changes to “Big Two-Hearted River” that Hemingway sent to his editor via postcard.

Trout, Steven. “‘Where Do We Go From Here?’: Ernest Hemingway's ‘Soldier's Home’ and American Veterans of World War I.” The Hemingway Review 20, no. 1 (fall 2000): 5-21.

Examines the story “Soldier's Home” within the context of the problems experienced by the American Expeditionary Force.

Additional coverage of Hemingway's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers; American Writers: The Classics, Vol. 1; American Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 1; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 19; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 2; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vols. 2, 3, 13; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1917-1929; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 77-80; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 34; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 3, 6, 8, 10, 13, 19, 30, 34, 39, 41, 44, 50, 61, 80; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 4, 9, 102, 210; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 1, 15, 16; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1981, 1987, 1996, 1998; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Novels; Exploring Short Stories; Literature and Its Times, Vols. 3, 4; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vols. 1, 5, 6, 14; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 17; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 1, 25, 36, 40; Twayne's United States Authors; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 115; World Literature Criticism; and Writers for Young Adults.

Amy Strong (essay date fall 1996)

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SOURCE: Strong, Amy. “Screaming Through Silence: The Violence of Race in ‘Indian Camp’ and ‘The Doctor and The Doctor's Wife.’” The Hemingway Review 16, no. 1 (fall 1996): 18-32.

[In the following essay, Strong elucidates the way in which Hemingway “negotiates the matter of race” in “Indian Camp” and “The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife.”]

In her recent work of literary criticism, Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison calls our attention to the way critics have ignored an abiding Africanist presence that weaves its way through the works of white American authors:

There seems to be a more or less tacit agreement among literary scholars that, because American literature has been clearly the preserve of white male views, genius, and power, those views, genius, and power are without relationship to and removed from the overwhelming presence of black people in the United States. … The contemplation of this black presence is central to any understanding of our national literature and should not be permitted to hover at the margins of the literary imagination.


While my focus in this essay will be on the lack of an Indian (rather than Africanist) presence, I will explore the ways Hemingway negotiates the matter of “race” and racial difference in two short stories from In Our Time. Like recent readings of Hemingway's fiction which have begun to outline issues of “gender trouble,”1 my work will center on two of his earliest short stories, “Indian Camp” and “The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife,” to examine how Hemingway represents the instability of racial identity. In the first story, he presents race simply as a biological feature, but then in the second revises this model to create a complex, shifting depiction of race that anticipates the essentialist/constructionist debates waged today.2 Secondarily, I hope this study might begin to uncover the ways his work has interrogated power relations built on racial identity, and even exposed the instability of power based on such a system of inequality.

Critics have long been aware of the Edenic and, more specifically, Adamic longings to be found in Hemingway's work, longings he shares with American writers such as Whitman, Hawthorne, and Melville. The Nick Adams stories, with their obvious gesture toward this tradition, have generated a number of comments on the symbolism of the name “Adams,” but most critics seem to have internalized R. W. B. Lewis's formulation in The American Adam that to be Adamic is to efface racial history.3 Quoting from an 1839 Democratic Review, Lewis defines the Adamic myth: “Our national birth was the beginning of a new history … which separates us from the past and connects us with the future only” (5). Traditionally, “Indian Camp” and “The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife” have been read as tales of initiation, focusing heavily on the final scene in “Indian Camp” and Nick's musing that “he felt quite sure that he would never die” (19), and/or on the unity between father and son in “The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife” when they choose to seek out black squirrels together.4 To be sure, the Indians in these stories have been characterized, often as symbols of darkness and primitivism, but even this characterization functions primarily to offset Nick's character. My argument is not specifically with the way critics have characterized the Indians (although that racial subtext should be examined). It is rather that Hemingway's stories do, in fact, present an Adamic figure whose identity cannot be fully understood without historicizing his relation to these Indians—a relation based on racial domination. What takes place within these two stories is a male-male rivalry, white male against Indian male, where the endangered territory returns to eerily familiar historical subjects/catalysts for violence: the woman's body and the land. In the opening scene of “Indian Camp,” we find Nick, Dr. Adams, and Uncle George being ferried across a lake through a gloomy, misty darkness. Joseph DeFalco points out that “the classical parallel is too obvious to overlook, for the two Indians function in a Charon-like fashion in transporting Nick, his father, and his uncle from their own sophisticated and civilized world of the white man into the dark and primitive world of the camp” (161). The Hades metaphor not only seems “too obvious to overlook,” but other details add further support to his reading, such as the dogs “rushing out” at the men once they reach the other side of the lake. “A dog came out barking. … More dogs rushed out at them” (IOT [In Our Time] 16). This seemingly gratuitous appearance recalls Cerberus, the many-headed dog who challenged spirits trying to enter or leave Hades. Furthermore, if a Charon-like figure ferries the men across the lake, we may imagine the river Styx, but as the men return, now with Dr. Adams at the oars, we may be reminded of another famous river in Hades. Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, works well in this context for two reasons: it helps illuminate Nick's final thoughts of immortality at the end of the story, and it implicates both father and son in a larger historical pattern of forgetting. At the end of “Indian Camp,” Nick and his father have a brief, but pointed catechistic interchange about death, and because we have just witnessed Nick's “initiation” into the world of pain and death, his final thought surprises some readers. Trailing his hand in the water as his father rowed them back across, Nick “felt quite sure that he would never die” (19). Even if we abandon the mythic elements here and simply see a boy being rowed across the lake by his father, we must admit some element of willful forgetfulness and an enormous amount of psychical distancing from his experience at the Indian camp. The goal of this particular reading is not meant to encourage discussion of Hemingway's familiarity with Orphic mythology, or even to presume that he was referring to Greek myth in “Indian Camp.” Rather, it serves as a metaphor for the ways Hemingway's story has been read; readers have also trailed their hands in the river of forgetfulness, overlooking the Indians' role not only in this story, but in the making of American identity. I believe we have not fully engaged with “Indian Camp” or “The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife” unless we come to terms with the way the identities of Nick and his father are constructed in relation to the Indians' presence, and vice versa.

One of the most perplexing issues in “Indian Camp” springs from the moment when Dr. Adams has successfully completed his crude operation on the Indian woman and reaches up into the bunk to check on the father, only to find—to his undisguised horror—that the Indian has slit his throat “from ear to ear” (18). We may simply wish to accept the explanation given by Dr. Adams: “He couldn't stand things, I guess” (19). It does seem true that the Indian “couldn't stand things,” but does this simply mean he couldn't stand his wife's physical pain? However astounding the woman's pain, the doctor has arrived, and the two days of pain should be alleviated very soon. Which then raises a different question: is it the doctor's presence that drives the Indian husband to suicide? I believe “Indian Camp” tells a different kind of initiation story, one that, like the Orphic myth, shows how a purified and initiated identity cannot be constructed without the binary opposition of unpurified and fallen selves.

The imagery surrounding Dr. Adams, Uncle George, and Nick's entry into the opposing camp is permeated by structures of domination. Once across the lake, Uncle George's first action is to offer cigars to the Indians who have rowed them across. It is not clear why Uncle George gives the Indians two cigars; it would not be a form of payment for rowing them across, because the doctor is obviously doing the Indian family a favor. It must be a gift, either in the form of a traditional ‘peace’ offering, or as a congratulatory gesture for the newborn baby. We have no signs, however, that the Indians will give any gift in return. Gayle Rubin's work explains that “gifts were the threads of social discourse, the means by which … societies were held together in the absence of specialized governmental institutions” (172). She further suggests that “gift exchange may also be the idiom of competition and rivalry” (172), using the example of the “Big Man” who humiliates another by giving more than can be reciprocated. This first form of exchange between cultures establishes a subtle, unequal dynamic of dominator/dominated.

Jürgen C. Wolter's article, “Cæsareans in an Indian Camp” describes the word Cæsarean as “highly ambiguous; in addition to being a technical term in surgery, it connotes authority, imperialism, assumption of power, and even tyrannical dictatorship” (92). After introducing this formulation, however, Wolter reverts to the familiar theme of the father-son relationship: “through the unintentionally violent (Cæsarean) initiation of his son, the pompous and omniscient Cæsar-doctor is reborn as a responsible and humanly imperfect father” (93). Despite this gesture toward metaphoric imperialism, Wolter reiterates the same story of initiation, adding the Cæsarean component to complicate our reading of Nick's father. But the “violent” Cæsarean is not performed on the doctor's son; it is performed, without anesthetic, on a screaming Indian woman. And while the location of this story may alleviate a severe condemnation of the doctor and his methods per se, because he saves the life of mother and child in an Indian camp distant from “civilization” (where, for example, anesthetic would be available) it is precisely the story's location that highlights the racial inequality between the two cultures with its insistent juxtaposition of light/dark, civilization/wilderness, clean/dirty. Dr. Adams's “Cæsarean” assumption of power implicates both father and son in a violent history with relevance far beyond the realm of familial bonds. As Hemingway draws the scene, the doctor appears to be the only person who can remain oblivious to the Indian woman's screams. All others who do not have to assist in the operation have moved up the road out of earshot. When Nick asks his father to quiet her screams, he responds: “But her screams are not important. I don't hear them because they are not important” (16). Some have read this as callousness, others as professional distance; either way, Dr. Adams psychically distances himself from the woman to the point that she loses her markers of humanity (this psychical distancing is repeated in Nick's belief that he will never die). Dr. Adams chooses to envision her body as a territory without agency or voice, a kind of uninhabited land he takes possession of and must get under control (what Stephen Greenblatt, in Marvelous Possessions, refers to as “terrae nullius” (60)). Once the doctor begins working on the Indian woman, her pain is so great—“Uncle George and three Indian men held the woman still” (17)—she bites Uncle George on the arm, resisting, fighting back. This image echoes a scene from another Hemingway story, “A Way You'll Never Be,” which provides a visual and psychological analogue for the Indian woman's experience at the hands of Dr. Adams:

propaganda postcards showing a soldier in Austrian uniform bending a woman backward over a bed; the figures were impressionistically drawn; very attractively depicted and had nothing in common with actual rape in which the woman's skirts are pulled over her head to smother her, one comrade sometimes sitting upon the head.

(SS [The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway] 402-3)

A woman, reduced to nothing but screams and biting at the men who hold her down, must submit as they perform an act over which she has no control. Certainly we cannot say that “Indian Camp” here depicts a rape; the doctor and the men holding this woman down are attempting to deliver a baby and save the mother's life. But what we can see, and perhaps more importantly, what the Indian husband sees, is a woman's body as a territory under complete control of white men.5 The Indian husband, we must not forget, had endured the most painful part of his wife's suffering, when she had been attended by “all the old women in the camp” (16). His suicide comes later, when the Indian women mysteriously leave the birthing to be replaced by three Indian men, Uncle George, Nick, and Dr. Adams.6

When Dr. Adams finishes the operation, he feels “exalted and talkative as football players are in the dressing room after a game” (18).

“That's one for the medical journal, George,” he said. “Doing a Cæsarian with a jack-knife and sewing it up with nine-foot, tapered gut leaders.”


Uncle George's sarcastic response, “Oh, you're a great man, all right” (18), not only reinforces the insidious connection between Dr. Adams and Cæsar (“a great man”), but the doctor's immediate desire to have the operation written down in the medical journals recalls Stephen Greenblatt's research on ways explorers conquered the “new world.” In Marvelous Possessions, Greenblatt explains that early settlers of the “new world” established themselves and gained property almost exclusively by means of speech acts: “For Columbus taking possession is principally the performance of a set of linguistic acts: declaring, witnessing, recording. The acts are public and official” (57). In addition to the verbal testimony, the speaker would take care that “everything would be written down and consequently have greater authority” (57). These documents would then provide both ‘truth’ and ‘legality’ for the procedure, “ensuring that the memory of the encounter is fixed, ensuring that there are not competing versions of what happened” (57). After the Cæsarean, Dr. Adams feels “exalted,” a word that not only means elated, but also connotates a rise in “status, dignity, power, honor, wealth” (Webster's New World Dictionary). He is “talkative,” defining and declaring his accomplishment before witnesses. Dr. Adams feels like a “football player in the dressing room after a game,” and when we consider football as a sanctioned form of violence between men, the dressing room represents a space where the winning team revels in a victory. Finally, there is Dr. Adams's wish to have this event written down in a medical journal. His medical journals represent an ultimate authority: a removed, consecrated sign of medical, legal, and institutional power, not unlike the proclamations sent back to the crown by Columbus as a form of institutional domination over the colonies.

Greenblatt further points out that Indians were unable to contradict the colonizers' proclamations, “because only linguistic competence, the ability to understand and to speak, would enable one to fill in the sign” (60). “Indian Camp” does not offer a single Indian voice, only the pregnant Indian woman's screams. Elaine Scarry's The Body in Pain explains the way extreme physical pain will “bring about an immediate reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned” (4). The Indian woman loses her ability to make sense through language, and she is ultimately rendered altogether senseless: “She did not know what had become of the baby or anything” (18); moreover, when her screams are acknowledged in this story, we find that the men have purposefully devised ways to screen them out. First, we find that the Indian men “moved off up the road … out of range of the noise she made” (16), specifically removing to a place where they need not hear her screams. Second, when Nick asks his father to quiet her screams, Dr. Adams instructs his son outright that he does not hear them. Third, as suggested earlier, we cannot definitively assert that even the Indian husband is directly reacting to his wife's screams, because he must know that after enduring them for so much time, they will soon cease. Hemingway's juxtaposition of Dr. Adams's insistent discourse and the woman's pre-literate or illiterate state shows how her body becomes her only identity. Her body literally gets hollowed out in this story; the figurative metaphor of terrae nullius has become a reality in the hands of Dr. Adams, much like Greenblatt's description of early settlers and their official claims for territory in the “new world”:

[Y]ou shall make before a notary public and the greatest possible number of witnesses, and the best known ones, an act of possession in our name, cutting trees and boughs, and digging or making, if there be an opportunity, some small building.


Dr. Adams has cut into the woman, like the early settlers leaving a gash in a tree, and her scar will serve as a marker (just as the scaler's mark of “White and McNally” signifies ownership of the logs in the second story). Because “Indian Camp” offers no anesthetic, offers a jack-knife rather than a scalpel, offers biting and screams of pain, the line between healing and violence becomes blurred. “The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife” also carries themes of gendered violence and bodily pain into a racially charged context. The opening scene hints at connections with “Indian Camp,” both in the representation of landscape and similarity in themes:

Dick Boulton came from the Indian camp to cut up logs for Nick's father. He brought his son Eddy and another Indian named Billy Tabeshaw with him. They came in through the back gate out of the woods, Eddy carrying the long cross-cut saw.

He turned and shut the gate. The others went on ahead of him down to the lake shore where the logs were buried in the sand.

(italics mine, IOT 23)

The allusions to “Indian Camp” are impossible to overlook. Again, we have an Indian camp, a father and son pair, a cross-cutting saw, an entry-way, the woods, the lake. Paul Strong's article, “First Nick Adams Stories,” offers a clear and startling summary of parallels between the two stories:

“Doc” arrives at the Indian camp with his jack-knife to deliver a baby trapped in its mother's womb; unless he is successful, it will probably die. “Dick” arrives at the Adamses' with cant-hooks to free up logs trapped in the sand; unless he does, the wood will probably rot. “Doc” heats water, washes his hands, delivers the baby and announces its identity—“it's a boy.” Eddie and Billy Tabeshaw deliver a log, wash it, and “Dick” determines its identity—“It belongs to White and McNally.” The Cæsarean ends with “Doc” “sewing it up”; because of the set-to, “Dick” never does “saw it up.”


“The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife” almost serves as a reply to the doctor's Cæsarian hubris in “Indian Camp,” for here the roles between the white man and the Indian have reversed. In this story, the doctor now needs the Indian men to help him dislodge the logs and saw them up. Here one Indian speaks—has the last word, in fact—while the doctor is silenced, though the Indians “could see from his back how angry he was” (25). Dr. Adams's verbal threat, “If you call me Doc once again, I'll knock your eye teeth down your throat,” is returned with “Oh, no, you won't, Doc” (25). Not only does Dick Boulton make the doctor back down, but he uses Ojibway, a language unfamiliar to Dr. Adams, to mock him. This scene presents an utter reversal of power relations, where the dominant language, or, the language of dominance, has lost its force. The threat of violence centers on the half-buried logs that lie along the lake's shore. One is reminded again of Kolodny's work, which shows a clear link between the land (virgin woods) and the female body as a primary site of contestation. Dick Boulton, described as a “half-breed,” dares to accuse Dr. Adams of stealing the logs.

“Well, Doc,” he said, “that's a nice lot of timber you've stolen.”

“Don't talk that way, Dick,” the doctor said. “It's driftwood.”


Dr. Adams chooses to re-name the wood, altering its status from “timber” which entails value and ownership, to “driftwood,” implying a freedom from the rules of legal possession. Dick counters this with a kind of textual evidence, the ultimate source of “truth” and “legality.”

“Wash it off. Clean off the sand on account of the saw. I want to see who it belongs to,” Dick said.

The log was just awash in the lake. Eddy and Billy Tabeshaw leaned on their cant-hooks sweating in the sun. Dick kneeled down in the sand and looked at the mark of the scaler's hammer in the wood at the end of the log.

“It belongs to White and McNally,” he said, standing up and brushing off his trousers' knees.

The doctor was very uncomfortable.


Just as the doctor's mark was left on the Indian woman's body and could later be further consecrated in the medical journals, the log in this scene bears the mark of its possessor—White and McNally. The symbolic value of the name, White, should not be lost in our reading. Thomas Strychacz's article “Dramatizations of Manhood in Hemingway's In Our Time and The Sun Also Rises” offers a useful reading of the scene's significance:

The mark of the scaler's hammer in the log shows that it belongs to “White” and McNally. In the same way, the fence around the white doctor's garden marks the extent of his domain in the forest, the Indian's traditional space, from which the three Indians appear and into which they disappear. The recognition that the land is stolen as well as the logs deepens the significance of the doctor's shame—it becomes his culture's shame too—and begins to explain why he fails to protect the integrity of his space. The doctor has no ground to stand on because the ground is, morally speaking, not his; the fence around the garden is as morally indefensible as stealing the logs.


Thus Dick Boulton uses a “textual” reference, the institutional imprint of a company's legal right, to support his shaming attack on Dr. Adams, and if we think back to “Indian Camp,” Dick's success should not take us by surprise. When Dr. Adams wished to applaud his achievement in performing the Cæsarean section under such primitive conditions, he immediately exclaimed that the procedure would be “one for the medical journal” (18). So when Dick Boulton refers to the text for his authority, the doctor can only back down. This may also explain the doctor's subsequent irritation when he re-enters the cottage: “In the cottage the doctor, sitting on the bed in his room, saw a pile of medical journals on the floor by the bureau. They were still in their wrappers unopened. It irritated him” (25). These same journals had once been the textual representation and affirmation of his great power, but in this scene they lie on the floor, unread, impotent and useless to him.

The “Big Man” dynamic described earlier is also reversed here. In “Indian Camp,” Uncle George distributes cigars, a gift that does not get reciprocated; but in “The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife,” when the confrontation begins, we find that “Dick was a big man. He knew how big a man he was” (24). The previously sanctioned forms of competition and rivalry have at last given way to overt threats and potential violence. For if we read these two stories as a unit, then the progression of violence from “Indian Camp” to “The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife” moves from the obscured to the overt; “Doc” sits on his bed cleaning a shotgun: “he pushed the magazine full of the heavy yellow shells and pumped them out again. They were scattered on the bed” (26). Strychacz has pointed out that “the rifle … signifies the technological superiority that hastened the appropriation of the Indian lands” (“Trophy-Hunting” 36). More obviously, we can easily decode the sexual metaphor of shells pumped through a shaft and then left scattered on the bed, wasted and impotent. The scene where violent, sexual, and racial markers all coincide most completely is during the climactic confrontation between “Dick” and “Doc”:

“If you think the logs are stolen, leave them alone and take your tools back to the camp,” the doctor said. His face was red.

“Don't go off at half-cock, Doc,” Dick said.


This scene contains not only a sexual, but also a racial metaphor that finally dislodges the most stubborn racial marker of all—skin color. During the confrontation, the doctor's face, presumably because of his embarrassment and anger, has turned red. A fight, ostensibly between Dick, the Indian, and Doc, the white man, must also be read in reverse: as a confrontation between Dick, “many of the farmers around the lake really believed he was a white man,” and Doc, whose “face was red” (italics mine, 24). A climactic scene between the “great man” and the “big man” forces social relations into the realm of violence, at once exposing and challenging the artificiality of power relations based on essentialist notions of racial difference, like those presented in “Indian Camp.” Here, in the second story, the racial markers continually shift, and we in turn must shift our perceptions of race in Hemingway's stories.

Borrowing from Michael Omi and Howard Winant, I would suggest that Hemingway's stories represent race as an “unstable and ‘decentered’ complex of social meanings constantly being transformed by political struggle” (55). “Indian Camp” does present a biologically based view of racial difference and implies almost unwavering success for power relations that rely on white male dominance. The only crack in the veneer comes with Uncle George's sarcasm, which deflates Dr. Adams's self-aggrandizement, but George's remark loses its force in the wake of Nick's final musing that he will never die. Returning once again to Nick's final words in “Indian Camp,” George Monteiro has suggested that the words reflect a belief he will never die “that way” (155), as the Indian has died. This reading again foregrounds Nick's extreme psychical distancing between self and other, a pattern of distancing he learned from his father, to whom the woman's screams are “not important.” But “The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife” seriously complicates Nick's hyper-essentialist notion (that we are so different, even the ultimate leveler of humanity—death—divides the races). Dick defies racial categorization, co-opts forms of literacy valued by Dr. Adams, challenges him based on the law, and therefore reverses the power relations based in an authority ordinarily accessible only to whites. All of this simultaneously highlights the social constructedness of racial difference, undoing the hierarchy of power in “Indian Camp,” and creating overt parallels between Dick/Doc, and to some extent, between Dr. Adams and the Indian husband.

The brief interchange in the cottage between Dr. Adams and his nameless wife serves as yet another reference to the doctor's earlier authority in “Indian Camp”:

“Remember, that he who ruleth his spirit is greater than he that taketh a city,” said his wife. She was a Christian Scientist. Her Bible, her copy of Science and Health and her Quarterly were on a table beside her bed in the darkened room.


The depiction of the doctor's wife, in pain, lying in a room described twice as “darkened” and twice as “with the blinds drawn,” may at first seem to present another helpless, colonized woman, whose nameless identity stems from her role as wife and mother. But her religion relies on divine law in times of sickness, disregarding medical means of healing. Almost a direct attack on the value of medical journals, her textual authority comes in the form of a Bible, Science and Health, and the Quarterly, books entirely devoted to a faith which “denies the necessity of [Dr. Adams's] professional function” (DeFalco 165). Furthermore, her quote from scripture draws a stark contrast between the Cæsar-doctor of “Indian Camp” (“he that taketh a city”) and the diminutive “Doc” who turns his back on a petty fight (“he who ruleth his spirit”); the husband's power is productive here only when directed inward. Of course, this form of power is the only kind afforded to the Indian husband as well.

As Dana Nelson has written, drawing on Foucault, “it is wrong to see power as only oppressive. It can be productive and progressive—both by the intentions of those who exercise it, and unintentionally, in the gaps left by its constant failure to create a total, seamless system” (xii). For power to be total, or invulnerable, the object of that power would have to remain static and silent. While “Indian Camp” gives the impression of total domination, the seams begin to show even within that story (Uncle George's sarcasm, the Indian woman's biting back, Nick's tenuous immunity from death). In the second story, “The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife,” the forms of domination in the first story come back to be co-opted and reinscribed by Dick, a man whose racial markings will not hold. The non-speaking have become bilingual; those without access to institutionalized literacy now rely on legal fine print; the woman's body has been colonized by a higher power; the doctor cannot control even the color of his skin. The conflict between Dick and Dr. Adams becomes an almost entirely discursive one, implying yet again that power relations depend on the social or cultural construction of “race,” a construction that must remain variable, in flux. But Hemingway's stories do not allow such a simplified resolution, and if we take up Joyce A. Joyce's charge that to deconstruct race is to diminish or negate black identity (341), we cut to the heart of my interest in these two stories as a unit, because Hemingway does not deny the essentialist notion that some kind of inherent racial identity remains lodged in the body. The jack-knife cuts a woman's womb open; the razor slits a man's throat from ear to ear. These bodies are real; pain has marked them.

Without denying the corporeal reality of lived racial experience, these stories also demonstrate that individuals can slide back and forth between the larger categories of race. In the first story, racial essentialism comes from the fact that characters are clearly defined as white or Indian, and their roles do not shift or change in any way. White dominates and the Indian remains silent, passive, and under control of the whites. The only hint of role reversal comes when the Indian woman bites Uncle George's arm and the other Indian laughs at him, conscious of the incongruity and unexpectedness of her act. This laugh, however, is translated in the second story into outright mockery. The roles have been reversed, but in order to represent this, Hemingway actually has his characters' faces change color—to be humiliated is to be red and to be victor is to be white. In this scenario, then, the tag “race” remains stable, because “white” equates with power and “red” equates with submission, but the individuals move fluidly between these markers.

In an interview with George Plimpton in the Paris Review, Hemingway spoke of a writer's “unexplained knowledge which could come from forgotten racial or family experience” (italics mine, 85). His stories may have been spurred by an autobiographical “family experience,” but we cannot ignore their relation to a larger “forgotten racial experience” in American history. What happens in the confrontation between Dick and Doc represents nothing less than a crisis of authority that betrays the unstable foundation upon which the white man has built his power. When relying on the institutional authority of the medical profession, Dr. Adams works on stable ground. But in the second story, his power rests on the speech act, a threat, and Dick derails its authority with the simple but devastating retort, “Oh, no, you won't.” The beauty of this reply is that it not only offers an implicit counter-threat, but it exposes the creaky machinery behind the doctor's earlier dominance. Stripped of institutional authority, textual authority, or witnesses, the doctor's standard mechanisms of power are laid bare: without complicity, power cannot be effective. And this brings us full circle, because that, I believe, is the moral of Toni Morrison's story as well. The “more or less tacit agreement among literary scholars” (5) requires a complicity that, despite its hold on our literary imagination, can be controverted.


  1. The term is taken from Judith Butler's Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. For readings that explore the instability of gender categories, see J. Gerald Kennedy, “Hemingway's Gender Trouble”; Debra Moddelmog, “Reconstructing Hemingway's Identity: Sexual Politics, the Author, and the Multicultural Classroom”; Mark Spilka, Hemingway's Quarrel with Androgyny; and Nancy R. Comley and Robert Scholes, Hemingway's Genders: Rereading the Hemingway Text.

  2. Diana Fuss outlines the parameters of this debate in Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature and Difference. Chapter Six, “‘Race’ Under Erasure? Poststructuralist Afro-American Literary Theory,” specifically focuses on the category of race, questioning whether racial identity can be seen as either a “question of morphology, of anatomical or genetic characteristics” or as a “psychological, historical, anthropological, sociological, legal” construct (73). Fuss argues that the essentialist/constructionist opposition is “largely artificial” (119) because the two categories depend on each other for meaning, and we will see that Hemingway's stories sustain exactly this tension between the two categories in a way that destabilizes our grasp of racial identity.

  3. See R. W. B. Lewis, The American Adam, for “the first tentative outlines of a native American mythology” (1), covering the period between 1820 and 1860, where “Adamic imagery is altogether central and controlling” (6). By “native American,” Lewis does not refer to Indians; on the contrary, he refers to the “birth in America of a clear conscience unsullied by the past” (7).

  4. I am indebted to readings by Paul Smith, A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, Joseph M. Flora's Hemingway's Nick Adams, Philip Young's Ernest Hemingway: A Reconsideration, and Joseph DeFalco's The Hero in Hemingway's Short Stories. Young highlights “Nick's initiation to pain, and to the violence of birth and death” in “Indian Camp,” while “The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife” “teaches Nick something about the solidarity of the male sex” (32, 33); Joseph DeFalco asserts that “the major focus of [“Indian Camp”] is Nick's reaction to these events,” and “the central conflict that emerges [in “The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife”] reveals a further step in the learning process that Nick undergoes” (28, 34).

  5. See Annette Kolodny's The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters. Kolodny outlines the American metaphor of “the land as woman” and its attendant imagery of “eroticism, penetration, raping, embrace, enclosure, and nurture, to cite only a few” (150).

  6. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's A Midwife's Tale explains that traditionally, childbirth had three distinct stages, “defined in social rather than biological terms, each marked by the summons and arrival of attendants—first, the midwife, then the neighborhood circle of women, finally the afternurse” (183). Ulrich's work outlines how the growth of medical societies and “changing notions of womanhood” (254) in the nineteenth century gradually allowed physicians, as a professionalized and exclusive group, to replace midwives. In this historical context, for all the women in “Indian Camp” to be replaced by the men (with the exception of the afternurse who should arrive the next day) offers an interesting symbolic representation of the way that a female-dominated craft lost its power to the more advanced, institutionalized (male-dominated) medical profession.

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Comley, Nancy C. and Robert Scholes. Hemingway's Genders: Rereading the Hemingway Text. New Haven: Yale UP, 1994.

DeFalco, Joseph. The Hero in Hemingway's Short Stories. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1963.

———. “Initiation (‘Indian Camp’ and ‘The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife’).” The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: Critical Essays. Ed. Jackson J. Benson. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1975. 159-67.

Flora, Joseph M. Hemingway's Nick Adams. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1982.

Fuss, Diana. Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature and Difference. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991.

Hemingway, Ernest. “The Art of Fiction XXI: Ernest Hemingway.” Paris Review 18 (1958): 61-89.

———. “The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife.” In Our Time. 1925, 1930. New York: Scribner's, 1958. 23-27.

———. “Indian Camp.” In Our Time. 1925, 1930. New York: Scribner's, 1958. 15-19.

———. “A Way You'll Never Be.” The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. 1938. New York: Scribner's, 1966. 402-14.

Joyce, Joyce A. “The Black Canon: Reconstructing Black American Literary Criticism.” New Literary History 18 (1987): 335-44.

Kennedy, J. Gerald. “Hemingway's Gender Trouble.” American Literature 63:2 (1991): 187-207.

Kolodny, Annette. The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1975.

Lewis, R. W. B. The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1955.

Moddelmog, Debra. “Reconstructing Hemingway's Identity: Sexual Politics, the Author, and the Multicultural Classroom.” Narrative 1:3 (October 1993): 187-206.

Monteiro, George. “The Limits of Professionalism: A Sociological Approach to Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Hemingway.” Criticism 15 (Spring 1973): 145-55.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Vintage, 1992.

Nelson, Dana. The Word in Black and White: Reading ‘Race’ in American Literature, 1638-1867. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992.

Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States from the 1960s to the 1980s. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Rubin, Gayle. “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex.” Toward an Anthropology of Women. Ed. Rayna R. Reiter. New York: Monthly Review, 1975. 157-210.

Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.

Smith, Paul. A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989.

Spilka, Mark. Hemingway's Quarrel with Androgyny. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1990.

Strong, Paul. “The First Nick Adams Stories.” Studies in Short Fiction 28:1 (winter 1991): 83-91.

Strychacz, Thomas. “Dramatizations of Manhood in Hemingway's In Our Time and The Sun Also Rises.American Literature 61:2 (May 1989): 245-60.

———. “Trophy-Hunting as a Trope of Manhood in Ernest Hemingway's Green Hills of Africa.The Hemingway Review 13:1 (Fall 1993): 36-47.

Tanselle, G. Thomas. “Hemingway's Indian Camp.” Explicator 20 (February 1962): Item 53.

Thatcher Ulrich, Laurel. A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. New York: Knopf, 1990.

Wolter, Jürgen C. “Cæsareans in an Indian Camp.” The Hemingway Review 13:1 (Fall 1993): 92-94.

Young, Philip. Ernest Hemingway: A Reconsideration. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1966.

David J. Ferrero (essay date spring 1998)

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SOURCE: Ferrero, David J. “Nikki Adams and the Limits of Gender Criticism.” The Hemingway Review 17, no. 2 (spring 1998): 18-30.

[In the following essay, Ferrero explores the usefulness of gender criticism in Hemingway's short fiction.]

Hemingway is the perfect straw man for feminist critics. And in many ways he was asking for it. Witness his sometimes self-parodic machismo; his preoccupation with war, boxing, hunting and bullfighting; his string of divorces; his celebration of the masculine in much of his writing after 1930. Yet this view distorts our understanding of much Hemingway fiction. This is especially true of the Nick Adams stories from In Our Time. I am thinking in particular of “The End of Something” and “The Three-Day Blow,” which concern Nick's efforts to define and negotiate relationships with men and women, and “Cross-Country Snow,” which explores Nick's attempt to come to terms with the demands of paternity within the institution of monogamous marriage. In “The End of Something” Nick awkwardly, abruptly, and somewhat cruelly breaks up with his girlfriend Marjorie. In its sequel, “The Three-Day Blow,” Nick's friend Bill helps him work through the breakup by getting him drunk and taking him hunting; the story ends with Nick getting over Marjorie and re-establishing camaraderie with his male companions. In “Cross-Country Snow” Nick and his friends ponder the threat that Nick's impending fatherhood poses to their friendship and Nick's freedom. These stories continue to be cited along with the others for misogyny and homoerotic male fantasizing about living a life of “men without women.”

The accusations of misogyny in these stories rest upon a number of complaints: that Marjorie is simple and undeveloped, and that her growing expertise in manly pursuits threatens Nick; that Nick's rejection of her and rediscovery of male comradeship constitute desire to erase women from his life; that Nick's ambivalence about, and muted sense of entrapment by his wife's pregnancy betrays yet another fantasy of male freedom from women and paternal obligation.1 Even the new school of Hemingway-friendly scholars who acknowledge the sympathetic treatment of Marjorie and other women in Hemingway's fiction tend to take some of these charges for granted.2 In recent years, however, this second strand of scholarship has produced a small body of work that uses the tools of feminist criticism and gender studies to rethink the assumptions behind the charges. Mark Spilka,3 Nancy Comley, and Robert Scholes4 have done some of the most ambitious work in this area. Out of their work has a emerged a semi-rehabilitated Hemingway who grasped the socially constructed nature of gender, boldly explored the limits of conventional gender categories, and experimented with alternatives.

