On Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River: Part I”

Sharing another close reading I prepared for my “Short Stories of Hemingway” class at Rollins College.

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“Nick was happy as he crawled inside the tent. He had not been unhappy all day. This was different though. Now things were done. There had been this to do. Now it was done. It had been a hard trip. He was very tired. That was done. He had made his camp. He was settled. Nothing could touch him. It was a good place to camp. He was there, in the good place. He was in his home where had made it. Now he was hungry.”

Hemingway, “Big Two-Hearted River: Part I”

 

In classic Hemingway fashion, “Big Two-Hearted River: Part I” addresses the consequences and emotional repercussions of war as Nick Adams returns to his old fishing grounds to discover he can never truly go home again – all without ever mentioning the war. As Lamb points out in Art Matters, Hemingway intentionally omits information that “has to do with important knowledge that is implied but not explained” so the reader can come to their own conclusions through observance and re-reading, versus instantaneous understanding (Lamb 43, 46). In this close reading, I will identify how the author uses omission, revelation of seemingly innocuous insight, word choice, and sentence structure to illustrate the post-World War I climate in the United States and the impact it had on the veterans who served.

In viewing the passage as a whole, the simplicity of Nick’s mindset in the scene is palpable. Hemingway intentionally uses over-simplified language and short, almost choppy, sentences to convey Nick’s emotional state in returning to the location of fishing trips and memories of youth. “It was a good place to camp. He was there, in the good place,” imbibes the mental climate of a youth that has sought solace in a fortress of blankets – a safe place – in an otherwise inhospitable swamp (Hemingway 167). Very little information is given about the scenery in this passage, much like a child would be relatively unaware of their surroundings in a cocoon of their own making, and Hemingway’s emphasis on Nick’s feeling of achievement, of a “job well done,” shows us Nick’s need for personal validation and purpose, much like a child celebrates a gold star on their homework.

Looking closer at the text, Hemingway’s intent to provide insight, though superficial, into Nick’s mindset is noticeable: “Nick was happy as he crawled inside the tent. He had not been unhappy all day” (167). In pointing this out, the reader is drawn to question how Nick normally feels; if Nick is happy in this moment, then it’s cause to believe that Nick either is normally unhappy – or should be unhappy. Given Hemingway’s behavior to avoid stating the obvious, of keeping the subtext simmering under the surface, his decision to point out Nick’s emotional state tells us that it’s an abnormal, if not remarkable, position for our protagonist to be in.

Thematically, almost the entire story is revealed in this passage through the line, “He was in his home where he had made it” (167). By telling the reader Nick had made his home, the reader can assume Nick’s original home was either destroyed, no longer accessible, or no longer something he could revisit/reclaim. Nick’s effort to create a new home, to try to replace this lost solace, is indicative of the old saying, “you can never go home again.” Nick has returned from war a changed man and, though he seeks to recapture the home of his memories, he’s learned that it’s gone – a burned, dusty riverbed, reminiscent of T. S. Eliot’s modernist poem, “The Waste Land” – and so he must create a new one. Nick feels comfort, pride, and purpose in the construction of his shelter, a return to something tangible, though different, from what he knew before.

Hemingway closes the passage in a circuitous way, taking the reader through this insight into the depth of Nick’s escapism and vulnerability of the war back to the boy-evolving-into-a-man we’ve seen from his earlier work with the line, “Now he was hungry” (167). Much like a child can go from tantrum to laughter to naptime, this quick jump from Nick’s emotional climate, to his pride in recreating a home, to, “Oh, it’s time to eat,” reminds us that he is not yet a grown man. By pointing this out, Hemingway draws attention to the fact that Nick, much like the majority of his peers (such as Hopkins, who is referred to later in the story), went to war only slightly beyond their childhood years – not quite men, but not boys – sent to fight in a battle of which they’d never recover from.

As with much of his work, each sentence of Hemingway’s narrative bears a weight far beyond the surface imagery of its initial interpretation. Using the “iceberg” technique in selecting each word, an entire backstory is delivered for us to contemplate, question, and apply to the story. Three simple sentences, such as: “Now things were done. There had been this to do. Now it was done,” reveals so much of Nick – he’s living one task at a time, he’s looking for resolution, he’s unable to face his emotional pain so he suppresses it through finding joy/pride in the simplistic and mundane – that it’s evident Hemingway’s story is about far more than a hike in the woods for his young protagonist. Nick is a changed man in a changed world, and he’s not fully prepared to acknowledge or cope with it, nor is the world around him.

Works Cited

Lamb, Robert Paul. Art Matters: Hemingway, Craft, and the Creation of the Modern Short Story. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010. Print.

Hemingway, Ernest. “Big Two-Hearted River: Part I.” The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. Finca Vigía ed. New York: Scribner, 2003.

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Thanks for reading!

Victoria Elizabeth

Image source: http://youmeandcharlie.com/explore/ernest-hemingway/

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