In Our Time: Theme
Known for his own masculinity and hard living, Hemingway interjects many of his own experiences into his writing. In Our Time deals with masculinity on several levels. Through the character of Nick Adams, who appears in several stories, readers see a boy growing into manhood, going through war, and returning from war—all the while learning what it is to be a man. The Nick Adams stories sew together four aspects of masculinity that the other stories also explore: masculinity in relation to nature, to war, to death, to men and women.
Nature is both a place for challenge and for healing in In Our Time. When Nick is younger, he comes to see nature in relation to life and death (“Indian Camp”). He learns that a man, like his father, does not cower in the face of death. Nick also learns that men can tame nature, somewhat. Nature can be destructive—floods leave tree-sized logs on shorelines, fires burn whole towns, storms can blow for three whole days—but nature is also where men can hunt and fish, where they can learn about endurance and toughness. When he returns from World War I, however, he seeks nature for healing and restoration of his old self. All the confidence he gained growing up in nature has been tested during the war, and Nick must return to that place where he can once again feel some sense of belonging and purpose. Camping and fishing alone give him those feelings again.
Many of the stories in In Our Time also explore how masculinity is defined in relation to war. When Harold Krebs returns to small town America after the war in “Soldier’s Home,” he cannot reconcile the soldier he was—taking part in horrendous battles and participating in killing and destruction—with the tame, trivial life he comes home to, where manhood is not defined by violence but by industry and uprightness. The narrators of various vignettes relate the horrors of war without emotion; they have learned as men to shut off compassion and be numb to what is around them.
Other stories explore how masculinity is defined in relation to death. In the bullfighting stories, for example, various matadors face death in the ring. Some, like Villalta in Chapter XII, snarl in the face of death, meeting and defeating the bull with flare and bravado. Others, like Luis in Chapter XIII, prefer to numb themselves with drink. Still others, like Maera in Chapters XIII and XIV, are resigned to their fate. Others, like the soldier in Chapter II, make bargains with God, and once safely delivered forget their bargains. Men like Sam Cardinella in Chapter XV give in to their fear of death in humiliating ways.
Many of the stories explore masculinity in relation to other men and to women. In several stories, Nick Adams finds himself having to choose between the comradeship of his friends and that of the women in his life. In “The End of Something” and “The Three-Day Blow,” Nick is content with his friend Bill, with whom he shares the pleasures of sports and nature, but he regrets his decision to break off a serious relationship with a good woman, Marjorie. In “Cross-Country Snow,” he appears to have gotten a woman pregnant, yet he admits to his friend George that he does not really want to commit to that relationship. Other stories show marriages in which men seem compelled to hold themselves apart from women; the husbands in “Cat in the Rain,” “Mr. and Mrs. Elliot,” and “Out of Season” all seem unable to let their emotions show or truly understand their wives’ needs. Men in In Our Time are caught in the very masculine belief that they must not be tamed by women; they must, like Dr. Adams in “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife,” co-exist with them, but they will not be ruled by them.
America Before and After World War I
The sequence of the stories in In Our Time roughly follows America and Americans from the time before World War I, through the war, and after the war. Mainly through the Nick Adams stories, readers see a pre-war America as spacious and free, a land of adventure and industry. Nick roams the Michigan woods or jumps trains with freedom. Like many Americans, he is confident in himself, indestructible—and naïve. His brush with the fighter Ad Francis in “The Battler” merely foreshadows the violence and strife he will experience in the war. Like Nick, Harold Krebs returns to a world that seems unchanged and unreal—small-town America where everyone holds a job, gets married, believes in God. His innocence has been lost, as has Nick’s. Both have seen the brutality and inhumanity that men can create. Unlike the policemen in Chapter VIII, who shoot down two Hungarians out of bigotry, and unlike the dishonest jockey Butler in “My Old Man,” they have seen too much death and destruction and dishonesty. For them, the American dream of freedom and individuality seems corrupted into narrow-mindedness and complacency.