I want to take their work a step further, and use their portraits of a gender-bending Hemingway more literally (and playfully) to suggest that these stories resist the misogynist tag. I hope my method will expose the inconsistencies and double standards that mar current critical discourse on gender and power. Then I will demonstrate through more conventional close reading how these early stories present a remarkably critical interrogation of hard-boiled masculinity while recovering those elements of traditional masculinity most useful in an age of shifting gender relations.

For the first part of this analysis I propose a simple gender-bending exercise of my own, one that transposes gender categories in a rewriting of these Nick Adams stories. Let us imagine the publication of a collection of short stories by an exciting new woman writer about a young woman's coming of age, circa 1998. The protagonist in the story is a young woman, Nikki Adams (the name “Adams” being the female author's conscious attempt to reappropriate R. W. B. Lewis's “American Adam,” while creating a symbolic feminine progenitor disassociated from the traditional Edenic taint). Some of the stories deal with her early relationships with boys, and her discomfort as she becomes aware of society's expectations of her as a woman. With the help of a reliable female companion who provides her with temporary sanctuary and sage advice, she manages to grope her way toward the understanding that comes from courageously facing the hardships imposed on women under patriarchy.

In one story, an adolescent Nikki breaks off a relationship with her boyfriend. One passage describes her handling of the break-up and her boyfriend's reactions:

Mark unpacked the basket of supper.

“I don't feel like eating,” said Nikki.

“Come on and eat, Nik'.”

“All right.”

They ate without talking, and watched the two rods and the firelight on the water.

“There's going to be a moon tonight,” Mark said happily.

“You know everything,” Nikki said.

“Oh Nikki, cut it out! Don't be that way!”

“I can't help it,” Nikki said. “You do. You know everything. That's the trouble. You know you do.”

Mark did not say anything.

“I've taught you everything. You know you do. What don't you know, anyway?”

“Oh, shut up,” Mark said. “There comes the moon.”

They sat on the blanket without touching each other and watched the moon rise.

“You don't have to talk silly,” Mark said. “What's really the matter?”

“I don't know.”

“Of course you know.”

“No I don't.”

“Go on and say it.”

Nikki looked at the moon, coming up over the hills.

“It isn't fun any more.”

She was afraid to look at Mark. Then she looked at him. He sat there with his back toward her. She looked at his back. “It isn't any fun any more. Not any of it.”

He didn't say anything. She went on. “I feel as though everything was gone to hell inside of me. I don't know Mark. I don't know what to say.”

She looked on at his back.

“Isn't love any fun?” Mark said.

“No,” Nikki said. Mark stood up. Nikki sat there with her head in her hands.

“I'm going to take the boat,” Mark called out to her. “You can walk back to the point.”

“All right,” Nikki said. “I'll push the boat off for you.”

(adapted from IOT [In Our Time] 34-5)

It is not difficult to imagine the feminist reception of such a story. The problematizing of gender representations in fiction would likely be forgotten, and Mark would emerge in the critical discourse as the typically self-absorbed adolescent male. Having forgotten that it was his independent, free-spirited girlfriend who taught him how to catch and clean fish—the threat this poses to his masculine construction of self has perhaps caused him to repress the memory—he now attempts to assert dominance. Facing such masculinist impudence perhaps for the first time, Nikki bristles. Confused, she lashes out at him, calling him a know-it-all. He tells her to “cut it out,” which attempts to silence her while denying the legitimacy of her feelings. When she presses the issue he tries to silence her again by telling her to “shut up.” He follows up by trying to assert his knowledge and regain control the conversation by pointing again to the moon. After a few moments' silence, Mark belittles her, calling her outburst “silly.” Her laconic “It isn't fun anymore” speaks volumes about her growing awareness of just how unsatisfying heterosexual monogamy is for a woman of dawning confidence and self-possession like herself. Mark's behavior this evening drives the point home. He responds with the platitude, “Isn't love fun?”—a lame attempt to reinscribe her within the structures of patriarchal romance while exploiting her feelings of guilt. Wounded by her flat “No,” he retaliates by taking the boat and leaving her behind. Being a gracious, maturing woman who even now feels compelled to put his needs before hers, she actually helps him take it.

The next story in the collection picks up where the breakup story left off. Nikki's tougher, wiser friend Billie (a sexually ambiguous name suggesting a subtext of lesbian bonding), has taken her back to her father's cabin where they can be alone for awhile. Billie knows what has just happened and tries to console Nikki. So she raids her father's liquor cabinet and suggests they get drunk together. As they drink they discuss baseball, books, and drinking etiquette. They revel in the transgression of being young women who drink whiskey and talk about sports, just like Billie's father, who is “out with the gun.” With the oppressive father/phallus safely out sight for awhile, Billie speaks openly to Nikki:

“You were very wise, Nikker,” Billie said.

“What do you mean?” asked Nikki.

“To bust off that Mark business,” Billie said.

“I guess so,” said Nikki.

“It was the only thing to do. If you hadn't, by now you'd be back home working trying to get enough money to get married.”

Nikki said nothing.

“Once a woman's married she's absolutely bitched,” Billie went on. “She hasn't got anything more. Nothing. Not a damn thing. She's done for. You've seen the gals that get married.”

Nikki said nothing.

“You can tell them,” Billie said. “They get this sort of fat married look. They're done for.”

“Sure,” said Nikki.

“It was probably bad busting it off,” Billie said. “But you always fall for somebody else and then it's all right. Fall for them but don't let them ruin you.”

“Yes,” said Nikki.

“If you'd have married him you would have had to marry the whole family. Remember his mother and the guy she married?”

Nikki nodded.

“Imagine having them around the house all the time and going to Sunday dinners at their house, and having them over to dinner and him telling you all the time what to do and how to act.”

Nikki sat quiet.

“You came out of it damned well,” Billie said. “Now he can marry somebody of his own sort and settle down and be happy. …

(adapted from IOT 46-7)

Billie's advice and the grim picture of marital life that she paints would be applauded as a kind of manifesto for women's emancipation from the constraints of patriarchal domination. Nikki's tacit ambivalence about what she hears would be read as a sign that she has not yet raised her consciousness fully. Yet when the two finally leave the confines of the cabin, Nikki has an epiphany: “Outside now the Mark business was no longer so tragic. It was not even very important. The wind blew everything like that away” (49). That moment would perhaps be hailed as Nikki's first conscious awareness of her right to forge an existence outside the cultural and institutional structures designed by men to circumscribe and subordinate her. Billie would emerge as a tough feminist role model, and Nikki as a heroine for our times.

A later story in the collection finds Nikki on a ski trip in the Alps with some expatriate friends of hers. She has apparently achieved the dream of feminist sisterhood and independence from patriarchal authority, as symbolized by the pristine mountain landscape. She and her friends rest after a day of skiing and talk about their futures. The scene is idyllic. Then, abruptly, one of her friends, Geri, shatters the reader's illusion:

“Are you going to have a baby?” Geri said, coming down to the table from the wall.



“Late next summer.”

“Are you glad?”

“Yes. Now.”

“Will you go back to the States?”

“I guess so.”

“Do you want to?”


“Does Henry?”


Geri sat silent. She looked at the empty bottle and the empty glasses.

“It's hell, isn't it?” she said.

“Not exactly,” Nikki said.

“Why not?”

“I don't know,” Nikki said.

“Will you ever go skiing together in the States?” Geri said.

“I don't know,” said Nikki.

… “Maybe we'll never go skiing again, Nikki,” Geri said.

“We've got to,” said Nikki. “It isn't worth it if you can't.”

“We'll go, all right,” Geri said.

“We've got to,” Nikki agreed.

“I wish we could make a promise about it,” Geri said.

… “There isn't any good in promising,” Nikki said.

(adapted from IOT 111-12)

Patriarchy returns with a vengeance. Just when our heroine seems to have learned Billie's lesson and carved out an alternative lifestyle, nature and culture conspire to ensnare her. This turn of events could be read as a flaw in the story or an authorial copout, an unnecessary capitulation to the cultural expectation that children be raised by a monogamous heterosexual couple. Or, it might be read as a brilliant stroke of understatement. That no one even suggests she transgress such powerful normative expectations (or risk economic hardship) by raising the child outside the confines of heterosexual monogamy speaks volumes about patriarchy's iron grip. So powerful are such norms, so menacing the sanctions for breaching them, that the alternative cannot even be spoken. They are once again silenced. The vision of homosocial utopia is shattered for all of them. The critics turn the story sequence into a clarion call for women readers.

These scenarios reveal the double standard that clouds many of our analyses of gender and power. When a male author interrogates the social institutions that obligate men to women, he is a misogynist. When a woman writes of women imposed upon by men and the same institutions, she is a feminist. In a sense, there is no contradiction here. The only difference is what the terminology foregrounds and erases. The term “misogynist” is negative; it focuses on what the writer is against. The term “feminist,” on the other hand, is positive, focusing on what the writer is for. If our vocabulary included the term “misandroist,” and if the term “masculinist” had positive connotations, we could pair our terms symmetrically. But the asymmetry exists, and therein lies the double-standard: Writing that concerns itself with defining the masculine and that explores the problematic role of women within that definition is oppressive; that which concerns itself with defining the feminine and that explores the the problematic role of men in such a definition is emancipatory.

If this double standard was ever justified, it certainly is not today. The Nick Adams stories of In Our Time have nothing to do with misogyny; they are about a boy's efforts to define himself as a man. That young men need to learn to negotiate relations with women and other men, and to accept adult responsibilities is a condition created by life, not by patriarchy, or capitalism, or male fiction writers. And as the above experiment in gender transposition suggests, a sympathetic, nuanced response to the work can emerge once we lay aside ironclad preconceptions and ideological axe-grinding.

Nick does not hate women. He is an adolescent who gropes awkwardly with them and his feelings for them. When he breaks things off with Marjorie he botches it. He broods, then snaps, then broods and evades, before finally uttering a lame “It isn't fun anymore.” Sensitive readers are justified in sympathizing with Marjorie, who until now has thought everything was fine, and who was more likely to expect a marriage proposal at this point than a breakup. But if Nick looks bad—and to Hemingway's credit he does look bad—we are allowed to see why in “The Three Day Blow” Nick is despondent after the breakup. Bill tries to make him feel better with some tough guy platitudes about male emasculation in marriage. But the narration does not encourage us to accept Bill's world view. Nick certainly doesn't. Nick's silence throughout most of Bill's monologue suggests that his words are falling on deaf ears. The next paragraph confirms Nick's indifference to Bill's bombast:

Nick said nothing. The liquor had all died out of him and left him alone. Bill wasn't there. He wasn't sitting in front of the fire or going fishing tomorrow with Bill and his dad or anything. He wasn't drunk. It was all gone. All he knew was that he had once had Marjorie and that he had lost her. She was gone and he had sent her away. That was all that mattered. He might never see her again. Probably he never would. It was all gone, finished.


Despite Bill's diatribe, Nick feels the loss deeply and begins to understand painfully the finality of what he has done. Worse, he does not know yet whether he has done the right thing. The story's ending seems to undercut this interpretation when the wind blows away his angst and he re-establishes fellowship with the men. But to read this as misogynist (or latently homosexual) is absurd. Breakups happen. And when they do, those involved seek solace with friends or family members, usually of the same sex, because that is where they will likely find their most sympathetic hearing. Nick doesn't have to hate women and love men to break off his relationship and start over. He only has to be confused about what he wants.

If this reading of “Three-Day Blow” seems thin at first, it gains strength when read in the context of “Cross-Country Snow.” Here Nick clearly has misgivings about leaving his friends and starting a family. Domesticity and fatherhood will take him away from the idyllic life he has enjoyed with his friends. But the writing is on the wall even before we learn of Helen's pregnancy. George has to go back to school, which interferes with Nick's desire to ski another day. George himself wishes he didn't have to return. He says to Nick: “[D]on't you wish could just bum together … and not give a damn about anything?” (145). The young men have already become aware that they will have to separate. Nick's paternity is just one of the adult responsibilities intruding on their world. Their awareness that this ski trip will likely be their last carefree time together provokes understandable melancholy and uncertainty.

Nick does not rebel against Helen or the child. He says he doesn't feel bad about what was clearly an unintended pregnancy, though he feels the pang of separation from George. If Nick seems unenthusiastic, it is because he is scared. Marriage and family loom ominously for a young man who has only in the past few years enjoyed freedom from familial constraints. Nonetheless, his friends speak of Helen as if she were a familiar part of Nick's life. No one blames Helen or curses her, least of all Nick. The conversation is very matter of fact. Nick has consciously chosen domesticity and his friends accept it without comment, making clear the rejection of Bill that may seem unconvincing at the end of “Three-Day Blow.” Nick does not resent his wife or his life. He merely feels a deep melancholy about trading the carefree security of youth for the burdens and uncertainty of maturity. Yet he does accept the obligation. Nick's feeling of resignation expresses not misogyny, but stoic acceptance of his duty to Helen and their child.

This reassertion of heterosexual monogamy plays into the hands of critics who see heterosexual monogamy as part of the problem in the first place. Once again, though, Hemingway is caught in a double bind. When he seems to eschew women and family, he is pilloried for being a misogynist man-child. (Even the supposed homoerotic subtext of “Three Day Blow” fails to exonerate him.) If he reaffirms heterosexual monogamy he is accused of reinscribing heterosexist, patriarchal oppression. How can both be offensive? Are such interrogations and outcomes really so hostile to women's or feminists' concerns?

We have already seen that charges of misogyny stem from a too narrow reading of Nick's experience and awareness. Feminists who define heterosexual monogamy as oppressive might celebrate the challenge to domesticity that the stories offer, but the feminist double standard requires them to see Nick's misgivings as a threat. They could just as well lament the provisional acceptance of marriage and family as foreclosing the alternatives the text opens up, because Nick's resignation defuses the text's own transgressive potential, reinscribing and reinforcing the norms it initially challenges.

But for Nick to do otherwise would leave us with a single mother, an abandoned child, and a deadbeat dad. Thus, the message of stoic acceptance of paternal responsibility seems ultimately to be a congenial one for those feminists concerned about the frequent abdication of paternal responsibility in late 20th-century America and its impact on the condition of women. In an age of single, teenage mothers and child-support scofflaws, the Hemingway code seems a good place to start in reconstructing a version of masculinity that stresses fulfillment of these and other social obligations. This may do little to usher in the lesbian utopia dreamed of by the most radical gender theorists, but for more sober-minded feminists, it can provide a realistic avenue through which to construct a more equitable model of male-female interdependence.

Of course, we cannot reassert the code naively. The Hemingway code has its dark side, as evidenced by Hemingway's own life, which illustrates how difficult the code is to live up to. But this is where the insights of modern feminism step in—if its excesses can be curbed. If we can move beyond the dogmatism, distrust, and acrimony that pervade so much feminist criticism and pedagogy, we can situate writers like Hemingway in conversations that explore with greater nuance the various constructions and negotiations that shape gender relations. This dialogue can lead toward alternative approaches to gender relations that celebrate both worlds and allow them to commingle in an environment of mutual sympathy. We cannot do this without voices such as Hemingway's, for they remain resonant to many men, including those who never experienced his world. To simply ridicule male voices, to dismiss their culture and deny them the fraternity that women have learned to cultivate among themselves, only exacerbates the antagonism. Backlash in this context is inevitable. Hemingway's fiction can provide models for that, too. But the searching introspection and eventual conscious commitment that Nick brings to his relationships points to a better way: a stoic, clear-headed, and tough-minded middle ground for both men and women, free from archaic social codes and strident ideological posturing.


  1. Actually, the indictment precedes feminism. Conventional wisdom has tended to take Hemingway's alleged misogyny for granted. As early as 1940 Edmund Wilson, one of Hemingway's early admirers, criticized him for his “growing antagonism to women” (276). Even in these pre-feminist days, critics such as Wilson and Leslie Fiedler concluded that Hemingway could not depict women sensitively, or claimed that he preferred to depict men without women. These critics began early to reduce Hemingway's women into two categories: “love-slaves” and “bitches.” It was decades before Roger Whitlow recognized these categories as products of the critics' biases rather than Hemingway's (10-15). The rise of feminism in the 1960s further tarnished Hemingway's reputation on this score. Katherine Rogers' The Troublesome Helpmate: A History of Misogyny in Literature picked up where Wilson and Fiedler left off and turned their criticism into a full-blown assault on Hemingway, as well as others in the male-defined canon. By the time Judith Fetterley's infamous “A Farewell to Arms: Hemingway's Resentful Cryptogram” was first published in 1976, Hemingway's academic reputation had suffered considerably (enough that Carole Carpenter could design critical thinking assignments using The Sun Also Rises as a primer in sexist thought and language in her undergraduate writing courses), and he was showing up less and less often on high school and college syllabi.

  2. As Susan Beegel has noted, the backlash against Hemingway may have had more to do with reaction against his critical champions of the 1950s and 1960s than with Hemingway himself. “When potential readers reject Hemingway as indifferent to minorities and hostile to women,” she says, “they are often responding not to Hemingway's fiction, but to the indifference and hostility of some of his early critics, and the negative image of the author those influential first admirers unintentionally first projected” (277). Beegel's claim is confirmed by a survey of feminist considerations of Hemingway's fiction since the early 1980s the impact of which was surprisingly positive mainly because they opened up new ways of appreciating Hemingway's treatment of women. Joyce Wexler's “E.R.A. for Hemingway: A Feminist Defense of A Farewell to Arms,” Charles J. Nolan's “Hemingway's Women's Movement,” and Robert Merrill's “Demoting Hemingway: Feminist Criticism and the Canon,” challenged the early feminist pillorying of Hemingway, while studies such as Peter Balbert's “From Hemingway to Lawrence to Mailer: Survival and Sexual Identity in A Farewell to Arms,” Wendy Martin's “Brett Ashley as New Woman in The Sun Also Rises,” and Linda Wagner's “‘Proud and Friendly and Gently’:Women in Hemingway's Early Fiction,” re-examined Hemingway's representations of women and construction of gender. These critical reassessments, of course, produced spirited rebuttals, but it is safe to say along with Robert Lewis that, at the very least, “the only safe conclusion one can reach about Hemingway's depiction of women in general … is that it is complex, and preconceptions of Hemingway's attitudes have almost certainly impeded careful reading and understanding of his work” (22).

  3. Mark Spilka's heavily biographical Hemingway's Quarrel with Androgyny shifted the emphasis away from an exclusive concern with Hemingway's women toward a more comprehensive consideration of Hemingway's treatment of gender. Drawing on what we know of Hemingway's childhood, and equipped with a fully developed arsenal of new critical methodologies, Spilka examined Hemingway's family life and childhood reading preferences, and found tensions between Victorian and modern values that reflected those in the culture at large. Despite their strait-laced, Protestant, Midwestern values, Hemingway's parents raised him and his sisters androgynously, teaching all of them both domestic and outdoor skills, and going so far as to dress them and cut their hair alike. Hemingway was therefore particularly well-suited to explore the shifting definitions of gender that characterized the 1920s, and conditioned to view them favorably, if ambivalently. (Spilka concurs with Rena Sanderson, however, that after 1930 Hemingway—like American culture itself—eventually hardened into the masculinist pose he is now famous for before softening again toward the end of his life.) His analysis of Hemingway's early and late novels in light of his speculations about Hemingway's possible androgyny produces some persuasive readings of the fiction that point toward a Hemingway deeply sensitized to issues of culture and gender and the ways that the two interact, often to the detriment of the both men and women.

  4. In Hemingway's Genders, Comley and Scholes take Spilka's androgyny thesis a step further, arguing that Hemingway actively sought out men and women who transgressed conventional gender roles, and covertly celebrated them in his fiction while scrupulously maintaining a macho, homophobic façade. However, they soberly pull up short of suggesting that Hemingway himself was a latent homosexual. In fact they argue quite the contrary: “The ability to enter into subject positions different from his own and to distance himself from his own views with mockery is one of Hemingway's strong qualities as a writer, and one for which he is seldom given sufficient credit” (129). They note for example that with the bitches in his fiction come the “rude writers” (41). In other words they argue that even Hemingway's seemingly most unrelenting bitches—most notoriously Margaret Macomber and Helen Walden—turn out to be bitches mainly in the minds of his male protagonists, whom Hemingway wants us to see as pathetic and unreliable, despite his identification with them—a striking display of self-criticism. Rena Sanderson makes the point as well:

    Although Hemingway has been condemned for depicting women as “bitches” very few such women actually appear in his writings, and almost exclusively during the 1930s. The few times Hemingway embodies his fears of powerful women in a fictive “bitch,” he is attacking not only or primarily the woman but rather male passivity and dependence on women—traits he found in himself. Writing retrospectively in 1943, he admitted: “Take as good a woman as Pauline—a hell of a wonderful woman—and once she turns mean. Although, of course, it is your own actions that turn her mean. Mine I mean.”


    In these studies Hemingway emerges as much more nuanced, self-critical, and sympathetic to the experiences of women and the problematics of traditional gender construction than once assumed. These qualities naturally show up frequently in his writing.

Works Cited

Balbert, Peter. “From Hemingway to to Lawrence to Mailer: Survival and Sexual Identity in A Farewell to Arms.The Hemingway Review 3.1 (Fall 1983): 30-43.

Beegel, Susan F. “The Critical Reputation of Ernest Hemingway.” The Cambridge Companion to Hemingway. Ed. Scott Donaldson. New York: Cambridge U P, 1996. 269-99.

Carpenter, Carol. “Exercises to Combat Sexist Reading and Writing.” College English 43.3 (March 1983): 293-300.

Comley, Nancy R. and Robert Scholes. Hemingways Genders: Rereading the Hemingway Text. New Haven: Yale U P, 1994.

Fetterley, Judith. “A Farewell to Arms: Hemingway's ‘Resentful Cryptogram.’” The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 1987. 46-71.

Fiedler, Leslie A. Love and Death in the American Novel. Rev. edn. New York: Dell, 1960.

Hemingway, Ernest. In Our Time. 1930. New York: Macmillan, 1986.

Lewis, Robert W. A Farewell to Arms: The War of the Words. New York: Twayne, 1992.

Lewis, R. W. B. The American Adam. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1955.

Martin, Wendy. “Brett Ashley as New Woman in The Sun Also Rises.New Essays on The Sun Also Rises. Ed. Linda Wagner-Martin. Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1987. 65-82.

Merrill, Robert. “Demoting Hemingway: Feminist Criticism and the Canon.” American Literature 60.2 (May 1988): 255-68.

Nolan, Charles J., Jr. “Hemingway's Women's Movement.” Ernest Hemingway: Six Decades of Criticism. Ed. Linda W. Wagner. East Lansing: Michigan State U P, 1987. 209-19.

Rogers, Katherine M. The Troublesome Helpmate: A History of Misogyny in Literature. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1966.

Sanderson, Rena. “Hemingway and Gender History.” The Cambridge Companion to Hemingway. Ed. Scott Donaldson. New York: Cambridge UP, 1996. 170-96.

Spilka, Mark. Hemingway's Quarrel with Androgyny. Lincoln: U Nebraska P, 1990.

Wagner, Linda W. “‘Proud and Friendly and Gently’: Women in Hemingway's Early Fiction.” Ernest Hemingway: The Papers of a Writer. Ed. Bernard Oldsey. New York: Garland, 1981. 63-71.

Wexler, Joyce. “E. R. A. for Hemingway: A Feminist Defense of A Farewell to Arms.Georgia Review 35.1 (1981): 111-23.

Whitlow, Roger. Cassandra's Daughters: The Women in Hemingway. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1984.

———. “The Destruction/Prevention of the Family Relationship in Hemingway's Fiction.” Literary Review 20 (1976): 5-16.

Wilson, Edmund. The Wound and the Bow. New York: Oxford U P, 1947.

Jacqueline Vaught Brogan (essay date spring 1998)

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SOURCE: Brogan, Jacqueline Vaught. “Hemingway's In Our Time: A Cubist Anatomy.” The Hemingway Review 17, no. 2 (spring 1998): 31-46.

[In the following essay, Brogan investigates the genre and aesthetics of In Our Time.]

We know that the final long version of In Our Time, specifically the 1925 short story collection and its 1930 reprinting with “On the Quai at Smyrna” as “Introduction by the Author,” was in no way initially planned by the young artist Ernest Hemingway. Starting from the early, short, and visually interesting collection of vignettes—the three mountains press in our time of 1923—Hemingway seems to have devised and rejected various ordering principles for his first sustained work, recasting certain sketches as named stories, and in the long version, deleting Nick Adams as the possible implied author.1 These facts, taken with the complicated publishing history of the various stories constituting In Our Time, account in part for the long and troubling debate about both the genre and aesthetics governing the work: Should we regard In Our Time as a mere collection of short stories (as “Stories by Ernest Hemingway” on the title page implies)? Should we regard it as a short story cycle (as Hemingway's obvious indebtedness to Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio and James Joyce's Dubliners also implies)? Or should we regard it as something more integrated, perhaps even a “fragmentary novel,” as D. H. Lawrence called it and as Hemingway himself suggests by announcing, almost with surprise, that In Our Time does have “a pretty good unity”?2

I am inclined to accept Hemingway's own final evaluation, with a particular qualification that both coincides with some of the earliest critical reactions to the aesthetics of the work (specifically, that it is “cubist”) and introduces a new generic term with which to discuss and examine In Our Time.3 If, for example, Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio and Joyce's Dubliners are obviously short story cycles, and if Joyce's Ulysses, on the other hand, can be seen as a cubist novel (just as Eliot's The Wasteland can be seen as a cubist poem), then Hemingway's In Our Time is both notably similar to and different from all these works. It might most fruitfully be seen as a “cubist anatomy,” when the word “anatomy” bears the same ironic sense of self-conscious organization that it does in Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism (365). Perhaps we are simply looking at the “same thing from different angles,” as the “young man” from “Out of Season” remarks (IOT [In Our Time] 99). Although his companion responds, “It doesn't make any difference,” I wish to argue that our critical terminology does make a difference in terms of how we interpret the whole work and individual pieces within it.

In the glossary to his Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye defines the structure of a literary “anatomy” as “a form of prose fiction, traditionally known as the Menippean or Varronian satire and represented by Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, characterized by a great variety of subject-matter and a strong interest in ideas. In short forms it often has a cena or symposium setting and verse interludes” (365). In Our Time's alternation of the named “short stories” with the untitled “chapters” or “vignettes,” which themselves clearly approach “prose poems,” corresponds to what Frye here calls the “short form” of an “anatomy” as a cena or symposium.

Earlier, in the long chapter entitled “Theory of Genres,” Frye describes Menippean satire—or an “anatomy”—with additional details that also seem especially pertinent to In Our Time. “The Menippean satire,” he argues, “appears to have developed out of verse satire through the practice of adding prose interludes, but we know it only as a prose form” (309). Moreover, this genre “deals less with people as such than with mental attitudes. Pedants, bigots, cranks, parvenus, virtuosi, enthusiasts, rapacious and incompetent professional men of all kinds, are handled in terms of their occupational approach to life as distinct from their social behavior” (309). We have only to think of the “senior officer” from “On the Quai at Smyrna,” or the physician/father from “Indian Camp,” or Krebs from “Soldier's Home,” or the young “revolutionist”—or even Nick, at various moments in the total text—to realize how fitting this aspect of an “anatomy” is to In Our Time.

More provocatively, Frye asserts that at “its most concentrated,” this particular genre “presents us with a vision of the world in terms of a single intellectual pattern. The intellectual structure built up from the story makes for violent dislocations in the customary logic of narrative” (such as the “dislocations” inherent in both visual and literary “cubism,” I would add), “though the appearance of carelessness that results reflects only the carelessness of the reader or his tendency to judge by a novel-centered conception of fiction” (310).

In addition, Frye notes that the word “‘anatomy’ in Burton's title means a dissection or analysis” (as well as a “comprehensive survey of human life in one book”) and that it “expresses very accurately the intellectualized approach of his form” (311). Last, but most certainly not least, Frye also says that “It is the anatomy in particular that has baffled critics, and there is hardly any fiction writer deeply influenced by it who has not been accused of disorderly conduct” (313; emphasis added).

Even this rough overview of Frye's discussion of “anatomy” as a generic form offers insights into the “dissection” or “analysis” Hemingway makes of the “intellectual pattern” and “mental attitudes” of his time. For instance, while addressing a very different question—specifically, the “authorship” of In Our Time—Paul Smith challenges Debra Moddelmog's assurances that seeing Nick Adams as the implied author of In Our Time would help answer many questions “‘about the book's unity, structure, vision, and significance’”:

Unity and structure are old formalist terms, and they beg the same questions they did fifty years ago: What is so sacrosanct about unity? Why do we fix our gaze on the structure of the collection rather than on the individual structures of the stories? Would the force of each of those stories be diminished if each was read as randomly as they were written, as most of us do?

(Smith 146)

Without entering into the debate about “Who Wrote Hemingway's In Our Time,” I would suggest that it is unfortunately true that “most of us” read the stories within Hemingway's first long work “randomly”—or that at the very least, we tend to give primary attention to the nominal stories listed on the title page—and that what we do NOT do, to the detriment of the book, is pay attention to the “structure of the collection” that Hemingway, certainly not Nick, would so carefully organize in its late and final versions (recasting two sketches, “The Revolutionist” and “A Very Short Story,” as stories; moving “Indian Camp” to the opening position after “Up in Michigan” was censored; adding “The Battler” and positioning it between Nick's childhood and later encounter with war; deleting the final pages of “Big Two-Hearted River” that imply Nick as the author of the entire collection; and finally, adding “On the Quai at Smyrna,” first as “Introduction by the Author” and then as a story named in its own right). In fact, careful attention to the aesthetics and genre of In Our Time—what I am here calling a “cubist anatomy”—in no way diminishes the individual stories but rather increases our understanding of them, while highlighting their interplay with each other and with the vignettes or “Chapters” so frequently ignored.

Seeing In Our Time as a cubist anatomy may help to answer why and how a text so initially connected to Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio would come to take such a gigantic swerve away from that literary precursor—a precursor itself wonderfully metafictional in a way that Hemingway, though few critics, may have perceived. For example, much like Hemingway's own, the title page of Winesburg, Ohio belies the unity that the actual title suggests, listing the various stories separately. However, as in the ending Hemingway first envisioned with Nick as author of In Our Time, the title page of Winesburg, Ohio also implies that all of the stories after the first one—“The Book of the Grotesque”—may have been created by the fictional “writer” of that story, who is recording all the “grotesques” in the town he knows.4 Hemingway's well-known desire to distance himself from Anderson's obvious influence may account for Hemingway's amenability to Stein's suggestion that he alter the ending. For leaving Nick as author—after Anderson—would ironically have made Hemingway's work not novel enough.

In terms of the final—or near final—work that Hemingway had come to construct by 1925, In Our Time actually bears the most resemblance to Jean Toomer's Cane, another generically complicated work I would also describe as a “cubist anatomy.” Obviously Toomer himself was indebted to Anderson, and the publishing history of Cane also has a complicated historical chronology, leading critics over the years to encounter some of the same frustrations as with In Our Time when trying to determine its generic status.5

Linda Wagner-Martin seems most astute in describing Cane as a “collage”—an organization she also finds before Toomer in both Eliot's The Waste Land and Joyce's Ulysses (24). Moreover, as she provocatively notes, in March 1924, Anderson wrote to Stein (still serving as mentor to Hemingway in Paris), urging her to read Cane; given Hemingway and Stein's interaction at the time, Wagner-Martin notes, “it seems reasonable that he also knew about Toomer's book” (24).6 Although there is still no known proof that Hemingway read this work, it is notable that Hemingway began to rework the organization of “in our time” into In Our Time during September and October 1924—the year of Anderson's letter to Stein about Cane. Hemingway's reorganization included, among other changes, following Stein's implicit advice later that same year to delete Nick as author in the final story (see Reynolds, 41-2).

Although I agree with Wagner-Martin in seeing Cane and then, implicitly, In Our Time as collages (a basic technique of synthetic cubist paintings and writings), I disagree with her conclusion that Hemingway's work is radically “less experimental” than Toomer's—from structure and theme to the author's moral position:

It [In Our Time] used only prose forms, its title was thematically directive, and it moved alternatingly between the longer and more subjective stories and the seemingly objective vignettes that were based on either bullfighting or World War I experiences. Hemingway's structure was, in some ways, predictable, plotted, controlled, as was to be most of his writing throughout his career. … Unlike Toomer's work, in Hemingway's, the author's moral position was clear.


Although Hemingway excised actual poems from In Our Time, many of his prose pieces (like Toomer's) are more accurately seen as prose poems (another cubist technique of the time). The title is no more directive than Cane; certainly the structure does not merely alternate between stories and vignettes—an important point to be discussed more fully below—nor does that structure seem predictable or even morally “clear.” However, I do concur with Wagner-Martin's assertion that Cane is nonetheless somehow “integrated”—and so, I would argue, is Hemingway's work as well.7

As curiously “integrated” albeit “fragmented” texts, both Cane and In Our Time clearly surpass and even subvert the traditional order of short story cycles, moving well into the realm of literary anatomies when “anatomy” has the particularly subversive intent and structure Frye describes. Viewed from this generic perspective, all the elements of their “cena” or “symposia”—including the poems in Cane and the vignettes in In Our Time—become critical parts of the overall texts and not marginal asides or intrusions we can dismiss or erase. In fact, the numbered chapters of In Our Time, which do not even appear on the title page, initially pushed me to describe the whole text as a “cubist” work, for they are clearly important both to the overall tone of In Our Time and to the “anatomizing” or “dissection” Hemingway makes of Nick Adams, the protagonist of most of the stories identified on the title page.

