Themes and Characters

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One of Hemingway's favorite characters, Nick Adams, is featured in this story. Nick is an innocent bystander who is a victim of the two mobsters. He complies with the request of the hit men to go behind the counter and offers no resistance when he is tied up with the cook while the mobsters await their target, Ole Andreson. He also complies when told to go warn Ole Andreson about the two killers. As a result of his talk with Ole, Nick cannot stand the feeling of impending doom. To put the entire episode out of his mind, he decides to leave town.

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George runs Henry's lunch-room. He is a man who takes events in stride, and the reader feels he has seen just about everything, but George's method of dealing with events is to not think of them. George is cool under pressure, does what the hit men want, and then sends Nick to warn Ole Andreson of the plot to kill him.

Al and Max are two hit men who have no qualms about their job. They are stereotypically developed as mobsters by their looks and their manners of speaking.

The black cook, Sam, is seen as a nonperson by the hit men and merely as a guy doing his job by George and Nick. Hemingway makes the distinction by how the characters treat and talk to the cook.

Ole Andreson is a defeated prizefighter. He knows exactly what fate awaits him once he goes out of the boarding house. He just has to find his courage to face it. He knows he must be responsible for his actions, and somewhere in his past he has double-crossed someone. What exactly is his crime against the mob is never mentioned.

Hemingway leaves a lot to the imagination of the reader. Nothing is what it seems. From the clock that is not correct to George running Henry's diner to Mrs. Bell taking care of Mrs. Hirsch's rooming-house, things are skewed. Nick and the reader learn that the world is a tough place, where everyone and every action must be closely examined and where everyone has to live with the consequences of his own actions.


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Nick Adams
Nick Adams is sitting at the lunch counter at Henry’s talking to George when Al and Max walk in. Nick is a teenager, whom Al and Max refer to as ‘‘bright boy.’’ Hemingway readers know Nick from Hemingway’s short story collection In Our Time, which introduces Nick as a vulnerable teenager thrust into a world of violence and meanness. Nick is a typical Hemingway hero who is learning ‘‘the code.’’ Hemingway’s ‘‘code hero’’ is someone who is honorable, courageous, and adventurous and who exhibits grace under pressure. He distinguishes himself from others by his ability to endure and to face death with dignity. Such traits define the code hero’s manhood. In short, Nick is learning the code of how to be a man, according to Hemingway’s idea of what constitutes manhood. In their essay on Hemingway’s story, Cleanth Brooks, Jr. and Robert Penn Warren argue, ‘‘it is the tough man . . . the disciplined man, who actually is aware of pathos or tragedy.’’ Such a man, the two argue, ‘‘has learned that the only way to hold on to ‘honor,’ to individuality, to, even, the human order . . . is to live by his code.’’ Nick is still developing the code. His experience with the killers marks his initiation into a world of brutality and random events. Critics often argue over the real protagonist of ‘‘The Killers.’’ In his book Hemingway’s Nick Adams, Joseph Flora claims, ‘‘Hemingway indicates that Nick is to be the central character of the story by making him the only character in the opening scene to be given a whole name.’’ Flora also observes that this story is the last of Hemingway’s stories in which Nick appears as an adolescent, and it is the only one not set in Michigan.

By the end of the story, Nick is a changed person. His discovery of the evil in human beings shocks him, and he...

(The entire section contains 1536 words.)

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Critical Essays