Themes and Meanings
Ernest Hemingway’s style gives the clue to the real meaning of the story. On their first reading, most readers think that the killers and Ole Andreson are the central figures, but the reader never learns what Ole did or what will ultimately happen to him. Instead, the story simply ends with the three bystanders back in the restaurant discussing what has happened. Although the tone of the story is objective throughout—indeed, the story consists almost entirely of dialogue, with little interpretation or judgment by the author—the focus is clearly on the three bystanders, especially Nick Adams.
Of the three, Nick Adams is the only one whose last name is given, and he is the one who goes to warn Ole, so the narrative follows him throughout. In addition, one of the few interpretative comments on the action by the author concerns Nick. When Nick is untied by George, Hemingway mentions that Nick has never had a towel in his mouth before and that his reaction is one of “trying to swagger it off.” At the end of the story, it is only through simple dialogue that the reader learns the reactions of all three. However, Nick’s reaction is most important, as the other two are from the area and are apparently more accustomed to violence. Their reaction is less out of shock than an attempt to avoid involvement. Nick is more impressed by what he has witnessed and decides that he does not want to have anything to do with the kind of town where such things happen. It is an initiation for Nick into the evil that exists in the big city. This is one of many stories by Hemingway that deal with the experiences of Nick Adams. Most of the Nick Adams stories appear in the collection In Our Time (1924, 1925).
That the story is set near Chicago during the Prohibition era, when lawlessness was rampant, further adds to the realization of evil to which Nick comes. The gangsters are described in an almost comic way as stereotypical mobsters; both wear overcoats and derby hats, and gloves that they do not remove when they eat. As they talk with George, they openly discuss their plan to kill Andreson, and they remain in the diner for more than two hours, having George tell the other customers that the cook is not in. They show very little concern about being apprehended. As they leave, with Al only partially concealing the sawed-off shotgun, they further flaunt their disdain for the law. All this to Nick is a rude awakening to the acceptance of violence by those who live in and near the larger cities.
Hemingway, known for his representations of manly men who live by a code of honor, parodies his own image of masculinity by making the hit men, Al and Max, clownish figures. The men look the part of stereotypical gangsters, wearing derby hats and tight overcoats and keeping their gloves on when they eat. They also talk tough, announcing their plans to kill Ole, using slang, answering questions with questions, and mocking the masculinity of George, Sam, and Nick. For example, Max comments about George: ‘‘Bright boy can do anything. . . . He can cook and everything. You’d make some girl a nice wife, bright boy.’’ Al describes Sam and Nick, gagged and bound in the kitchen, as ‘‘a couple of girl friends in the convent.’’ Al and Max are counterpoints to Nick Adams, an innocent, who believes he can do something to change the situation by telling Ole about the men. This story marks Nick’s initiation into the world of men and its attendant violence, chaos, and strategies for survival.
Societies have laws to ensure a safe environment for their citizens, to maintain order, and to instill a sense of justice in the populace. The blatant flouting of laws, as...
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