That is to say, the unnamed chapters, one of which notably includes Nick (who otherwise appears only in the titled stories), frustrate our attempts to create a “foreground” of stories, with a “background” of vignettes. Nick's unexpected appearance in “Chapter Six”—as a victim of senseless violence much like other briefly sketched characters in the interchapters—subverts attempts to place the stories and interchapters in a hierarchy of foreground and background. This “flattens” the In Our Time collage, as in Cézanne's late work (which Hemingway admired) or in subsequent cubist paintings of Picasso, Braque, and Gris (whose work Hemingway also knew well). All “spaces” in the text—and one might add, all times—become equally important. The interchapters simply cannot be left out, nor even reduced to “introductions” to the following stories, for a complete understanding of “the time.” The whole context of emasculating violence is necessary to understand Nick (the volume's most central character), just as the individual Nick and his experiences are necessary to understand the time—which includes other soldiers like “Krebs,” “battlers,” unknown Hungarians, and dying matadors.

The flattening effect of “Chapter Six,” making all parts of the text equal—as well as the similar effect Hemingway created by recasting two of the vignettes (“The Revolutionist” and “A Very Short Story”) as nominal stories—may have prompted him to print the 1930 version of In Our Time with the “Introduction by the Author” (set on the quai at Smyrna) as the actual “key” for reading the work.8 In tone, content, and length, the “Quai” is most nearly like the book's unnamed interchapters. However, appearing on the title page first as a named “Introduction” and later as a supposed “story,” the “Quai” dismantles our understandable tendency to view the chapters as introductions to the stories—well before “Chapter Six” frustrates that tendency as well.

In addition, the “Quai,” set in a war following the Great War, further complicates our sense of time and chronology. What happens after the Great War involves the Great War and the stories from the years preceding it, and vice versa: the total picture of “our time” requires all “the different angles”—and all the times. There is no single authority, no single time, no single story, no single perspective—rather a simultaneous collage, if not collision, of interrelated forces at play in the text (and in reality, the text implies).

Such a jumbling of chronological development is not only cubist in its evocation of simultaneity, but also helps to answer how Nick in Chapter Six, shot in the spine and sitting with his legs sticking out, can be found subsequently in the text (“Cross Country Snow”) skiing and hiking. Although Nick in the named stories does seem to move through some sort of chronological development, from childhood in “Indian Camp” to the somewhat stunned adulthood of “Big Two-Hearted River,” the total text of In Our Time does not move chronologically at all, but rather evokes different senses of time—something close to Bergson's sense of “saturated time”—to convey the complicated nature of “our time” or of modern reality.

Viewed from the perspective of its complicated publishing history, In Our Time as a cubist work seems fortuitously accidental and belated. At the level of style, however, cubism helps to explain Hemingway's rather astonishing use of repetition to achieve, ironically, not similar but differing perspectives. As a strategy, repetition clearly animated Gertrude Stein's writing, including her famous and early cubist pieces on Cézanne and Picasso.9 Max Nänny has shown convincingly that the classic form of chiasmus describes the aesthetic composition of many Hemingway passages.

However, cubism, not chiasmus, most nearly describes the subtle but exquisite changes in perspectives Hemingway achieves through repetition in passages such as the following from “The End of Something”:

He [Nick] reeled in the slack line so the line ran taut out to where the bait rested on the sandy floor of the channel and set the click on the reel. When a trout, feeding on the bottom, took the bait it would run with it, taking line out of the reel in a rush and making the reel sing with the click on.

(IOT 33; emphasis mine)

In addition to repeating certain words, such as “ran” or “run,” “bait,” “line,” etc., Hemingway deploys the almost identical phrases with subtle semantic and grammatical differences so that we get radically different perspectives from superficially similar phrases. The verb particle of “reeled in,” for example, is finally not the same as the noun and preposition of “reel in.” Nor does “click on” mean exactly the same thing in the two instances above.

Hemingway also achieves subtle changes in perspective through repetitions that again change both semantically and structurally, as in this example from “Cat in the Rain”:

Italians came from a long way off to look up at the war monument. It was made of bronze and glistened in the rain. It was raining. The rain dripped from the palm trees. Water stood in pools on the gravel paths. The sea broke in a long line in the rain

(IOT 91; emphasis added)

The last sentence of this paragraph—“Across the square in the doorway of the café a waiter stood looking out at the empty square” (IOT 91)—merges our perspective of the waiter at a distance “across the square” with the perspective of the waiter himself, looking back across the square. Hemingway also tells us that in “good weather there was always an artist with his easel,” and then changes that artistically self-conscious note in the next sentence to “Artists liked the way the palms grew,” etc. At the level of style, then, simultaneity and multiplicity of perspectives (key characteristics of both visual and verbal cubism) are very much a part of Hemingway's earliest crafted techniques.

Such multiplicity is found not only in narrative voice(s) throughout In Our Time, but in narrative voice(s) within individual stories and chapters as well. For instance, in the piece that would come to be called “On the Quai at Smyrna”:

The strange thing was, he said, how they screamed every night at midnight. I do not know why they screamed at that time. We were in the harbor and they were all on the pier and at midnight they started screaming.

(IOT 11).

Here it is initially impossible to determine if “he” and “I” are the same person (because Hemingway does not use quotation marks until the end of the paragraph), if “we” represents the combined “he” and “I” or the “I” narrator and some other group with which he is aligned. In addition, it is impossible at the outset to determine who “they” are or what is causing the screaming.

As in a cubist painting, the individual pieces have to be put together before understanding the subject. Thus, the implicit fragmentation above degenerates appropriately to the actual fragmentation and objectification of the screaming women: “The worst, he said, were the women with dead babies. … Wouldn't give them up. … Had to take them away finally” (IOT 11). In fact, the last “picture” of the “Quai” is one of literal fragmentation: “All those mules with their forelegs broken pushed over into the shallow water” (12). By the end of the story multiplicity and disjunction have been radically enhanced by our almost violent separation from the opening narrator, who regards the scenes described as “a most pleasant business,” and by our own revulsion at the scene finally understood.

Such strategies can be readily found throughout the volume, from “Indian Camp” through the various interchapters to “Big Two-Hearted River.” In “Big Two-Hearted River,” however, Hemingway uses multiplicity of style in a way that is integral both to understanding the story on its own—to go back to Paul Smith's opening questions—and to understanding In Our Time as a whole—to go back to my opening answer. Although what follows is equally true of numerous passages in the story, I would like to concentrate on three passages from “Big Two-Hearted River” and what they suggest about interpreting the story on its own before relating the conclusion of the story, in a cubist fashion, to passages that precede “Big Two-Hearted River” in the larger, symposium-like anatomy of In Our Time.

In “Big Two-Hearted River” Hemingway uses a cubist aesthetic—a subtle multiplicity of styles—as ethical and interpretative markers in a way that hearkens back to, but totally modernizes, earlier narrative intrusions (as practiced by Jane Austen or Nathaniel Hawthorne, or even Edith Wharton, his near contemporary). Recognizing the multiple perspectives at work stylistically may change the long-standing interpretation of Nick's achieving some sort of balance, if not actual growth, in the final story of In Our Time—a perspective voiced most notably by Frank Scafella, who sees Nick engaging in a literal “heart time,” or a ritual healing of a heart and spirit broken by the violence of war (77-90).

While I certainly agree that Nick—and other characters within In Our Time—have been damaged by war (and other kinds of cultural violence), Hemingway's style in the final version of “Big-Two Hearted River” undercuts the possibility that Nick will ever “fish the swamp,” no matter how many days are forthcoming. That redemptive moment is not in “our time.” Yet it requires all three passages discussed below to make clear how ruthlessly Hemingway undermines—and even satirizes—Nick (and presumably actual people of his own time) as someone damaged to the extent of retreating from all human sympathy and bonding and, finally, even from language itself.

Toward the end of the story's first section, after leaving Seney and the charred ground, after finding the river and making camp, Hemingway rather deviously allows us to be subjectively aware of Nick's mind and thoughts in a supposedly very objective language:

Already there was something mysterious and homelike. Nick was happy as he crawled inside the tent. 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.

(IOT 139)

What are we to think of a character who cannot—or more accurately, in contrast to the well-known Benjy of Faulkner's later work—will not think past the most simple of simple sentences? This is a character who chooses to block out feeling, his own or that of others—and more specifically a character who blocks out thoughts, blocks out language, and even blocks out “the need to write” (IOT 134).

But lest we confuse Hemingway as author with this shallow protagonist, Hemingway as author deliberately intrudes into the text—not with commentary, but with style, flourishing his ability to write imaginatively, with depth, with complication. Hence the marvelous description of cooking breakfast at the beginning of the next section, where the author—not Nick at all—perceives Nick's controlled rituals through imaginative metaphor, a deliberately creative act set precisely against Nick's typical foreclosures:

[H]e put a handful of coffee in the pot and dipped a lump of grease out of a can and slid it sputtering across the hot skillet. On the smoking skillet, he poured smoothly the buckwheat batter. It spread like lava, the grease spitting sharply. Around the edges the buckwheat cake began to firm, then brown, then crisp. The surface was bubbling slowly to porousness.

(IOT 146; emphasis added)

The italicized portions of the quotation represent the kind of language that Nick does not or cannot possess. Set against Nick's earlier reductive language, this passage shows Hemingway as author demonstrating that, unlike Nick, he likes to think, he likes to feel, he likes to write. Against his somewhat risky description of pancakes erupting like Kilauea, Hemingway has Nick conclude the same paragraph stylistically and reductively with, “I won't try and flop it, he thought” (IOT 146). The almost ruthless “dissection” of Nick's emotional sterility, versus the demonstration of the author's versatility, seems especially clear in this instance.

The stylistic discrepancies in these two passages (and others) set up the complicated ending and offer signals for how to interpret Nick's choosing not to fish the swamp. The paragraph immediately before the story's conclusion begins with Nick's reductive kind of language, moves into Hemingway's more sophisticated analysis of Nick's situation, and then moves back to Nick's determined and guarded truncations:

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. He did not want to go down the stream any further today.”

(IOT 155; emphasis added)

Or ever, we might add. The first and last three sentences are written in Nick's typical grammatical and syntactical style of unchanging and cryptic repression. In between, Hemingway as stylist lets us see, in contrast to Nick's fears, how beautiful and desirable depth and risk, experience and language, can be. If Nick has given up the need to write, if Nick cannot respond to his environment, if Nick is someone who both factually and figuratively cannot fish the swamp, Hemingway writes from within the swamp, within language, and within thoughts and feelings.

Although we might notice these stylistic clues without appealing to the cubist aesthetic, the multiplicity of styles engaged almost simultaneously does encourage multiple perspectives on the scene in a cubist fashion, forcing readers to fit perspectives together to see the whole picture and not just Nick's reductive version. Hemingway may be prompting us to read in just this way when, in one sentence only, he switches from an external narrator referring to “he” (or Nick) to the personal “I” (presumably Nick)—the only use of “I” in the story: “By God, he [the trout lost] was a big one. By God, he was the biggest one I ever heard of” (IOT 151). At the same time, this multiplicity of perspectives also allows us to see the subtle “dissection” Hemingway makes of both his main character and his “time.”

Whatever the history of In Our Time's earlier versions, by the time Hemingway was composing and then radically revising “Big Two-Hearted River,” he knew it was critical to the concluding sections of the volume he was crafting. As Frank Scafella rightly notes, though with a much more positive interpretation of Nick's character development or recovery than I can support, swamps appear in several other important moments in In Our Time. Scafella says that the swamp is “a factual memory in Nick's life and a feature of the terrain that he must fish out of love,” concluding that the swamp appears in numerous stories from “The End of Something” through “The Battler” and the like, “stories that logically follow Nick's experience in ‘Big Two-Hearted River’” (89).

And yet, those stories—which appear both earlier in the text and in chronological time—do not “logically follow” unless we retain Nick as author, something Hemingway finally does not do. What does follow logically, from In Our Time as a whole, and from Nick's own somewhat contorted chronological development within it, is that he is likely to remain emotionally repressed, intellectually scarred, truly damaged like others of “our time”—and not just from the war, but from the seemingly innocent structures in place since before the war, structures that perhaps gave rise to the war, as well as to other forms of physical and spiritual violations noted from “Indian Camp” onward.

The story that most directly supports this interpretation is, fittingly enough, “The End of Something.” At the story's end, after having broken up with Marge (seemingly in collusion with Bill), after beginning to regret his decision (a regret he cannot fully articulate to Bill) and refusing “to talk about it,” Nick is suddenly “happy”—a word prominent in “Big Two-Hearted River”—precisely when he thinks he can keep Marge “in reserve” or beyond emotional commitment one way or the other: “He felt happy. Nothing was finished. Nothing was ever lost” (IOT 48). In tone and sentence structure, these lines, from a slightly drunk and certainly narcissistic adolescent, are surprisingly—or not so surprisingly—similar to the internal thoughts of the adult and very damaged Nick on the river.

Other words and phrases entwine the endings of these two stories. At the end, with Bill's father “down in the swamp,” Nick and Bill escape to a different outdoors where “The wind blew everything like that away,” where “the Marge business was no longer so tragic” (49). Avoiding the Marge tragedy, just as he avoids the swamp, in a wind blowing “it out of his head,” Nick concludes that the possibility of seeing her in the future “was a good thing to have in reserve” (48)—a possibility we know Nick will never avail himself of, just as we know at the end of the “Big Two-Hearted River” that he will never metaphorically fish the swamp. Or as Reynolds notes in relation to the “rest of the country” by 1930—at the end, Nick has come to realize the pathos of his situation.10

This interpretation begins to move well beyond reading the stories on their own to reading them in relation to each other—something to be gained, I would suggest, in answer to Paul Smith's opening questions, by regarding In Our Time not as a collection of individual stories, or as a short story cycle, or even as a “novel” (however experimental) but as an anatomy specifically and self-consciously critiquing the multivarious and generically complicated structures that, in reality, have led to the horrible denouement of our actual “time.” Certainly the pessimistic endings of “Big Two-Hearted River” and “The End of Something” correspond in tone and theme to the endings of “Indian Camp,” “The Battler,” “Mr. and Mrs. Elliot”—to any number of the stories, as well as to the interchapters, with their devastating scenes of war and bullfighting. Taken as whole, nothing in In Our Time prepares us for the emotional redemption of Nick, the child victim of his father and his father's possible sexism and racism in “Indian Camp” and the adult victim of war.

The ending we have for Nick in “Big Two-Hearted River,” coupled with “L'Envoi” (which brings us full circle to an imprisoned king without authority who like “all Greeks” wants to be an American in a highly ironic “time”), seals the genre, for me at least, as an anatomy, with specifically cubist techniques governing both its purpose and aesthetics. The total work is self-conscious, multivarious in its genres, full of ideas, and—like Frye's own work ironically so named—fully conscious of both its critical belatedness and simultaneous ongoing pertinence.

This last point brings me to another question Paul Smith asked of Debra Moddelmog that I prescinded until this moment: regarding the “self-reflexivity” she finds created by Nick as implied author, Moddelmog asks, “‘Are we trying to make him “one of us’”—to which Smith replies, “First, yes, we are trying to make Hemingway ‘one of us,’ as every critical generation has, and has to, to earn its critical stripes” (146; citing Moddelmog's letter).11 I would like to argue, however, that Hemingway had already made himself—or his text—of “our time.” If, as Roland Barthes once noted, criticism is always belated, the “criticism” constituted by In Our Time is belated—and consciously so. The final product is no longer written, in any real or fictionalized sense, in its time—however much it may have begun that way. The final Nick of the collection is not the author, but the ironically realized “critic” in praxis of all that has gone before. The “Quai” is not merely the introduction, but an assessment of the emotional distancing, sexism, and racism that caused events earlier (as in “Indian Camp” or even the war scenes in the interchapters), and led to the “Quai” itself. By the time of its final construction, In Our Time was well into our time, a period when the ethical dimensions of literary texts and questions about what makes them “culturally binding” have become paramount.

Not surprisingly, recent critics, in addition to Moddelmog, find an affinity between Hemingway's In Our Time and our own self-conscious critical work (including, for example, that of James Phelan).12 However, even here Hemingway anticipated these critics—and Northrop Frye, whose term I have invoked. For if Frye produced a self-conscious “fictional prose” to describe an anatomy of criticism, Hemingway well before him provided an even more complicated critical anatomy—self-conscious in its fictionality and its mixed genres—of the very problems that would lead to both his time and our own. The “dissection,” it seems to me, is complete from the horrors of “Quai” through the specificities of “Indian Camp” to the indifferences toward women in the rain, matadors in the mud, battlers in the night, and wops in the distance.

These, and many other instances as the text moves back and forth between pre-and post-war “tragedies,” suggest (with many closely focused scrutinies on numerous actual bodies or anatomies, and many removed panoramas), as Edith Wharton well knew, that the “age of innocence” was not so innocent. Its legacies of domination, violence, indifference (even racism and sexism) comprise the anatomy of Hemingway's Our Time as he first wrote it, as he revised it, and as we continue to see it.

Seen as a “cubist anatomy,” In Our Time emerges as a deeply ethical text, radically concerned with the way we see and will see the world. Hemingway seems to have wanted to wake us to “our time”—both his own and that of a critical world he clearly saw burgeoning. Ironically and belatedly, Hemingway critiqued with his astonishingly accurate anatomy the problems, the promises, and the pressures that would eventually sentence or conscript his time—a period rapidly becoming our time as well. Certainly not a mere collection of random stories, In Our Time methodically and even ruthlessly presents us with a violent world, full of emotional and physical abuses, racist and sexist denigrations, failed male (if not patriarchal) posturings, and—both as cause and consequence—military escalations on a global scale that seem disturbingly (however brilliantly and aesthetically given) altogether too much a part of our actual—as well as our critical—time. If Hemingway was not aware of this aspect of his writing when composing the first stories in 1923, by 1925—and most certainly by 1930 when he added the “Quai” as an “Introduction—he clearly was. And this is one of the reasons (in addition to his famous style) we continue to read—not the postulated stories of Nick Adams—but the actual artistry of Ernest Hemingway.


  1. More than one critic has noted the impact of the visual arts on Hemingway's work; but see, in particular, Miller, Nagel, and Plath. For a thorough discussion of the changes Hemingway made in the manuscript over its long evolution, see Reynolds; for a discussion of Nick as the deleted but implied author, see Moddelmog.

  2. Hemingway attributes “pretty good unity” to In Our Time in a 1924 letter to Edmund Wilson (cited in Baker 26). Harbour Winn summarizes various generic terms applied to In Our Time, noting that D. H. Lawrence called it a “fragmentary novel” in 1936 and Theodore Bardacke an “autobiographical novel” in 1950. Other critics have seen it as a short story cycle or literary hybrid.

  3. As early as 1925, Paul Rosenfeld described In Our Time as “cubist.” In recent years, this term (used to describe the aesthetics, not the genre, of the work) has resurfaced—from my own earlier speculation that In Our Time might be most successfully viewed as a “cubist novel” (paper given at the International Hemingway Conference, Boston, July 1990)—to Vaughn's suggestion that the work “may be the first instance in our language of visual prose” (5). However, cubist literature (both prose and poetry) was already a widespread phenomenon in the United States and in Europe well before Hemingway's publication (see my Part of the Climate), and in that sense In Our Time is truly part of Hemingway's own artistic climate.

  4. Anderson's title page centers, in capital letters, “THE TALES AND THE PERSONS,” and then centers under that, in italics, The Book of the Grotesque, which focuses on “The writer.” Individual stories comprising the rest of the volume follow in regular type and flush left, as if constituting “The Book” the writer above has written.

  5. The Norton Critical Edition of Cane reprints numerous letters between Anderson and Toomer and offers differing critical perspectives on this enigmatic work.

  6. Wagner-Martin cites Anderson's letter to Stein from Item 92, Hemingway Collection, Kennedy Library, Boston, MA.: “There is a book by an American negro—Jean Toomer—called Cane [sic] I would like you to see. Real color and splash—no fake negro this time, I'm sure. Do look it up—Boni & Liveright.”

  7. Wagner-Martin points out that “Each part of Cane reflects an integrative order, and the fact that Toomer included poems he had written earlier—seeing their usefulness to the total structure of Cane—suggests that he saw the process of “writing” this book as an assemblage” (21)—a remark that applies, with only minor adjustment, to Hemingway's work.

  8. I am indebted to Sandra Hayes for suggesting that “On the Quai at Smyrna” may be the literal “key” to reading In Our Time, although she would argue that it is a surrealist text.

  9. Stein's cubist piece entitled “Pablo Picasso” (from the 1912 special issue of Camera Work, which also included her cubist piece on Matisse) is reprinted in Brogan (33-5). All three of her verbally cubist “portraits” (on Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso) appear in her Selected Writings (329-35).

  10. See Reynolds 48: “Beside the river, half afraid to face the swamp where fishing will be tragic, Nick Adams has nothing left to tell us about his era or its pitfalls. Unlike Gabriel Conroy at the end of Joyce's ‘The Dead,’ Nick is not in tears, but the two remain first cousins nonetheless. Both men, anchoring as they do the collections that house them, have come to realize the pathos of their situations.”

  11. Debra Moddelmog, undated letter to Paul Smith and panelists at the International Hemingway Conference, Boston 1990.

  12. Drawing upon Peter Rabinowitz, Phelan conjoins critical theory and close reading, making a careful distinction between the “authorial” and “narrative” audiences—and their very different assumptions—that is extremely revealing of many of Hemingway's finest texts.

Works Cited

Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio. 1919. New York: Viking, 1969.

Baker, Sheridan. Ernest Hemingway: An Introduction and Interpretation. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1967.

Brogan, Jacqueline Vaught. Part of the Climate: American Cubist Poetry. Berkeley: U of California P, 1991.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. 1957. New York: Atheneum Press, 1967.

Hemingway, Ernest. In Our Time: Stories by Ernest Hemingway. 1930. New York: Scribner's, 1970.

Kennedy, J. Gerald. Ed. Modern Short Story Sequences: Composite Fictions and Fictive Communities. New York: Cambridge UP, 1995.

Moddelmog, Debra A. “The Unifying Consciousness of a Divided Conscience: Nick Adams as Author of In Our Time.American Literature 60. 4 (1988): 591-610.

Nänny, Max. “Hemingway's Architecture of Prose: Chiastic Patterns and Their Narrative Functions.” North Dakota Quarterly 64.3 (1997): 157-76.

Phelan, James. “What Hemingway and a Rhetorical Theory of Narrative Can Do for Each Other: The Example of ‘My Old Man.’” The Hemingway Review 12. 2 (Spring 1993): 1-14.

Rabinowitz, Peter. Before Reading: Narrative Conventions and the Politics of Interpretation. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1987.

Reynolds, Michael. “Hemingway's In Our Time: The Biography of a Book.” In Kennedy 31-51.

Rosen, Kenneth. Ed. Hemingway Repossessed. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1994.

Rosenfeld, Paul. “Tough Earth.” New Republic 1925. In Ernest Hemingway: Six Decades of Criticism. Ed. Linda Wagner. Michigan State UP, 1987. 61-3.

Scafella, Frank. “‘Nothing’ in ‘Big Two-Hearted River.’” In Hemingway: Up in Michigan Perspectives. Ed. Frederic J. Svoboda and Joseph J. Waldmeir. East Lansing: U of Michigan P, 1995. 77-90.

Smith, Paul. “Who Wrote Hemingway's In Our Time?” In Rosen 143-50.

Stein, Gertrude. Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein. Ed. Carl Van Vechten. New York: Vintage, 1990.

Toomer, Jean. Cane. 1923. New York: W.W. Norton, 1988.

Vaughn, Elizabeth Dewberry. “In Our Time and Picasso.” In Rosen 3-8.

Wagner-Martin, Linda. “Toomer's Cane as Narrative Sequence.” In Kennedy 19-34.

Winn, Harbour. “Hemingway's In Our Time: ‘Pretty Good Unity’.” The Hemingway Review 9.2 (Spring 1990): 124-40.

Matthew C. Stewart (essay date spring 2000)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7066

SOURCE: Stewart, Matthew C. “Ernest Hemingway and World War I: Combatting Recent Psychobiographical Reassessments, Restoring the War.” Papers on Language and Literature 36, no. 2 (spring 2000): 115-217.

[In the following essay, Stewart attempts to refute revisionist arguments about the influence of World War I on Hemingway's fiction.]

“Napoleon taught Stendahl how to write.”

—Ernest Hemingway

To ask whether or not the First World War had a profound effect upon Ernest Hemingway would, not so long ago, have been considered a rhetorical question. It can no longer be considered so, since the influential critics Kenneth S. Lynn and Frederick Crews have sought to dismiss the importance of World War I from Hemingway's life and fiction.1 The mainstream interpretation, which held sway well into the 1980s, had been advanced in most detail by Philip Young, whose breadth of analysis and psychoanalytical bent amplified the theory of the wound first advanced by Edmund Wilson. Although he did not speak as extensively of the wound theory, Malcolm Cowley had already marked out Hemingway's First World War experiences as a turning point in his life as early as 1945.

Following Cowley and Young, many a teacher taught many a student that Hemingway was badly wounded at the war—wounded inside as well as outside. The war left him with a fear of night, a fear said to relate to his abrupt confrontation with his own mortality. It gave him insight into the fragility of the world, and it fostered a deep skepticism towards the grand abstractions that the First World War rendered bitterly ironic. For a generation of critics, the war was not only the obvious subject matter, the sine qua non, of certain stories and novels, it also undergirded the entire oeuvre, and lurked below the surface of certain important stories that never mentioned the war. But times have changed, and as Susan Beegel puts it in her recent bibliographic essay on Hemingway criticism, in the 1980s “it became clear that the ‘wound’ and the ‘code’ were about to be muscled off the stage of Hemingway studies” (289). Because the psychobiographical version elaborated by Lynn and supported by Crews inaccurately reappraises Hemingway's life and work in relation to the war, and because this erroneous version has gained considerable currency—indeed, much outright acceptance—among general readers and academics alike, I would like to consider anew the importance of the First World War in Hemingway's life and work.

I am not concerned here with clarifying the events surrounding Hemingway's wounding at Fossalta di Piave, for Robert W. Lewis, Michael Reynolds, and, most skeptically, Jeffrey Meyers have thoroughly examined this episode. In a study co-credited to Henry S. Villard, James Nagel has constructed the most convincing say on this matter, countering to a degree the more skeptical scholarly opinions. They have shown the necessity of questioning biographical sources and interpretations that have hardened into “facts,” and, more importantly, their discussions of Hemingway's war experiences rid this portion of his life of a critical one-dimensionality that may have begun to cling to it. But Lynn and Crews have subsequently substituted one sort of unidimensionality for another. They make it seem as if the war slid off Hemingway like water off a duck's back and have asked us to understand that some of his most admired war stories are not really war stories after all. Such stories as “Now I Lay Me” and “Big Two-Hearted River,” they argue, do not have a wounding nor even the generalized trauma of war at their center, perhaps not even at their periphery. From the demythification of Hemingway's own wound, these critics have extrapolated a Hemingway profoundly unchanged by what he experienced in Italy. Thus Frederick Crews on Hemingway: “Nothing in his subsequent conduct suggests that he returned from Italy with a subdued temper, much less a revulsion against killing or a grasp of the issues and ironies behind the war” (95). Thus Kenneth S. Lynn on “Now I Lay Me,” a story set seven kilometers from the front in Italy and whose two main characters are hospitalized soldiers: “What counts supremely in the story is not the northern Italian frame that has made so many readers regard it as a tale of war, but the childhood memories within the frame” (Hemingway 48).2

Writing on the publication of Hemingway's Selected Letters in 1981, Lynn argued that the war played no part in “Big Two-Hearted River,” a story he describes as “a sun-drenched, Cézannesque picture of a predominantly happy fishing trip” (“Private War” 26). In the process of laying out his surprising version of Hemingway's famous story, Lynn rakes Malcolm Cowley over the coals. Attaching anti-American motives to Cowley, he excoriates his introduction to The Portable Hemingway, wherein he sees Cowley “shoveling much more war-victim material into “Big Two-Hearted River” (“Private War” 25). In 1984 Cowley responded to Lynn's attack, reiterating his belief in the importance of Hemingway's war experience and offering as new testimony a previously unpublished letter from 1948 in which Hemingway directly states that Cowley was correct about the war wound: “‘Big Two Hearted River’ [sic] is a story about a man who is home from the war” (Cowley, “Hemingway's Wound” 230). In 1985, R. W. B. Lewis thought that the argument had been put to rest, with Cowley winning the day. Not so, however. In his subsequently published biography, Lynn devotes over four pages to refuting the war-trauma interpretation of “Big Two-Hearted River” and asserts that Hemingway's letter was one of several posthumously published pieces which that Hemingway to be “a master manipulator … making fools of [critics] from beyond the grave” (Hemingway 106). Thereafter Frederick Crews joined ranks with Lynn, specifically countering both Cowley and Lewis and asserting the wholesale claim that Hemingway returned from the war unchanged. The rest of this essay will be a direct refutation of the revisionists' interpretation of the war's influence on both Hemingway's life and fiction, using “Big Two-Hearted River” as a case in point.

Crews in particular makes much of the cheery, jocular tone found in the young Hemingway's letters home from the Italian hospital where he was recuperating. These letters prove, he claims, that Hemingway couldn't have been much hurt: “the adeptness of his sprightly rhetoric sits poorly with the conventional idea of his thoroughly unnerved, shell-shocked condition” (95). Setting aside the caricature of “the conventional idea” as holding that Hemingway was immediately and absolutely psychically altered by his wounding, what Crews too easily dismisses is the rhetorical context of these letters home. Very likely Hemingway did as millions of war veterans have done and adopted the uncomplaining, kidding stoicism expected of him under the circumstances. The manly thing, the adult thing, the heroic thing was not to let on to those at home. Besides putting on the brave and happy face, the later letters could well constitute a bid for public attention, as James R. Mellow has asserted (63-64). Hemingway's early letters were delivered to the local press by his parents, and Hemingway's subsequent letters were surely written under the apprehension that they might well find a public audience.

No doubt Hemingway did find things in his wounding and in his hospital stay in which he could take comfort. Even this sort of ordeal, with all its attendant pains and fears, had its compensations in social status and new experience. But about his wounding and convalescence, several facts are not in dispute. He underwent surgery, he picked many pieces of shrapnel from his legs, and, thanks largely to his drinking, he was hit with a case of jaundice. Hemingway was, by several accounts, the life of the party on the hospital floor, full of still adolescent vigor, and his letters home are indeed chipper, but he was not a fool incapable of comprehending the gravity of his situation or of feeling his injuries.3

Crews and Lynn do not mention Agnes von Kurowsky's statement that, while hospitalized, Hemingway “was worried about his leg. He was afraid they'd amputate” (qtd. in Reynolds, “Agnes Tapes” 269) nor that as late as 22 April 1920, he straightforwardly explained to his parents that although his leg was in pretty good shape, it still bothered him after a hard day—a long recovery time for a young and active man. An early attempt at a fictionalized version of his wounding develops a decidedly unspritely rhetoric. Writing longhand on Milan Red Cross stationery, Hemingway sketches the downfall of Nick Grainger of Petoskey, Michigan. Like Hemingway, Nick has been struck in the legs by a mortar on the Italian front. Yet, his case is worse than Hemingway's in that he apparently has lost both his legs and his left arm to amputation. The war over, peace celebrants noisy in the streets, Nick bitterly fingers his medals and remains uncomforted by the florid citation that accompanies them. The sketch ends before he swallows the poisonous bichloride solution he has filched for the clear purpose of committing suicide (JFK 604). As a piece of fiction—corny dialogue, unrealized ironic potential—this sketch provides a baseline from which to measure Hemingway's growth as a writer during his subsequent Paris apprenticeship. And the sketch is an early instance of the suicide theme that would become central in Hemingway's life and fiction. Most to the point here, this particular piece of writing directly refutes the revisionists' thesis that the war contained no dark dimension for the young Hemingway. And nowhere in the revised version of Hemingway does one see mention of his confidences to his wife Hadley about his recurrent battle nightmares—this in 1923, five years after his wounding (Reynolds, Paris Years 203). Rather than recognize the mixed nature of Hemingway's wounding, Crews and Lynn insist on depicting a sort of dumb (but cheerful) ox, all the while ignoring the cultural context of his behavior as well as much evidence that would necessitate a less one-dimensional portrait of Hemingway.

There is indeed a great deal more evidence that indicates Hemingway was profoundly influenced by the war. Both his life and his fictions show that the wounding had its serious effects. Members of Hemingway's family who observed him upon his return from the war would agree. His brother Leicester has written that “not all of Ernest's wounds were physical. Like hundreds of thousands of other soldiers before and since, he had received some psychic shock. He was plagued by insomnia and couldn't sleep unless he had a light in his room” (48).4 It could be argued that Leicester, a young boy when Hemingway returned from Italy, must be judged a second-hand source in regards to this event, perhaps even that he is only giving a version of events fed to him at some later date by brother Ernest. However, Leicester was actually an early debunker of some of Ernest's Italian war tales, and in regards to this particular portion of his brother's life is not gullible (My Brother 46-47, interviewed in Brian 22). Furthermore, Marcelline, who was twenty-one at the time, also relates her brother's troubled mental state in her memoirs. “In between [his] extrovert activities Ernie had quiet, almost depressed intervals,” she writes (Sanford 183). But she actually proceeds to betray her protect-the-family-name use of the word almost, for she describes her brother as staying in bed for long periods of time, drinking on the sly to ease his pain, retreating from family activities and showing little inclination to forge an adult identity for himself (173-199).

A reading of Hemingway's letters also reveals a change in his state of mind after the war. With an oddly narrow selectivity and tendentious emphasis, Crews examines Hemingway's 1948 letter to Cowley, wherein Hemingway states, “In the first war, I now see, I was hurt very badly; in the body, mind and spirit; and also morally” (qtd. in Cowley, “Wound” 229). Crews emphasizes the clause I now see to declare that Hemingway “belatedly claimed to have adopted this poignant” war-wound reading (96). As I have already shown, there is a great deal of evidence apart from this one letter with which to counter Crews's mis-emphasis, but a different reading of the letter also presents itself as plausible. It is more tenable to emphasize the words very badly, so that we see the older Hemingway not belatedly claiming a wound he never felt, as Crews would have it, but better understanding the dimensions and profundity of that wound. This interpretation is bolstered when the next sentence from the letter is not omitted from consideration: “The true gen is I was hurt bad all the way through” (qtd. in Cowley, “Wound” 229-30). All the way through, Hemingway particularizes, and, more tellingly, he uses a favorite phrase of his at the time—the true gen—which he used to signify the transcendent, core truth adhering to an event.5 The gen, the mere fact, had always been that Hemingway was wounded; the true gen was that he had been wounded deeply, quite probably so deeply that his trauma found itself in his stories in a way that he was only partially conscious of and only partially but not totally in control of as an author. Such slowly arrived-at self-understanding, the gradual (or eventual) coming to terms with the sort of trauma suffered by Hemingway should not be difficult to imagine.

