The Killers Critical Overview
by Ernest Hemingway

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Critical Overview

(Short Stories for Students)

Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner in the 1946 film adaptation of The Killers Published by Gale Cengage

‘‘The Killers’’ is one of Hemingway’s most anthologized and analyzed stories. The single most influential critical essay on the story was written by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren for their short story anthology, Understanding Fiction. Brooks and Warren argue that the story belongs to Nick, not Ole or the gangsters, and that through his experiences with the killers, Nick discovers evil. R. S. Crane argues against some of the claims made by Brooks and Warren in his book The Idea of the Humanities and Other Ideas Critical and Historical, writing that Nick is only an ‘‘impersonal messenger . . . a utility character in Hemingway’s rendering of an action with which Nick has nothing essential to do.’’ In his essay ‘‘Some Questions About Hemingway’s ‘The Killers’’’ in Studies in Short Fiction, Edward Stone notes many of the peculiarities of the story and contends that it is Al and Max’s ‘‘surrealistic appearance’’ that shocks Nick, not the pervasiveness of crime or Ole’s response to his circumstances. For Stone, the story belongs to Ole, not Nick. Charles Owen, in ‘‘Time and the Contagion of Flight in ‘The Killers,’’’ says that the story belongs neither to Nick or Ole but to readers, who, like Nick, retain ‘‘faith in expedients, a faith that makes him representative of a whole tradition in American culture.’’

More recent criticism on the story has focused on myth and literary traditions. For example, John Reardon, in his essay ‘‘Hemingway’s Esthetic and Ethical Sportsmen,’’ sees the story as one in which characters such as Nick must ‘‘measure his status as a man’’ against the ‘‘destructive forces’’ represented by the killers. In ‘‘‘The Killers’ as Experience,’’ W. J. Stuckey argues that the story is a mixture of romance and realism and that with the ‘‘terrifyingly irrational’’ appearance of the killers, Hemingway introduces into the ‘‘tradition of realism that element of romance, danger, that the conventions of realism have banished or forced into exile.’’