Download The Killers Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The typical Hemingway style is evident in this story. Almost entirely narrated in an objective style, with very little interpretation by the author or any but the most rudimentary descriptions, Hemingway’s story makes the reader interpret the significance of the action. Those descriptions that are given are sparse and designed only to establish the mood, such as the few details about the gangsters wearing tight overcoats, derby hats, and gloves. The story is developed through dialogue in a series of short dramatic scenes.

In the dialogue, Hemingway uses a spare, terse style, typical of conversation. Much of the dialogue is concerned with trivial things, with the result that the seriousness of the central incident is consistently undercut. For example, the two gangsters order dinners, and George tells them that dinners will not be available until six o’clock. They then haggle over what time it is and haggle more before they decide to order eggs and bacon and eggs and ham. Ultimately, this conflict between the reality of murder and the casual, matter-of-fact attitude toward it that typifies both the killers and the citywise bystanders is central to the story: Although the other characters, even the doomed Andreson, accept this state of affairs, Nick struggles against it.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

1920s
When Hemingway wrote ‘‘The Killers’’ in 1926, the United States was at the height of the Prohibition era, and criminal activity, particularly in Chicago, was rampant, with gangsters such as Al Capone and Dutch Schultz controlling the bootlegging industry and a good part of the police force as well. In 1919, Capone had come to Chicago from New York City, where he had worked for crime boss Frankie Yale. In Chicago, he worked for Yale’s old mentor, John Torrio. Capone took control of Torrio’s saloons, gambling houses, racetracks, and brothels when Torrio was shot by rival gang members and left Chicago. Historians estimate the income from Capone’s interests from illegal activities at $100,000,000 a year between 1925 and 1930. This is the image readers had in mind in 1927 when they read that Ole Andreson ‘‘got mixed up in something in Chicago.’’

However, Hemingway wrote the story in Madrid, Spain. Like many American writers and artists, Hemingway became disillusioned with the values of post-World War I America and relocated to Europe. Writers such as John Dos Passos, Henry Miller, and F. Scott Fitzgerald moved to Paris, as did Hemingway for a time, and led bohemian lives, drinking heavily, having affairs, and experimenting with new subject material and style. Gertrude Stein a controversial writer and a wealthy art collector, held salons at her house at 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris, where many artists and writers met to drink, discuss their work, and receive advice from Stein. It was Stein who coined the term ‘‘a lost generation’’ to refer to Hemingway and his contemporaries, describing their spiritual isolation, cynicism, and amorality. It was at one of Stein’s salons in the early 1920s that she met Hemingway, who presented her with a letter of introduction from American writer Sherwood Anderson. Stein urged Hemingway to quit journalism and become a full-time writer. Other writers associated with the ‘‘lost generation’’ include expatriates such as Malcolm Cowley Ezra Pound and Archibald MacLeish.

As a result of World War I, in which Hemingway served as an ambulance driver, and the catastrophic loss of human life (tens of millions killed and wounded), many people lost faith in God, ideas of nationhood, even reality itself. Theories by intellectuals and scientists such as Sigmund Freud Henri Bergson, Sir James George Frazer, Werner Heisenberg, and Albert Einstein presented the world as a place of uncertainty and chaos in which appearances are not what they seem. In his essay on ‘‘The Killers’’ for The Explicator , Quentin E. Martin argues that these new theories are useful in understanding Hemingway’s story. Citing...

(The entire section is 3,039 words.)