Lynn and Crews undermine their arguments by staging false dilemmas. Either Hemingway immediately and constantly showed the profound effects of the war upon him, or he came out of the war untouched. Either the psychic germ of “Big Two-Hearted River” is World War I or it is Hemingway's conflicts with his mother (Lynn's argument, as we shall see), but not both. But those who have known or worked with veterans know that the effects of trauma may surface only after the passage of time, sometimes gradually, sometimes by fits and starts, sometimes all at once upon actuation by a particular stimulus, sometimes after the passage of many seemingly trouble-free years.6 Likewise, understanding the effects of one's wounding is a process, often one that transpires over many years, even decades. There is no single, exclusive paradigm that invariably governs the effects of traumatic experience.7 It is certainly reasonable to conclude that Hemingway suffered the effects of his wounding to a degree at first (and I wish to re-emphasize to a greater degree than acknowledged by Crews or Lynn), and that with the passage of time he came to a deeper awareness and a better understanding of the war's effects upon him. It is reasonable to accept that the reaction to a wounding need not come in a simple either/or form, that a wounding survived can leave victims feeling alternatively vulnerable and indestructible, and that the balance between these two feelings is quite capable of shifting over the course of one's life.

It is true that in the 1950s Hemingway actually denied the war-wound interpretation of his work as put forth by Philip Young. But Hemingway's objections in this instance were partly strategic. He wished to hold prying biographers and critics—of whom there were beginning to be a substantial number—at bay, and he was not about to encourage any public version of himself that did not conform to the hairy-chested hero regularly depicted in the pages of national magazines. In his letters of the period he repeatedly asserts his desire to retain his privacy and to have his fictions read on their own terms, without reference to facts from his own life. In part these assertions stem from sincere beliefs about his art and in part they stem from Hemingway's heavy investment in the macho myth that adhered to his life in the fifties.8

On the subject of his own biography, Hemingway had mixed feelings and was capable of combining subtle encouragement with openly expressed discouragement in his letters to would-be biographers and critics.9 In Young's particular case, Hemingway does not deny that he was traumatized in WWI, but rightly sees the critic as oversimplifying the oeuvre and overplaying his critical thesis. There had been “plenty [of] trauma in 1918,” he admitted to Harvey Breit, complaining that Young dwells on the trauma, rather than the fact that he had managed to overcome it (Selected Letters 865-67). By this time, too, the public Hemingway, “’fraid o’ nothing,” had firmly seized hold of a large segment of the casual public's imagination and of its subject's own self-conception as well. The truths Hemingway told in his fictions battled with the Life-magazine myth, which was to a large extent of his own making. Hemingway's letters do demonstrate his ability to prevaricate, pose, and manipulate. They also show him to be sincere and straightforward in many instances. Hemingway's 1948 assertion of war trauma to Cowley should be taken at its word. For one thing, what he says in his letter runs counter to the public persona he had participated in building, and, as we shall see, there is a great deal of evidence to be gathered from his statements and fictional works of the twenties that supports his retrospective self-assessment.

In his quest to prove that Hemingway's “‘post war disillusionment’, such as it was, proved to be a belated and derivative manifestation,” (97) Crews ignores a great deal of very early evidence, including a 1926 letter to Maxwell Perkins. Writing twenty-two years earlier than the letter to Cowley that Crews picks at, Hemingway complains that Allen Tate has been unfair to him by creating a sort of critical dipstick with which to measure the depth of his alleged hardboiledness: “As a matter of fact I have not been at all hard boiled since July 8 1918—on the night of which I discovered that that also was Vanity” (sic) (Selected Letters 240). The date Hemingway mentions, of course, is that of his wounding at Fossalta di Piave. It is difficult to posit a motivation for Hemingway to lie gratuitously to Perkins in 1926 about his reaction to being wounded.

Neither are Hemingway's early war poems taken into account by the revisionists, including one entitled “Killed Piave—July 8—1918,” in which a female speaker expresses her longing for her dead lover, who appears metaphorically as “A dull, cold, rigid bayonet” (Complete Poems 35). Written in Paris (all before 1923), the war poems offer little by way of literary achievement but do comprise more evidence that Hemingway thought seriously about the war and felt its wasteful, destructive nature early on, not belatedly. Lynn makes nothing of the poems but chooses to summarize Hemingway's many later assertions that the war had injured him as an obdurate old man's “effort[s] to account for his imperiled sense of himself, as well as to preserve his macho reputation” (Hemingway 106).

Finally neither Crews nor Lynn adequately deals with the imposing fact that so many of Hemingway's protagonists—including those in his earliest stories—are men wounded in war: Nick Adams, Jake Barnes, Frederic Henry, Robert Jordan. Sticking with his posthumous psychoanalysis, insistently returning to the sites of supposed childhood trauma, positing Hemingway as always and ever the victim of himself, Lynn ignores the recurrent presence of fictional protagonists wounded by war. This is not to say that Lynn does not delve into the psyches of these characters; rather, it is to say that he fails to come to terms with the fact that out of an infinite number of causes available with which to wound his main characters, Hemingway consistently chose war.

It is obviously impossible to disprove the centrality of the war in stories set at the front, such as “Now I Lay Me”; therefore Lynn's and Crews's arguments need be discussed no further in relation to these stories. However, both men have also examined “Big Two-Hearted River,” and this story's relationship to the war is admittedly much more indirect. Predictably they have found that this story is not concerned with the war either, though many readers have seen it as depicting a war-traumatized Nick Adams returning to familiar territory for camping, fishing and psychic, perhaps spiritual, recovery. Not so, says Lynn. The story is really about Hemingway's rebellious squabbles with his mother Grace. For two consecutive summers after returning from the war, Hemingway and his mother fought an escalating series of battles that culminated in his banishment from the family summer home in July of 1920. Lynn deduces that this familial acrimony is the true psychic germ of Hemingway's famous story:

Perhaps, then, the “other needs” Nick feels he has put behind him include a need to please his mother, while his talk of his tent as his home may represent a reaction to being thrown out of his parents' summer cottage. Perhaps, too, the burned-over country and the grasshoppers that have turned black from living in it constitute tacit reminders to him of his mother's penchant for burning things. And finally, the activity of his mind that keeps threatening to overwhelm his contentment could be his rage [towards his mother].

(Hemingway 103-04)

This argument is consistent with a dominant tendency in Lynn's study: that the conflicts in Hemingway's stories have their source in his own psychic turmoil, that he had little understanding of, often little awareness of, the nature of his rages and inner torments. Lynn's method is at once subtle and mechanical. It is subtle in that it combines detailed biographical research with sophisticated readings of the works and exhibits the critic's high powers of inference. Yet Lynn too often uses his subtle insights less than responsibly. Lynn's conditional rhetoric here (“perhaps,” “may,” “perhaps,” “could be”) would seem to indicate that his reading of this enigmatic story is as speculative as any other, as indeed it is. But in the course of his argument, Lynn actually treats his speculation as if it were a fact beyond dispute—witness his excoriation of those whose speculations are not in line with his own. Lynn's method becomes mechanical in that it insists upon the equation inner torment equals content of the story, while assertive, consciously controlled, fictive imagination is relegated to the end of the bench.

In light of the vitriolic opinions expressed about his mother by Hemingway as an older man, it is perhaps difficult to judge his 1920 fights with her as merely typical of a twenty-year-old's desire to be granted autonomy and adult status. Lynn clearly does not judge them so, but rather presents them as being manifestations of a mind already abnormally conflicted in regards to his mother. But surely the war itself was an integral part of Hemingway's conflict with the old-fashioned, sanctimonious, emotionally coercive Grace. Surely it was doubly difficult in his particular situation to be treated like a kid. It was the summer of his coming of age, a stage of life when the final thrust towards independence and adult status is normal and necessary. But also, as a young man who had been at the war and one-time city-beat reporter in Kansas City, he had already seen much more than someone his age would usually see, and he had experienced things far beyond the ken of his suburban, essentially Victorian parents. The same mother who had initially doted on her son's war-hero status overlooked the deeper changes his experiences had caused in him.10 In an unpublished letter to Charles Poore, Hemingway relates that after being home from the war for some time “I was having a pretty bad time and my mother started to eat me out for drinking and not taking things seriously etc. and I told her that I had had a sort of bad time some of the time in the war and that if she would leave me alone I would work out of it okay.” In his description of Hemingway's summers of familial discontent, Lynn again presumes a false dilemma—it was either the war (wrong interpretation) or his mother (correct interpretation) that was at the root of Hemingway's—and hence Nick's—restlessness and moodiness. That the two problems could be mixed together, as they skillfully are in fictional form in “Soldier's Home,” for example, is an idea that Lynn never entertains.

But another problem confronts the reader. Lynn, who too readily formulates biographical statements about Hemingway based on material in the stories, seems to be operating with two sets of standards. Those who interpret “Big Two-Hearted River” to be a story about a war-wounded Nick are admonished three times in the space of two pages that there is no textual evidence for this interpretation—as indeed there is not (Hemingway 104-106). Yet Lynn remains unruffled by the fact that neither is there a single reference to Nick's conflicted feelings towards his mother. The story certainly contains no reference to Nick's “being thrown out of his parents' summer cottage,” as Lynn states, conferring a fact from Hemingway's life onto his protagonist. Indeed, there are no explicit references to familial strife of any kind.

Not only can Lynn be hoist on his own critical petard, he often engages in a sort of circular logic that too readily muddles Hemingway's characters with himself. It is often very hard to discern whether or not Lynn is basing a textual interpretation on Hemingway's life or an interpretation of Hemingway using a story as evidence. He moves back and forth without drawing careful distinctions between these procedures. While using biographical evidence to suggest (though it can never prove) a certain textual interpretation is legitimate criticism, to work in the other direction, to draw conclusions about the author's life based upon his characters is a more dubious approach, and one from which Hemingway has too often suffered. While Lynn is a subtle reader, his readings are often much more an exploration of Hemingway's frame of mind (invariably angry, guilty, depressed or sexually confused in his version of things) during composition than they are textual interpretations. Lynn's criticisms of his war-wound predecessors, then, prove nothing aside from his willingness to engage in a critical double standard.11

What sort of textual evidence can be brought to bear on the story qua wound story? Its placement in the context of In Our Time strongly argues in favor of its interpretation as a story informed by the war. This volume contains seven stories and one vignette wherein Nick Adams is indisputably the protagonist. The stories occur in chronological order and trace various stages in Nick's development. In the sole vignette he is a soldier on the Italian front and has been hit in the spine. He is dragged to safety amidst the wreckage of a war-ruined town (later recalled in the imagery of Seney's obliteration in “Big Two-Hearted River”) and addresses his comrade in arms with the words “not patriots” (63). In “Cross-Country Snow,” which is the penultimate Nick Adams story, Nick refers to having a bad leg that interferes with his ability to ski. From these clues alone it is not reckless to hypothesize that Nick's unspecified problems in the ultimate story may have their origins in the war. Moreover, the reader has already also read “Soldier's Home” before reading “Big Two-Hearted River,” and this story is a quintessential, explicit portrait of a traumatized veteran, a portrait that paves the way for the reader to conjecture similar causes for the wounded veteran Nick's problems. Yet Lynn, as he does with “Big Two-Hearted River,” analyzes “Soldier's Home” only in terms of family dynamics (Hemingway 258-60). Clearly mother-son dynamics are of great importance in “Soldier's Home,” but the story's sine qua non is the depiction of a war veteran struggling to readjust to post-war civilian life. The family tensions cannot be seen as an issue somehow distinct from Krebs's status as a returned soldier. Thus, when the reader comes to the next story about a man he knows to be, like Krebs, both troubled and a veteran, he is surely justified in hypothesizing a thematic unity between the two stories and in positing the war as the underlying cause of the veteran's troubles.

Crews goes so far as to assert that in “Big Two-Hearted River” Nick is not even troubled: “Nick Adams neither moves about nor thinks like a man who has recently undergone a physically and spiritually crippling trauma. His escape, through the satisfactions of expert camping and fishing, from an unstated preoccupation is all but complete” (96) While it is true that the source of Nick's inner turmoil is never explicitly revealed, Hemingway's rendering of Nick's delicate mental state and his evocation of the precarious balance Nick strives to maintain are among Hemingway's finest achievements. To miss them is to miss the story. And as for Nick's “escape” being “all but complete,” Crews avoids any mention of the swamp, an obvious and dominant symbol, which Nick does not feel up to challenging at the end of the story.

Finally, it should be stated that the imagery of “Big Two-Hearted River” is consistent with the war-trauma reading. As he did in the earlier Nick Adams story “The End of Something,” Hemingway begins “Big Two-Hearted River” with a descriptive paragraph which does not advance the action of the story in the least, but which serves as an objective correlative for the story's emotional landscape. In the former story, Hemingway prepares the reader for the breakup of Nick and Marjorie in his opening paragraph, which is devoted entirely to a description of the ghost town Hortons Bay. In the opening paragraphs of “Big Two-Hearted River,” Hemingway similarly focuses his attention on the burned-over landscape through which Nick walks on his way to a better place. This imagery is consistent with other post-war literary wasteland imagery and touches the cultural memory of the devastated landscapes of the First World War.

In stories written subsequent to “Big Two-Hearted River,” Nick's career as a soldier receives further amplification. If literary quality is a register of how deeply an author has felt the subject matter about which he writes, then Hemingway felt very deeply about his war experiences, for these are some of his finest stories. They are “In Another Country,” “Now I Lay Me,” and “A Way You'll Never Be.” The first story very clearly anticipates A Farewell to Arms in its opening paragraph, its setting and the themes it raises. It depicts the ruined lives of wounded soldiers in a hospital, in particular the physical therapy of the American narrator and an Italian major.12 It is clear that the physical therapy is useless and that some sort of metaphysical, perhaps spiritual, therapy would be more fundamentally valuable for the psychically battered men. The second story, as stated above, depicts Nick and an Italian soldier lying awake at night near the front, unable to sleep. The American narrator dreads sleeping because he fears that his soul will leave his body. The final story depicts Nick Adams returning to the Italian front as a would-be morale booster, but he has been shot, receiving a head-wound that has rendered him barely able to control himself at the front. Indeed, his principal task is to hold onto his sanity.

These three war stories are remarkable for their literary quality, for their high degree of autobiographical resonance, and for the way they illuminate A Farewell to Arms and each other. Most to the immediate purpose, however, is to assert that they constitute additional early evidence that Nick Adams was severely traumatized by the war. Lynn and Crews build a version of Hemingway as a world-renowned, middle-aged author pulling the wool over the eyes of friends and critics during the forties and fifties. Twenty-five years after the fact, they maintain, Hemingway fabricates the idea that the war affected him. Yet “In Another Country” and “Now I Lay Me” were composed only two years after “Big Two-Hearted River,” and “A Way You'll Never Be” was composed in mid-1932.13 These are Nick Adams stories; they are set at the war; they show Nick as physically and psychically wounded. The opening pages of “Now I Lay Me” even echo many particulars of “Big Two-Hearted River,” including the central action of trout fishing as psychic restoration. Clearly these stories cast what Cowley called “a retrospective light” on “Big Two-Hearted River” (“Nightmare” 41).14 Lynn and Crews require us to assume that these stories, some of Hemingway's finest explorations of the human consequences of war, were written so that he would have the means to delude English professors twenty-five years later. And if we are asked to accept this, would we then also be asked to assume that Hemingway discussed his war nightmares with his first wife in the 1920s for the same reason? Hemingway as both young and middle-aged man undoubtedly kidded, exaggerated, misled, pulled legs, manipulated, hoaxed, and lied. But the existence of these early war stories and their high degree of interconnectedness with “Big Two-Hearted River” argues strongly against the idea that Hemingway decided to lay claim to the importance of the war in his work belatedly and factitiously.

In viewing Hemingway's life, Lynn and Crews have noted his blind spots and his ability to deceive and manipulate but have then gone on to see blindness and manipulation where they do not exist. In the fictions they have sought in some instances to deny the seemingly obvious, and instead of contenting themselves with opening up additional avenues of criticism have tried to do so at the expense of closing down entirely legitimate interpretations already in existence. It must be emphasized in the face of this recent and much discussed and much-believed-in psychobiographical criticism that the First World War had a profound effect upon the life and work of Ernest Hemingway, and that the war looms large below the surface of “Big Two-Hearted River.”


  1. While a more balanced set of views exists within the small community of experienced Hemingway scholars, wherein Lynn was greeted with more skepticism and wherein the more traditional view of the war's impact on Hemingway was not so readily abandoned, outside this small community of scholars one observes Lynn's considerable influence. Invariably if the graduate students I have taught have read any secondary literature on Hemingway, it has been Lynn, and just as invariably they are much taken with his conclusions. At conferences, in the faculty lounge, out of the mouths of those who are teaching Hemingway in survey classes, one hears the new version of Hemingway according to Lynn. Even within the ranks of modernist scholars, not only does Lynn's insistently psychoanalytical approach attract its supporters, but a good many of his specific conclusions, including those arrived at through a tendentious methodology, are apt to be referred to approvingly. The readiness to accept Lynn's version of Hemingway can be seen partly as a sign of the scholarly times, which for some years have been much in favor of debunking and chopping the author down to size. Certain scholarly methodologies and not a few critical careers have been built upon the attitude that the critic is every bit as wise as the author—indeed, wiser. When critics and their readers do not consider or are not aware of all the pertinent facts, this sort of spurious wisdom becomes entrenched if allowed to go unchallenged.

  2. This sort of either-or rhetoric too frequently mars Lynn's provocative study. Not content to shed light on an underemphasized aspect of the story, he typically overstates the case, denying the obvious importance of the war.

  3. The most up-to-date and thorough account of this portion of Hemingway's life is to be found in Villard and Nagel; see especially James Nagel's chapter entitled “Hemingway and the Italian Legacy,” 197-270. Reynold's First War retains scholarly value as well.

  4. Later in life, Hemingway himself wrote to Arthur Mizener that out of concern for him after he returned from the war his younger sister Ursula would wait up for him and sleep with him (Selected Letters 697).

  5. In 1945 Hemingway wrote to Cowley, “The gen is RAF slang for intelligence, the hand out at the briefing. The true gen is what they know but don't tell you” (Selected Letters 603, emphasis in original).

  6. See especially Lansky, Peterson and Solomon.

  7. Observations on the effects of trauma and the behavior of trauma victims are elaborated in a large and still-growing body of professional writings about reactions to stress in combat and to other forms of posttraumatic stress disorder. For example, see Blank, Clipp and Elder, Laufer, and McFarlane.

  8. For discussion of Hemingway and fame and for an elaboration of the Papa myth and the depiction of the macho Hemingway see Donaldson and Raeburn.

  9. All the major biographies treat Hemingway's relationship with Arthur Mizener, Philip Young and Charles Fenton. James R. Mellow gives the most concentrated consideration of this subject, drawing upon Hemingway's unpublished letters to Carlos Baker (562-78).

  10. In any number of war veterans' oral histories and in case studies of young war veterans, one repeatedly reads of their resentment at having adult status thrust upon them all at once in war only to return home to families, employers, indeed, to a society in general that ignores or tries to retract that adult status conferred in extremis during their military service.

  11. In his role as Lynn's bulldog, Crews lauds Lynn's proclamations that the critic ought “to be guided by the story itself rather than by the retrospective gloss” (Crews 96). Lynn's problem is that he himself does not stick to this method, and Crews's problem is that he seems not to have noticed that Lynn does not follow his own advice. It is also interesting to note that in his biography Lynn spends four and a half pages arguing against the war-wound interpretation but only devotes one paragraph to sketching out his own mother-conflict interpretation.

  12. While the narrator is never named, there are so many similarities between him and Nick Adams that many critics have accorded “In Another Country” the status of literally being about Nick Adams, and most have, at the very least, accorded it the status of being what Joseph DeFalco has termed a “generic Nick Adams” story.

  13. For the dating of the stories' composition, see Paul Smith's extraordinarily thorough guide (85-86, 164-65, 172-73, 268-71). There is also good evidence that Hemingway wished to write “A Way You'll Never Be” in the twenties, made several attempts to write it then, but simply could not do so until more time had passed. In light of the various war stories written by Hemingway several years after the end of the war, one scarcely knows what to make of Crews's claim that “Hemingway's ‘postwar disillusionment’ … proved to be a belated and derivative manifestation” (97). One might also question the rather odd critical standard by which the worthiness of a piece of fiction is judged according to the length of time its author required for creative germination.

  14. Besides Cowley, critics who have linked the later war stories with “Big Two-Hearted River” include Young, DeFalco, Waldhorn and Flora.

Works Cited

Beegel, Susan F. “The Critical Reputation of Ernest Hemingway.” The Cambridge Companion to Hemingway. Ed. Scott Donaldson. New York: Cambridge UP, 1996. 269-299.

Blank, Arthur S. “The Longitudinal Course of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.” Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: DSM-IV and Beyond. Ed.

Jonathan R. T. Davidson and Edna B. Foa. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press, 1993. 3-22.

Brian, Denis. The True Gen: An Intimate Portrait of Ernest Hemingway by Those Who Knew Him. New York: Grove, 1988.

Clipp, Elizabeth Colerick and Glenn H. Elder. “The Aging Veteran of World War II: Psychiatric and Life Course Insights.” Aging and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Ed. Paul E. Ruskin and John A. Talbott. Washington DC: American Psychiatric Press, 1996. 19-52.

Cowley, Malcolm. “Hemingway's Wound—And Its Consequences for American Literature.” The Georgia Review Summer 1984: 223-39.

———. “Nightmare and Ritual in Hemingway.” Hemingway: A Collection of Critical Essays. Twentieth-Century Views Series.Ed. Robert P. Weeks. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1962. 40-51. [Originally published as the Introduction to The Portable Hemingway. New York: Viking, 1945.]

Crews, Frederick. The Critics Bear it Away: American Fiction and the Academy. New York: Random House, 1992.

DeFalco, Joseph. The Hero in Hemingway's Short Stories. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1963.

Donaldson, Scott. “Introduction: Hemingway and Fame.” The Cambridge Companion to Hemingway. Ed Scott Donaldson. New York: Cambridge UP, 1996. 1-15.

Flora, Joseph M. Hemingway's Nick Adams. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1982.

Hemingway, Ernest. Complete Poems. Lincoln: U of Nebraska, 1983.

———. In Our Time. 1925. New York: MacMillan, 1970.

———. Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters, 1917-1961. Ed. Carlos Baker. New York: Scribner's, 1981.

———. 88 Poems. Ed. Nicholas Gerogiannis. New York: Harcourt, 1979.

———. Letter to Charles Poore. 3 April 1953. American Heritage Center. University of Wyoming.

———. Letter to Clarence and Grace Hall Hemingway. 22 April 1920. Hemingway Room. John F. Kennedy Library.

———. The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. 1938. New York: MacMillan, 1986.

———. Unpublished manuscript #604. Hemingway Room. John F. Kennedy Library.

Hemingway, Leicester. My Brother, Ernest Hemingway. 1962. New York: Fawcett, 1967.

Lansky, Melvin R. and Carol R. Bley. Posttraumatic Nightmares: Psychodynamic Explorations. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press, 1995.

Laufer, Robert S. “The Serial Self: War Trauma, Identity and Adult Development.” Human Adaptation to Extreme Stress. Ed. John P. Wilson et al. New York: Plenum, 1988. 33-53.

Lewis, R. W. B. “Who's Papa?” Rev. of Along With Youth: Hemingway the Early Years, by Peter Griffin and Hemingway: A Biography, by Jeffrey Meyers. The New Republic 2 Dec. 1985: 31-34.

Lewis, Robert W. Jr. “Hemingway in Italy: Making it Up.” Journal of Modern Literature 9 (1981): 209-36.

Lynn, Kenneth S. Hemingway. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.

———. “Hemingway's Private War.” Commentary 72.1 (1981): 24-33.

McFarlane, Alexander C. “Resilience, Vulnerability, and the Course of Posttraumatic Reactions.” Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body and Society. Ed. Bessel A. van der Kolk et al. New York: Guilford, 1996. 155-181.

Mellow, James R. Hemingway: A Life Without Consequences. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1992.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Hemingway: A Biography. New York: Harper, 1985.

Nagel, James. “Hemingway and the Italian Legacy.” Hemingway in Love and War: The Lost Diary of Agnes von Kurowsky, Her Letters, and Correspondence of Ernest Hemingway. Eds. Henry S. Villard and James Nagel. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1989. 197-270.

Peterson, Kirtland, et al. “Subtypes and Course of the Disorder.” Post-traumatic Stress Disorder: A Clinician's Guide. New York: Plenum, 1991. 3-23.

Raeburn, John. Fame Became of Him: Hemingway as Public Writer. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984.

Reynolds, Michael. “The Agnes Tapes.” Fitzgerald-Hemingway Annual (1979): 251-77.

———. Hemingway's First War: The Making of A Farewell to Arms. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1976.

———. Hemingway: The Paris Years. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989.

———. The Young Hemingway. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986.

Sanford, Marcelline Hemingway. At the Hemingways: A Family Portrait. Boston: Little, Brown, 1961.

Solomon, Zahava. Combat Stress Reaction: The Enduring Toll of War. New York: Plenum, 1993.

Villard, Henry S. and James Nagel. Hemingway in Love and War: The Lost Diary of Agnes von Kurowsky, Her Letters, and Correspondence of Ernest Hemingway. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1989.

Waldhorn, Arthur. A Reader's Guide to Ernest Hemingway. New York: Farrar, 1972.

Wilson, Edmund. “Hemingway: Guage of Morale.” The Wound and the Bow: Seven Studies in Literature. New York: Oxford UP, 1947. 214-42.

Young, Philip. Ernest Hemingway: A Reconsideration. 1952. New York: Harcourt, 1966.

Creighton Lindsay (essay date June 2000)

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SOURCE: Lindsay, Creighton. “Hemingway's Nexus of Pastoral and Tragedy.” CLA Journal 43, no. 4 (June 2000): 454-78.

[In the following essay, Lindsay suggests that Hemingway fuses the traditions of the pastoral and tragedy in his writing.]

Less than three weeks before his death by suicide in the summer of 1961, Ernest Hemingway wrote to the ailing son of a friend that he was “very cheerful about things in general.”1 The discrepancy between Hemingway's chatty tone and the inner turmoil of his life in his final days stands as a poignant symbol of the ironies and contrasts, the opposition of macho surface and fragile psyche, that we have come to see as so representative of his life and fiction. Hemingway had been staying at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and had enjoyed the countryside that surrounded the town and the nearby Mississippi River, and it is noteworthy that the better part of one of his last letters is taken up with consolation through enthusiasm for the natural landscape: “Saw some good bass jump in the river. I never knew anything about the upper Mississippi before and it is really a very beautiful country and there are plenty of pheasants and ducks in the fall” (921). One senses here a spontaneous and first-hand confidence that nature affords solace during convalescence, as if Hemingway wished to convey his own deeply held conviction that nature, even nature recalled and described, functions in a variety of rites of passage and perhaps especially last rites.

Hemingway's rhetoric of confidence in nature's salvific power stands as paradigmatic of American pastoral to mid-century, a paradigm that is questioned by Leo Marx at the end of The Machine in the Garden as “unsatisfactory because the old symbol of reconciliation is obsolete.”2 Pastoral reconciliation is an immensely complicated issue, made more difficult by the idiosyncracies of American pastoral. But in general Marx refers to the way the pastoral middle ground, the ideal place located between society and primitive retreat, ceases to function as a viable alternative, as a site to reconcile the problems of the other two extremes. In Hemingway's case, the failure of reconciliation often leads to tragedy, but what is unsatisfactory about the tragic resolutions of his fables is the role the pastoral plays in the tragic scheme. We are able to see from the dubiously privileged position of an ecologically threatened fin de siecle America that the natural landscape is not the enduring, permanent backdrop against which Hemingway played out his tragic or pastoral fictions. Yet Hemingway's limitations of vision should not urge us to dismiss him as anachronistic; to the contrary, his amalgam of tragedy and pastoral allows us to see in high relief how a mix of metaphysics, scientific idealism, and literary convention can illuminate central problems that have only recently come to seem most urgent. Hemingway's struggle with the paradox inherent in both the tragic and the pastoral modes has, in Marx's words, “clarified our situation.”

Arriving at how Hemingway fuses pastoral and tragedy requires a look at the history of those two conventions with an eye toward where they intersect. Hence, what follows is intended to demonstrate the convergence of pastoral and tragedy through representative examples drawn from history, literature, and selected scholarship. The point of convergence, as I think the following discussion will demonstrate, is that pastoral and tragedy often share three qualities: an inextricable dependency on the natural landscape, unavoidable paradox, and a multivalent sense of irony. Hemingway carries on a long tradition of fusing pastoral and tragedy by exploring these qualities in his best fiction.

The variety and number of theories concerning the essential natures of tragedy and pastoral are daunting, but a selective survey of them reveals some overlapping impulses. Critics and historians disagree over the precise origin of tragedy, although the larger share seems to concur that tragedy as dramatic event grew out of choral songs celebrating Dionysus, the Greek god of vegetation. Exactly when and how the urge to celebrate became an urge to dramatize is up for grabs, yet what seems fair to observe about that historically out-of-focus transformation is that human beings found in their cognition of the “mystery of sex and nature”3 something not only wonderful but deeply troubling. Friedrich Nietzche's famous theory of the origins of tragedy explains this troubling component as deriving from the human identification of self-destructive urges, causing the early Greeks to see themselves as not far removed from, to use Nietzche's phrase, “the most savage beasts of nature.”4 The paradox, then, is an old one, rooted in cognition itself. The ancient Greeks find consciousness an ambiguous cause for celebration. At once they marvel at their difference from nature and worry about their likeness to it. The triumphant moment, according to Nietzche, is when the Greeks decide to allow the equally powerful Apollonian instincts of control, form, and order to guide the unruly Dionysian side into an artistic act: drama, sculpture, music. For Nietzche, the essence of tragedy is located in the way antithetical impulses are worked out through that artistic process, a resolution we have to come to think of as mythopoesis.

Other theories of the etiology of tragedy have focussed on the way different sets of opposing inclinations of the human mind (optimism versus pessimism, good versus better, family versus state, individual versus society) come to bear on the development of tragedy as an art-form, yet all of them presuppose the same connection of the tragic impulse to some human reaction to nature and nature's cycles. Even Oedipus Rex—a play overtly concerned with human, cultural, political, and metaphysical issues—has as its foundation a myth rooted in the complex attitudes toward what is natural and unnatural. The theme of incest—such an integral part of this archetypal tragedy—reflects subtle attitudes toward nature that predate the mythopoetic moment seized by the Greeks in Nietzche's triumph of art, as J. G. Frazer reminds us:

Among many savage races breaches of the marriage laws are thought to blast the fruits of the earth through excessive rain or excessive drought. Similar notions of the disastrous effects of sexual crimes may be detected among some of the civilized races of antiquity, who seem not to have limited the supposed sterlizing influence of such offenses to the fruits of the earth, but to have extended it also to women and cattle.5

The attitude that seems to propel the Greek mind toward mythopoesis is the multivalent paradox that nature presents the conscious being: On the one hand, nature is predictable and bountiful; on the other, it can surprise and deprive. The Homeric hymn to Dionysus betrays a concurrent trust and hope that reflect human incapacity to reason through this multivalent paradox: “So Hail to you, Dionysus rich in grape clusters; grant that we may in our joy go through these seasons again and again and again for many years.”6 The celebration so evident in the testimonial aspects of this paean is attenuated by a kind of desperate hope behind the repetition of “again.” Behind the common doxology lies a fretful anticipation.

That the substance of tragedy is linked inextricably to the natural world might thus seem a given, yet theorists have consistently either overlooked the connection or underplayed it. In his philosophical investigation into the fundamentals of tragedy, for example, Lucien Goldmann confidently asserts that “it is nevertheless a fact that all forms of tragic vision have one feature in common: they all express a deep crisis in the relationship between man and his social and spiritual world.”7 The ontological and epistemological bias of Goldmann's research causes him to overlook the other “deep crisis” that has been a part of tragedy for as long as the tragic impulse has been with us: the crisis in the relationship between humans and their natural environment. If that crisis seems particularly evident in the Hellenistic tradition (as the inherent ambiguity of human interaction with Dionysus suggests), it is also present in the Babylonian tradition, in which the tragic sense of crisis is also interestingly revealed in the tragic epic of Gilgamesh, where the story's tragedy seems to be defined by, among other things, a sense of loss that is first explored in Enkidu's loss of empathy with and understanding of the natural world:

[Enkidu] was innocent of mankind; he knew nothing of the cultivated land. … Enkidu ate grass in the hills with the gazelle and lurked with wild beasts at the water-holes; he had joy of the water with the herds of wild game.8

Enkidu is lured away from this idyllic epistemology by a conscious human society that mistrusts his powers: “Enkidu was grown weak, for wisdom was in him, and the thoughts of a man were in his heart.”9 Gaining consciousness is a two-edged sword for Enkidu. It provides the intellectual wherewithal to experience friendship and devotion (as in his relationship with Gilgamesh), but these human capacities come at the price of his previous ability to dwell among the beasts. (Later, in the nineteenth century, Thoreau—in Walden—would explore the paradox inherent in human consciousness by calling the intellect a “cleaver,”10 which—in his characteristically punning manner—he means both to sever and to join, as in to “cleave to” something or someone.) As a result of this essential loss of understanding, the decimation of the cedar forests (a critical element of Gilgamesh's structure) presents itself as a kind of social and cultural confession, a cathartic exploration of the guilt associated with the power of humans to overlook their relationship to the natural world and to do damage to it.

