(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Death, most often violent death, is omnipresent in In Our Time. The major theme centers on the ways in which death is interwoven with life, and the necessity of confrontation with the fact of death. In "Indian Camp," the story which presents Nick's earliest existential collision at a crucial intersection of life and death, young Nick accompanies his doctor-father when he is summoned for an emergency delivery of a baby at the Indian camp. Under difficult and primitive conditions, Nick's father successfully delivers the baby. Simultaneous with the birth, the ostensible father of the baby commits suicide. This action is followed by a compellingly rendered dialogue between father and son, as they leave the Indian camp. Nick asks a telling sequence of questions, among them: "Why did he kill himself. Daddy?" and "Do many men kill themselves, Daddy?" and "Do many women?" His father's answers are vague, evasive perhaps; but it is the questioning that reverberates as the central theme. Nick's final question — "Is dying hard. Daddy?" — receives this reply: "No, I think it's pretty easy, Nick. It all depends." The most remarkable thing about this famous dialogue is the conclusion. Having witnessed a violent death, having discussed death with his father, Nick feels "quite sure that he would never die." Whether this conclusion represents a failed epiphany for young Nick, a mere romantic and uncomprehending reaction to the tragedy he has witnessed, or a young boy's natural sense of immortality, or conditional immortality (as long as he is securely protected by his father) is one of the much debated cruxes of In Our Time.

In any case, death, often juxtaposed with birth (see also, for example, "On the Quai at Smyrna" and the italicized vignette or inter-chapter, "Chapter II," which follows "Indian Camp"), and the manner of dealing with death constitute the principal reiterated theme throughout In Our Time. All sixteen vignettes, directly or indirectly, evoke death or the imminent threat of death. In the vignette entitled "Chapter VI," the brief but telling image presents Nick, wounded in the war, sitting "against the wall of the church" (a symbolic location), pronouncing his famous words to his wounded friend: "You and me we've made a separate peace." The bullfight...

(The entire section is 939 words.)