Ernest Hemingway wrote "Soldier's Home" in 1924 while he was living in Paris with his wife (at the time) Hadley Richardson. The story was first published in 1925 in Contact Collection of Contemporary Writers, an anthology that included works by such important writers as Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound, before appearing in Hemingway's exceptional first short story collection, In Our Time. The expatriate literary community living in Paris embraced Hemingway, and both Pound and Stein contributed greatly to his growth as a writer. They saw in his work a dramatic shift from earlier literary conventions.
Hemingway himself considered "Soldier's Home" one of his best stories. Indeed, although Hemingway wrote many novels and short stories throughout his life, his early stories, collected in such volumes as In Our Time and Men without Women (1927), continue to intrigue contemporary critics. Many critics and readers believe the stories in these collections to be Hemingway's finest work. Certainly, "Soldier's Home" and the rest of the stories in In Our Time continue to be an important part of the Hemingway canon. The book has remained in print for three-quarters of a century; the most recent edition was published by Scribner in 2003 as a paperback.
The story is a deceptively simple one, detailing the return of a young World War I veteran to his home in a small town in Oklahoma. At the same time, "Soldier's Home" is a finely nuanced
work, a story that moves forward, paradoxically, more through what Hemingway does not include than through what he does. With characteristic brevity, Hemingway reveals the complex relationship between the protagonist and his mother, the alienation of a young soldier from his culture, and the nearly overpowering sense of loss and lethargy experienced by a generation of young people damaged by the War.
Ernest Hemingway was born on July 21, 1899, in Oak Park, Illinois. His father, Clarence Hemingway, was a doctor, and his mother, Grace Hemingway, was a musician who became a mother and homemaker. Ernest was one of six children.
As a child, Hemingway spent summers at the summer house, Windemere, located on Walloon Lake in northern Michigan. His father taught him to hunt and fish, two passions he pursued for the rest of his life. The natural world became an important influence on Hemingway's later work.
Hemingway graduated from high school in 1917 and went to work as a reporter. The abbreviated style he learned as a reporter would later distinguish his fiction. In 1918, Hemingway joined the American Red Cross against the wishes of his parents to go to the European theater of World War I. Hemingway was assigned to an ambulance unit in Italy. The nineteen-year-old helped to collect body fragments from a munitions explosion, and a few weeks later, found himself under fire while delivering chocolate and cigarettes to Italian troops. His legs were seriously injured, and he was eventually transported to an American Red Cross hospital in Milan. He was to remain there for three months, during which time he endured several surgeries to remove shrapnel from his leg. He also fell in love with his nurse, Agnes von Kurowsky.
Hemingway returned to the United States after he was well, and expected that Agnes would join him to be wed. She, however, broke off the relationship. Hemingway was deeply wounded by this rejection. Many critics suggest that his return home and the hurt he suffered at Kurowsky's hands form the basis of "Soldier's Home."
Hemingway returned to his work as a reporter, and married Hadley Richardson in 1921. The couple moved to Paris where they became a part of the literary expatriate community. The writer Gertrude Stein famously dubbed the large group of young English-speaking writers in Paris the "Lost Generation."
Through his friendships with poet Ezra Pound and with Stein, Hemingway honed the style for which he would become famous. In 1923, Hemingway published his first collection of writing, Three Stories and Ten Poems, which included what might be Hemingway's very first story, "Up in Michigan." The following year found Hemingway assisting Ford Madox Ford with the transatlantic review, and bringing out a small volume of vignettes titled in our time, not to be confused with his 1925 publication of In Our Time, the collection including "Soldier's Home." Hemingway met F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1925 as well, and this association proved fruitful for both writers. In 1926, Hemingway published his first, and arguably his best, novel, The Sun Also Rises.
In 1927, Hemingway and Richardson divorced, and he married Pauline Pfieffer. With the success of his novel The Sun Also Rises (1926), and a second collection of short stories, Men without Women (1927), Hemingway grew increasingly famous. During this period, he also began living the life so identified with him: the big-game-hunting, bull-running life of a man's man. In 1928, at his home in Cuba, Hemingway received word that his father had killed himself.
During World War II, Hemingway scouted for German submarines in the Caribbean and covered the Spanish Civil War, a conflict he wrote about in his 1940 novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls. He and his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, divorced in 1946, and Hemingway married Mary Welsh that same year. In 1952, Hemingway published the Old Man and the Sea, a novel that was the Pulitzer Prize winner in 1953. The following year, Hemingway received the most important international award for literature, the Nobel Prize.
