Themes and Meanings
The primary theme of “My Old Man” is Joe’s youthful disillusionment with the values and behavior of his “old man.” Young Joe must come to grips with the conflict between his love and respect for his father and the disappointment he feels about his father’s connivance with a corrupt racing system. The boy’s ambivalence, which has been of central concern to Ernest Hemingway’s critics, sets up the problematic ending that has received much of their attention.
One of Hemingway’s biographers, Michael Reynolds, identified “My Old Man” as the first story the writer began after leaving Chicago and as the first of many stories that feature a father failing his son. It is of great importance in the development of Hemingway’s career. The story was thought at first to be little more than a slight early piece about a son’s disappointments with his father. Later, however, it began to be seen to contain a highly complex experiment in narration, one that explores the nature of fictional observation and of the narrator’s understanding of his father’s successes as well as failures.
The narrative reveals Joe’s skill at remembering detailed descriptions of places and events and contrasts those recollections, which he seems to comprehend, with those involving his father’s actions, to which he frequently admits a naïve confusion. The key scenes that reflect the narrator’s uncertainty are the Galleria episode when his father is called a “son of a bitch”; the time when the old man learns of the fix at St. Cloud and cashes in on it; and the ending, when the spectators are overheard saying that Butler got what was coming to him. Because of their ambiguity, these scenes add substantially to the story’s complexity and, therefore, to its potential for richer interpretation.