Soldiers Home

Critical Analysis of "Soldier's Home": Before, During, and After the
War (with bibliography)

Many of the titles of Ernest Hemingway's stories are ironic, and can be
read on a number of levels; Soldier's Home is no exception. Our first
impression, having read the title only, is that this story will be
about a old soldier living out the remainder of his life in an
institution where veterans go to die. We soon find out that the story
has nothing to do with the elderly, or institutions; rather, it tells
the story of a young man, Harold Krebs, only recently returned from
World War I, who has moved back into his parents' house while he
figures out what he wants to do with the rest of his life. And yet our
first impression lingers, and with good reason; despite the fact that
his parents' comfortable, middle-class lifestyle used to feel like home
to Harold Krebs, it no longer does. Harold is not home; he has no home
at all. This is actually not an uncommon scenario among young people
(such as college students) returning into the womb of their childhood
again. But with Harold, the situation is more dramatic because he has
not only lived on his own, but has dealt with -- and been traumatized
by -- life-and-death situations his parents could not possibly
understand. Hemingway does not divulge why Krebs was the last person
in his home town to return home from the war; according to the Kansas
City Star, Hemingway himself "left Kansas City in the spring of 1918
and did not return for 10 years, [becoming] 'the first of 132 former
Star employees to be wounded in World War I,' according to a Star
article at the time of his death" (Kansas City Star, hem6.htm).
Wherever he was in the intervening time, by the time Harold gets home,
the novelty of the returning soldier has long since worn off. All the
other former soldiers have found a niche for themselves in the
community, but Harold needs a while longer to get his bearings; he
plays pool, "practiced on his clarinet, strolled down town, read, and
went to bed" (Hemingway, 146). What he is doing, of course, is killing
time. The problem, of course, has to do with Harold's definition of
who he has become. He recognizes he has changed, and this change is
played out dramatically against the backdrop of a town where nothing
else has changed since he was in high school. His father parks his car
in the same place; it's still the same car; the girls walking down the
street look like the same girls, except more of them have short hair
now. Imamura comments, "Krebs admires them, yet he protects himself
from the danger of sexual involvement as if he were still suffering
from a previous affair" (Imamura, 102). And Daniel Slaughter observes
that "One gets the sense while reading 'A Soldier's Home' that watching
the girls was a healing process" (Slaughter, hemingway_1.html). What
has happened here, really? Why is Krebs unable to adjust to life back
in Oklahoma? Why can't he talk to girls, or manage to do anything
productive with his time? These answers can be found in a careful
examination of what Krebs was doing before the war and what happened
while he was in Europe. Prior to the war, Hemingway tells us in the
very first paragraph, Krebs attended a Methodist school in Kansas. He
was not out of place then; Hemingway says "There is a picture which
shows him among his fraternity brothers, all of them wearing exactly
the same height and style collar" (Hemingway, 145). There is a
tremendous poignancy in this detail; at least one of these young men,
so concerned about his appearance, would soon be shipped overseas to
the most horrific war the world had ever known. The fact that his
college was a religious institution is also significant, for it shows
that he was, at that time, in synch with his mother's religious values.
At least, he did not have any reason to doubt them, or not enough
strength to resist them (or her). Hemingway tells us before the first
paragraph is over that Krebs "enlisted in the Marines in 1917"
(Hemingway, 145). The Marines are an elite fighting force who today
advertise they are looking for "a few good men" -- indicating that if
the prospective soldier is not out of the ordinary, he need not apply.
However, was Krebs a good Marine? J.F. Kobler observes that there is at
least some indication in "Soldier's Home" "that Krebs did not fight
bravely in the war. . . . Krebs admits to himself that he has lied in
public about his military experiences, but he cannot stop lying to
himself about the real extent and the psychological effect of his
lying" (Kobler, 377). We know for sure that he was "badly, sickeningly
frightened all the time" (Hemingway, 146). Certainly his war
experiences were not glamorous, and he brings home quite a collection
of battle-scarred baggage, not the least of which is his guilt over
having to live a lie. Krebs even connects the politics of courting with
"lying", which he has already told us makes him feel "nauseated". As
Lamb points out, "The shadow that renders Krebs incapable of action and
that lies at the crux of the story is stated in three sentences that
follow immediately after his first statement that young women are not
worth it: 'He did not want any consequences. He did not want any
consequences ever again. He wanted to live along without consequences.'
. . . His desire to avoid consequences is his single overriding
motivation. He fondly recalls the French and German women because
relationships with them were uncomplicated and without consequence;
there was no need even to talk. He wants the hometown women but does
not act on these desires because they are too complicated and not worth
the co! nsequences. He is attracted to his little sister because he
can shrug off her demands and she will still love him. But his mother
repels him because her demands are complex and unavoidable" (Lamb,
18). But it is not until his mother confronts him over breakfast about
his future that he realizes that he cannot continue to live at home any
more. Robert Paul Lamb observes that before Harold's mother begins her
lecture, she takes off her glasses; "this gesture seems to imply that
she either can not, or does not want to 'see' him" (Lamb, 18). His
mother, in other words, does not want to be distracted by Harold's
point of view while she is expounding on hers. This somewhat echoes his
earlier observation that "Later he felt the need to talk but no one
wanted to hear about it" (Hemingway, 145). Essentially, no one wants to
recognize Harold's unique identity. His mother pressures him to get a
job by arguing that "There are no idle hands in [God's] Kingdom," to
which Harold significantly observes, "I'm not in His Kingdom"
(Hemingway, 151). And he's not. The world he discovered during World
War I had no hand of God in it. His mother then observes that all the
other boys "just your age" are settling down and becoming "really a
credit to the community". This hearkens back to the first paragraph of
the story, in which Harold observes a picture of himself with his
fraternity brothers, all sporting identical haircuts and collars.
Harold is no longer like everybody else; he's not sure who he is, but
he's sure of that. Finally, his mother asks whether he loves her. He
replies quite truthfully that he does not. We know that this is because
his entire worldview has been turned upside down by his traumatic
experiences in the war, and the ability to genuinely love requires an
emotional balance he does not have right now. But his mother does not
understand this, because she cannot identify with his experiences; as
Tateo Imamura observes, "Krebs' small-town mother cannot comprehend her
son's struggles and sufferings caused by the war. She devotes herself
to her religion and never questions her own values" (Imamura, 102). So
he lies to please her, and kneels down as she prays to please her --
and then he knows he has to go away. Harold lies out of an inability
to force a painful issue and take a stand. He may feel that he
acquiesces out of compassion, but in fact he is not secure enough in
his own self to risk a confrontation that could be painful or
guilt-inducing. Harold veers onto the edge of self-revelation with his
straight-forward answers about the Kingdom of God and his lack of
ability to love, but when his mother begins to cry he waffles; she will
never see that he isn't the boy he was in high school -- or perhaps,
the boy she thought he was.

Works Cited:

Imamura, Tateo. " 'Soldier's Home:' Another Story of a Broken Heart." (1996). The Hemingway Review, Vol. 16, No. 1, Fall, pp. 102.
Kansas City Star Online. "Ernest Hemingway and Kansas City: a Literary Tour." http://www.kcstar.com/aboutstar/hemingway/hem6.htm
Kobler, J.F. " 'Soldier's Home' Revisited: A Hemingway Mea Culpa." (1993). Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 30, No. 3, Summer, pp. 377.
Lamb, Robert Paul Lamb. "The Love Song of Harold Krebs." (1995). The Hemingway Review, Vol. 14, No. 2, Spring, pp. 18.
Slaughter, Daniel. "Ernest Hemingway and Selected Works from In Our Time." http://www.fortuneci