Ernest Hemingway's "The Light of the World" appeared in the author's third collection of short stories, Winner Take Nothing, published in 1933. Hemingway apparently was quite proud of this earthy tale, referring to it himself as a "whore story," and comparing it favorably to Guy de Maupassant's "Maison Tellier."
Although neither the narrator nor the exact locale of the story is ever identified, the narrator is believed to be the Hemingway hero Nick Adams, who is in transit from his home in Michigan to begin his military career. The narrator and his pal, Tommy, are both teenagers who stop in a local watering hole, but are greeted with disdain. The bar advertises free lunch, but the bartender at first refuses to allow them to eat. Both of the boys purchase a beer for five cents each and sample the establishment's pigs knuckles, which the narrator spits onto the floor. The bartender orders them out, calling them both "punks" (common Hemingway slang for homosexuals).
Retreating to the train station, they encounter a truly motley crew of four Indians, six loggers, and five prostitutes waiting for a train. One of the men is identified as a cook, and further vaguely homosexual remarks are made about him by the loggers. Two of the women are "ordinary looking whores, peroxide blondes," but the other three are huge, estimated at between 250 and 350 pounds. The boys begin a conversation with two of the large women, and the narrator admits that the biggest one has a pleasant voice.
When the cook remarks that he is from Cadillac, the topic quickly turns to Steve Ketchel, a Cadillac native and boxer who lost to the legendary black pugilist Jack Johnson for the world championship. The cook points out that Ketchel's name is actually Stanley, but the blonde tells him to shut up. Later, Ketchel was murdered by his own father, she says. (The cook is actually correct: Stanley Ketchel was a former middleweight champion who lost to the much larger Johnson in 1909 when he was knocked out in the 12th round. Ketchel was murdered a year later, but not by his father, as Hemingway's prostitute embellishes.) One of the peroxide blondes claims to have been a lover of Ketchel, calling him the most beautiful man she had ever known and likening him to a god, or more specifically, Jesus. But Alice, the largest of the women, also claims to have known Ketchel. Apparently, Ketchel had paid Alice her greatest compliment: "You're a lovely piece, Alice," and the two women question each other's stories. They trade insults—"you dried up old hotwater bottle" and "you big mountain of pus"—before Tommy suggests to the narrator, who is growing more interested in Alice, that they move on. When the cook asks where they are going, Tommy retorts, "The other way from you."
For the two teens, it is a fascinating sexual initiation into the world of adulthood and the seamy counterculture of homosexuality and prostitution. For the women, it is a chance to reminisce—whether truthfully or not—about their more youthful days and the finest man they have ever known. The boxer Ketchel symbolizes a Jesus figure to both Alice and the peroxide blonde, who repeatedly invoke God when they describe him.