The Killers Essays and Criticism
by Ernest Hemingway

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The Code in Hemingway’s “The Killers”

The purpose of this paper is to discuss Hemingway’s Code, as it is illustrated in his short story ‘‘The Killers.’’ The notion of the code in Hemingway’s literature, and in his life as well, has been a preoccupation with critics, primarily because it occupies such an important position in any analysis. The code applies to various characters in Hemingway’s novels and stories, and it is practiced by all of his heroes. One critic has defined the function of the code as consisting of ‘‘two lessons: the ability to make realistic promises to one-self, and the ability to forgive oneself one’s past.’’(1) In fact, the code seems to have a far more philosophical origin in Hemingway’s idea that man’s freedom is predicated upon his ability to control himself, to act stoically, to accept life with a measure of courage and dignity which gives it significance even when it is tragic. The code for Hemingway and for his characters transcends and supplants the moral rules of religion and natural law. The value system he suggests is certainly subjective, but, he argues, not arbitrary: ‘‘when they have learned to appreciate values through experience, what they seek is honesty and true, not tricked, emotion. . . .’’(2) According to Hemingway, then, those who have found their own code, and are living it, will know that their actions are good, and that they feel like complete humans.

‘‘The Killers’’ has several characters who seem to live more or less by the code. The Killers themselves, though stoical and self-possessed, would seem to come under the heading of those who are ‘‘too flabby in their self-indulgence, too susceptible to a variety of illusions concerning themselves and life to be allowed to take over the responsibilities of creating their own lives.’’(3) Yet they have a code nevertheless, one which Nick finds, to his horror, even the hunted man Ole Andreson accepts. Andreson seems to be much like the killers, except that his role in the drama played out by the rules of the code is to be passive. In the end it is young Nick Adams, Hemingway’s archetypical hero, who expresses the code in its most noble form. He is unable to accept the terrible inevitability of Andreson’s death; he feels that for his own self-preservation that he must leave all of these people who are able to tolerate such senseless violence. Even George, at the end, shows that he accepts the killers’ code, when he says ‘‘Double-crossed somebody. That’s what they kill them for.’’(4) Nick’s reaction is perhaps overly emotional, yet it is genuine: ‘‘I’m going to get out of this town.’’(5) Nick has encountered senseless violence, perhaps for the first time, and in his reaction to it begins to find his own code.

There is little doubt that the story is Nick’s, and that Hemingway’s primary point here is that Nick’s response to his situation allows him to grow. The primary technique used to expose Nick’s feelings is contrast between himself, who appears in this story to be a very young man, and the others, all older. Each character who appears has some attitude towards the situation at hand. Even Sam, the cook, is an example of the way many people would act in these circumstances: ‘‘I don’t even listen to it,’’(6) he says as Nick returns to report on his meeting with Andreson. Andreson, as we have noted, is passive in his acceptance of the code, and when Nick offers to help him he declines, saying, ‘‘No I got in wrong.’’(7) The point here, in comparison with Nick, is that ‘‘he rejects all the responses which the boy would have considered normal: he will not call the police; he will not regard the thing as a mere bluff; he will not leave town.’’(8) That leaves only George, whom we should remember was the one to suggest that Nick go to warn Andreson. Yet it is George’s words which end the story, and we can clearly see that he too has accepted the code in his own way. He...

(The entire section is 12,670 words.)