Essays and Criticism

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 840

In Ernest Hemingway's short stories "Indian Camp" and "Soldier's Home," young women are treated as objects whose purpose is either reproduction or pleasure. They do not and cannot participate to a significant degree in the masculine sphere of experience, and when they have served their purpose, they are set aside. They do not have a voice in the narrative, and they represent complications in life that must be overcome in one way or another. While this portrayal of young women is hardly unique to Hemingway, the author uses it as a device to probe the male psyche more deeply.

"Indian Camp" opens with an all-male convoy of rowboats heading across the lake, with young Nick, his doctor father and his Uncle George off to see an "Indian lady [who is] very sick." As they disembark on the other side and follow a young Indian bearing a lantern to the camp where childbirth is taking place, the men's guiding interest is not in the mother-to-be as a person, but in her physiology as a case study. When they find her screaming in bed, Nick's father dehumanizes her by saying: "[Her] screams are not important. I don't hear them because they are not important."

Bitten by the young woman during labor pangs, Uncle George reacts instinctively: "Damn squaw bitch!" She is not seen as a co-participant with the men overseeing the birth. Instead, she is merely an object they are operating on, a "bitch" soon to whelp her pup, so to speak. The "studied control of the father and doctor as rational man" (DeFalco 30), a carefully constructed pose, stands in contrast to the young woman's inarticulate helplessness in childbirth. The likening of the doctor's joviality after the Cesarean operation to "football players...in the dressing room" emphasizes the gap between the men's experience of life and what the woman has just gone through.

When the doctor's exalted pose breaks down after the discovery of the Indian husband's bloody suicide, he seeks refuge in dismissive rationalizations. Neither the woman nor her dead husband matter at this stage; the doctor simply wants to soothe Nick's feelings. He does not want Nick to comprehend that his father is capable of "miscalculating greatly" (Flora 28), and thus he continues to treat the young woman who gave birth as an object, diminishing his son's concerns with phrases like "very exceptional" and "hardly ever." In the end, the combination of the sunrise and the fish in the lake help Nick to take his mind off the gory scene he has witnessed. His young, male feeling of certainty "that he would never die" in all its glorious naivete is what prevails.

In "Soldier's Home," Harold Krebs finds himself peculiarly removed from the young women he sees around him in his hometown, even though he is apparently at an age when most men take a keen interest in female companionship. Shattered and drained by his experiences as a fighting man in the First World War, he lacks the motivation to pursue girls. All he can do admire their physical appearance, which Hemingway catalogues in detail: "hair cut short," "round Dutch collars," "silk stockings" and so on.

There is no indication that Krebs ever exchanges words with these young women. In fact, with his aversion to "intrigue," "politics," "lies" and "courting," the odds are that he never does. One thing he enjoyed during the war in Europe was the language barrier between himself and French and German girls: "There was not all this talking." He has cultivated a view of women as an optional source of pleasure: "You did not need a girl unless you thought about them."

When Krebs has breakfast, he converses with his younger sister, but it is clear that in his eyes she is a kind of honorary boy. She fetches him the "sporting page" and their talk revolves around indoor baseball. It is lighthearted banter, unlike the interrogations Krebs would dread receiving from "the pretty girls in fashionable clothes who are products of their time and place" (Westbrook 99). Krebs has had enough of young women, at least for now, and he simply chooses to avoid them. Even under intense emotional pressure from his mother, he does not want to "become a Charley Simmons and marry the girl next door" (99). Krebs's final decision to leave behind his hometown with its plethora of beauties underscores his view of young women as inconsequential objects of pleasure.

Both "Indian Camp" and "Soldier's Home" place young women in a secondary, objectified role. Hemingway takes this approach to focus attention on the psyches of his male protagonists, self-obsessed in their youth or war-weariness. It may not endear the author to feminist readers, but it does make for some powerful short fiction.

Bibliography

DeFalco, Joseph. The Hero in Hemingway's Short Stories. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1963.

Flora, Joseph M. Ernest Hemingway: A Study of the Short Fiction. G.K. Hall & Co., 1989.

Westbrook, Max. "Grace under Pressure: Hemingway and the Summer of 1920." Ernest Hemingway: The Writer in Context. Ed. James Nagel. University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.

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Critical Discussion