In 1961, like his father before him, Hemingway took his own life with a shotgun at his home in Ketchum, Idaho. Biographers speculate that the constant pain Hemingway endured from his old wounds and his inherited tendency to depression led to his suicide. At his death, Hemingway was one of the most famous literary figures in the world. His work continues to intrigue critics and readers alike.
"Soldier's Home" is located at the center of the collection In Our Time. Its location, as well as its subject matter, suggests that it is also central to Hemingway's experience of life in the year of its writing, 1924. The story opens with a description of a photograph of Harold Krebs, a young man who had been attending a Methodist college in Kansas before enlisting in the Marines to fight in World War I. This opening snapshot is in stark contrast to the alienated, silent young man Krebs becomes after the war.
Although the war ends in 1918, Krebs does not return home until 1919, the year of the story's setting. Krebs's return is not marked by the parades and accolades given the young men who returned earlier; instead, Krebs discovers that people really do not want to hear about the war unless he exaggerates and lies about his own participation in battle. These lies and erroneous attributions of heroism cause Krebs deep discomfort and nausea. He is unable to speak the truth because no one will listen, and unable to lie because of nausea. In time, he retreats into near silence.
Once home, Krebs fills his days with sleeping, playing pool and practicing the clarinet. He also likes watching the young girls in town from the safety of his own front porch. However, when he is in town, he does not like seeing them. Krebs seems to be isolating himself from all other young people and from life. Although he would like to have a girl, he does not want to talk to women. Again, Krebs demonstrates lethargy and ennui; his alienation from his family, his home, and his culture seem paralyzing.
Krebs wants to "live along without consequences." It is not clear from the text what consequences he is trying to avoid; the implication is that a previous relationship with a woman led to unpleasant consequences, but this remains unspecified. It does, however, point to a general unwillingness on Krebs's part to commit to anything. He does not want to talk to girls, largely because he does not want to tell any more lies. Apparently for Krebs, talking to girls, then, must necessarily include lying.
- "Soldier's Home" was released as a film in 1977 by the Public Broadcasting Service. It was directed by Robert Young and stars Richard Bakus and Nancy March and. In 2006, it became available on DVD.
Krebs begins reading books about the war. From these books, he finally learns something about the war, although he wishes there were more maps. It is puzzling for the reader to understand why books about the war make Krebs feel good, when his own experiences of the war make him feel so uncomfortable. It is as if reading about the War allows him to control the experience in a way that talking about the War does not.
The story comes to a climax one morning when Mrs. Krebs enters her son's bedroom and sits on his bed. She tells him that Mr. Krebs has agreed to let Harold take out the car in the evenings, something he had not allowed before the War. Krebs is not fully awake, but is rude to his mother, suggesting that the only reason his father has offered the car is because his mother has "made him" do so. His mother ignores the remark, and asks Krebs to come downstairs for breakfast.
The scene that follows is both difficult and uncomfortable. When Krebs begins reading the newspaper at the breakfast table, clearly trying to distance himself from his mother, she berates him about his tendency to "muss up" the paper. She treats her son as if he is a child, not a man home from war. Krebs has a pleasant conversation with his sister Helen, whom he says that he loves. When Mrs. Krebs enters the dining room with breakfast, however, she tells Helen to leave because she wants to talk to her son.
Mrs. Krebs asks Krebs what he intends to do with his life. She confronts him with what other young men in their community are already doing. She even asserts, despite Krebs's denial, that everyone is part of God's Kingdom. Mrs. Krebs encourages her son to start going out with girls, and she tells him that she is praying for him. Throughout the lecture, Krebs remains silent, looking at the "bacon fat hardening on the plate." His mother delivers a message from his father: Krebs must visit him in his office on this day. She concludes by asking: "Don't you love your mother, dear boy?"
Krebs responds that he does not love anybody, a response that starts his mother crying and begins the guilt process for Krebs. When she tells him that she held him as a little baby, he replies, sounding like a child: "I know, Mummy. … I'll try and be a good boy for you." The transformation is painful for reader and character alike. Krebs has been manipulated by his mother to the point where he even kneels with her while she prays.
The story concludes with Krebs leaving the house, thinking he will go to Kansas City to get a job. There is no indication, however, that he does so. Readers must draw their own conclusion as to Krebs's future, because Hemingway leaves the door open to speculation.
