In Our Time: Essays and Questions

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1.  Hemingway’s style of writing in In Our Time has been called “Modernist.” In what ways are the language, style, and placement of the stories Modernist?

The Modernist period of literature was roughly from World War I until 1965. As a reaction against the intricate, elegant writing that characterized the Victorian period, Modernist literature was often starker, more experimental, and less optimistic; Modernist writers had for the most part been influenced by the global horrors of World War I. Hemingway is one of the premier Modernist writers. His sparse, direct language combines with a style unadorned by overt images and metaphors. The concept of a book of stories that seem, for the most part, random, yet which actually work together to convey meaning was revolutionary; in writing In Our Time this way, Hemingway was at the forefront of the Modernist movement.

Hemingway’s language, so different from the involved, lengthy, didactic language of Victorian writings, displays short, declarative sentences. These sentences, most often delivered by a third-person narrator, convey little emotion or judgments about characters or the action of the story—instead, readers must garner what meaning they can from the information provided. Hemingway’s characters, instead of being described by a narrator in detail, often reveal themselves through their word choices and tone. In “On the Quai at Smyrna,” for example, the narrator’s irony is expressed through the use of words more suited for a British parlor, such as “topping” and “chap”—yet all the while he is conveying a grisly scene of evacuation during war.

The style of Hemingway’s writing also demands that readers must work to find meaning beneath the surface. Many of the vignettes in In Our Time seem to exist in a vacuum. Often the narrator is not clear, the characters have no names, and the setting is vague. This lack of information, however, actually contributes to a universality of meaning. The war vignettes, for example, manage to convey the universal truth that war is hell, full of blood and fear and destruction. They also convey that war changes men; many of the narrators of the war vignettes reveal that they are coping with new and horrible realities, numbing themselves to get by.

The placement of the stories in In Our Time appears, on first glance, to be random, but the stories actually hang together to form a whole. The Nick Adams stories, especially, create a sense of time passing, from birth to death, from pre-war innocence to post-war disillusionment, not only in Nick himself, but in Americans in general. Even the bullfighting vignettes tell the complete story of bullfighting, with both its pageantry and its tawdriness.

2. The Nick Adams stories feature prominently in In Our Time. How do they collectively contribute to the overall meaning of the book?

The Nick Adams stories not only trace the coming of age of a young man, but they also parallel the coming of age of America during the years surrounding World War I.

Beginning with “Indian Camp,” readers see Nick learning about the world that surrounds him, picking up behaviors and attitudes from his father, the doctor. The America Nick grows up in seems simple; his pastimes of fishing and hunting and hanging with other young men keep him insulated and in control. In “Three Day Blow” and “The End of Something,” Nick keeps himself insulated from the grown-up world of marriage and jobs. He lets himself be swayed by male friends, such as Bill, rather than follow his instincts to a relationship with Marjorie.

The stories of Nick during and immediately after the war, however, show a young man disillusioned and wounded by the harsh realities of the world around him—he is severely injured in war (Chapter VI), he is jilted by a nurse he loved (“A Very Short Story”), he does not fit back into American society (“Cross-Country Snow”). The fresh-faced boy of the early stories has become the wandering, lost boy of manhood, contracting a venereal disease, getting a woman pregnant without loving her, wishing he could ski forever and avoid responsibility.

The last stories of the book, the Big Two-Hearted River stories, show Nick coming full circle at last. He makes his way back to the woods of his childhood, and although surfaces might have changed—the town he once knew well has burned down—the essence of the place is the same. There he is restored by fresh air, miles of trees, a glistening yet wild river, a world in balance. Everything has a use and a place in this world, from the grasshoppers in the dew to the trout in the river.

