Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 939

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.

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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 inter-chapters, "Chapter IX" through "Chapter XIV," provide a key to understanding, at the deepest level, Hemingway's thematic concern with the inextricableness of life and death. In Death in the Afternoon (1932), speaking of the period when he wrote In Our Time, Hemingway observed: "The only place where you could see life and death, i.e., violent death now that the wars were over, was in the bullring and I wanted very much to go to Spain where I could study it." Hemingway says that he was trying to learn to write, "commencing with the simplest things, and one of the simplest things of all and the most fundamental is violent death." So he studied bullfighting carefully. Clearly, In Our Time is a careful study of death and violence, and through the formalized, ritualized life-death drama of the bullring, Hemingway intended to project some sense, not just of values necessary for survival, but a spiritual sense of what he called "ecstasy ... as profound as any religious ecstasy" a redeeming sense of an "ordered, formal, passionate . . , disregard of death" (see especially Chapter 18 of Death in the Afternoon). It is this sense of having dealt with death, of finally having some answers to the questions young Nick asked his father in "Indian Camp," that is the foundation of the peace that the older, wiser, wounded, and healed Nick feels deeply at the conclusion of In Our Time, by the Big Two-Hearted River — "there, in the good place" — in the "home," the spiritual space and place that he has made, cleared from the two-hearted tangle of light and dark, good and evil, youth and age, life and death.

Another important recurrent theme or set of themes throughout In Our Time treats the complexity of relationships, in families, in marriage and romantic relationships, and in the interactions of friends. "The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife," for example, examines the tensions in the relationship of Nick's father and mother, as felt by Nick as a young boy; in effect, Nick sides with, or chooses, his father. Ten of the twelve titled stories which follow "The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife" deal with complex relationships between couples, parents and children, and friends. "The End of Something" shows Nick abruptly breaking off his teenage romance with Marge, for reasons that he does not understand; two chapters later, "A Very Short Story" shows Luz breaking off her wartime engagement with Nick, for similarly vague reasons. The sequence of stories often referred to as "the marriage group" — "Mr. and Mrs. Elliot," "Cat in the Rain," "Out of Season," and "Cross-Country Snow" — provide variations on the theme of marriage, ranging from the pathetic sterility of the Elliots and their ménage a trios, to the troubled and tense relationships of the couples in "Cat in the Rain" and "Out of Season," to Nick's complicated sense of the end of post-adolescent freedom and his feelings as a soon-to-be father in "Cross-Country Snow." Other stories play additional variations on the father-son and family relationship themes, most notably "Soldier's Home" and "My Old Man." Complex male friendships are the focus in "The Three-Day Blow" and "The Battler." Overall, this thematic strategy involves different approaches to and aspects of the intricacy of relationships which, as the book progresses, gathers great force through implicit connection, through juxtapositions without explanatory linkage, through echoes and reverberations that lead the reader ever more deeply into the mystery of human relationships.

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Characters