Harold Krebs is a young man who has recently returned from his service with the U.S. Marines during World War I. His home is in a small town in Oklahoma. The story opens with the description of two photographs: in the first, Krebs is pictured with his fraternity brothers at the Methodist college he attended before the war. He is dressed exactly like the other young men and seems to have a place among them. In the second photograph, he is pictured with another soldier and some German girls immediately after the war in Europe. He is pictured here as being too big for his uniform, suggesting that he does not fit comfortably into either his uniform or his life. Now, with his return to Oklahoma, he seems to belong nowhere.
Krebs did not receive a hero's welcome on his return because he arrived after the other veterans. While the text of the story stipulates that Krebs arrived "years" after the other soldiers, this description could be ironic, since it is a historical fact that the Marine Corps unit of which Krebs was a part came back to the United States in 1919, just one year after the end of the war.
In the month since his return, Krebs has done little more than sleep, play pool, and sit on his front porch watching girls. He has little interest in anything else, and appears completely disengaged from his family, save for his younger sister Helen, with whom he seems to have a loving relationship. Krebs's relationship with his mother is particularly problematic. When she begins to nag him about deciding what he wants to do with his life, Krebs tells her that he does not love her. The remark seems to devastate Mrs. Krebs, and Krebs quickly tries to make up for it.
Several critics, such as Arthur Waldhorn in A Reader's Guide to Ernest Hemingway (1972) connect Krebs with Nick Adams, the protagonist in several other stories of In Our Time. Others, such as Kenneth Lynn in his book Hemingway, assert that Krebs is an autobiographical character and that his relationship with his mother stems from Hemingway's own troubled relationship with his mother. Still others, such as Thomas Putman, see in Krebs a representative of the returned war victim, unable to reconnect with his family. Hemingway's understated characterization makes each of these interpretations a possibility.
Helen Krebs is Harold Krebs's younger sister. She plays "indoor," the term used for women's baseball. Her role in the story is as a foil to Mrs. Krebs. Helen adores her brother, and sees him as a hero. She demands no explanations nor stories. Krebs is able to be honest with her, and she with him. Although she appears only briefly in the story, she is also a contrast to all of the girls that Krebs watches from the front porch. She is unlike the girls who demand talk and who present consequences. Finally, Helen Krebs is the only character in the story with whom Harold Krebs seems to have a loving relationship. There is a slight hint that the relationship is unseemly; Helen calls Harold her "beau" and Harold does not object. On the other hand, the exchange seems nonetheless innocent. In the last line of the story, Krebs decides that he will go to the school to watch Helen play indoor baseball. This tenuous thread of connection with another member of his family offers hope that Krebs will one day truly find his way home.
An important character in this story paradoxically never appears. Harold Krebs's father does not step into the story at any time except through messages that are conveyed through Mrs. Krebs. A telling phrase, "Mr. Krebs was noncommittal," describes the elder Krebs's absence from the story. There is the sense that Harold is merely following in his father's footsteps, absenting himself from all conflict, discussion, and commitment. When Mr. Krebs sends word through Mrs. Krebs that Harold should come and see him, Harold ignores the request. He appears to hold his father in disdain for his inability to stand up to his wife. Oddly, it is in his absence that Mr. Krebs reveals the most about the dysfunction of this family.
From the text of the story, it would be possible to arrive at two very different understandings of Mr. Krebs. On the one hand, the fact that he only sends messages through his wife, including one that orders Krebs to visit his father's office, could suggest that he is a tyrannical figure who sees himself above the other members of his family. Like a general, he sends his orders through his underlings. On the other hand—and this is the more widely accepted interpretation of Mr. Krebs—he is seen as a weak character, dominated by his wife. Krebs's disdain for his father and his disregard for his father's orders seem to support this interpretation. In addition, critics who read this story as autobiographical point to Mr. and Mrs. Hemingway as models for Mr. and Mrs. Krebs. By all accounts, Hemingway found his mother to be controlling and the dominant partner of the marriage. While relying too heavily on biographical detail to build an interpretation of a story can produce readings that are not in concert with the story, it is nevertheless interesting to speculate how much Hemingway's mother influenced her son's portrait of this marriage.