Just as Nick goes from naïveté to maturity, so did America at that time. The early Nick Adams stories capture the American ideals of freedom and individuality that have always characterized Americans. The later stories, however, combine with stories such as “Soldier’s Home” to show how Americans had to reevaluate their ideals after the war. “Soldier’s Home” shows Americans unwilling to admit to their faults; vignettes such as that of the policemen shooting Hungarians, as well as stories such as “My Old Man” reveal those faults, magnified after a war that made clear just how depraved even the best of people can become when pressed by politics, greed, and self-preservation.

In returning to his origins, Nick Adams acknowledges that there is a dark, deep swamp in men’s hearts and in the American psyche, yet he has the strength to move past those flaws to heal himself.

3. Hemingway’s works often depict masculinity. How do the various stories in In Our Time create a view of masculinity around World War I?

The male characters in the stories of In Our Timepossess many of the qualities that defined manhood around World War I, and they grapple with issues of manhood, including relationships with women, bonding among men, and coming to terms with death.

Most of the stories of In Our Time are set in the time just before, during, or immediately after World War I, roughly the first quarter of the twentieth century. Stories such as “The Battler” and “My Old Man” depict men as tough and rugged. When Nick encounters the old fighter Ad Francis, Francis challenges him to a fight; Francis is, admittedly, crazy, but he also has a keen sense of proving his worth through his fists. The aging jockey Butler in “My Old Man” resorts to fixing races when he can no longer keep fit or keep up with younger jockeys. In the Nick Adams stories, Nick learns as a child that men do not cringe at blood or death (“Indian Camp”). He grows up with a healthy respect for hunting, fishing, and sports; he experiments with manly pleasures like drinking (“Three-Day Blow”). In the vignettes, men such as bullfighters risk their lives for sport—and crowds applaud them for such displays of manhood, or boo them for failing at manhood.

Many of the stories in the book depict men engaged in—and failing in—relationships with women because their masculine ideals prevent them from truly understanding the women they love. “Mr. and Mrs. Elliot,” “Out of Season,” and “Cat in the Rain” each depict married men who fail to understand their wives’ needs. Mr. Elliot’s attempts to be intimate with his wife result in separate bedrooms. The young gentleman in “Out of Season” talks at his wife, but not to her. The husband in “Cat in the Rain” obviously admires his wife’s beauty, but he treats her ideas as if she is silly, rather than seeing that she is actually longing for warmth and affection.

The stories also depict men bonding with other men. In the Nick Adams stories especially, Nick enjoys the uncomplicated freedom of the outdoors with his friends. Bill in “The End of Something” and “Three-Day Blow” pressures Nick not to get involved with Marjorie because married men “‘get this sort of fat married look.’” Instead, he encourages Nick to keep his manhood: drink, fish, hunt, camp. In “Cross-Country Snow,” Nick enjoys the physical exertion of skiing and the sharing drinks in a ski lodge with his friend George; life is simple in the snow. There he can get away from his obligations to Helen, who is pregnant, and George can forget about his studies—until both men must face their responsibilities.

In the vignettes, especially, men face death in various ways, and their reactions are not always the same. The soldier narrators of the war vignettes appear numb in the face of the deaths around them, describing them unemotionally. One soldier makes a bargain with God while bombs rain down, only to break his part of the bargain after he is safe. Men facing battle drink, joke, tell stories; men who have faced battle, like Harold Krebs in “Soldier’s Home,” can’t tell the truth. Bullfighters like Maera face bulls and lose their lives, while criminals like Sam Cardinella are betrayed by their bowels as they face hanging. Death, it seems in In Our Time, tests masculinity as nothing else does.

4. In many of the vignettes woven into In Our Time, the narrator is unidentified, yet narration is key to creating meaning in those vignettes. How does this narrative technique contribute to the purpose of the vignettes in the book?

The vignettes, interspersed between the short stories of the book, capture moments and impressions witnessed by various unnamed narrators. Collectively, they produce an impression of “Our Time,” the first part of the twentieth century.