Some recent scholarship suggests that the origin of the turn of mind in Western Civilization that has caused it to be particularly irresponsible regarding the natural environment comes to historical fruition in Judeo-Christian anthropocentrism, deriving from the belief in an almighty God who adjures the human species to multiply and dominate the earth. Lynn White, for example, argues that “by destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feeling of natural objects.”11 Max Oelschlaeger makes a similar argument about the earlier Hebraic tradition when he suggests that “the Hebrews desacralized nature and viewed it as the creation of a transcendent God who had given them an exclusive claim to the land.”12 Although there is substance to this line of reasoning, it would be a mistake to lay all of the blame on the Judeo-Christian tradition for our current ecological short-sightedness. Oelschlaeger himself admits that “clearly the Bible conditions but does not determine the modern idea of the relation of humankind to nature.”13

What becomes very clear, then, if we view the nature of tragedy as, at least partly, a crisis in the relationship between humans and their natural environment is that the Judeo-Christian tradition is not all that far removed from the Hellenistic one in the way it uses nature in the tragic dynamic. The apprehension regarding the natural world that Frazer contends serves as a defining psychological element of Oedipus, for example, also serves as a fundamental tension in the story of Job. Both Job and Oedipus can be seen as tragic heroes because they find themselves in a state of crisis on three fronts, the first two of which demonstrate Goldmann's notion of the crisis being rooted in social and spiritual realms. In the social sense, both Oedipus and Job find themselves in problematic positions vis-a-vis their family and fellow citizens. Oedipus must struggle with the realization that he seems to have been chosen as the scapegoat, as the one who must through self-sacrifice allow the social catharsis to occur. Job, similarly, must contend with the unfathomable randomness of his descent into misery. Socially, he becomes an outcast for reasons he cannot begin to comprehend. There are differences, of course: Oedipus, for example, has the baggage of ancestral lineage that explains some of the vicissitudes of fate. There is no sense of indebtedness for the sins of the fathers in the story of Job (in fact, part of our fascination with Job derives from the sheer “unfairness” of God's treatment of him). Yet the fact remains that the two protagonists share crises on a very social level.

Oedipus and Job also share crises in the spiritual realm. Oedipus questions the veracity of the Oracle at Delphi (perhaps as much from wishful thinking as anything else), but nevertheless he questions the ultimate nature of the powers of the universe, which constitutes blasphemy. And at least one way of interpreting the play is to accept Oedipus' fate as doctrinal divine retribution. Job, too, questions his God, but God's answer is profoundly ambiguous compared to the terrible consequences that befall Oedipus. Nevertheless, both protagonists experience tragic doubt in spiritual matters.

Goldmann's emphasis on the social and spiritual aspects of the tragic crisis is illuminating, but social and spiritual crises do not occur in an environmental vacuum; they must happen in some landscape, and often that landscape defines a third kind of crisis that works systematically with the social and spiritual to form the complete tragic design. In Oedipus, for example, one must listen to the Priest's litany of environmental scourges that have beset Thebes: “A rust consumes the buds and fruits of the earth; / the herds are sick.”14 And similarly in Job: “there came a great wind from the wilderness, and smote the four corners of the house” (Job 1.19). Although it would be an overstatement to suggest that all tragedies feature crises rooted in the natural landscape, a cursory glance at those stories most often considered tragic will reveal that very many of them have hovering about them the question of the protagonist's relationship to his natural landscape. Even Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman struggles with the barrenness of his backyard garden, revealing that at least part of the tragedy of Willy's life is symbolized by the way the earth is incapable of growth. Although the play concerns itself most overtly with the eroding fabric of American culture, at least part of Willy's crisis is defined by a similar erosion of nature.

If pastoral and tragedy share an inherent impulse to explore relationships between humans and the natural landscape, they also share in an equally inherent way the impulse to explore paradox. The paradox that clusters around pastoral and tragedy is multivalent, but one way of seeing it as cohesive or unified is to expose both pastoral and tragedy to a third mode: primitivism. When the pastoral and tragic protagonists find themselves forced by circumstances to act, to decide, to engage, primitivism often emerges as a choice or urge. The paradox arises in that although the primitive impulse presents itself as an extension of both the tragic and pastoral design, it cannot comprise the protagonist's ultimate action, choice, or engagement, for to do so causes the tragic or pastoral to evaporate, to be replaced by the merely primitive.

Bringing the primitive impulse to bear on the pastoral and tragic modes is revealing. The pastoral mode depends on the tension that exists between the complexity of the urban environment and the relative simplicity of the garden. But the garden is not the natural world of the primitive being. The pastoral protagonist is either the character who finds himself in the garden or the reader who succumbs to the rhetorical charm of the representation of the garden (or both). But in either case, the protagonist cannot maintain the tension that is so crucial to the pastoral impulse if he allows the primitive impulse to become a reality. In other words, the pastoral impulse depends on the paradox that the pastoral design cannot last; it is inherently transitory. To give in to the desire for the primitivist state melts the very essence of pastoral, which operates on the assumption that the primitive state has problems of its own (danger, hardship) but that those problems would not be perceived as such. They would be absorbed into the general tendency to view human relationship to the natural world as “continuous.”15

Hemingway is often characterized as a primitivist writer or at least as a writer who seems to value archetypal primitivism. Critics often point to the worth Hemingway ascribes to Native American traits (physicial strength, sensitivity to nature, animistic belief systems) in his series of Nick Adams stories. Joseph Flora, for example, interprets “Indian Camp,” one of Hemingway's earliest Nick Adams stories, as a coming-of-age account in which the young Nick “will discover that the life of the more primitive people can teach him a great deal.”16 Recent critics have used an anthropological perspective to frame their discussions of Hemingway's treatment of Native Americans. This perspective tends to deflect the focus of interpretation from traditional concern with the role of the protagonist to a more context-bound concern with just how accurate Hemingway's portrayals of Native Americans are. Jeffrey Meyers points out, for example, that most explications of the chief plot function in “Indian Camp,” the Indian husband's suicide during his wife's labor, overlook the importance of the anthropological notion of couvade, “in which a man ritualistically imitates the symptoms of pregnancy and the moans during delivery.”17 Rather than stress Nick's coming-of-age, Meyers sees the story as a primitivist ritual interrupted by white men, the result of which is the death of the Indian husband, who commits suicide because he takes to an extreme his imitation of the birthing process (which involves a Caesarean operation performed by Nick's father). Meyers' interpretation of “Indian Camp” illustrates the way primitivism brings paradox to bear on the pastoral situation. Nick's camping trip takes him away from the civilized world, but as long as he remains in his camp, he has not ventured away from the pastoral landscape into a primitive one. When he does accompany his father and Uncle George to the Indian camp, the primitive landscape, he must come to grips with the paradox revealed by circumstance: “the contrast between the squalid and the clinical shows that the Indians need the white man's skill, but are also destroyed by it.”18 The squalor of the primitive life highlights by contrast how artificial and tentative the pastoral landscape of Nick's camp really is. And Nick's hopeful, although trumped-up, confidence at the end of the story that “he would never die” (95) seems yet another metaphor for a longing for the permanence of the pastoral state, which paradoxically cannot last.

But coexisting with the pastoral aspects of “Indian Camp” is an equally redolent sense of tragedy, although that tragedy never actually coalesces. The heart of tragedy is human struggle, and although the tragic protagonist often resorts to violence in his struggle (which often serves to remind us of our more animal instincts), that violence typically grows out of very human impulses. Thus Oedipus' violence to himself, his self-blinding at the end of the play, is not a succumbing to a primitive impulse or a forsaking of consciousness; rather, it is a tragic reaction motivated by very human emotions. In this sense, we return to Goldmann's notion of the social and spiritual aspects of tragedy. Although Nature is typically a third component of the tragic design, tragedy cannot exist in Nature exclusive of the social and spiritual aspects. A primitivist abandonment to animism, anthropomorphism, and simplistic cognition causes the tragic atmosphere to disappear. If we perceive a protagonist's fate as experience in blind acceptance of a primitive continuum, the apparent grand design of Nature, the sense of struggle becomes attenuated and the consequences take on the air of a fait accompli. That tragedy can have about it inevitability is clear, but the protagonist must be aware of his struggle against that inevitability. The primitive protagonist does not perceive his struggle as perculiarly human or social, and if he did think of his struggle as spiritual, it would not be spiritual in distinctly human terms. The paradox highlighted by bringing primitivism to bear on tragedy is that although tragedy must engage nature to some degree, it cannot give itself over to nature completely.

In this sense, then, it is difficult to think of the suicide in “Indian Camp” as a tragic act. The husband's death seems sadly poignant, perhaps ironic, in some ways pathetic—but not tragic. The human struggle in the story—the struggle most imbued with the social, spiritual, and natural aspects we have been looking at—seems to be going on in Nick himself. But Nick's retreat from reality, his disengagement at the end of the story, his choice to idealize the future in his certainty that he “would never die” (95), denies the story tragic elevation. And if the story functions as a pastoral, it does so as sentimental pastoral, in which, as Leo Marx remarks, people “turn way from the hard social and technological realities.”19 But Hemingway's story endures because of the ironic distance between the narrative and Nick's pastoral retreat. The narrator seems to be suggesting that there is something missing in Nick's internalization of the story's events. Hemingway uses tragedy and pastoral, consciously or otherwise, as rhetorical figures to demonstrate the limitations of these conventions when they are exposed to primitivism.

Thus tragic and pastoral protagonists share a mutual paradox. They are stuck with their consciousness; they must acknowledge the human aspects of their struggles even as they realize the way nature frames both problem and solution. Their consciousness forces them to reconcile themselves to their situation, and this reconciliation is, at least in classical literature, where tragedy and pastoral have diverged. Tragic protagonists typically reconcile themselves through enormous self-sacrifice—typically death; pastoral protagonists, on the other hand, reconcile themselves through various forms of consolation. Mourning shepherds must console themselves with their songs. Or we, as the audience rhetorically captured in the pastoral paradox, must wistfully accept that the pastoral garden is temporary. There is a sense of the unresolved about the pastoral: Virgil's Tityrus and Meliboeus in Eclogue One end ambiguously with Meliboeus disenfranchised and homeless, his only consolation having been his conversation with Tityrus regarding his predicament. Tragedy, on the other hand, seems to end conclusively through cathartic release: Oedipus blinds himself. In the classical sense, tragedy builds tension in order to release it while pastoral ignores tension in order to point to its presence, made apparent by rigorous avoidance of climax and denouement.

The rhetorical effect of much of Hemingway's fiction is to collapse these two disparate tendencies so that what seems like tragic catharsis is actually pastoral tension, as at the end of “Indian Camp,” where the apparent purgation caused by the Indian's suicide actually leads to Nick's troubling denial of life's complexity. The role of nature in this collapse of tendencies is revealing. Hemingway's best fiction often manages to effect a sense of purgation as it simultaneously thrusts the characters and readers into a troubling world of tension, and that tension often emerges as a result of the sacrificial roles Hemingway designs for nature. In Hemingway's stories, tragedy and pastoral blend at great cost to nature.

In 1923, as foreign correspondent for The Toronto Star Weekly, Hemingway covered his first bullfight. The dispatch is interesting for a variety or reasons. For one, it illustrates his characteristic eye for the rich tapestry of experience surrounding sport. It also gives us an early example of the distinction Hemingway would make often in his career between mere sport and sport imbued with something else: “At any rate bull fighting is not a sport. It is a tragedy, and it symbolizes the struggle between man and the beasts.”20 For Hemingway, bull fighting is fraught with meaning, an event that somehow transcends sport by the way it manages to capture the intrinsic disparity yet symbolic similarity between man and nature. Earlier in the same dispatch, Hemingway suggests that one of the things that makes the bullfight a tragedy is “the death of the bull,”21 suggesting that he was able, at times, to view nature in the role of tragic protagonist. This distinction between sport and tragedy and the tendency to evoke a vague animism by placing nature in tragic circumstances appear often in Hemingway's fiction as rhetorical signals that human characters are confronting their own challenges or struggles. And judging from the way nature recedes at these very moments, it would appear that Hemingway would like his reader to focus on the ways his human characters respond to those challenges and struggles. But seen through the lens of a world in ecological peril, the reader can not help but notice the way nature gets reduced to rhetorical ploy.

One of the earliest examples of this trade-off occurs toward the end of “Big Two-Hearted River,” the two-part masterpiece that concludes the short story collection In Our Time. As most critics point out, it is important to place “Big Two-Hearted River” in the context of the other stories in the collection dealing with Nick Adams, the first of which is “Indian Camp.” As a whole, these stories chronicle Nick's psychic collapse and apparent renewal, beginning with his pastoral denial at the end of “Indian Camp” and culminating in his return to nature and wholeness in “Big Two-Hearted River.” Throughout the Nick Adams stories, Hemingway makes repeated references to Nick's war experiences, and at least part of the rebirth that happens during the pastoral retreat in “Big Two-Hearted River” is depicted as recovery from the deep psychological wounds of human conflict.

“Big Two-Hearted River” is a catalog of ritual, a methodical account of the deliberate, careful, and ceremonial exercises Nick goes through on a fishing trip in the Michigan woods. In part, Hemingway intends the roteness of the ritual to illustrate the healing process: that Nick is able to recall and act out the various tasks involved in the outing symbolizes his return from chaos to familiarity. Structurally, the story could have been set in any commonplace scene containing a series of habitual exercises. But clearly Hemingway accentuates the importance of nature in the process of renewal by causing Nick to regain familiarity with himself in the equally familiar surroundings of the woods. Rhetorically, this is a classic pastoral moment: the disenchanted man of the world seeks spiritual healing in the tranquility of pristine nature. Nick's river is not the tended garden, but the tidy and comfortable camp Nick methodically constructs indicates that the pastoral place is not wilderness either, at least not in the primitivist sense. Nick's fishing trip is not a foray into danger, not a primitivist attempt to lose consciousness. Rather, it is an undertaking designed to allow Nick to reconnect with a part of his very human consciousness that the war has caused him to forget.

If we perceive Nick's fishing trip as an extended pastoral retreat, during which Nick regains through ritual a state of psychological well-being, Hemingway's clearest signal to his readers that Nick has initiated that process of psychic renewal occurs at the end of the story where Nick eschews fishing in the dark and difficult swamp:

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.


The standard interpretation of this passage is that Nick equates the complexity of fishing in the swamp, where the trout are large but fishing conditions are difficult, with the war experiences he is trying to exorcise. As Wirt Williams suggests, “The reasonable inference is that Nick wants to defer an immediate return into experience that has been painful and stamped with some aspects of tragedy.”22 In Hemingway's mind, the fishing Nick has done to this point in the story has been sport, while the fishing he abjures in the swamp is tragic. Curiously, the tragic elements of bull fighting, which so entranced Hemingway, became something to be forsworn regarding fishing in the story “Big Two-Hearted River.”

In choosing not to wade into the swamp, Nick effectively renounces the worst aspects of worldliness, the tragic engagement associated with war. His pastoral retreat has afforded him the opportunity to meditate on the human condition, and there is a nice symmetry to the way the swamp is not distinct or separate from the tributary he has been fishing, effectively suggesting that Nick's new awareness is not a simplistic pastoral idealism but rather a mature sense of how problematic his return to civilization will be: the tragedy of the swamp literally flows with the reconciling waters of the tributary. Yet in Hemingway's pastoral design (one in which both primitivism and tragedy appear to have been renounced), Nick's next move is, at the very least, deeply ironic. Having “whacked” (231) the two fish he had caught earlier, Nick proceeds to clean them,

slitting them from the vent to the tip of the jaw. All the insides and the gills and tongue came out in one piece. They were both males; long gray-white strips of milt, smooth and clean. All the insides clean and compact, coming out together.


Joseph Flora has suggested that this clinically frank description of Nick cleaning the fish represents Nick's embracing of life upon repudiating the darkness of the swamp: “The way to check the call of the deep woods or the dark swamp is to resort to action,”23 drawing an analogy between the way Nick breaks free from his tragic revery and the way Frost's persona in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” “must put his horse back into motion towards the fulfillment of his obligations.”24 What is ironic about Nick's “resort to action,” however, is that it resembles the very thing he has renounced. At what point does the tragic struggle of the swamp, which Nick abnegates, differ from the pastoral “sport” of fishing in the tributary, which Nick enjoys? And how does the killing associated with the “tragic” struggle in the swamp differ from the ritualistic cleaning of the fish? Why is it that the “tragic adventure” of the swamp is something Nick feels a “deep reaction against” while simultaneously he seems indifferent to the death throes of the two fish he is about to clean, noting with satisfaction that they are “fine trout” (231)? Somewhere in Hemingway's pastoral and tragic ethic there appears to be a blind spot.

To suggest that there is this blind spot is not to deny a very real sense that part of Nick's renewal comes from the denial of wholesale slaughter; that is, Nick's epiphany, in part, is that the two fish he has caught will suffice as sustenance, which obviates the gratuitous “tragedy” of fishing in the swamp. Yet Hemingway undercuts this logic slightly by suggesting in the final line of the story that “there were plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp” (232). To note the ironies and apparent disjunctions in the story is to point out that it is overdetermined, that it not only supports a variety of conflicting interpretations but also resists categorical explication. This is, of course, one of the story's strengths. But this overdetermination also reveals an almost cavalier attitude toward the role of nature in Hemingway's pastoral and tragic designs. Looked at from an ecocritical perspective, Hemingway seems unsystematic regarding what he wants nature to stand for in his pastoral and tragic stories. On the one hand, nature is supposed to represent not merely an arena in the tragic drama played out between man and fish. In this sense, the fish takes on the same importance as the bull in Hemingway's dispatch from Madrid. Fishing in the swamp is not a sport but a ritualized representation of the mysterious struggle between man and nature, a struggle in which, according to Hemingway's configuration, the fish dies in a fateful yet somehow noble way. The nobility of the stuggle, and what apparently makes fishing in the swamp a struggle, is the relative difficulty of the fishing:

It would not be possible to walk through a swamp like that. The branches grew so low. You would have to keep almost level with the ground to move at all. You could not crash through the branches.


The danger of the bullfight is replaced by the difficulty of the fishing, and in some way Hemingway equates this difficulty with turning the mere sport of fishing into a dramatic, ritualized event.

On the other hand, there is the sport of fishing in the open stream, the pastoral place that allows Nick to recover enough from his psychic wounds to renounce the tragedy of fishing in the swamp. Unlike the tragic drama of fishing in the swamp, which as readers we never experience, the sport of open-stream fishing is described in rich detail. What characterizes it is excitement as Nick first hooks a trout, disappointment as he loses it, cunning and agility throughout. However, what also characterizes the sport of fishing is the death of the fish. Hemingway manages to effect a rhetorical sleight of hand by representing swamp-fishing as materially different from the stream fishing. Whereas Hemingway wants to represent the swamp as a tragic arena that Nick uses in pastoral renewal, the truth is that if tragedy exists at all in the story, it is most apparent in the death of the two fish he has caught. But this is true only if we accept Hemingway's vague sense of tragedy. What seems more reasonable to suggest is that both stream and swamp represent pastoral places of renewal and that it is only Hemingway's rhetoric that imbues this pastoral with tragic dimension. It also seem fair to note that Nick's pastoral renewal comes at some cost to nature, the two trout in this story. Hemingway's rhetoric would have us believe that Nick derives psychic health from the pastoral garden, and to some extent this is certainly the case; after all, Nick will return to society with a renewed sense of hope and faith in the human experience. But he does not leave the pastoral garden without having altered its ecological balance.

The two fish sacrificed in “Big Two-Hearted River” do not seem a high price to pay considering Nick's pastoral renewal. Moreover, Nick's incantation that he “did not care about getting many trout” (228) and the fact that he stops at two illustrates a faint acknowledgement of nature's economy. But other stories display no such acknowledgement. On the contrary, many of Hemingway's fictions indicate a wanton disregard for wildlife as the human protagonists seek either pastoral renewal or tragic elevation. Hemingway claimed, in a frequently cited letter to Maxwell Perkins, that The Sun Also Rises “was a damn tragedy with the earth abiding forever as the hero,”25 implying that his characters' concerns, which he saw as representative of a generation he had little respect for, were petty compared to the great permanence and humble abundance of nature. Yet a scrutiny of Hemingway's sense of tragedy and the way he attempts to blend the tragic urge with the pastoral reveals a confusing picture. We often find in Hemingway's stories, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” is one example, that the pastoral retreat merges with the tragic impulse to create a curious blend. And despite his claims about the point of The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway typically creates a tragic conflict in which the overt hero is a human protagonist who assumes the earth “abideth forever” despite his exploitation of it in achieving his tragic status.

Francis Macomber is one such protagonist. Getting at precisely what makes him tragic is elusive, but his tragic stature certainly has something to do with the price he is willing to pay, and eventually does pay, for achieving courage. Wirt Williams, in his influential work on Hemingway's tragic vision, focuses on how Macomber emotes this willingness as the chief characteristic that makes him tragic:

Despite the psychic and ethical narrowness of Macomber's triumph, the quality of the writing gives it the conviction of importance. Facing with exaltation a Cape buffalo about to kill him may not be a particularly profound or intelligent act on the face of it, but Macomber feels it to be supremely profound. And it becomes so, in the framework. He is willing to die for the concept and he does die, thus becoming a tragic figure.


Williams is astute here in acknowledging the importance of death in Hemingway's tragic design. The significance of death to tragic elevation remains intact for Hemingway in 1936, when this story was published, demonstrating a consistent notion of the mode since his dispatch from Madrid thirteen years before in which he proclaims with confidence that bull fighting is tragic because of the “death of the bull.” Had Macomber been merely gored by the buffalo or maimed by his wife, he would not have achieved tragic stature. But there are other deaths in this story, the deaths of many wild beasts; moreover, these deaths occur in the context of a traditional pastoral retreat. Once again, Hemingway merges the two modes to create a fascinating yet problematic hybrid.

Macomber's pastoral retreat may skirt the wild, but his foray into nature is certainly not a complete abnegation of civilization, no primitivist resignation of humanity. The Macombers and their guide, Wilson, have created a garden outpost for themselves in the wild, where they sip gimlets and hunt their quarry from the relative security of an autombile. Morever, the Macombers seek the pastoral garden not for the meditative renewal that Nick pursues by the banks of the Big Two-Hearted River but for the acquisition of the symbols of that garden—taxidermal trophies. Nick returns to civilization, we imagine, with memories of the garden; the Macombers want to return with memorabilia. Studies of pastoral in the European tradition point out the way the mode often works by creating a sensitivity, either in the characters or in the reader, to disparities. At its most psychologically complex level, the disparity can be between what the character or reader wishes for—solace, renewal, peace—and what is unavoidable outside the garden walls. This disparity is, in fact, fundamental to the workings of the mode. The solace of the garden, as Harold Toliver puts it (using Kenneth Burke's phrase), “habitually calls forth an opposite and promotes a variety of ‘perspective by the incongruity.’”27 In “Big Two-Hearted River,” the reader senses the same incongruities that Nick does: that the pastoral garden is unlike the world outside it. In this sense we applaud his denial of the tragedy that fishing in the swamp would represent because it would be incongruous with the circumstances and tone of Nick's purpose for being there. In “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” however, we feel a different kind of incongruity which derives from the reader's discomfort caused by the Macombers' presence in the garden to begin with.

Toliver's list of typical incongruities is revealing when applied to the pastoral design of “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”:

Whether the scene is an explicit Arcadian society or some place of enclosed quiet, it is likely to be exposed to such things as industrialism, death, unrequited love, unjust property division, or merely an opposing idea of perfection.28

The pastoral landscape the Macombers create for themselves takes on characteristics both of Arcadian society and of an enclosed, quiet place. And this landscape is exposed—by story's end—to most of the things Toliver lists as incongruous phenomena. What Toliver intends by “Arcadian society” is a generalization for a complex set of characteristics. Strictly speaking, the Arcadian society is comprised of shepherds, who live a life largely unencumbered by physical want and whose role in the pastoral design is to show by contrast the incongruities of Toliver's list. In this sense, the Macombers fit the bill with ironic intensity. Certainly the wealthy and idle Macombers suffer from little or no physical want. And although the action of the story ventures into the dangerous wild, much of the framing of the narrative takes place in the “quiet enclosure” that the Macombers have created for themselves in that wild: their camp is comfortable, they have bearers for all their gear and provisions, a cook provides them with their meals. This ironic Arcadian society and portable “enclosed quiet” highlight by contrast many of the types of things Toliver notes as incongruous, some as incidental as industrialism (the car and high-powered rifles), others (death) more fundamental to the story itself. There is no sense of perfection in the life or society represented by either the Macombers or Wilson, but compared to the trivial lives these Arcadian inhabitants live, an “opposing idea of perfection” does emerge—the realm of nature itself. And it is in this arena that the true tragedy of the story occurs.

In turning to a discussion of tragedy in this story, it is natural to focus on Francis Macomber as a tragic protagonist. He is, on the face of it, the one who sacrifices the most in a seemingly fierce struggle to avoid an inevitable fate. But Macomber offers us little to admire beyond his desire to achieve courage. If anything, we balk at the price nature must pay for him to gain his goal. At least part of our reaction is due to the historical reality of how wildlife in Africa has become endangered precisely because of people like Macomber. It is certainly possible to derive great pleasure from Hemingway's stylistic command, development of character, and subtle manipulation of the tragic mode in this story. But it seems fair to suggest that in a time when the very species Hemingway writes about are threatened by extinction the reader must also factor in the terrible way Macomber contributes to the current environmental dilemma.

In a recent article, concerned primarily with Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea, Glen Love points to a paradox confronting Hemingway's tragic heroes:

[T]ragedy depicts an earth which, although it may be present only metaphorically in the drama, must yield up its nobility to a human hero whose usurping of that nobility is accompanied by profound misgivings.29

Those misgivings seem particularly poignant in Santiago's case, as Love illustrates, but Macomber exhibits very little in the way of misgivings regarding the toll on wildlife his climb to tragic stature takes. Ironically, it is Macomber's wife who eventually kills her husband because she cannot accept his courage, who comes the closest to uttering any misgivings: “Just because you've chased some helpless animals in a motor car you talk like heroes” (33). Yet Mrs. Macomber's concern here really is not focused on the plight of wildlife; rather, her misgivings hinge on her own growing anxiety over her husband's newfound fearlessness. Her chiding of Wilson and her husband is nothing more than a taunt.

What is certainly absent at Macomber's moment of truth is any sense of “misgiving.” Macomber has no awareness of the terrible cost to nature his heroic quest has exacted. In the moment before his death, Macomber exhibits no sympathy for the bull he is about to kill. Instead, Hemingway's narration, from Macomber's point of view, describes the animal as having “little wicked eyes.” Macomber here seems to need to position himself against something evil in order to bolster his courage. Ultimately, Hemingway's hero and narrative design have nothing to do with a primitivist animism, which would be characterized by an awareness of, if not outright empathy with, the animal. As Love points out, “Hemingway's was essentially not an Indian but a mountain-man mentality in its relationship to the wild.”30

Fundamental to Leo Marx's idea of “complex pastoralism” is the notion that the pastoral garden, what Marx calls the “symbolic repository of meaning and value,” concomitantly makes the reader or protagonist “acknowledge the power of a counterforce.”31 This counterforce is akin to Toliver's idea of “incongruity.” In the traditional pastoral and particularly in American pastorals before the twentieth century, the counterforce was typically a machine of some kind. Technology is an important counterforce in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” but Hemingway complicates this traditional formula by creating a counterforce out of human insensitivity. The result is a curious hybrid of tragedy and pastoral, in which the modern reader reacts perhaps differently compared to Hemingway's contemporaries, who believed—with Hemingway—that the tragic struggle between individuals and fate could be played out against a backdrop of a natural world that would abide forever.


  1. Ernest Hemingway, Ernest Hemingway: The Selected Letters, ed. Carlos Baker (New York: Scribner's, 1981) 921. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

  2. Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden (New York: Oxford UP, 1979) 364.

  3. Mark P. O. Morford and Robert Lenardon, Classical Mythology (New York: Longman, 1991) 263.

  4. Friedrich Nietzsche, Philosophy: History and Problems, trans. Samuel Enoch Stumf (New York: McGraw, 1971) 379.

  5. J. G. Frazer, The Golden Bough, A Study in Magic and Religion (London: Macmillan, 1991) 113.

  6. Morford 261.

  7. Lucien Goldmann, “The Tragic Vision: the World,” Moderns on Tragedy, ed. Lionel Abel (Greenwich: Fawcett, 1967) 273.

  8. N. K. Sandars ed., The Epic of Gilgamesh (London: Penguin, 1972) 63.

  9. Sandars 65.

  10. Henry David Thoreau Walden and Resistance to Civil Government, ed. William Rossi (New York: Norton, 1992) 67.

  11. Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” Science 155 (10 March 1967): 1205.

  12. Max Oelschlaeger, The Idea of Wilderness: From Prehistory to the Age of Ecology (New Haven: Yale UP, 1991) 45.

  13. Oelschlaeger 373.

  14. Sophocles, Oedipus Rex, in The Oedipus Cycle, trans. Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Harcourt, 1949).

  15. Michel Bell, Primitivism (London: Methuen, 1972) 9.

  16. Ernest Hemingway, The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway (New York: Scribner's, 1966) 25. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

  17. Jeffrey Meyers, “Hemingway's Primitivism and ‘Indian Camp,’” New Critical Approaches to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, ed Jackson J. Benson (Durham: Duke UP, 1990) 306.

  18. Meyers 308.

  19. Marx 5.

  20. Ernest Hemingway, “Bull Fighting a Tragedy,” By-Line: Ernest Hemingway, ed. William White (New York: Scribner's, 1968) 84.

  21. Hemingway, “Bull Fighting a Tragedy” 84.

  22. Wirt Williams, The Tragic Art of Ernest Hemingway (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1931) 38.

  23. Joseph M. Flora, Hemingway's Nick Adams (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1982) 174.

  24. Flora 174.

  25. Hemingway, Selected Letters 9.

  26. Williams 126-27.

  27. Harold E. Toliver, Pastoral Forms and Attitudes (Berkeley: U of California P, 1971) 1.

  28. Tolliver 1.

  29. Glen Love, “Hemingway's Indian Virtues: an Ecological Reconsideration,” Western American Literature 22.3 (November 1987): 206.

  30. Love 209.

  31. Marx 363.

Linda Lizut Helstern (essay date fall 2000)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7593

SOURCE: Helstern, Linda Lizut. “Indians, Woodcraft, and the Construction of White Masculinity: The Boyhood of Nick Adams.” The Hemingway Review 20, no. 1 (fall 2000): 61-78.

[In the following essay, Helstern investigates the ways in which white masculinity gets constructed in the Nick Adams stories.]

Indians, to use the common but problematic term, captured Ernest Hemingway's imagination at a very early age. His first full sentence—“‘I don't know Buffalo Bill’”—was duly recorded by his mother in 1901. He would soon assert, “‘I not a Dutch dolly, I Pawnee Bill. Bang. I shoot Fweetee’” (cited in Baker 4-5). The little boy, who also acted out scenes from Longfellow's Hiawatha with his sister in the role of Minnehaha, had already seen his first wild west show—Pawnee Bill's Historical Wild West and Indian Exposition—by the time he was two (Baker 4-5). The fantasy of becoming “the White Chief of the Pawnees” was one the young Hemingway undoubtedly shared with many of his generation, for the number of Wild West shows touring as family entertainment reached its all-time high in the first years of the 20th century (Russell 11; 68). Here, in fictional re-creations of the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the massacre at Wounded Knee, Indians were both the savage enemy and, with their values but not their warrior instincts restructured, scouts who joined the cavalry to save civilization from the Indians (Russell 53).

Given their mass audience appeal, it is perhaps not surprising to find Indians at the heart of the decade's purported solution to the “boy problem”: in prototypical American youth organizations, Indians were formally implicated in the construction of white masculinity. Hemingway follows the trend of American popular culture when in the Nick Adams stories he frames the discourse of boyhood in terms of the discourse of the Indian. Indians appear as major characters in four of Hemingway's canonical short stories—“Indian Camp,” “The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife,” “Ten Indians,” and “Fathers and Sons”—all stories of the very young Nick Adams or his very young son. And in “The Light of the World,” the only other story published during Hemingway's lifetime where Indians appear, the putative Nick admits to being just seventeen (SS [The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway] 387).

The idea of turning American youth into American Indians, but only “the best Indians,” was conceived by naturalist and writer Ernest Thompson Seton in 1901, the same year Hemingway saw Pawnee Bill, “the White Chief of the Pawnees.” Determined to protect his estate in Cos Cob, Connecticut and its wildlife from marauding teenagers, Seton invited the local boys for a weekend of camping. They readily embraced Seton's offer to teach them Indian ways, and so began both the restructuring of their personal values and the Woodcraft League of America. In 1902, Seton began to refine his idea in a series of monthly columns for the Ladies Home Journal called “Ernest Thompson Seton's Boys,” directed primarily at readers under the age of fourteen (Keller 163-65; Seton, July 1902, 17). By 1910, when the Boy Scouts of America was incorporated, the Woodcraft Indians enjoyed a nationwide membership of 100,000 and had already become the basis for Robert Baden Powell's British Boy Scouts, as well as several American boys' organizations (Keller 169-70).1

Seton originally targeted boys between twelve and twenty for the Woodcraft Indians. Tribes were run democratically with the assistance of older boys, who could become Guides at age eighteen, and adult advisors, known first as “Medicine Men” and later as “Head Guides” (Seton, Manual 10-11; Seton, Woodcraft 20). Seton formulated his original program of activities in consultation with Dr. Charles Eastman, a Lakota graduate of the Boston University Medical School (Keller 164). One of the most visible examples of the “civilized Indian” and a prime spokesmen for Indian assimilation into white culture, in 1902 Eastman published his first book, Indian Boyhood. A testament to Eastman's pride in his Lakota heritage, the book had already been serialized in St. Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks (Wilson 131).2

Although no evidence suggests that Ernest Hemingway was a member of the Woodcraft Indians, his personal library did include the 1917 edition of Seton's organizational bible, The Woodcraft Manual for Boys,3 and the 1918 British pamphlet, Woodcraft, in which Seton and unnamed editors delineated the progressive evolutionist philosophy of child development at the heart of the Woodcraft movement (Reynolds 180-81).4 The date of the manual may be significant. In 1917, Hemingway could have qualified as a Guide, although ultimately, it was his sister Marcelline who, as a Camp Fire leader in the early 1920s, would follow her father and grandfather's footsteps in youth work (National Portrait Gallery).