Mrs. Krebs is Harold's mother. She is a pious woman who appears to rule her household. She uses her husband's absence to manipulate those around her by phrasing her requests as messages from Mr. Krebs. Mrs. Krebs seems unable to accept the fact that Krebs has changed, and that he is no longer her little boy. Often, she goes into Krebs's room while he is lying in bed and sits on the bed talking to him. Her conversation usually centers around what other young men in the town are doing with their lives, and the implication is that Krebs must decide quickly what he is going to do. She often asks Krebs about the War, but fails to listen to his responses. It is as if she does not want to hear anything unpleasant, or anything that might suggest that the War has somehow changed Krebs. A change in Krebs might suggest that he is no longer her little boy, and that she might not have control of him any longer. Mrs. Krebs precipitates the climactic scene in the book at the breakfast table when she confronts Krebs about getting a job. When she asks: "Don't you love your mother, dear boy?" Krebs responds that he does not, and that he does not love anyone. This brings his mother to tears. She tells him that when he was a baby, she held him next to her heart. This image nauseates Krebs. It is difficult to determine whether the nausea is caused by the lies he tells his mother to keep her from crying, or if the image of being held to her breast is deeply disturbing to Krebs. In any event, with her tears, Mrs. Krebs succeeds in reducing Krebs to a childlike version of himself: "I know, Mummy," he says, "I'll try and be a good boy for you." While Krebs might have been a powerful soldier in the War, this scene illustrates that it is Mrs. Krebs who holds the power in the family.
In this very brief story, there is one additional character who never makes it into the text except for one very brief mention. Krebs has two sisters. Helen has dialogue and Krebs reports that she is his favorite sister. The second sister is never named nor does the story provide any text to describe her. While it might at first glance seem an unimportant detail, her absence from the story serves to emphasize the alienation Krebs feels from his family. His second sister's life is so unimportant to Krebs that he never thinks of her nor does she figure in any consideration of his life.
In "Soldier's Home," Hemingway introduces yet another of his young male characters who seems lost and alone in the world. Joseph DeFalco writes in The Hero in Hemingway's Short Stories that "the central character of the story is Krebs, and he is the personification of man alienated from the traditional source of solace. Church, family, and society no longer command allegiance from the individual who has experienced the purgatorial initiation of war."
To be alienated means to become an alien, a word that ultimately derives from the Latin word, alius, meaning "another." The word alias also comes from this root, and also carries with it the connotation of the division of identity. Someone using an alias, for example, is pretending to be someone he or she is not. An alien is also someone who is not a citizen of the particular country in which he or she lives, or someone who is excluded. In popular culture, the word alien often is used to refer to a being from outer space.
Certainly, it is unlikely that even a being from outer space would find itself more alienated than Krebs finds himself in his home town. This is, of course, ironic: home is supposed to be where the heart is, but Krebs is unable to locate his, or any other heart, in his small Oklahoma town. He moves through the story like a man in a dream, unable to shake lose from his stupor.
What causes Krebs's alienation? This is a question that elicits some debate. Clearly, one explanation is that Krebs suffers from what was called "shell shock" during World War I. Today, the term to describe the aftereffects of violence and death on witnesses is post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. The horrors—and the excitement—of war can make the return home very difficult for the veteran.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Research the writers living in Paris during the early 1920's, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Ford Madox Ford. What was their relationship to Ernest Hemingway? How did the interactions between these important writers influence their writing? Give a class presentation on your findings.
- Reviewer Paul Rosenfeld, in a 1925 article appearing in the New Republic, called Hemingway a "Cubist" writer. Visit an art gallery or use the Internet to view several Cubist paintings. Write an essay in which you explore how these works of art are like or unlike Hemingway's stories in In Our Time.
- Read Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, a book many critics believe to be the best writing about the Vietnam War ever produced. Compare and contrast O'Brien's style and structure with Hemingway's writing in In Our Time. In particular, make a graph in which you compare and contrast the character Norman Bowker from O'Brien's short story "Speaking of Courage" with Harold Krebs in "Soldier's Home."
- Read several biographical accounts of Hemingway's life. Write an essay in which you explain why critics choose to read "Soldier's Home" as a semi-autobiographical account of Hemingway's return from war?
Another compelling reason for Krebs's alienation is that he is caught in a world that is reeling wildly toward the modern era. Although many credit World War I with the rapid changes the world endured in the early twentieth century, in truth the transition from nineteenth century morals, culture, and belief systems had begun before the old century was even over. In virtually every field of human knowledge, change was rampant. In 1905, Einstein announced the special theory of relativity, a theory that shook the very underpinnings of our understanding of physical matter. In 1907, Picasso painted "Les Desmoiselles d'Avignon," a painting of prostitutes that stretched the possibilities of artistic representation to the breaking point. In 1920, just five years before the writing of "Soldier's Home," women in the United States were first given the right to vote. Everything changed, from the inside out and from the ground up. Krebs truly is an alien, a stranger in a strangely modern land that changed in the few short years he was away.
