Nick’s Psychological Development in Ernest Hemingway’s "In Our Time"
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Nick’s Psychological Development in Ernest Hemingway’s "In Our Time"
In Hemingway’s collection of short stories, In Our Time, we follow a character by the name of Nick Adams. We are introduced to Nick in “Indian Camp” as a young boy, and follow him to adulthood in both Parts I and II of “Big Two-Hearted River”. Through this we see Nick develop and learn about some major facts of life. Nick is a character who changes through the effects of war on many different levels. Although Hemingway hardly mentions the war, he uses the stories to express different effects and emotions caused by the war.
In “Indian Camp” we meet Nick as he joins his father to help a pregnant Indian woman in labor. Nick’s father, a doctor, brings him to…show more content…
Nick's father does not want to answer his wife’s questions, and when he does, he lies to her. He assumes that she will not understand his reasoning for the argument he just had outside. In addition, his wife's religious demands for him to not lose his temper show that she does not want him to be a stereotypical aggressive and protective male. Also, Christian Science religion does not believe in medicine, which means that she has no respect for her husband’s work. Nick's father decides to go hunting, where he can express his masculinity. When Nick decides to go with him, Nick is also showing an interest in male to male interaction over male to female interaction with his mother. We see Nick at the end of the story, still calling his father “daddy” and wanting to follow him around. If the family would interact more, then it is probable that Nick would be able to develop more psychologically. He is still being treated like a little child, so he is still acting like one.
We next see Nick and his reactions to relationships. In “The End of Something” Nick breaks up with his girlfriend Marjorie. He expresses to her that he is bored with his life and that they cannot stay together. This shows that due to Nick’s past, he is not ready for relationships with women. He does not want to live his life in the traditional manner that Marjorie expects him to. Due to his lack of development, he cannot communicate
It's hard to talk about Ernest Hemingway without talking about machismo. Many people see him as a kind of Putin among writers – all about wrestling bears; certainly not about anything so sappy as emotion, empathy or love. Dylanwolf summed things up neatly in a comment on this month's introductory article:
"I've always been appalled at the John Wayne, Arnie Schwarzenegger, huntin' shootin' fishin', "I Did It My Way" macho persona take on masculinity and the presenting face of Ernest Hemingway is one of the thinking man's Indiana Jones.
"I shall have to find his softer, feminine side or I'll be enjoying the writing, but not the message ..."
Personally, the writing is enough for me. The venom in the comment after that catalogue of horrors in On the Quai at Smyrna: "My word yes a most pleasant business." The burning anger and shame of the doctor in The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife. The drunken Nick Adams's hilarious attempts to be "practical" in The Three Day Blow. Those are enough.
Even so, I'm also pretty sure that Papa isn't all macho posturing. I said as much to Dylanwolf in reply to his comment, citing the story Indian Camp as a good example, and he came back with the following:
(a) Nick is taken as a young boy by his father to witness what is certain to be a distressing late caesarean.
(b) In the event, he also sees a throat-slit suicide – a scene that is perhaps a little too rich for the boy's uncle (although we are given no clue as to the reason for his absentia at this point).
(c) And that the suicide is seemingly unmoved by his wife's distress and is stamped as incompetent by his self-inflicted axe-injury (assuming he is not regularly self-harming). I suspect we are meant to see him as a weak-willed character unable to face up in a manly fashion to his responsibilities (?)
Then, no Sam, I don't, how is it not macho?
The story seems to me a statement about the need to expose children to the brutal realities of birth and death at an early age. But I would say that the majority of births and deaths are not as violent and dramatic as this.
My effete, urban sensibilities would consider that child abuse, rather than a necessary rite of passage. But then again as a child I never even climbed on a garage roof!
Well, be that so, perhaps Hemingway is illustrating how Nick Adams has become the terribly, damaged character that Sam claims he is. I've not read enough of the stories yet to judge on that."
In a way, I find it hard to disagree with Dylanwolf. The above is an acceptable interpretation of the story. In fact, it's more than that: it's extremely perceptive. The theme of cowardice is barely mentioned in the story, yet Dylanwolf is right that it is there. The neatest proof comes from outside the text. Hemingway originally wrote a different opening to Indian Camp (gathered in some collections as Three Shots), in which he makes the theme explicit. In this alternative opening, previous to rowing out to the camp, Nick Adams shows himself to be an "awful coward" and Uncle George declares "I can't stand him." Once you know that, Uncle George's inability to cope with the horror that unfolds starts to seem like a moral failure – and no more than his comeuppance for being so hard on Nick.
So Dylanwolf may be right. Except, of course, Hemingway cut that opening. And by so cutting it, he made the story much bigger. It's still possible to read the story as a parable about bravery. But we can also turn everything upside down. Perhaps Hemingway cut the opening because he didn't want that theme to be so explicit, or to set the reader too rigid guides. As the story is now, it's equally possible to see it as an illustration of the difficulty of facing up to fear. There's no longer a need to view Uncle George harshly. Hemingway has left it open enough that we can view his disappearance as acceptable and understandable. In fact, his disappearance doesn't even have to be related to his courage at all. We just don't know what's in Uncle George's head – which means that anything might be happening.