Altogether, Hemingway owned six individual titles by Ernest Thompson Seton, published between 1909 and 1921, and a set of collected works published in 1927 as The Library of Pioneering and Woodcraft. The total ranks Seton among Hemingway's favorite writers, a company including Turgenev, Mark Twain, Ezra Pound, and naturalist William Henry Hudson. Hemingway's books by Seton span the range of his writing—children's fiction, animal lore, and practical woodcraft—and together provide important insight into the anti-nationalist and anti-materialist value structure that grounded the Woodcraft organization. Seton's philosophy, placing true civilization in the realm of the primitive, is most succinctly stated in his signed Preface to the 1915 edition of The Woodcraft Manual: “It was Woodcraft that originally constructed man out of brutish material, and Woodcraft may well save him from decay” (v).

To Seton, saving civilization meant saving Indian ways from extinction. If Eastman saw the Indian's ultimate survival in the ability to adopt white ways, Seton saw the loss of traditional tribal lifeways as certain death for the race. The only hope for the Indian lay in incorporating tribal skills and values into white society: reverse assimilation, if you will. Seton saw his project of training boys in the ways of Indians as a step beyond James Fenimore Cooper's mere recognition of the import of woodcraft. Cooper, according to Seton, was “content to stand with us afar off and point it out as something to be worshipped—to point it out and let it die” (Woodcraft Manual 203-04). Seton counted himself among the “the Red-man's friends,” who responded when asked in his fable “The Indian and the Angel of Commerce,” “… what shall save the Indian, with his noble lesson of simple life and unavarice?”:

Nothing! He was doomed; he was dying; for he stood in the Angel's way. But we, his friends learned wisdom. … He shall not die. His lesson—of the highest in our time—shall live and grow, preserved by the awful Angel, upheld by the pitiless Angel.

(Woodmyth n. pag.)

In her perceptive article “Screaming through Silence: The Violence of Race in ‘Indian Camp’ and ‘The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife,’” Amy Strong examines Hemingway's representations of race with particular attention to their implications for the exercise of power. In the latter story, and specifically in the characters of Dr. Adams and Dick Boulton, she delineates an instability of racial identity that seems to her to anticipate current essentialist/constructionist debates. In “Indian Camp,” however, she suggests that race is merely “a biological feature” (20). I would like to suggest that there is also an instability of racial identity in “Indian Camp,” and one closely tied to Seton's “The Indian and the Angel of Commerce.” Both of these stories interrogate the discourse of assimilation, pointing up the evils of assimilation for Indians and the import of “reverse assimilation” for whites.

“Indian Camp” is, first and foremost, a story about the power of medicine, set in the context of a culture that traditionally accords such power the highest respect, though Indian medicine here has clearly failed. Despite two days of labor with the support of the most experienced women in the community, the Indian woman is unable to deliver her child. But this is not where the story begins. It begins at a white campsite that would have been more familiar to readers in the 1920s, the decade when membership in the Woodcraft Indians peaked, than it has been to later critics (Seton-Barber). The Woodcraft Manual Hemingway owned defines “Indian camp” as a synonym for gee-string camp, the preferred style of all-male primitive camping where activities were carried out with the bare minimum of protective gear (186).

Seton's 1911 juvenile novel, Rolf in the Woods, which Hemingway owned, sheds light on another question raised by “Indian Camp”: Why is Nick taken across the lake to begin with? The novel tells the story of an orphaned teen who runs away from an abusive foster family to grow up Indian under the guidance of Quonab, the last of his tribe. To earn money for their wilderness outfit, Rolf and Quonab put themselves to work for a Dutch farmer on the far edge of civilization. When the farmer's wife goes into labor, Quonab is sent paddling urgently across the lake in a birchbark canoe to fetch the closest neighbor woman, despite the reputation of Indians as “‘drunken good for nothings.’” The farmer, befuddled and teary, sends his three fearful children with Quonab. Why they, like Nick, should journey across the lake at all is never clear, although Quonab returns in an hour with the woman and, presumably, the children. The vignette ends with the miracle of the mother's safe delivery, and Seton's exaltation of the sisterly solace given to “womanhood beyond the reach of skillful human help” (72).

If the proximity of “skillful human help” is a small miracle in “Indian Camp,” the need to summon the white medicine man is the most obvious sign of the decay of traditional Indian culture. Each act performed by an Indian in this story is inept or incompetent, beginning with the Indian oarsmen who row back across the lake “with quick choppy strokes” (91). This is not power rowing but wasted effort. The young husband who has lain in his bunk for three days, having cut his foot badly with his ax, is even more inept than the oarsmen with the tool of his trade. But that is precisely the problem: he is sufficiently assimilated to have a trade. From the location of the camp in a cutover area along the logging road, the reader can infer that he is a wage worker in the lumber business, not a woodsman in the traditional sense.

Still, the Indian husband smokes a pipe rather than a cigar, the traditional symbol of white male politics and privilege. The pipe, according to Hemingway, was the Indian way. In “Sepi Jingan,” one of Hemingway's high school stories, Billy Tabeshaw not only savors his favorite brand of pipe tobacco but can distinguish rival brands by their smell (Montgomery 50-52).

Critical discussions of “Indian Camp,” most notably Joseph Flora's, point out the historic role of tobacco in Indian-white relationships. The cigars handed out by George suggest the complexity of unstable identity markers in this story. A white commercial product derived from the Indian's gift, the cigars are now being given back to the Indians, it might be suggested, as payment for their labor. George, who passes the time smoking as he waits for the doctor, gives cigars to the two oarsmen only when their work is done and both boats have landed. He thus configures himself as a white boss, a man of power racially akin to the doctor. George has shared the doctor's passenger status, an honor and mark of privilege accorded the doctor based upon his skill, although he is as capable as the Indians of distance rowing. George has no special knowledge to share, only cigars.5 Ultimately, sharing his tobacco with the Indians makes George just another male in the group, a role he enacts during the operation when he and three Indians share the task of holding the pregnant woman immobile.

The doctor, seemingly free of commercial taint, stands out as the only tobacco-free adult male in “Indian Camp.” He is thereby the only appropriate role model for a young boy who is just learning the Woodcraft lessons of health and respect for the body. Seton does not specifically address smoking in the 1917 Woodcraft Manual for Boys, but he had done so previously, and in one Ladies Home Journal column confided to readers that he himself had never indulged in the habit (“Ernest,” October 1902, 14). Indeed, the tobacco problem was of such concern at the beginning of this century that Hemingway's first minister made smoking the topic of one of his children's sermons published in the local Oak Park newspaper (Grimes 41).

The Indian women are no more competent in their work than the men. The laboring woman cannot deliver her child, and the older women are powerless to help her. The arrival of the doctor's entourage is greeted by the screams of labor, precisely what white readers have been taught to expect from any laboring woman. However, this white gender mark runs contrary to the stereotype of the Indian able to withstand torture silently, with no hint of emotion, with what Joseph Flora calls “an admirable stoicism” (25).

In “Indian Camp,” such stoicism is the doctor's stock-in-trade, and the first lesson he must teach his son in his role as medicine guide. When Nick asks for something to make the woman stop screaming, his father gives him a lesson in values: the screams are not important. Among the dozen moral precepts he sets forth, Ernest Thompson Seton enjoins Woodcraft boys first to “Be Brave; for fear is in the foundation of all ill; unflinchingness is strength” and second to “Be Silent. It is harder to keep silence than to speak in the hour of trial, but in the end it is stronger” (Woodcraft Manual 25).6 As the night goes on, Nick will witness two examples of behavior through which to interrogate his father's position: George's outcry and the young Indian's silent suicide.

Only the young husband in his bunk is more stoical—and therefore presumably more masculine and more Indian—than the doctor, as he silently withstands the self-inflicted pain of slitting his own throat. Yet because in our culture the act of suicide traditionally registers as more cowardly than brave, a term that places us squarely in the discourse of racialized masculinity, this act calls into question just how Indian this young husband is—and just how masculine. By contrast, the young wife succeeds in biting George, even in the throes of labor as she is held down by four men. The bite may be interpreted as the agonized, hysterical response of a wounded animal, totally instinctive, but it can also be viewed as active self-defense, showing the Indian woman to be of the braver, rather than the weaker, sex. George's angry “‘Damn squaw bitch’”—at once sexist and racist—is anything but stoic (SS 93). Here his outcry merely draws laughter from the Indian men. Whatever its emotional source, perhaps embarrassment, perhaps derision, the laughter itself calls into question the notion of the unemotional, wooden Indian, as does the bite that occasioned it.

Because the young father's suicide dwarfs even the horror of the primitive Caesarean, one must acknowledge that among traditional Native Americans the idea of suicide is perhaps more unthinkable than it has ever been in white society. Given the suicide rate among young Indian men today, it is important to emphasize the word traditional. Donald St. John read “Indian Camp” aloud to the Willises, an elderly Ottawa couple who had lived in Michigan during the period when the Boultons lived at the Indian camp near the Hemingway cottage on Walloon Lake. After St. John finished, Mr. Willis commented apologetically, “‘Indian no have heart,’” as he “pulled his shoulders together in a little shiver.” His wife affirmed, “‘They not kill selves for anything. Indian no commit suicide. No believe in suicide. Not like Indian. … Only white man commit suicide’” (St. John 82-83).

No definitive reason for the Indian husband's suicide can be determined from the facts provided by Hemingway, who allows the motives of this subaltern husband, to use Gayatri Spivak's term, to remain opaque. We know only that he turns his face to the wall at the moment when the doctor pronounces his wife's screams unimportant. In giving up, the young husband, however, embodies a key and almost forgotten stereotype of the American Indian, his “timidity or defeat in the face of White advances and weaponry” (Berkhofer 28-29).

As racial instability manifests itself in the characters of the doctor and the husband, the white Indian and the Indian white, the plot of “Indian Camp” ironically enacts the assimilationist philosophy—“Kill the Indian. Save the child.”—of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Founded in 1879 by Richard Henry Pratt, Carlisle served as the prototype of federal Indian education for nearly four decades. Pratt's voice resounded through discussions of government Indian policy from his first educational experiments with Cheyennes, Arapahos, Kiowas, and Comanches incarcerated at Fort Marion, Florida in the mid-1870s, until his death in March 1924, and beyond (Adams 37-38). He advocated total immersion in white culture at boarding schools far off the reservation as the only means for inculcating radical lifestyle changes into Indian children.

Pratt's philosophy received its greatest public exposure in the glory days of the Carlisle football program, from 1903-1913, when during most seasons the Indians went virtually undefeated against such prestigious opponents as Penn, Yale, and Army. Though the Carlisle curriculum was at the advanced elementary rather than the college level, the football team stood as living proof that the Indian could be whiter than white, playing the white man's sport and beating him at his own game (Adams 183-185). In The Torrents of Spring, Hemingway explicitly invokes Carlisle football (100-2). When in “Indian Camp” he likens the doctor's post-operative elation to that of football players in the dressing room after a game, Hemingway subtly places his story in the popular discourse of assimilation, while suggesting who the real winner is.7

The white world, after all, sanctions the doctor's power. That he operates without anaesthetic, even in an emergency, strikes us as barbaric, but I would suggest that the savagery is calculated. From the early nineteenth century on, as Roy Harvey Pearce notes in Savagism and Civilization, such torture had been the Indian's stock-in-trade in American popular fiction such as R. M. Bird's 1837 novel Nick for the Woods (196-236). Here, torture serves as an important marker of the “savage” identity the doctor has assimilated.

The primitive Caesarean performed by the doctor represents the most advanced medical technology of the first decade of the 20th century, and was almost certainly one of the procedures covered in the post-graduate obstetrics courses Clarence Hemingway attended at the New York Lying-In Hospital in 1908 and the Mayo Clinic in 1910 (Baker 10-11). Abdominal deliveries had been performed for centuries, but until the late 19th century, these had always meant the death of the mother. Originally, Caesareans were performed only after the mother's death and only by a priest. The modern medical protocol for the Caesarean was developed in Europe in the late 1880s. The first such operation in the United States was performed in 1894, but the procedure remained highly controversial for another two decades. Unlike the high forceps delivery, the Caesarean was never used in home births (Shorter 160-66). Ultimately, it was the availability of this birthing option that shifted public favor from home to hospital birth, which accounted for just five percent of all deliveries in the United States at the turn of the last century (Mitford 54). Dr. Adams's Caesarean—Hemingway's much-commented-upon spelling follows the standard spelling utilized in early medical textbooks describing the procedure—is, indeed, one for the record books (Mitford 45).

The doctor's thoroughgoing skill with a jackknife marks the doctor as a master of both woodcraft and technology, more Indian than the young husband, who uses the traditional tool of the barber surgeon, his straight razor, to cut his throat. The jackknife was the implement Seton endorsed above all others for its all-purpose utility to campers (Woodcraft Manual 220). Nick carries invisible wounds from both knife and razor when he and his father leave with the first morning light. Yet his young soul will be healed, as Ernest Thompson Seton would ardently desire, through contact with the pristine natural world. At sunrise on the lake, Nick's medicine guide himself rows their boat back where they came from, almost but not quite beyond the reach of civilization—performing yet one more task more skillfully than the semi-civilized Indians.

While the Angel of Commerce remains veiled in “Indian Camp,” “The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife” speaks explicitly to Seton's “awful Angel” and does so in the language of commercialized woodcraft and Biblical spirituality. In the context of his own society, the doctor is primarily concerned with potentially useful wood rotting on the beach, not the decay of moral fiber. Concern for the morality of the doctor's utilitarian pragmatism is left to the Indian lumberjacks he hires—or more specifically, to the half-breed among them. Dick Boulton speaks both English and Ojibway fluently.8 He understands the white man's value structure so well that he can turn the doctor's own arguments against him, as Dick does when he begins baiting the doctor about the logs he has stolen. In traditional Native American cultures where the natural world is not objectified and resources have no owners (though songs may), such an argument is specious. It works only because private ownership, the underpinning of commercial capitalism, and indeed the very notion of civilization, is given credence in the Biblical commandment, “Thou shalt not steal.”9

The opening of “The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife” enacts the assimilation of the Indian into the white world of industrial technology. Even as Dick Boulton and his crew emerge from the Indian camp, they carry an array of tools that clearly ally these Indians to the local lumber enterprise, which includes not only a mill but the steamer Magic, as close as the white man can come to Indian “medicine,” it would seem. Through Boulton, Hemingway interrogates one of the most common Indian stereotypes: the thieving Indian, a stereotype that likely arose through a difference of cultural opinion about the appropriate use of available resources. Here, positioned in a domestic/commercial context rather than the wilderness, the thieving Indian becomes a thieving white man.

The doctor is not willing to admit his thievery, however. Culturally cast as the epitome of ethical behavior, he refuses to brook even the hint of unethical behavior on his own part. Still, his veneer of civilization does not allow the doctor to escape identification as a savage. Absolutely refusing to accept the strict logic of biblical teaching, he turns red—to be furious is to be Indian—and dismisses his hired help. The idea of “savagery,” defined in part by its opposition to the Bible, was a legacy America inherited simultaneously with notions of thrift and the capitalist accumulation of wealth. Hemingway's savage is a capitalist employer with the power to declare a lock-out. Still, Boulton is not afraid to stand up to the doctor when he cannot ameliorate his anger. Moreover, standing his ground makes Boulton happy. Although the doctor sizes up the odds and walks away, turning his back on the prospect of a physical fight, he remains “on the warpath” even as he returns to the house.

Inside, there seems to be more concern with the business of medicine than with healing. The voice that speaks first is not the doctor's but his wife's. Her question—“‘Aren't you going back to work, dear?’”—serves as a subtle reminder of the Protestant work ethic (SS 101). This woman is the voice of civilization in the wilderness: she speaks from a place of darkness, as Hemingway tells us not once but four times. The doctor's wife treats him like a boy who never learns, who must be routinely chastised and reminded to behave in accordance with Christian values. Her tone becomes ever more strident until the doctor reloads his shotgun.

There will be no frontier justice here, however, and no muscular Christianity either, for the doctor's wife speaks the language of Christian Science, a faith not only founded but institutionalized by a woman. Mary Baker Eddy, who saw Christian Science, first and foremost, as the revelation of the Motherhood of God, was known publicly as “Mother” to a growing contingent of the faithful until 1902 when the practice was held up for ridicule by Mark Twain and Eddy forbade public use of the term (Gottschalk 52-53; 106). If Twain did not quite call Eddy the “petticoat pope” in his extensive writings on Christian Science, he came very close. In a single paragraph, he compared her stature both to the Eiffel tower and the giant sequoia (Twain 78). Indeed, in matters concerning the Mother Church, any request Eddy voiced to her followers had the power of a command (Gottschalk 170-72).

The doctor finally tells his wife an abbreviated story about his row with Dick Boulton, portraying Boulton as a freeloader who doesn't want to work off a major medical debt. Hemingway has already told us that Boulton is a half-breed and that “many of the farmers around the lake believed he was really a white man” (SS 100), for the fictional half-breed has always been considered heir to the worst traits of two cultures, to be trusted by neither. The doctor sees only the Boulton who embodies the stereotyped Indian's laziness and aggression.

Boulton's companion, Billy Tabeshaw, uncorrupted by any knowledge of English, stands out in sharp contrast. He is utterly non-confrontational, timid, and fat. Billy's timidity may suggest that he is cowed by the white world and the white man's position of authority, but may also be viewed as the expression of his innate civility, an aspect of the noble savage. If Billy Tabeshaw is no savage, however, neither is he very noble. The tenor of Boulton's confrontation with the doctor makes Tabeshaw sweat. Before disappearing into the woods, Billy returns to fasten the gate that Boulton has left open (SS 101). When the doctor ultimately follows the Indians into the woods, where it may be possible to regain his own civility, he takes his wife's parting shot, a message for Nick. Despite its seeming offhandedness, this request—“‘If you see Nick, dear, will you tell him his mother wants to see him?’”—carries the weight of a command, its oft-noted syntax singularly appropriate to a relationship between social unequals, that mistress and servant, perhaps, or parent and child (SS 102). The doctor's answer seems to be a disrespectful bang of the door, but he quickly apologizes and does deliver the message.

In the woods, Nick, cool and thoroughly civilized as he reads a book, already understands how to circumvent imperious demands. He will happily obey his father if not his mother, thereby keeping alight, even in his disobedience, the third ray in the Woodcraft Lamp of Fortitude: “Obey; for obedience means self-control, which is the sum of the law” (Seton, Woodcraft Manual 25). In the woods where, according to Seton, mankind learned bravery and independence, Nick asserts sufficient knowledge of woodcraft to become his father's guide, and together man and boy light out to find their salvation in the realm of the black squirrel.

The oblique treatment of sexuality in the 1917 Woodcraft Manual for Boys is consistent with the tenor of the father-son talks in “Ten Indians” and “Fathers and Sons.” In a page of guidance in the manual's health section (which, in the main, suggests the Guide and other respected adults as sources of information), Dr. Valeria Parker speaks not of sexuality but of reproduction, asserting that as the third manifestation of the Life Force, reproduction must be controlled lest it become “a means of degradation of body, mind, and spirit, leading to destruction” (140). The language has much in common with the Prohibition rhetoric of the day, suggesting the importance of the connection between drinking and sexuality in “Ten Indians.”

Nick's loss of sexual innocence in “Ten Indians” is illuminated by considering the assimilationist thread within a story that brings racialist discourse to the fore. The notion of the inevitable doom of Indian culture grew out of the young discipline of anthropology, the same discipline that brought stereopticon slides of bare-breasted Indian maidens into the most proper Victorian parlors—pornography in the guise of scholarship (Lyman 56). That tradition continued in National Geographic, staple reading at the Hemingway household in Oak Park (Brasch and Sigman xvi).10 Even the Bobbs-Merrill illustrated Song of Hiawatha, published a year after Hemingway received his copy of the poem, included a full-page, naked Minnehaha, her bare breasts fully visible, in the midst of a field of dancing cornstalks (115). The picture illustrates the conclusion of Hiawatha's marriage feast, suggesting what Longfellow never says about Hiawatha's wedding night. In “Ten Indians,” Nick's halting question—“‘Were they happy?’”—echoes Longfellow's circumspect lines concluding Hiawatha's wedding: “Thus the wedding banquet ended,/ And the wedding guests departed,/ Leaving Hiawatha happy/ With the night and Minnehaha” (SS 335; Longfellow 111).

What adolescents know about sexuality and how adults discuss it with them stands at the heart of “Ten Indians.” In the early decades of this century, sexuality was certainly not a “proper” subject for conversation in mixed company. Mrs. Garner upholds notions of propriety in the family wagon—but only when the conversation turns to racial slurs. Although she plays the role of disciplinarian when Carl equates Indian and skunk, Mrs. Garner does nothing to discourage the boys' talk about girls with all that is implied. While her husband gently guides the conversation to protect Nick's ego, tempering the talk with a little man-to-man advice, she offers teasing corrections that suggest dimensions other than propriety in relationships between men and women. Whatever private joke Mrs. Garner shares with her husband leads Joe Garner to claim, “‘I got a good girl,’” in a syntactic equation that balances his wife and the Indian girl, Prudence Mitchell. This is not the first sexual double entendre the boys miss, for they are generally as innocent about sex as they have been about drunkenness.

When Nick's response to his father's observations reveals his more-than-passing interest in Prudie, Nick is still the innocent. He expects an exclusive relationship. When his father suggests that Prudie fulfills the stereotype of the promiscuous Indian girl and that Nick has a rival, the boy is reduced to tears. In “Ten Indians,” this gender stereotype is balanced against the equally well-known stereotype of the drunken Indian. Early in the trip, Joe Garner keeps a count of drunks, all of them male. During the second leg of the trip, after Nick and the Garners leave the lights of Petoskey behind, the conversation turns to Indian girls. If drinking has a clear link to the white man's world, sexual behavior remains close to camp.

Like the Indians so bluntly described by his father, Nick has gone to town to celebrate the Fourth of July, the national holiday that speaks above all others to white sovereignty and Indian defeat. Nick's posture in bed, where he finally admits that his heart must be broken, duplicates the posture of the ninth Indian passed by the Garner wagon, the Indian sleeping face down in the wheel rut. Alcohol, while not yet a part of Nick's experience, is typically used in Hemingway's fiction as “pain killer,” the remedy of choice for broken hearts. If this story is true to its title, borrowed, as Paul Smith was the first to observe, from the popular children's counting rhyme, we should, indeed, expect to find “ten little Injun boys.”11 Nick, immobilized and alone, like the other nine Indians, is likewise the victim of his Fourth of July celebration. And like the typical drunk, he discovers when he wakes up that he cannot for some time remember what happened to him. The forgetfulness Nick achieves, however, comes only in ways appropriate to his age, ways that Ernest Thompson Seton would endorse, through sleep and through the restless energy of the natural world—“a big wind blowing and waves running high up on the beach” (SS 336).

The lessons of the Indian, as Seton explained, had inevitably to be lived out in a white world. This transition becomes a remembered rite of passage for the adult Nick Adams of “Fathers and Sons.” The moment that marks the transition is the moment he becomes conscious that the ultimate assimilation is miscegenation. Nick separates himself emotionally from his Indian girl—the girl who taught him the pleasures of sexuality—at the instant when her brother mentions a possible sexual pairing between Nick's older sister and their older brother. Nick instantly assumes the role of Indian killer and defender of white womanhood, apparently using one of his three very real and very precious twenty-gauge shotgun shells to blow an imaginary hole through “that half-breed bastard Eddie Gilby” (SS 494). Innocent play has taken a new turn, and Nick adds the cruelty of scalping and attack dogs to his revenge scenario, with his new-found white power given credence by Trudy's pleas for mercy.

With the power to execute, however, Nick also discovers the power to pardon: “‘All right. … I won't kill him unless he comes around the house.’” At this moment, Hemingway asserts that “Nick had killed Eddie Gilby, then pardoned him his life, and he was a man now” (SS 494). Before he will consent to another sexual encounter with Trudy (having already made her “‘feel good’”), Nick sends Billy away (SS 494). Sexual relations will henceforth be conducted in private, according to the white man's way, familial and childhood innocence banished. The moment is a legacy from Nick's own father, from whom he has inherited the concept of sexuality as a set of “heinous crimes,” as well as an outgrown suit of underwear with its defining odor, the very garment to be divested in Ernest Thompson Seton's Indian camps. Ultimately, Nick can neither kill nor pardon his father. It takes the innocent questioning of Nick's own son, clearly raised on tales of life with the Indians, to restore Nick's father to fictive greatness, even as the boy's belief in Nick himself raises echoes of a long-ago Caesarean in an Indian camp.


  1. Seton also created a program of activities for girls, publishing separate Woodcraft manuals for them. Unlike the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America, which have always been separate organizations with gendered leadership structures, Seton held the position of Chief over all Woodcraft Indians.

  2. Although Hemingway was too young to be aware of either series when it was first published, his parents were regular subscribers to both St. Nicholas and the Ladies Home Journal and routinely retained back copies of periodicals. Not many years later, these particular magazines were the children's special favorites, according to Marcelline Hemingway Sanford (Brasch and Sigman xvi). In 1905, Grace Hemingway gave Ernest his own copy of Longfellow's Hiawatha, already his favorite poem—a gift that suggests the level of reading material the family found suitable for their very young children (Brasch and Sigman xviii).

  3. The 1917 Woodcraft Manual for Boys, published for the Woodcraft League, reflects the new institutionalization of Seton's project, listing for the first time a National Council and giving Seton the official title of Chief. This was the first manual published after the final rupture between Seton and the Boy Scouts of America. According to his biographer, Seton had been ousted from his position as the Boy Scouts' first executive secretary in 1910, and replaced by James West, a close personal friend of Theodore Roosevelt's. Seton then held the largely honorary title of “Chief Scout” until February 1915, when organizational maneuvering precipitated by his opposition to Roosevelt's military preparedness campaign prevented Seton from being re-elected (Keller 175).

    Nationalistic patriotism was not part of the program Seton envisioned when he wrote the first Boy Scouts of America Manual of Woodcraft, Scouting, and Life-Craft (1910), based on concepts he had originated for the Woodcraft Indians. In 1906, Seton had presented a first edition of his Woodcraft manual to Robert Baden Powell, who borrowed from it heavily for his first British Scout manual, published in 1908 (Keller 165). Between 1910 and 1915, Seton played a leadership role in both the Boy Scouts of America and the Woodcraft League. After his ouster as Chief Scout, as patriotic fervor rose after the sinking of the Lusitania in April 1915, Seton became openly critical of the Boy Scouts. In a speech reported on the front page of the New York Times on 6 December 1915, Seton predicted the demise of the organization. The next day, the Times carried the Boy Scout response, again on the front page: Seton was accused “of being in harmony with the views of anarchists and radical socialists” (Keller 177). After the American declaration of war in April 1917, Seton assumed a suitably patriotic tone when he asked the boys and girls of the Woodcraft League to adopt the slogan “The hoe behind the flag,” a non-militaristic counterpoint to the Boy Scout slogan, “Be prepared” (“The Hoe”).

    Compared with previous Woodcraft manuals, the 1917 edition presents a significantly toned-down version of Seton's vision of the organization. The Introduction to the 1915 edition explicitly stated that Woodcraft “makes war on alcohol and tobacco (aiming to restrict the abusive use of alcohol, and totally abolish the cigarette)”; “does not teach money-getting, believing it unwise to cultivate avarice, our racial sin, even if we give it the euphonious name of ‘thrift’”; “is opposed to military terms and methods”; and “denounces the false patriotism which lauds evildoing because it was done by ‘our own country,’” insisting that Herod and Pilate were as noble and patriotic as the American generals at Wounded Knee (xviii, Seton's emphasis).

  4. Progressive evolutionists believed that human potential could be maximized by placing children in environments that would recapitulate the evolution of the human species: the youngest children playing in a garden with pet animals (“as like as may be to the traditional garden of Eden”); older children gaining a “solid foundation of paleolithic culture” by primitive camping, preferably in rock shelters, with adult supervision; somewhat older children engaging in simple neolithic agriculture; then finally as adolescents learning the use of books and metals and passing into the modern world (Seton, Woodcraft 2).

    For Seton, the most significant moments in human evolution were learning the use of a weapon to kill for food and learning the control of fire. The Woodcraft organization explicitly sought to nurture four stages of human/individual evolution: the physical, the mental (in the evolutionary process, “nursed in the form of the hunter's cunning”), the social (with group loyalty related to enhanced hunting success), and the spiritual with fire its visible symbol.

  5. Amy Strong, the only critic who entertains payment for service as George's rationale for dispensing cigars, explicitly discounts this possibility “because the doctor is obviously doing the Indian family a favor” (21). She takes the position that George derives power solely from his ability to give. In treating “Indian Camp” and “The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife” as a matched pair, however, Strong ignores the fact that in the second story, the doctor not only expects payment from Dick Boulton for medical services rendered to his wife but expects this payment to be rendered in kind rather than cash.

  6. The twelve Woodcraft Laws set forth included: 1. Be brave. 2. Be silent. 3. Obey. 4. Be clean (in the physical sense). 5. Understand and respect your body. 6. Be the friend of all harmless wildlife. 7. Word of honor is sacred. 8. Play fair. 9. Be reverent. 10. Be kind. 11. Be helpful. 12. Be joyful. The Initiation Trials for new members emphasized laws 2, 3, and 12, stipulating that a boy maintain absolute silence for six hours either in camp or at home, give everyone encountered a smiling answer for a period of twelve hours, and “give prompt, smiling obedience” to all adults in authority for one week. New members were further required to commit themselves to an outdoor lifestyle by sleeping outside (not under roof) for three consecutive nights or ten non-consecutive nights and making a useful, traditionally Indian article (Seton, Woodcraft Manual 10-11).

  7. In The Torrents of Spring, the conjunction between medicine and football establishes the context for a conversation with particular resonance for “Indian Camp.” Yogi Johnson explains war and death to two Indians he meets along the road, both, he learns later, decorated war veterans. “‘White chief heap big medicine,’” the Indians comment when Yogi begins by producing Peerless tobacco and a pocket flask for them. Yogi next establishes a common ground of experience: “War to him had been like football. American football. What they played at the colleges. Carlisle Indian School. Both the Indians nodded. They had been to Carlisle” (TOS 100-2). What follows carries the straightforward weight of profound truth, unlike anything else in the satire. In war, according to Yogi, soldiers evolve through four stages. In the first, “you were brave because you didn't think anything could hit you, because you yourself were something special, and you knew that you could never die” (TOS 104). This innocence is precisely Nick's state as his father rows him back to camp.

  8. Donald St. John clarified in his interview with the Willises that the real-life Dick Boulton, whom they had personally known, spoke not Ojibway but Ottawa, like the Willises themselves. They further implied that no Ojibways lived in the Resort Township vicinity.

  9. In Savagism and Civilization: A Study of the Indian and the American Mind, Roy Harvey Pearce traces traditional American ideas about the Indian (essentially the tenets of progressive evolutionism, which at its most extreme became Social Darwinism) to a group of 18th century Scottish philosophers and historians who equated social, technical, and moral progress. While acknowledging the virtues of the savage (courage, fortitude, eloquence, and independence), they saw the savage as limited by a culture that lacked private property and the division of labor, the marks of high civilization. Only through cooperation and the respect for hierarchy necessitated by property ownership, they felt, could the brutal appetites and tendency to ungovernable violence at the heart of a hunter/warrior society be tempered (82-88).

  10. In Reading National Geographic, Catherine A. Lutz and Jane L. Collins document the strategies employed by this publication in creating a vision of non-Western cultures for a middle class American readership, including the close linking of race and the female body. The underlying philosophy was a brand of progressive evolutionism, while through juxtaposition, National Geographic provided examples to invite cultural comparisons and showcase the superiority of Western culture.

  11. As with most songs, the chorus, where the number of Indians increases from one to ten, is better remembered than the verses. In the stanzas themselves, the numbers, paradoxically, decrease as the song progresses, beginning when the first of the ten little Indians toddles home, and “then there were nine” (Opie 328, my emphasis). Either way, Hemingway's arithmetic works when Nick is considered as the tenth Indian.

Works Cited

Adams, David Wallace. Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875-1928. Lawrence: U of Kansas P, 1995.

Baker, Carlos. Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story. New York: Scribner's, 1969.

Berkhofer, Robert F., Jr. The White Man's Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1978.

Brasch, James D. and Joseph Sigman. Hemingway's Library: A Composite Record. New York: Garland, 1981.

Flora, Joseph M. Hemingway's Nick Adams. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1982.

Gottschalk, Stephen. The Emergence of Christian Science in American Religious Life. Berkeley: U of California P, 1973.

Grimes, Larry E. “Hemingway’s Religious Odyssey: The Oak Park Years.” Ernest Hemingway: The Oak Park Legacy. Ed. James Nagel. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1996. 37-58.

Hemingway, Ernest. The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. New York: Scribner's, 1938.

———. The Torrents of Spring: A Romantic Novel in Honor of the Passing of a Great Race. New York: Scribner's, 1926.

“The Hoe Behind the Flag.” New York Times (9 April 1917): 11.

Keller, Betty. Black Wolf: The Life of Ernest Thompson Seton. Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 1984.

Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. The Song of Hiawatha. Ill. Harrison Fisher. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1906.

Lutz, Catherine A. and Jane L. Collins. Reading National Geographic. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993.

Lyman, Christopher. The Vanishing Race and Other Illusions: Photographs of Indians by Edward S. Curtis. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1982.

Mitford, Jessica. The American Way of Birth. New York: Dutton, 1982.

Montgomery, Constance Cappel. Hemingway in Michigan. New York: Fleet, 1966.

National Portrait Gallery. “Picturing Hemingway: A Writer in His Time.” Travelling Exhibit. Oak Park: Ernest Hemingway Museum, 1999.

Opie, Iona and Peter Opie. Eds. The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1951.