The vignettes often offer intense, first-person glimpses into violent situations, such as the evacuation in Smyrna or moments of battle in France, or they relate precise moments during events such as bullfights, shootings, or hangings. Most of the narrators in these pieces tell the story with irony, but without emotion.The soldier in Chapter IV, for example, recounts creating a barricade across a bridge and shooting Germans as they approached it. He uses drawing room language (“simply priceless,” “frightfully put out,” “absolutely topping”) to describe a battle, and this ironic use of language conveys what the narrator does not outright say: in war, men become uncivilized, even inhumane.

The narrators of the bullfight stories relate life and death situations matter-of-factly, and their matter-of-factness conveys the absurdity of the situations. Although none of the narrators is identified as American, their observations of the customs of a foreign country suggests that they are Americans recounting something uncommon in America. Crowds heckle bullfighters, matadors lie in pools of blood, horses are gored until their entrails hang out, bulls sink in the sand from wounds—yet the narrators simply tell of these events as if they were journalistic snapshots, depicting the moment, but relaying no emotion. It is this very lack of emotion regarding such horrific moments that conveys the meaning: death is entertainment, and humans are cruel, depraved beings for craving such entertainment.

Collectively, the vignettes create an impression of the time around World War I, when ideals were shattered and realities questioned all over the world. Readers become the observers, seeing moments through various narrator’s eyes, as if they, too, were eyewitnesses to such a time in history.

5. Nature is at the heart of Nick Adam’s healing in the Big Two-Hearted River stories at the end of In Our Time. How does Hemingway use surface details to convey nature as a metaphor for survival and renewal?

At face value, the Big Two-Hearted River stories that form the finale of In Our Time are a collection of factual details. But those very details, spare and unadorned, create a powerful metaphor in the stories.

In brief, declarative sentences, the narrator tells how Nick Adams came home from the war, camped in the woods, and fished in the river. There is no overt moral to the stories. Readers follow Nick’s every move as he finds a place to camp and sets up that camp; the descriptions of Nick’s actions read almost like a manual for how to camp. But how Nick camps is exactly the point of the details. He is self-reliant, able to navigate by memory, content to sit by a fire and cook over a skillet, able to erect a shelter and be comfortable under the stars. “He felt he had left everything behind, the need for thinking, the need to write, other needs. It was all back of him.” Nick’s self-sufficiency takes him back to his core self.

In the simple facts of nature, Nick also finds strength and healing. The narrator relates factual descriptions of the woods and the river as Nick sees them, not as Nick interprets them. But how Nick sees them also forms meaning. “Nick looked down into the clear, brown water, colored from the pebbly bottom, and watched the trout keeping themselves steady in the current with wavering fins. As he watched them they changed their positions by quick angles, only to hold steady in the fast water again. Nick watched them a long time.” The narrator does not tell readers what Nick thinks as he looks into the water, but the details he offers tell readers what Nick sees: creatures holding steady in a current, holding strong in the face of their world. Whatever buffets them, they survive. It is a lesson that Nick is trying to remember by coming back to nature.

Nick’s fly fishing excursion is also related in minute, matter-of-fact detail, from the time he catches grass hoppers for bait to the moment he cleans the two fish he caught. Yet it is not important that Nick catches fish, but how he catches the fish: with joy, without greed, with acceptance that a big fish got away. How Nick catches fish provides clues to how Nick is healing; his nerves are stretching out and he is able to control his emotions, something many soldiers returning from war struggle to do.

He does struggle with fear of the swamp, however. The narrator offers details about the swamp: it is deep, surrounded by low-branched trees, dark. Nick, the narrator says, “did not feel like going on into the swamp.” It is not the features of the swamp itself, but the way Nick looks at those features that suggests that the swamp represents something sinister to Nick, something he is not yet ready to confront about his war experiences. But Nick is a fisherman at heart, and he knows that in nature there is confidence-building challenge and healing. In the last sentence of “Big Two-Hearted River: Part II” readers are told that Nick “looked back. The river just showed through the trees. There were plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp.” It is not that Nick looks back, but how Nick looks back that is important. He will face his fears when he is ready, and he will heal.

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