Similarly, the Indian who slits his own throat doesn't have to be seen as a failure. He was put in an intolerable situation and, as many would, found himself unable to cope. No judgment is made in the story. We are simply invited to imagine what must have been going through the poor man's head – and made to think about it all the more, because his suicide takes place off-stage. We're only shown the aftermath – and that, of course, makes it easier to imagine how it must have been when it happened. Personally, I could only sympathise with a man who thought he was going to lose everything. Perhaps he was "weak-willed", but that doesn't diminish how badly he must have felt – or the cruel irony in the fact that the baby actually lived.
As for Dylanwolf's suggestion that "the story seems to me a statement about the need to expose children to the brutal realities of birth and death at an early age". Again, you could read the story that way. But then, nobody comes out of it well, do they? It's not much of an education. If anything, Nick loses from the experience: "Nick did not watch. His curiosity had been gone for a long time."
This not-watching, meanwhile, is crucial. Once again, Hemingway amplifies the action by refusing to show it:
'See, it's a boy, Nick,' he said. 'How do you like being an interne?'
Nick said, 'All right.' He was looking away so as not to see what his father was doing.
'There. That gets it,' said his father and put something into the basin.
Nick didn't look at it.
That technique, of course, is one of the things for which Hemingway is famous. He is the master of the eloquent silence; of allowing there to be, as Archibald Macleish once wrote to the man himself: "Ten things 'said' for every word written. Full of sound like a coiled shell. Overtones like the bells at Chartres. All that stuff you can't describe but only do ..."
There are few finer examples of this art of saying everything by saying nothing than the last stories in the collection, Big Two Hearted River, parts I and II. Ostensibly, these are about a fishing trip, full of the joy and mystery of nature and life outdoors. Doesn't it sound like wonderful fun? Wouldn't you just love to be under that tent, smelling "pleasantly of canvas"? Doesn't eating that "whole plateful" of beans and spaghetti sound grand? Don't you want to jump into that river, so clear and cold? Except, except ... There's something going on, in the depths, isn't there? In focusing so relentlessly, in such exquisite detail, upon the river and the fishing, the narrator somehow makes us think about all the things he isn't talking about and which Nick Adams is trying so hard to block out of his mind. And somehow we understand that Nick Adams is damaged.
In truth, I'm not even sure why I have always been so certain that Nick is troubled as he fishes (and have been from the first time I read the story) beyond the fact that Hemingway has magical powers. There are perhaps a few clues, but they are too vague for certainty.
There is the comment, "Nick was happy as he crawled inside the tent. He had not been unhappy all day." Perhaps that shows that Nick is "unhappy" most of the time? But perhaps it is just a reflection on the hiking?
There is also this: "His muscles ached and the day was hot, but Nick felt happy. He felt he had left everything behind, the need for thinking, the need to write, other needs. It was all back of him." What is that "all"?
There are other hints. When Nick thinks about former companions, and specifically Hopkins who left a previous trip upon receiving a telegram containing God knows what bad news, we are led to wonder why he has come alone. There are also strange contradictions, such as Nick's need to let a fire-blackened grasshopper "fly away somewhere", even though he's happy to slaughter 50-odd the next day. And is there something in the way "other men" spoil the fishing and leave mould growing on the trout because they fail to touch them with wet hands? And does that fire-ravaged landscape tell us anything about the state of Nick's mind? Or am I just too keen to see pathetic fallacies?
Overall, it isn't much to go on. The clues may add up to something, or they may not – just as the concentration on fishing may be there to show that Nick is desperate for distraction, or because he really likes fishing. It's up to the reader. And it's Hemingway's genius that he allows us so much space to breathe, to pick our own interpretation – and that he is so good at colouring that interpretation, even if he doesn't say much about it at all.
But at this stage, I must contradict myself slightly. I should acknowledge those who have moved on to our second book, A Moveable Feast, in which Hemingway writes the following about Big Two Hearted River:
"When I stopped writing I did not want to leave the river where I could see the trout in the pool, its surface pushing and swelling smooth against the resistance of the log-driven piles of the bridge. The story was about coming back from the war but there was no mention of the war in it."
So, it's the war that's troubling Nick Adams! Bingo. There is perhaps less ambiguity than I made out – even if the war is never mentioned. Interestingly, though, there are plenty more interpretations. In the introduction to the Everyman edition of the stories that I have been reading, for instance, James Fenton makes a very good case for the story being as much about a young man "striking out into the unknown, his purpose being to become a great writer" as it is about the war. He cites an alternative ending that Hemingway cut, which shows Nick thinking about how he is going to "write" the river, just like Cézanne would paint it. Viewed that way, the single-minded focus on the surroundings and the art of fishing takes on a different hue. He's just trying to fix it in his mind. Isn't he? Except, again, it is highly significant that Hemingway cut those passages. By cutting, he once again made the story bigger. It could still be about writing – but it could be about far more. His is the art of excision. Of loading his words with meaning – but leaving their interpretation to us. Of saying more by saying less ... At which point, I should stop writing myself and ask you what you thought.
Oh yes: one quick bit of housekeeping: Savidgereader, Giozboy, jediperson and GetOver99 – contact Hannah.Freeman@theguardian.com and we'll get Hemingway's Boat sailing your way soon.