Owens, Louis. Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel. Tulsa: U of Oklahoma P, 1992.

Pearce, Roy Harvey. Savagism and Civilization: A Study of the Indian and the American Mind. 1953. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988.

Reynolds, Michael S. Hemingway's Reading 1910-1940. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1981.

Russell, Don. The Wild West or, A History of the Wild West Shows. Fort Worth: Amon Carter Museum, 1970.

St. John, Donald. “Hemingway and Prudence.” Connecticut Review 5.2 (1972): 78-84.

Seton, Ernest Thompson. “Ernest Thompson Seton's Boys.” Ladies Home Journal 19.8 (July 1902): 17.

———. “Ernest Thompson Seton's Boys.” Ladies Home Journal. 19.11 (October 1902): 14.

———. Manual of the Woodcraft Indians: The Fourteenth Birch-Bark Roll. New York: Doubleday, 1915.

———. Rolf in the Woods. 1911. The Library of Pioneering and Woodcraft 1. Garden City, NY.: Doubleday, 1927.

———. Woodcraft. The Woodcraft Way 1. London: The Order of Woodcraft Chivalry, 1918.

———. The Woodcraft Manual for Boys: The Fifteenth Birch Bark Roll. New York: Doubleday, 1917.

———. Woodmyth and Fable. New York: Century, 1905.

Seton-Barber, Dee. Telephone interview. 15 February 1995.

Shorter, Edward. A History of Women's Bodies. New York: Basic, 1982.

Smith, Paul. “The Tenth Indian and the Thing Left Out.” Ernest Hemingway: The Writer in Context. Ed. James Nagel. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1984.

Strong, Amy. “Screaming through Silence: The Violence of Race in ‘Indian Camp’ and ‘The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife.’” The Hemingway Review 16.1 (Fall 1996): 18-32.

Twain, Mark. Christian Science. New York: Harper, 1907.

Wilson, Raymond. Ohiyesa: Charles Eastman, Santee Sioux. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1983.

Margaret A. Tilton (essay date fall 2000)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4791

SOURCE: Tilton, Margaret A. “Garnering an Opinion: A Double Look at Nick's Surrogate Mother and Her Relationship to Dr. Adams in Hemingway's ‘Ten Little Indians.’” The Hemingway Review 20, no. 1 (fall 2000): 79-89.

[In the following essay, Tilton examines the behavior of Mrs. Garner in the story “Ten Indians.”]

Ernest Hemingway's short story “Ten Indians” involves a cast of predominantly male characters, for the Garner and Adams families include five men and only one woman. Many readers have interpreted this woman, Mrs. Garner, as sympathetic and nurturing. Joseph Flora, for example, praises her for being “relaxed (but not lax) in her roles as mother and wife,” a decided contrast to Nick's absent mother (46). Paul Smith finds the Garners in general, and Mrs. Garner in particular, to be “a standard for … what is diminished or missing from the scene at Nick's home” (“Tenth Indian” 54). Paul Wadden praises “the communal glow of the Garners' kitchen” (5), certainly attributable to Mrs. Garner, as it's she who starts a fire in the stove.

While much of “Ten Indians” supports these benevolent views of Mrs. Garner, however, her behavior is at times puzzling and inconsistent. Some passages offer a decidedly different picture than that of the nurturing mother and hint that Mrs. Garner can occasionally be spiteful. She also focuses on separating the children from the adults—sometimes simply to protect the boys, but in other cases, it seems, to put them in their place, or to quash their fledgling attempts at growing up. Her territoriality and her spite are important because Mrs. Garner, although a minor character, in many ways shadows the complexities in Dr. Adams. In doing so, she suggests an alternative way of looking at the story. If Dr. Adams is indeed cruel toward his son, as some critics suggest, no longer can his behavior be ascribed simply to his missing wife or to a Freudian father-son competitiveness. Instead, the presence of Mrs. Garner suggests that many parents, regardless of their sex and marital situation, at times wound their children and exacerbate the already-difficult transition to adulthood.

Initially, Mrs. Garner simply seems to represent maternal protection, a logical role since she is both the Garner family matriarch and the lone woman in the story. The text shows Mrs. Garner doting on her husband and sons on the ride home from the celebration, using a combination of discipline and affection. She reproaches Carl for his snide remarks to Nick, admonishes her husband for laughing inappropriately, and generally keeps track of everyone; when Nick leaves, for example, she asks him to send Carl back to the house. She also offers physical comfort. Early in the narrative, Mr. and Mrs. Garner sit “close together,” and she later moves still closer to her husband to whisper in his ear.

Because Mrs. Garner tends to those around her so diligently, she offers an interesting contrast to the only other female character in the story, Prudie Mitchell. While Prudie never figures directly in the text, she has allegedly betrayed Nick by cavorting with Frank Washburn.1 Mr. Garner's comment on the ride home epitomizes the contrast between his wife's loyalty and Prudie's soon-to-be-revealed treachery: “Nickie can have Prudence. I got a good girl” (SS [The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway] 333). Thus Mrs. Garner's value as a wife and mother seems affirmed both by her actions and by the other characters within the text.

This nurturing role, moreover, extends beyond the narrow parameters of her own family. In some ways, Mrs. Garner acts as Nick's surrogate mother, since he is apparently motherless in the story. She lavishes attention on him by inviting him to stay for dinner and emphasizing how much they enjoyed having him on the trip. She fusses over him, calling him “Nickie” and seeming pleased and embarrassed when he thanks her for taking him along: “‘Oh, shucks,’” she responds (SS 333). Her actions seem doubly important because Nick clearly does not receive this kind of treatment at home. Dr. Adams calls his son simply “Nick,” and the conversations between the two are limited to Dr. Adams's factual answers to Nick's questions. Even after Nick has been crying, Dr. Adams offers him no consolation save another slice of huckle-berry pie. If Dr. Adams is indeed “babying” his son with the pie, it is certainly a different type of comfort than Mrs. Garner provides, offered as it is as a palliative to the devastating news that the doctor has just delivered to his son. While some critics find Dr. Adams heartless and vengeful, others view him as a diligent father who is merely protecting his son.2 But in any case, his stoic parenting seems to be the exact reverse of Mrs. Garner's easy affections.

But is Mrs. Garner only a model of parental kindness, a sympathetic nurturer? I believe she can also be interpreted in a different light. She at times exhibits unexpected malice, most strikingly when Nick denies that Prudie is his “girl,” and Carl insists that she is. Here Mrs. Garner silences her son by announcing, “‘Carl can't get a girl … not even a squaw’” (SS 332).

Perhaps she intends only to support Nick here, either by undermining Carl's authority on girls, or by reaffirming Prudie's albeit questionable desirability. While this seems unlikely—the compliment is too backhanded to be reassuring—some critics take this view. Paul Smith, for example, finds that Mrs. Garner's remark is intended simply “to protect Nick as she would her own son” (“Tenth Indian” 56). Yet how admirable, really, is her treatment of her own son? Her remark cuts Carl quite viciously, and his injury is pointedly remarked: “Carl was quiet” (SS 332).

Admittedly, the bantering atmosphere in the wagon, as well as Carl's slurs about Indian girls, may have provoked his mother to silence him with a snappy retort. Moreover, her husband quickly repairs some of the damage by telling his son that he's “‘all right’” (333), at which point the conversation moves away from Carl's romantic problems and back to a more light-hearted discussion.

Yet Mrs. Garner's comment still seems unduly harsh, for it has the testing, biting quality that one would expect from a sibling, not a nurturing parent. Carl's responses underscore the severity of this parental betrayal. Although he does not respond to his mother, when his brother Frank makes a similar remark—“‘Carl ain't no good with girls’”—Carl replies immediately with “‘You shut up’” (SS 332-33).

In this scene, Mrs. Garner's actions toward Carl resemble the symbolic castration that Nick will soon suffer, according to some critics, at the hands of his own parent. In many ways, however, Mrs. Garner's attack on Carl is worse: she wields her knife in public, in front of his peers, and she has no adequate or easily apparent reason for hurting her son. In contrast, Dr. Adams, according to many critics, only wants to spare his son from later, more acute pain.3

Moreover, Mrs. Garner's comment, by mocking and denying her son's sexual appeal, also firmly relegates him to the world of the child. This distinction between adults and children is one that Mrs. Garner draws repeatedly in the story, and by doing so she sets up a sort of “us-them” dichotomy that often reinforces the boys' marginal position. While the children are clearly interested in the adult world—they want to talk about sex and to hear the adults' conversations—Mrs. Garner frequently denies them access to this realm. She does this in both physical and psychological ways. When she moves closer to her husband in the wagon, she makes an effort to be near her mate, a gesture of conjugal affection. But it's also an attempt to segregate herself and her husband from Carl, Frank, and Nick. Mr. and Mrs. Garner are already separated from the children, because the adults are sitting in front of the wagon, the boys in the back. Indeed, at times the boys must even get out of the wagon and walk. Yet this is evidently insufficient for Mrs. Garner, who moves closer still to her husband. This intimacy allows them a private conversation, one Mrs. Garner forbids the boys to participate in:

“Don't you think it,” Joe said. “You better watch out to keep Prudie, Nick.”

His wife whispered to him and Joe laughed.

“What are you laughing at?” asked Frank.

“Don't you say it, Garner,” his wife warned. Joe laughed again.

(SS 333)

In part, of course, Mrs. Garner's secretiveness here may be driven by a desire to protect Nick. The conversation might very well be about Prudie's promiscuity, hence Mr. Garner's advice that Nick “watch out to keep Prudie.” If this is the case, perhaps Mrs. Garner, unlike Dr. Adams, simply wants to spare Nick the pain of discovering his girlfriend's betrayal. Moreover, it is conceivable that the adult Garners have heard rumors about a relationship between Dr. Adams and Prudie, or between Prudie and other white men, or between some of their neighbors and Indian women, and that one or more of these relationships is what Mrs. Garner is whispering about.4

If this is true, then her decision not to include the boys in her remark and her insistence that Joe not repeat it is certainly commendable. Yet the very act of her whispering hints at hypocrisy. While it is uncertain that she is talking specifically about Prudie or Dr. Adams, the context of the dialogue and the hushed nature of her comment imply that she is talking about interracial sexual relationships, a topic that she has explicitly forbidden the boys to discuss. Moreover, her remark is most likely derogatory, an innuendo or dirty joke, as suggested both by Joe's response (repeated laughter) and by Mrs. Garner's own reaction (warning her husband not to repeat what she has said). In a word, she is behaving exactly like Carl when she ordered him to “stop talking that way.” Mrs. Garner is allowed to discuss white sexual relations with Indians, but the boys are not, despite their obvious curiosity (“‘What are you laughing at?’”). Thus, the boys are forbidden a range of adult privileges, from riding up high in the wagon to talking frankly about issues involving race and sex.

Naturally, some topics are unfit for discussion with children, and Mrs. Garner may simply be trying to protect Nick, as mentioned above. However, her behavior—“Do what I say, not what I do”—is problematic, especially when taken in conjunction with her rebuke to Carl. To be forbidden to discuss sex is one thing; to be teased with innuendo and have your own sexuality summarily dismissed seems quite another.

Because of her occasional malice and her territoriality regarding the subject of sexuality, Mrs. Garner predicts the very qualities that Dr. Adams later reveals, and the doctor's similarly problematic behavior that lies at the heart of “Ten Indians.” To some extent, the story invokes an analogy drawn from photography: it's as if “Ten Indians” is a double exposure, with Dr. Adams the strong, primary image and Mrs. Garner the fainter copy that the reader at first fails to see.5 And while the photograph shows a certain set of colors, revealing one plausible interpretation, the picture's negative inverts these colors, offering a different, darker portrayal of events.

Previous critics have focused more on the differences between Mrs. Garner and Dr. Adams than on their similarities, apparently convinced that Mrs. Garner's primary function in the story is to contrast with Dr. Adams.6 Indeed, her effusiveness and jocularity diametrically oppose the doctor's taciturnity, as I mentioned earlier. However, Mrs. Garner also has much in common with Dr. Adams. I have already mentioned the parallel between the two characters as parents who symbolically castrate their respective sons. Dr. Adams's motivation for doing this is extremely ambiguous. As mentioned above, he may only be trying to help his son, by alerting him to his girlfriend's treachery. If this is the case, then Dr. Adams does differ substantially from Mrs. Garner—while she tries to protect Nick from the grown-up world of sexual betrayal, the doctor is more honest with his son, although he knows the truth will hurt. Yet if one views Dr. Adams's motivation as less benign7—a need to ruin his son's romantic happiness, for instance—then the parallels between the surrogate and real parents are once again underscored.

In this case Dr. Adams, like Mrs. Garner, may be intent on excluding his son from the adult world of sexuality—he not only breaks up Nick's liaison with Prudie but also fails to acknowledge the union in the first place, refering to Prudie as Nick's “friend” (SS 335). Granted, his word choice may simply be due to a predilection for euphemism, or to a desire to spare Nick's feelings. An alternative interpretation, however, is that the doctor—possibly jealous of his son's relationship—simply wants to remind Nick that he's only a child, a boy who can be “friends” with a girl but nothing more. If the latter explanation is true, the parallels between Mrs. Garner and the doctor are once again reinforced, as she also excludes the boys from the adult realm of sexuality. Regardless, because Dr. Adams at times seems nurturing and at other times malicious, he does exactly the kind of double parenting that Mrs. Garner is guilty of, only to a more striking degree.

The similarities between the two characters go beyond their child-rearing practices, however. Other parallels between Mrs. Garner and Dr. Adams include their complex racial attitudes. Initially Mrs. Garner seems to be a stalwart opponent of racism, chiding her son for his slur against the Indians and rebuking her husband for laughing at it (SS 332). However, other passages hint at her bigotry. Her opening remark, “‘Them Indians,’” which she says twice, sets up an “us-them” dichotomy similar to the one she employs toward the children. Given the context in which her remarks about the Indians are offered—right after her husband has commented on their drunkenness and predilection for killing snakes (a euphemism for the delirum tremens that follows alcoholic binging)—the dichotomy Mrs. Garner constructs certainly comes at the Indians' expense (“them” = drunks and savages, “us” = not).

The whispered comment she makes to her husband later also hints at racism. If she is making a dirty joke involving either Prudie's licentiousness or that of Indian girls in general, then Mrs. Garner is underscoring the us them dualism she has set up early on. Once again, the Indians—this time the women—are the losers in the equation, associated with wild, lewd behavior. Of course, Mrs. Garner's racism does not preclude a salacious or prurient interest in the Indians, as her early comments and whispered joke suggest.

Dr. Adams reveals a similarly problematic attitude. When Nick comes home, the doctor tells his son that the Indians were “all in town getting drunk” (SS 335), a remark that seems to condemn them as worthless alcoholics. But his behavior belies his apparent derogation of the Indians. If he is really contemptuous of them, why does he choose their camp for a visit during his walk? He undoubtedly knows he'll run into Indians there. Even young Nick realizes that some of the Indians must have been at camp. After Dr. Adams tacitly denies seeing anyone, explaining that everyone was in town, a disbelieving Nick responds, “‘Didn't you see anybody at all?’” (335). Gerry Brenner notes that the doctor's behavior hints at more than idle curiosity and begs several ominous questions. Brenner asks, “Why had Dr. Adams chosen not to spend the holiday with his son? Had he dishonorable reasons? Had he gone off to the Indian camp to find Nick's girl for himself rather than to find her as he says he did?” (18). The fact that Nick and Prudie have a designated meeting spot, not actually in the Indian camp but “up back” of it (336),8 seems to support Brenner's view. It's unlikely that Dr. Adams would have happened upon this exact spot, in the middle of the woods, by pure coincidence.

If Dr. Adams hoped to see Prudie himself, this would also explain his behavior during the conversation in which he tells Nick about his discovery. In this passage, a cagey Dr. Adams equivocates about what he has seen. First he says that he has only heard Prudie and Frank Washburn, while seconds later he admits he's seen them, and seems to recollect the moment with relish: “‘Oh, yes, I saw them’” (SS 335).

The entire conversation between Nick and his father is bumbling and redundant, and while some critics ascribe this confusion to Nick's bewilderment, a close examination of the dialogue reveals that Dr. Adams is indeed being shifty.9 Not only does he hedge about whether he really witnessed Prudie and Frank, but he also can't seem to decide how blameworthy their actions were. In one statement, he describes them as “‘having quite a time,’” which seems highly incriminating. Yet elsewhere he's more cavalier, saying only that he “‘guessed’” they were happy.

Admittedly, Dr. Adams's caginess in this conversation allows other possible interpretations—if he does want to spare his son's feelings, he may simply be weighing what he should divulge as the conversation progresses, which in turn leads him to contradict himself. Yet his fortuitous appearance at the camp, combined with his seeming contempt for the Indians, certainly raises questions. Thus his equivocation with Nick may stem from his interest in the Indians, an interest that he himself regards as shameful. Such an attitude would also explain his apparent determination to break up his son's romance with a “squaw.”

The probability that both Dr. Adams and Mrs. Garner are secretly intrigued by the Indians accounts for the large number of innuendoes in their respective scenes. As Gerry Brenner notes, “Hemingway laces the story's first scene with innuendoes between the Garners … Those innuendoes carry over into the second scene, in which Dr. Adams tells Nick [about] Prudie “‘threshing around’” (18). The fact that these undertones are omnipresent—but destined to remain “innuendoes,” never openly acknowledged—is significant, and reminiscent of Michel Foucault's idea that discourse on sexuality sometimes replaces sexuality itself as the primary erotic stimulant.10 The adults recognize that sex, in particular interracial sex, is an explosive subject that should be approached indirectly. But they also realize that it can afford considerable vicarious pleasure as a topic of discussion—hence Mrs. Garner's whispering, Joe's laughter, and Dr. Adams's graphic rendition of Prudie and Frank “threshing” around.

The boys, in contrast, handle the subject in a more innocent, straightforward way. While it's true that Nick denies his association with Prudie, he does so without conviction, given his “hollow and happy” feeling; certainly Nick is blissfully ignorant of the problematics of interracial romance in a way that Dr. Adams and Mr. and Mrs. Garner are not. Nick's interrogation of his reluctant father is for the most part straightforward (“‘Where was she?’” “‘What were they doing?’” “‘Who was with her?’”), and it is only in his last question—“‘Were they happy?’”—that Nick verges away from the literal into the nebulous realm of euphemism (SS 335). His father's responses, in contrast, are consistently cryptic and suggestive—“‘I saw your friend, Prudie,’” “‘They were having quite a time,’” and “‘Oh yes, I saw them’” (SS 335).

The boys' unsophisticated handling of sex prohibits their entry into the adult world. Because Carl dares to talk publicly about interracial relationships, and because Nick dares to have one fairly openly, they are punished by their respective parents. Mrs. Garner and Dr. Adams know the ways of the world, and until their sons learn to be duly secretive and deceptive about such volatile matters, they cannot be allowed access to them.

Given the strong parallels between Dr. Adams and Mrs. Garner, her character in “Ten Indians” seems more important than critics yet have have recognized. If the similarities are present to the extent I believe them to be, then Mrs. Garner's function in the story as a whole deserves consideration. Is she simply an aesthetic construct, an intentional double exposure that gives the story a unique structure? Or does the text make a statement akin to the current postfeminist argument that women are as capable of criminal behavior as men?11 Mothers, this story asserts, can be just as dangerous as fathers, and just as obstructive to their sons' transitions to manhood. While the circumstances at the Adams household are certainly unusual, Nick is not the only one suffering some of the trials of adolescence at the hands of his parent. The Garner boys are subjected to similar treatment—barred from the adult world of sexuality, their requests for inclusion ignored, their relations with the opposite sex publicly ridiculed.

The problematic behavior of Mrs. Garner and Dr. Adams does not necessarily mean that they do not love their children, although their actions are at times disturbing. What it does mean is that for the boys, trying to grow up around their parents is a tricky and dangerous experience. This, perhaps, is why Nick seems most liberated at the point in the story when he is walking through the woods, on his way back from the Garners'. For a few minutes he is an orphan, free of both Mrs. Garner, his surrogate mother, and of his own father, who will soon wound him deeply. As he walks barefoot through the countryside, he encounters tremendous natural beauty—a smooth path cutting through a meadow, cool dew on his feet, a forest of dry beech. As Paul Wadden notes, it is an Edenic moment (15). But it is a moment that will not last long.


  1. Prudie's character is based on a real person, Prudence Boulton, an Indian girl who helped out in the Hemingway household and committed suicide at age sixteen (Smith, “Tenth Indian” 67). She appears not only in “Ten Indians” but also as “Trudy” in “Fathers and Sons” and in early versions of “The Last Good Country” (Smith, “Tenth Indian” 67).

    In his discussion of Prudence Boulton, Paul Smith questions whether Hemingway heard of her death, and, if so, how it may have affected his fiction. Smith comments, “Whether Hemingway ever knew [of the suicide], and so could deliberately omit it, is a matter of conjecture. He never indicated any awareness of her death, even in ‘Fathers and Sons,’ where the memory might have been appropriate, if somewhat melodramatic. Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine he did not hear of her death, given his lasting memory of her part in his life” (“Tenth Indian” 68). I believe, however, that the title of “Ten Indians” may in fact be a reference to young Prudence's suicide. For Prudie, surely, is the tenth Indian—and while the version of the rhyme that Smith quotes (“One little Injun livin' all alone/He got married and then there were none” [“Tenth Indian” 69]) resonates in some respects with the story, another version resonates much more startlingly with the real Prudence's fate: “One little Indian boy left all alone/He went and hanged himself and then there were none” (quoted in Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians, 30).

  2. For a review of different interpretations of Dr. Adams, see Fleming 101-3.

  3. Fleming cites Jarvis Thurston and Joseph Flora as examples of critics who view Dr. Adams as a benevolent parent. Thurston interprets the doctor as trying to protect his son and full of regret about having to disillusion him (175-76). Similarly, Flora believes that Dr. Adams dislikes telling Nick about Prudie; he finds the doctor “prudish” about such matters (49).

    Earlier manuscripts of “Ten Indians” also hint that Dr. Adams feels protective of his son, and is beset with guilt after he's told Nick about Prudie's infidelity. In a late draft of the story, the “Madrid” version, a deeply conflicted Dr. Adams prays, “‘Dear God, for Christ's sake keep me from ever telling things to a kid … For Christ's sake keep me from telling a kid how things are.’” Then, when the doctor goes to sleep, he lies sideways in bed “to take up as much room as he could. He was a very lonely man” (as cited in Mellow 33).

    Critics differ over the implications of the Madrid manuscripts. Paul Wadden concludes that this earlier text reveals Dr. Adams's sensitivity (8). However, Paul Smith concludes that it actually further incriminates the doctor, theorizing that “Hemingway's rejection of the Madrid version with its dramatic and sympathetic portrayal of the father's lonely agony might justify a harsher view of his relationship with his son” (Reader's Guide 200, italics mine).

  4. There is certainly a possibility that Mrs. Garner is remarking not just on Prudie's general promiscuity, but on a particular relationship she has with Dr. Adams. Some critics, such as Brenner, have suggested that Dr. Adams himself desires Prudie, and it's conceivable that he goes to the Indian camp to try to see her. Given the exchange in the wagon immediately preceding Mrs. Garner's remark (“‘I bet Pa wouldn't ever have had a squaw for a girl’” / “‘Don't you think it … you better watch out to keep Prudie, Nick’”) it is plausible that Mr. Garner is thinking of Nick's “Pa” and his relationship with Prudie here, and Mrs. Garner, picking this up, may be making a dirty joke about it.

  5. The sections with the Garners and with Dr. Adams are remarkably parallel, as Paul Smith nicely details in his essay “The Tenth Indian.”

  6. Because some critics find Mrs. Garner to be a simple character, a woman who offers easy comfort, it is not surprising that their interpretations have focused on the differences, rather than the parallels, between her and Dr. Adams. Paul Smith, for example, sees Mrs. Garner as being on the opposite end of the spectrum from Dr. Adams. He sees Dr. Adams as representing the immediate, somewhat isolated experience of one man. In contrast, Smith views Mrs. Garner as representing a universal, almost clichéd experience, similar to the idea of Nick's broken heart. Smith explains, “The distance between the statement ‘My heart is broken’ and the sense that ‘I feel this way’ is a metaphor for the distance between the two families … The image of a broken heart is a commonplace … the sort of remark that one might finally expect from Mrs. Garner. ‘If I feel this way’ rises out of the immediate experience of his father's telling him the way things are. …” (“Tenth Indian” 65).

  7. The evidence that Dr. Adams is at least partially motivated by malice is compelling. Certainly it is peculiar that he is willing to traumatize Nick based on such flimsy evidence, for the doctor himself admits he didn't really see what was going on at the Indian camp.

  8. As Paul Smith notes, “Fathers and Sons” confirms that Nick and Prudie have a designated meeting spot. Smith also comments on the importance of the meeting spot in “Ten Indians,” noting that Prudie's treachery is compounded by the fact she's been “threshing around” in the same rendezvous spot that she and Nick use. The severity of this betrayal, Smith observes, is evident in Nick's reaction. After he realizes what his father is telling him, he becomes agitated and begins repeating his questions about Prudie. The one question that, at least initially, he doesn't ask twice, is where his father found Prudie and Frank. “What Nick is reluctant to pursue,” Smith notes, “is not, at the end, with whom Prudence was making love but whether she was doing it in the place that … was theirs” (“Tenth Indian” 57). Paul Wadden also cites the importance of the meeting place, remarking that Nick eventually needs to know whether “his erstwhile love has gone so far as to profane their own trysting place” (7).

  9. Wadden ascribes the halting, confusing nature of this exchange entirely to Nick's confusion (6-7).

  10. See The History of Sexuality, Vol. I.: An Introduction.

  11. For more on the postfeminist trend described here, see MacFarquhar, 88-91.

The author wishes to thank Gerry Brenner for his editorial advice.

Works Cited

Brenner, Gerry. Concealments in Hemingway's Works. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1983.

Christie, Agatha. Ten Little Indians. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1967.

Fleming, Robert E. “Hemingway's Dr. Adams—Saint or Sinner?” Arizona Quarterly 39 (Summer 1983): 101-10.

Flora, Joseph M. Hemingway's Nick Adams. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1982.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Vol. I: An Introduction. New York: Vintage, 1990.

Hemingway, Ernest. “Ten Indians.” The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. New York: Scribner's, 1938.

MacFarquhar, Larissa. “Women Who Kill: The New Postfeminist Icons.” New Yorker 74.3 (9 March 1998): 88-91.

Mellow, James R. Hemingway: A Life Without Consequences. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992.

Smith, Paul. “The Tenth Indian and the Thing Left Out.” Ernest Hemingway: The Writer In Context. Ed. James Nagel. Madison: Wisconsin UP, 1984.

———. Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1989.

Thurston, Jarvis. Reading Modern Short Stories. Chicago: Scott, Foresman, 1955.

Wadden, Paul. “Barefoot in the Hemlocks: Nick Adams' Betrayal of Love in ‘Ten Indians.’” The Hemingway Review 16.2. (Spring 1997): 3-16.

Charles J. Nolan (essay date fall 2001)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6305

SOURCE: Nolan, Charles J. “Hemingway's ‘The Sea Change’: What Close Reading and Evolutionary Psychology Reveal.” The Hemingway Review 21, no. 1 (fall 2001): 53-67.

[In the following essay, Nolan provides a close reading of a much neglected story “The Sea Change,” in order to demonstrate Hemingway's artistry.]

In a wide-ranging but rather petulant letter of 16 November 1933 to Maxwell Perkins, complaining about the response of various critics to his short fiction, Hemingway listed “The Sea Change” and several other stories as “invent[ed] completely.” They were not, as one commentator had charged, merely a reporter's transcription of actual events like some of his other works. “The point is,” he went on, “I want them all to sound as though they really happened. Then when I succeed those poor dumb pricks say they are all just skillful reporting” (SL 400). Over twenty-five years later, in 1959, he gave a different account of the story's genesis in “The Art of the Short Story,” a preface for what was to be a student edition of his short works: “In … ‘The Sea Change,’ everything is left out. I had seen the couple in the Bar Basque in St. Jean de Luz and I knew the story too too well, which is the squared root of well, and use any well you like except mine. So I left the story out. But it was all there. It is not visible but it is there” (Flora, Ernest Hemingway 131).1 When The Garden of Eden was published in 1986 with its obvious similarities to the earlier story and as more biographical information about Hemingway became available, his comment about knowing the situation “too too well” should perhaps have led to a much fuller analysis of “The Sea Change.”2 Yet three years later Susan F. Beegel included an essay on the story in Hemingway's Neglected Short Fiction, suggesting the paucity of detailed attention to the work. Since that time, lengthy discussion of the piece has been slight.3 Hence a new look may be useful.

What I hope to show here with a close reading of the story is (1) that the overall arc of the piece involves Phil's gradually coming to terms with the changed nature of his relationship with his lover; (2) that the changes Hemingway made as he moved from drafts to the story's published form are always designed to focus the issue at hand more sharply; (3) that Hemingway uses repetition to highlight aspects of characterization and employs pauses to control the story's movement and architecture, often providing counterpoint; (4) that the irony pervading the work underscores Phil's bitterness; and (5) that Hemingway's portrayal of Phil's jealousy captures his feelings with psychological realism. On this last point, recent work by psychologists and sociologists helps underline Hemingway's insightful reading of human nature, The methodology in this essay is to walk through the story almost line by line to see what such close attention can reveal, always keeping in mind what others have said about the story. What ultimately emerges is a renewed respect for Hemingway's remarkable artistry.

As Philip Young was first to remind us, the story's title comes from Ariel's song in The Tempest (178n):4

Full fathom five thy father lies.

Of his bones are coral made;

Those are pearls that were his eyes;

Nothing of him that doth fade

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange.


Most readers believe the “sea change” applies to Phil, especially given his comments at the story's end, after he sends his lover off for a lesbian affair. However, Comley and Scholes also speak of the woman's “sea change of sexual preference” (88), as does Charles Oliver, who also sees a transformation occurring to both characters (263).

The story begins in the midst of a quarrel:

“All right,” said the man. “What about it?”

“No,” said the girl, “I can't.

“You mean you won't.”

“I can't,” said the girl. “That's all that I mean.”


Hemingway immediately puts us into the center of the struggle, compelling our attention. But it was not that way in the first draft. Originally, there were several false starts: a sentence and parts of two others that Hemingway lined and crossed out. Then came a fairly long compound sentence setting the scene with the barman and the couple (Item 679), removed in the story's second version (Item 680). Ultimately, Hemingway saw the power of starting with dialogue, withholding our understanding of what the quarrel is about.

After a few more lines of argument comes a paragraph of exposition. It is early, no one but the couple and the barman are in the café, and it is the end of summer, symbolically important because the couple's relationship is at an end. Because they are so tanned, they seem “out of place” in the city, as if their lives have been more healthy and carefree than those of people living in Paris, although such an assumption will soon be overturned. Then comes a long sentence devoted to the woman—her tweed suit, her “smooth golden brown” skin, her short blonde hair that grows “beautifully away from her forehead.” When, after that physical description and that telling adverb beautifully, Hemingway writes, “The man looked at her,” we recognize his glance as one of sexual appraisal. So we are not surprised when we hear him blurt out, “I'll kill her,” although initially we may think that we have misread. As the story continues, however, it becomes clear that the pronoun “her” is in fact accurate and that the couple is discussing a lesbian affair.

In the original manuscript, Hemingway gave a fuller description of the woman, detailing aspects of her hands, face, throat, mouth, and cheek bones and noting the slimness of her body (Item 679). Another sentence and part of a second were devoted to depicting the man: he too is well tanned and attractive. In the second version, however, the description of the man is cut entirely, and passages depicting various parts of the woman's body are placed at different spots in the text. Both choices strength the story. The material about Phil, who is not given a name until the second version (Item 680), would have interrupted the steady movement that leads to his exclamation. Placing details of the woman's description at diverse points in the story serves to heighten her sexual attractiveness and to underline Phil's consequent pain.

One of these points occurs immediately after his outburst. After the woman replies, “Please don't,” Hemingway writes: “She had very fine hands and the man looked at them. They were slim and brown and very beautiful.” Although this description is not as obviously loaded as the first, it still emphasizes the woman's beauty. The repetition of the man's looking at parts of her body sets up a pattern continued throughout the story, always to suggest the woman's sexual appeal. “Please don't” means “Please don't react so jealously.” But that request seems to have no effect on Phil, who “swear[s] to God” that he will, in fact, kill her lover. As the argument continues, Phil, somewhat patronizingly, wants to know if she could not have landed herself in “some other jam,” suggesting that the woman is not quite in control, that she is always in some sort of trouble. But the woman remains calm, apparently very much in control, asking him what he intends to do about the situation. Though he sputters on for a bit, he admits that he is not sure. At this admission, the woman, recognizing his pain, puts out her hand to comfort him and says, “Poor old Phil.”5 Though he looks at her hands, he refuses to take them and verbally rejects her sympathy, not yet ready to accept the changed relationship.

Now Hemingway begins another pattern when the woman asks, “It doesn't do any good to say I'm sorry?” (CSS [The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway] 303). She will repeat the phrase “I'm sorry” several times in the next few lines, expressing her sadness at causing Phil so much anguish and making us aware of just how guilty she feels. But now she asks, “Nor to tell you how it is?”. Phil replies that he would rather not listen to an explanation, but his refusal and obvious suffering brings forth a declaration of love from her. When he responds, “Yes, this proves it,” she says she is “sorry if [he] does not understand.” But he does, and that is the problem, as she recognizes when she acknowledges that his understanding “makes it worse, of course.” “Sure,” he replies sarcastically as he looks at her:6 “I'll understand all the time. All day and all night. Especially all night. I'll understand. You don't have to worry about that.” Again the woman apologizes, recognizing his obvious pain. When Phil suggests that, if she were leaving him for a man, it might be more understandable, the woman interrupts him, telling him that she would never have betrayed him in that way. “Don't you trust me?” she asks. Phil sees the bitter humor in that question and comments on it. Once more the woman apologizes, continuing the pattern that emphasizes how badly she feels. To show her love for him, she offers to come back to him after her affair is over, but, for the moment at least, Phil is having none of such a suggestion. Then, to create an effective pause in this headlong tumble of events, Hemingway observes that neither of them spoke for a time.

The woman is the first to break the silence, again declaring that she really does love Phil, to which he replies dismissively: “Let's not talk rot.” At this point in the first version of the story, Hemingway added two sentences describing Phil, emphasizing the darkness of his face and hair,7 noting how healthy the young man looks, and remarking that it is impossible to tell what he is thinking by observing him (Item 679). But in the second version, this description disappears. Probably Hemingway did not want to interrupt the flow of the story, told primarily through dialogue as is “Hills Like White Elephants.”8 Instead, he quickens the pace to let the reader to see just how devastating the woman's choices are for Phil. So far, Hemingway has used description only to highlight the woman's attractiveness to Phil, emphasizing that the story is as much about his sea change as it is hers. Description of Phil here would not be functional.

But Phil's anger and bitterness are clear when, in response to the woman's saying again that she loves him, he asks her to “prove it.” He sounds like an adolescent, and the woman is quick to upbraid him, noting that he has never asked such a thing before and telling him plainly, “That isn't polite”—this last being a key word for her, one she will repeat later. She reminds him that he is acting like a child, violating the codes of adulthood, which specify that people must discuss their problems—however emotionally charged—in a rational manner. When he replies, “You're a funny girl,” she again recognizes the pain her actions are causing and expresses her affection for him, telling him how difficult it is for her to leave him. When he asks if she has to go, her reply is freighted with meaning: “Yes, … I have to and you know it.” With “have to” she introduces the notion of compulsion, and this idea—of something too powerful to be controlled—will frame the next part of their discussion.

But first a longer pause. After noting that Phil does not respond and that the woman again puts out her hand, Hemingway focuses the rest of the paragraph on the barman. Both his face and his jacket are white, details marking his difference from the tanned couple. Hemingway introduces James to remind us of the world beyond the couple, where people have their own concerns. As James looks at Phil and the woman, he thinks to himself that they are a “handsome” couple but that he has seen many “handsome” couples break up and new pairs form “that were never so handsome long.” The repetition of handsome highlights the ordinariness of such splitting up, although, as we are aware, this situation is hardly usual. The barman does not know what the issue is between Phil and the woman, nor does he seem to care. James is not thinking about them but rather about a horse he has presumably bet on; in a short time, he can find out how his horse did. As the couple continues to argue, Hemingway will continue to use long and short pauses to keep the reader aware of the outside world, providing a counterpoint to the intensity of the drama. When the woman asks Phil whether he could not find it in himself just to release her, his response—“What do you think I'm going to do?”—marks another stage in his gradual acceptance of the situation. Hemingway highlights that acceptance with a brief pause: two patrons come into the bar, and the barman takes their order. But the woman wants more from Phil, asking him to forgive her, especially since, as she points out rather enigmatically, he knows “about it” (CSS 304). When he rejects the idea, she clarifies: “You don't think things we've had and done should make any difference in understanding?” This question prompts Phil to reply “bitterly” with a half-remembered quotation from Pope: “‘Vice is a monster of such fearful mien … that to be something or other needs but to be seen.’” As he tries to continue, he finds that he cannot recall the lines, though he gets the basic idea and final word (“embrace”) right. In fact, he has misquoted even part of the first line. The actual passage, from An Essay on Man, describes the process Phil is trying to capture:

Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,

As, to be hated, needs but to be seen;

Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,

We first endure, then pity, then embrace.


Describing how he came to accept the special aspects of their lovemaking, Phil rather caustically calls what they have done vice—ironic because what he is asked to accept now is so different from, yet so akin to, what he and his lover have shared. The woman, however, does not like the word “vice,” remarking that it is “not polite,” the same words used to object to Phil's earlier demand that she “prove” her love. “Perversion,” Phil's response, drips with sarcasm.

At this point, Hemingway introduces another pause, made up of dialogue between the barman and the two patrons who have just ordered their drinks. Like the earlier interruption, it helps us to keep in mind the larger world, but here the pause functions thematically as well. As Warren Bennett has noted, the patrons' focus on the barman's appearance (“You're fatter, James”), their affected language (“Don't neglect to insert the brandy, James”) as well as Phil's later reference to them as catamites in a deleted fragment of the ending (Item 681), among other things, suggest that they are homosexuals (237). (Hemingway is clearly working with stereotypes here.) The juxtaposition of the gay patrons with the arguing couple is particularly apt, highlighting one form of the variety of sexual practice Phil sees as “perversion.” In addition, James's response when reminded to add brandy to the drinks—“Trust me”—recalls the woman's earlier question to Phil (“Don't you trust me?”) and underlines the connection between homosexuality and betrayal.

The word “perversion” hangs in the air as we read this exchange between the barman and the patrons, but for the couple there is no pause. The woman replies to Phil's charge by telling him—twice—that she would rather he did not use such a word. Phil wants to know what she would prefer he call their special lovemaking, and she replies that he does not need to name it. When he claims that “perversion” is the proper name for what they have done, she objects: “No. … We're made up of all sorts of things. You've known that. You've used it well enough.” He argues that she does not have to say such things, and she retorts that doing so makes him understand. At this point, Phil seems to give in, but she knows that he does not agree with her and says so. Still, she tells him, she will come back to him. He rejects that statement, she reaffirms her claim, but he tells her that she will not return, at least to him. When she argues that he will see, he comments rather sarcastically that it is probably true she will come back, and she asserts the truth of what he has just said. “Go on, then,” he tells her, having now mostly accepted what is about to happen and having reached a new stage in the process of resignation.

Because jealousy plays a major part in this story, it may be useful to note what psychologists and sociologists have to say about the subject.10 Recent studies on jealousy echo contemporary discussions about the roles played by nature versus nurture in gender concerns. David Buss and his colleagues, for example, have posited a theory based on human evolutionary history, arguing that a man responds more powerfully to the sexual infidelity of his partner than to her emotional involvement with another man, whereas for a woman the reverse is true: she finds emotional rather than sexual infidelity more troubling (“Not Gone” 373). The evolutionary explanation is that for an ancestral man, sexual betrayal by a mate raised anxieties about the paternity of his children (373), whereas an ancestral woman, knowing that her children were her own, was concerned instead that her mate's emotional involvement with another might mean loss of support and resources for herself and her offspring (373). Over time, the argument goes, these responses became hard-wired in our genetic make-up.

Harris and Christenfeld offer an alternate view. Accepting research that shows men and women differ in what arouses the greatest jealousy, they argue that such responses may be “based on reasonable differences between the sexes in how they interpret evidence of infidelity” (364). Men, they suggest, believe that women have sex only when they are in love; therefore, sexual betrayal is more upsetting than simple emotional involvement because sexual unfaithfulness means that both sex and love are involved. Women, however, believing that men can have sex without being in love, are more troubled by emotional than sexual infidelity (364). Harris and Christenfeld argue, then, that this difference between men and women springs “not from any postulated innate difference in responses to the specific infidelities, but rationally from the hypothesis that men think women have sex only when in love and women think men have sex without love” (364). Hupka and Bank also argue against the sociobiological argument, finding in one of their studies that “men and women respond according to the norms and values that they have internalized from their culture” (45). Interestingly, in two other research projects on this topic, they found that both men and women saw potential emotional infidelity as more upsetting than potential sexual betrayal, although in their second attempt Hupka and Bank did find support for a “weak version” of Buss's hypothesis.

Wiederman and LaMar strike a middle ground. They generally support evolutionary theory but note that “the gender difference in response to homosexual infidelity is equally consistent with explanations based on prevalent gender role schemas” (295). In two of three studies on the jealousy issue, they found that men were less upset when their lovers betrayed them with women rather than with other men, whereas women found same-sex infidelity more upsetting than if their mates were unfaithful with other women (289). The reasons given were that for men same-sex infidelity does not reduce “paternity confidence,” while for women “Discovery of homosexual activity by a relationship partner may signal that the level of disclosure within the primary relationship is not high, or that desired emotional closeness may not be possible due to desires or needs the primary partner cannot meet” (289). In a third study, Wiederman and LaMar discovered that female-to-female sexual infidelity was less troubling for both genders (295).

What are we to make of all this with regard to Hemingway's portrait of the jealous Phil? Certainly, he has a strong reaction; yet, if Wiederman and LaMar are right, “I'll kill her” is closer to what he should say if his lover were betraying him with another man. It may be that if the woman had taken another man as her lover, Phil's reaction would have been even harsher. Still, if Young is correct that Hemingway had Zelda Fitzgerald's “Paris behavior” in mind when he wrote the story, he would have had Scott's real-life response to draw on. From a sociobiological point of view, Phil should react powerfully to his lover's sexual infidelity, because evolution has programmed him to respond that way. Her betrayal triggers innate anxiety, even though paternity issues are not involved. According to Harris and Christenfeld, Phil's response should be strong because, as a man, he would reason that women have sex only when they are in love. Hence his lover's sexual infidelity would be a sign of her emotional involvement with another, despite her obvious concern for his pain.11 Hemingway, as adept a reader of human emotion and behavior as any psychologist or sociologist, captured perfectly what Phil was feeling and documented what social scientists would only later try to explain.

When Phil tells his partner to “Go on, then,” we recognize how far he has come in his gradual accommodation to his new circumstances. At first, however, she finds it difficult to believe what he has just told her, although her voice betrays her excitement at the news. When she questions him, he reaffirms his decision: “Go on,” he replies. At this point, Hemingway begins a focus on Phil's voice signals what releasing his lover has done to him. Hemingway writes: “[H]is voice sounded strange to him.” The sea change of the title seems to have occurred. But the next sentence is devoted to Phil's intense look at the woman—“at the way her mouth went and the curve of her cheek bones, at her eyes and at the way her hair grew on her forehead and at the edge of her ear and at her neck”—another glance of sexual appraisal as Phil lingers over just what he is giving up. “And when you come back,” he continues, “tell me all about it.” Again Hemingway focuses on Phil's voice, indicating how “strange” it sounds to his protagonist, so strange that Phil does not recognize it as his own.

In his recent book, Hemingway's Fetishism, Carl Eby points out that fetishism often appears in Hemingway's works as “a swelling of the male protagonist's throat and a thickening of his voice” (41). He goes on to suggest that in this story the fact that Phil's voice sounds strange to him, which denotes “a not-so-secret desire to experience the relationship by proxy” (41). Robert Fleming, who argues that Phil is a writer, sees his change of voice as an indication of the bargain he has made with himself: he “intends, by the end of the story, to invade the sacred privacy of another human being in order to use her life as the basis of his work” (Face 48). Phil has more to gain, Fleming believes, “by sacrificing the relationship … [he and the woman] share for his art” than by persuading her to remain with him (“Perversion” 218).

At this point, the woman recognizes that her lover has “settled into something” (CSS 305), so she asks him “seriously” if he wants her to leave. Just as “seriously” he tells her to go immediately. Again Hemingway emphasizes Phil's changed voice: “His voice was not the same and his mouth was very dry.” When he tells her to go “Now,” she gets up and leaves rapidly, not looking back, although he keeps his eyes on her. Then Hemingway introduces another element that he will emphasize in the remainder of the story: he tells us that Phil “was not the same-looking man” as he was before he had dismissed his lover. Picking up the check and going over to the bar to pay for the drinks, Phil announces to James that he is “a different man.” When the barman reveals his puzzlement, Phil, described now as “the brown young man,” replies: “Vice … is a very strange thing, James,” recalling for us, if not for the barman, the earlier discussion of Pope's lines. Looking out the door, Phil sees his lover walking away; looking in the mirror, he discovers that he really is “quite a different-looking man”—a perception that Fleming sees as recognition of the change he has undergone and of what his decision has cost him. “Like Hawthorne's Roger Chillingworth,” Fleming believes, “Phil feels that his external appearance should reflect his inner corruption” (“Perversion” 219). Eby also points to the importance of this passage, noting that “Thanks largely to the bisexual split in Hemingway's ego—and to the magic of symbolic barbering—his characters don't so much recognize themselves in the mirror as misrecognize themselves in it” (208).

As the two gay patrons at the bar move down so that Phil will have room to join them, James, ever the agreeable bartender, assents to Phil's comment about vice. Then, when the gays move down still farther so that Phil will be “quite comfortable,” we recognize that Hemingway is subtly associating Phil with them. The irony here is palpable: having just sent his lover off to have a lesbian affair, Phil finds himself at the bar with two homosexuals. In a rejected version of the story's ending, Hemingway made the connection obvious: Phil asks James what the catamites are drinking and what the barman can recommend to someone who has just converted to their lifestyle (Item 681). Although Wycherley argues that Phil “will embrace homosexuality so that he can understand” (67) and Kobler also believes that Phil is “moving toward a homosexual affair” (322), it seems more likely that in both the fragment and the published ending Phil is merely reflecting on the irony of his situation and expressing his own bitterness.

That bitterness comes out anew when, seeing himself in the mirror a second time, Phil claims again that he is a “different man.” Hemingway then writes: “Looking into the mirror he saw that this was quite true.” The nature of that change has been variously discussed. While Wycherley and Kobler suggest a possible shift in sexual preference as one option, Grebstein sees what happens to Phil as a “degradation,” but for a different reason—“By permitting the girl's adventure, he is more culpable than she in living it” (114). Fleming also believes that “the man's vice is a worse evil” than the woman's lesbian affair (“Perversion” 216); Phil's willingness to use her liaison for his writing is dehumanizing (Face 10).

But we should also remember that Phil has just received the stunning news that his lover wants to leave him to have a lesbian affair. That kind of information is devastating because it calls everything, including sexual identity, into question. Phil manifests many of the same reactions that spouses of homosexuals do when they learn of their partner's true sexual orientation. As Buxton makes clear, “The discovery of the partner's samesex orientation often seems to spouses like a confirmation of their own sexual inadequacy. More troubling, the coming out causes many spouses to doubt their manhood or womanhood. Such a devaluation of sexuality and sexual role deals a double blow to sexual identity” (27). Whether the “confusion and anger” (1) that results is enough to change someone's basic sexual nature is doubtful, but the shock to the surprised partner is surely enough to make that person feel like a different person. The changed image of himself that Phil sees in the mirror symbolizes the wrenching experience he has just undergone.12

James's remark concluding this story—his response to Phil's insistence that he is a different person—is perfect: “You look very well, sir. … You must have had a very good summer.” The irony here is especially effective, given what we have just seen Phil undergo, and it is just the kind of ironic conclusion that Hemingway uses so well elsewhere, notably, for example, in The Sun Also Rises (“Isn't it pretty to think so?” [251]). But far more than irony makes this a good story. Hemingway's portrayal of Phil's painful accommodation to a new reality, his revisions to the story as he moved from draft to draft to finished product, his use of repetition to develop character and of pauses to provide counterpoint, and his psychologically insightful rendition of jealousy remind us again of just why his short fiction is so good. “The Sea Change”—an early exploration of sexual diversity—is the kind of small masterpiece on which large reputations are built.


  1. A different version of this piece was ultimately published in the Paris Review 23 (1981): 85-102. Bennett gives a capacious account of the possible sources of the story (227-228); Williams adds Joyce's “The Dead” to the list (99); and Young suggests Zelda Fitzgerald's “Paris behavior—‘making Scott jealous with other women’”—as the model or impetus for the work (286n). Morley Callaghan's short story, “Now That April's Here” and his novella, No Man's Meat, are also possible sources (see Callaghan 131-136, Ford 154-157, and Smith 224-226).

  2. Critics might have heeded Carlos Baker when, in commenting on the purported Bar Basque source for the story, he reminded us that Hemingway “was notoriously apt to conceal the actual origins of some of his stories with invented fibs” (Life 227).

  3. Since Warren Bennett's “‘That's Not Very Polite’: Sexual Identity in Hemingway's ‘The Sea Change’” in Beegel's 1989 collection, there has been only one article, by Speer and Houston, devoted to the story. Before 1989, articles focusing exclusively on the work are by Atherton, Hily-Mane, Hough, Kobler, Smith, and Wycherley. Brief discussion of the piece occurs in Baker, Life 227 and Artist 139, 418; Bakker 140, 143-44, 153; Benson, Approaches 443 and Stories 362; Brenner, Concealments 12, 20, 53 and “From ‘Sepi Jingan’” 161; Brian 189, 190; Bruccoli 188, 191, 202; Comley and Scholes “Hemingway's Gay Blades” 128 and Genders 87-88, 90, 91, 97, 129; DeFalco 155, 176-79; Donaldson 181; Eby 5, 9, 41, 42, 158, 196, 204, 209; Fleming, Face vii, 10, 11, 25, 46, 48-53, 61, 67, 73, 80, 91, 101, 114, 121, 139, 145, 146, 151, 152, 163, 170; Flora, Ernest Hemingway 18, 66, 123 n81, 131 and Hemingway's Nick Adams 57n, 210, 215, 217, 261; Gaggin 197; Grebstein 99, 110-111, 113-114; Griffin 166; Hily-Mane, “Langage” 279-292, seriatum; Kert 251; Lynn 408; Marut 88; Mellow 399-400; Meyers 78, 200, 346; Oliver 121, 177, 263, 295-96; Peckham 69; Peterson 34, 81-83, 89-90; Rao 44, 73-74, 91, 122; Reynolds 33, 87; Williams 99; Young 178, 178n, 183n, 286n.

  4. Bennett (239-240), however, sees Eliot's “Dans le Restaurant” and The Waste Land as more fitting sources for the title: “The symbolic sense in which Hemingway appears to use the idea of sea change seems to be derived, not so much from Shakespeare as from T. S. Eliot” (239).

  5. This is the first use of the man's name. Compare Items 679 and 680.

  6. Bennett argues that a deleted sentence, referring to the way Phil looks at his lover, provides partial evidence that the kind of sexual activity that the couple engaged in was cunnilingus (232-233).

  7. Comley and Scholes note the importance of the dark face and hair in their reading of the story and in the larger “Hemingway Text” (87-88).

  8. “The Sea Change” is often compared unfavorably with “Hills Like White Elephants.” See, for example, Baker, Life 227; Bakker 144; Grebstein 114; and Lynn 408.

  9. As with the lines from The Tempest, it was Philip Young who first identified the quotation (179n).

  10. For a discussion of jealousy in the literature of social science, see principally Buss et al., DeSteno and Salovey, Harris and Christenfeld, Hupka and Bank, and Wiederman and LaMar. Also relevant are the works of Buxton, Coleman, Falco, Gochros, Myers, Paul and Galloway, Smiley, and Steir.

  11. Coleman points to a study by Kirkpatrick (1988) documenting that “many lesbians who have been previously married often continued to have strong feelings of attachment for a former spouse” (123). This may legitimatize the woman's response to Phil's distress.

  12. I am indebted to Robert Fleming for the idea that “the face in the mirror” can be an “objectification” of something else. For Fleming that is “the artist's ethical dilemma” (Face 11).

I am grateful to the Naval Academy Research Council for its support of the research for and the writing of this article.

Works Cited

Atherton, Robin Elaine. “‘The Sea Change’: The Pull of Moral Tides.” Linguistics in Literature 4 (1979): 71-75.

Baker, Carlos. Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story. New York: Scribner's, 1969.

———. Hemingway: The Writer as Artist. 4th edn. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1972.

Bakker, J. Ernest Hemingway: The Artist as Man of Action. Assen, The Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 1972.

Bennett, Warren. “‘That's Not Very Polite’: Sexual Identity in Hemingway's ‘The Sea Change.’” Hemingway's Neglected Short Fiction: New Perspectives. Ed. Susan F. Beegel. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1989. 225-45.

Benson, Jackson J. Ed. New Critical Approaches to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. Durham: Duke UP, 1990.

———. Ed. The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. Durham: Duke UP, 1975.

Brenner, Gerry. Concealments in Hemingway's Works. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1983.

———. “From ‘Sepi Jingan’ to ‘The Mother of a Queen’: Hemingway's Three Epistemologic Formulas for Short Fiction.” In Benson. New Critical Approaches. 156-171.

Brian, Denis. The True Gen: An Intimate Portrait of Ernest Hemingway by Those Who Knew Him. New York: Grove, 1988.

Bruccoli, Matthew J. Ed. The Only Thing That Counts: The Ernest Hemingway/Maxwell Perkins Correspondence, 1925-1947. New York: Scribner's, 1996.

Buss, David M. et al. “Sex Differences in Jealousy: Evolution, Physiology, and Psychology.” Psychological Science 3.4 (1992): 251-255.

Buss, David M. et al. “Sex Differences in Jealousy: Not Gone, Not Forgotten, and Not Explained by Alternate Hypotheses.” Psychological Science 7.6 (1996): 373-375.

Buxton, Amity Pierce. The Other Side of the Closet: The Coming-Out Crisis for Straight Spouses and Families. Revised edn. New York: Wiley, 1994.

Callaghan, Morley. That Summer in Paris. New York: Coward-McCann, 1963.

Coleman, Eli. “The Married Lesbian.” Marriage and Family Review 14.3-4 (1989): 119-135.

Comley, Nancy R. and Robert Scholes. “Hemingway's Gay Blades.” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 5.2 (1993): 116-139.

———. Hemingway's Genders: Rereading the Hemingway Text. New Haven: Yale UP, 1994.

DeFalco, Joseph. The Hero in Hemingway's Short Stories. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1963.

DeSteno, David A. and Peter Salovey. “Evolutionary Origins of Sex Differences in Jealousy?: Questioning the ‘Fitness’ of the Model.” Psychological Science 7.6 (1996): 367-372.

Donaldson, Scott. By Force of Will: The Life and Art of Ernest Hemingway. New York: Viking, 1977.

Eby, Carl P. Hemingway's Fetishism: Psychoanalysis and the Mirror of Manhood. Albany: SUNY P, 1999.

Falco, Kristine L. Psychotherapy with Lesbian Clients: Theory into Practice. New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1991.

Fleming, Robert. The Face in the Mirror: Hemingway's Writers. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1994.

———. “Perversion and the Writer in ‘The Sea Change.’” Studies in American Fiction 14 (1986): 215-220.

Flora, Joseph M. Ernest Hemingway: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989.

———. Hemingway's Nick Adams. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1982.

Ford, Hugh. Published in Paris. New York: Macmillan, 1975.

Gaggin, John. Hemingway and Nineteenth-Century Aestheticism. Ann Arbor: UMI Research P, 1988.

Gochros, Jean S. “Wives' Reactions to Learning That Their Husbands Are Bisexual.” Journal of Homosexuality 11.1-2 (1985): 101-113.

Grebstein, Sheldon Norman. Hemingway's Craft. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1973.

Griffin, Peter. Less Than a Treason: Hemingway in Paris. New York: Oxford UP, 1990.

Harris, Christine R. and Nicholas Christenfeld. “Gender, Jealousy, and Reason.” Psychological Science 7.6 (1996): 364-366.

Hemingway, Ernest. “The Art of the Short Story.” In Flora. Ernest Hemingway. 129-142.

———. Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters, 1917-1961. Ed, Carlos Baker. New York: Scribner's, 1981.

———. Manuscripts of “The Sea Change.” Folders 679-681. Ernest Hemingway Collection. John F. Kennedy Library. Boston, MA.

———. “The Sea Change.” Tear sheets from This Quarter (Dec. 1931). Folder 222. Ernest Hemingway Collection. John F. Kennedy Library, Boston, MA.

———. “The Sea Change.” The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. New York: Scribner's, 1987. 302-305.

———. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1954.

Hily-Mane, Genéviève. “Autour des Manuscrits de ‘The Sea Change.’” Études Anglaises 30.2 (1977): 207-209.

———. “Langage et Communication: Un Aspect Inedit de la Pensée de Hemingway.” Études Anglaises 22.3 (1969): 279-292.

Hough, Julie. “Hemingway's ‘The Sea Change’: An Embracing of Reality.” Odyssey 2.2 (1978): 16-18.

Hupka, Ralph B. and Adam L. Bank. “Sex Differences in Jealousy: Evolution or Social Construction.” Cross-Cultural Research 30.1 (1996): 24-59.

Kert, Bernice. The Hemingway Women. New York: W.W. Norton, 1983.

Kobler, J. F. “Hemingway's ‘The Sea Change’: A Sympathetic View of Homosexuality.” Arizona Quarterly 26 (1970): 318-23.

Lynn, Kenneth S. Hemingway. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.

Marut, David. “Out of the Wastebasket: Hemingway's High School Stories.” Ernest Hemingway: The Oak Park Legacy. Ed. James Nagel. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1996. 81-95.

Mellow, James R. Hemingway: A Life Without Consequences. New York: Houghton, 1992.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Hemingway: A Biography. New York: Harper and Row, 1985.

Myers, Michael F. “Angry, Abandoned Husbands: Assessment and Treatment.” Marriage and Family Review 9.3-4 (1986): 31-42.

Oliver, Charles M. Ernest Hemingway A to Z. New York: Facts On File, 1999.

Paul, Luci and Jianna Galloway. “Sexual Jealousy: Gender Differences in Response to Partner and Rival.” Aggressive Behavior 20 (1994): 203-211.

Peckham, Morse. “Ernest Hemingway: Sexual Themes in His Writing.” Sexual Behavior 1:4 (1971): 62-70.

Peterson, Richard K. Hemingway: Direct and Oblique. Paris: Mouton, 1974.

Pope, Alexander. “An Essay on Man.” The Poems of Alexander Pope. Ed. John Butt. New Haven: Yale UP, 1963. 501-547.

Rao, P. G. Rama. Ernest Hemingway: A Study in Narrative Technique. New Delhi: S. Chand, 1980.

Reynolds, Michael. Hemingway: The 1930s. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. The Norton Shakespeare. Eds. Stephen Greenblatt et al. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997. 3047-3107.

Smiley, Elizabeth B. “Counseling Bisexual Clients.” Journal of Mental Health Counseling 19.4 (1997): 373-382.

Smith, Paul. A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989.

Speer, James R. and Neal B. Houston. “Sex and Love in Hemingway's ‘The Sea Change.’” RE:AL: The Journal of Liberal Arts 21:1 (1996): 132-137.

Steir, Charles. “A Bibliography on Bisexuality.” Journal of Homosexuality 11.1-2 (1985): 235-248.

Wiederman, Michael W. and Lisa LaMar. “Not with Him You Don't: Gender and Emotional Reactions to Sexual Infidelity During Courtship.” The Journal of Sex Research 35.3 (1998): 288-297.

Williams, Wirt. The Tragic Art of Ernest Hemingway. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1981.

Wycherley, H. Alan. “Hemingway's ‘The Sea Change.’” American Notes and Queries 7.5 (1968-1969): 67-68.

Young, Philip. Ernest Hemingway: A Reconsideration. University Park: Penn State UP, 1966.

Milton Cohen (essay date fall 2002)

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SOURCE: Cohen, Milton. “‘There Was a Woman Having a Kid’—From Her Point of View: An Unpublished Draft of In Our Time's Chapter 11.” The Hemingway Review 22, no. 1 (fall 2002): 105–08.

[In the following essay, Cohen contrasts the treatment of a central female character in an unpublished draft entitled “Exodus” against its published version within In Our Time.]

Readers of Hemingway's early work know that, contrary to the claims of Hemingphobes, it often portrays women sympathetically in “unhappily-ever-after” love affairs. “Hills Like White Elephants,” “Out of Season” and “Cat in the Rain” feature oafish, manipulative, or indifferent men oblivious to their frustrated, sometimes desperate mates. In “Up in Michigan,” Hemingway even violates a taboo of Fiction Writing 101 by writing partly from the woman's point of view: Far more vividly than it depicts Jim Gilmore's lust, the story evokes Liz Coates's confused arousal, shock at Jim's brutality and bleak despair afterwards1

The interchapters of In Our Time, on the other hand, pointedly ignore women. The worlds illumined in their sudden flashes—war, crime, politics, and bullfighting—are distinctly male and violent, coolly rendered, many of them, by anonymous narrators in objective points of view. Women appear in only two chapters: a vestigial queen dips a rose bush in “L'Envoi” (the concluding chapter) and “There was a woman having a kid” during the torturous evacuation of Greek civilians from Eastern Thrace (Chapter II)2 Neither reference presents the adult woman's point of view; in fact, the woman “having a kid” is the object of a little girl's horror, as she cries and holds a blanket over the birthing mother, “[s]cared sick looking at it.” Hemingway so objectifies this scene that he even omits the relationship between girl and woman. In his journalistic version, “A Silent Ghastly Procession,” the girl was “her little daughter.” (By-Line 51-52)

This objectification typifies the emotionally detached narrations of suffering and violence in several interchapters (e.g., the execution of the cabinet ministers in Chapter V), but Hemingway did not originally plan to narrate Chapter II this way. One unpublished draft in the John F. Kennedy Library, entitled “Exodus,” presents the evacuation from the perspective of the woman in childbirth, whom Hemingway names “Helene.”3

Helene rides in the back of a cart, nauseous and hurting, and we ride with her, experiencing the wagon's lurching, jarringly slow progress. So rigorously does Hemingway restrict narrative perspective here, that the first paragraph mostly describes what Helene sees, looking straight ahead: the bobbing, manure-matted rump of the camel pulling the cart.4 Only the last sentence of this paragraph refers to the cart's driver, hunched on the front seat in the dripping rain.

The sight and, presumably, smell of the camel's bobbing backside, and the jolting ride intensify Helene's nausea. But she is also in pain—labor pains that have resumed and are sharp enough to make her grip the side of the cart. She is dizzy as well: the roadside trees whirl. With the same unblinking stare at the sordid that runs through the interchapters, the narrative does not merely tell us that Helene vomits over the side of the cart, but describes the act in sickening detail, the vomit belching and dribbling from her, chunks of it clinging to the wheel hubs. Momentarily relieved, she settles back against the grain sacks and looks at a chicken-bedecked old man walking alongside the cart. The draft, here handwritten, ends as another labor pain comes on and Helene braces herself to bear it: eyes shut and feet pressed against a table in the cart.

The Helene draft contrasts sharply with the view of the Greek retreat that Hemingway published as Chapter II. Where that version encompasses the entire thirty miles of the evacuation in an objective voice, this one is limited to Helene's view and sensations. Detachment governs the published version; empathy for Helene's agony imbues this one. Still, the Helene version would not have been out of place among vignettes that portray, in the same tightly focused perspective, a wounded soldier (Chapter VI) and a gored bullfighter (Chapter XIV). All three present, in third person, the sensations and perceptions of a single point of view character.

The theme of difficult childbirth is present in Hemingway's earliest work. Imagined well before his first wife Hadley's pregnancy,5 the theme of difficult labor in “Exodus” develops Liz's physical and emotional pain from sex in “Up from Michigan” and anticipates the primitive and excruciating childbirth in “Indian Camp.” The son of a doctor who had specialized in obstetrics, Hemingway intuitively recognized the fictional potential of this life-and-death subject.6 Yet, Helene's painful birthing may also have had more immediate autobiographical links. In the long passage (subsequently titled “On Writing”) that Hemingway deleted from “Big Two-Hearted River,” Nick recalls that “He'd seen a woman have a baby on the road to Karagatch and tried to help her” (The Nick Adams Stories 238). It may not have been the woman's daughter, therefore, who was “Scared sick looking at it,” but the narrator recalling his own fear.

In sum, the subjective and limited perspective of the Helene version would not in itself have consigned this draft to Hemingway's unpublished papers. Other interchapters are equally “personal,” and limited in perspective. Nor would its physically repulsive content have excluded it: vomit, excrement, and, of course, blood appear in several interchapters of In Our Time. Though its female protagonist would make it atypical, the Helene version would have provided a significant counterbalance to the male perspectives of other chapters. What seems more off-key in this version, though, is its insistently allegorical allusions: the biblical title comparing the Greeks leaving Eastern Thrace to the Jews exiting Egypt; the woman's name representing the Hellenic people (as well as being a personal favorite of the author's); and perhaps even Helene's resemblance to Mary, journeying to avoid the Romans. These not-too-subtle allusions to religious stories, epic journeys, and momentous births jar against the grimy contemporaneity of war, crime, politics, and even bullfighting in “In Our Time”


  1. Hemingway planned to include this sympathetic portrayal of a working woman in the 1925 In Our Time published by Liveright, which would have given it far wider exposure than its first appearance in the small edition, Three Stories & Ten Poems (1923). Liveright, however, was disturbed by the story's graphic sexuality and asked that it be removed. He may also have been troubled by its frank depiction of a woman's sexual desire.

  2. Based on the first edition (New York: Liveright, 1925). Earlier and later versions of In Our Time contain more female characters. In the earlier in our time (Paris: Three Mountains Press, 1924), chapter 10 (which became “A Very Short Story” in the 1925 In Our Time) prominently and caustically features “Ag” as the unfaithful nurse in an anti-romantic tale. And in “On the Quai at Smyrna,” which introduces the Scribner's editions beginning in 1930, pregnancy tellingly cleaves to death, as the Greek women, waiting to be evacuated from the oncoming Turks, will not give up their dead babies.

  3. Folder 701, Hemingway Collection, John F. Kennedy Library, ts and ms.

  4. Cf., the wounded Nick's similarly restricted view, looking “straight ahead,” in Chapter VI.

  5. Hemingway probably wrote this version while he was covering the evacuation in November 1922. The reverse side of the draft contains notes on the political conference that led to the evacuation and on some of its participants (Kemal Pasha, Lord Harrington), as well as snappy openers Hemingway planned to use in his dispatches.

  6. “I was trying to learn to write, commencing with the simplest things, and one of the simplest things of all and the most fundamental is violent death….” (DIA [Death in the Afternoon] 2–3)

Works Cited

Hemingway, Ernest. By-Line: Ernest Hemingway: Selected Articles and Dispatches of Four Decades. Ed. William White. New York: Scribner's, 1967.

———. Death in the Afternoon. New York: Scribner's, 1932.

———. “Exodus.: Unpublished draft. Folder 702. The Hemingway Collection. John F. Kennedy Library. Boston, MA.

———. in our time. Paris: Three Mountains Press, 1924.

———. In Our Time. New York: Liveright 1925; Scribner's 1930.


Hemingway, Ernest (Literary Masters)


Hemingway, Ernest (Miller)