Commitment and Consequences
"Soldier's Home" is also a story about the main character's inability to make commitments for fear of the consequences those commitments might engender. It is unclear from the story why he has these fears; no mention is made of previous involvements that have turned sour. It is true, however, that the most extended discussion of commitment and consequences occurs when Krebs considers the girls of his hometown. Although he likes to watch the girls, he seems to feel that it will be too much effort to commit: "When he was in town, their appeal to him was not very strong. … He did not want themselves really. They were too complicated. There was something else. Vaguely he wanted a girl but he did not want to have to work to get her." The "something else" is oddly troubling; it hints that in his previous life, he might have had to work to get a girl, and that somehow this relationship was too difficult to consider now that the War was over.
In addition to his reluctance to committing to getting to know a girl, Krebs also is unwilling to take on the consequences of such a relationship: "He did not want any consequences. He did not want any consequences ever again. He wanted to live along without consequences." Later he states: "He knew he could never get through it all again." These two passages, as well as others in this section, strongly suggest that Krebs has had a relationship with a young woman before the war. In addition, it also suggests that the consequences of the relationship were somehow unpleasant. At the very least, the pleasure of the relationship itself was outweighed by the complications.
The inability to engage emotionally in human relationships is a theme that Hemingway develops in this story through the issue of commitment and consequences; it is a theme that he returns to again in his later novels. Most writers agree that this characteristic theme is particularly compelling; John Pidgeon, however, writing in Modern Times, argues that Hemingway "had only one tune to play. It is the theme of non-commitment and uninvolvement. This is a nihilistic idea and does not in the end qualify him for the honor of literary genius." What Pidgeon misses, of course, is that Hemingway himself took very seriously his commitment to his readers, and that Krebs's non-involvement is not Hemingway's.
Krebs's lack of emotional commitment has one important exception in the story. He loves his younger sister. If there is any hope in this story, it resides in this relationship. While Krebs might desire of life of no consequence, it is at least possible that Helen will pull him back into his life.
Changing Narrative Voice
One of Hemingway's most characteristic stylistic features is the narrative voice that tells his stories. This feature is particularly interesting in "Soldier's Home" in that although the sentence structure and vocabulary remain consistent throughout the novel, the voice itself changes from the beginning to end, starting from what would appear to be an objective, omniscient, third person point of view to a highly subjective, nearly first person internal narrative.
Many critics have commented on Hemingway's narrative style. Thomas Strychacz, writing in the Cambridge Companion to Ernest Hemingway, for example, argues that the narrative voice is a remarkable artistic achievement in "Soldier's Home." "Understanding Krebs'[s] behavior depends in part on how we read Hemingway's striking stylistic performance. … Krebs'[s] homecoming is rendered with obsessive repetitiveness in a flat prose so neutral that it sounds almost scientifically detached."
The narration in the beginning of the story seems nearly voiceless; there are a series of declarative statements describing in flat detail two different photographs of Krebs. The narrative is detached from that which it describes, looking in from the outside. By the fourth paragraph, however, there is a shift. The sentences become longer, and begin to describe what goes on inside of Krebs:
A distaste for everything that had happened to him in the war set in because of the lies he had told. All of the times that had been able to make him feel cool and clear inside himself when he thought of them; the times so long back when he had done the one thing, the only thing for a man to do, easily and naturally, when he might have done something else, now lost their cool, valuable quality and then were lost themselves.
Because the prose is so elliptical, that is, because the narrative leaves so much out, it becomes closer to the interior monologues, or stream of consciousness writing of other modernists, such as Virginia Woolfe or James Joyce. The narrative voice is clearly sympathetic to Krebs. As it follows him through his day, there is never any negative judgment of his choices to stay in bed or play pool or just watch girls walk by. When Krebs's mother begins her diatribe about finding work, the narrative voice reports what she says in a seemingly objective way, but also links her voice to "the bacon fat hardening on his plate," a particularly unattractive image. Further, by the end of the story, the narrative voice seems to have merged with that of Krebs himself. Seven sentences in the last paragraph start with the word "he" and could just as well start with "I."
As a technique, shifting the narrative in this way leads the reader from an objective assessment of Krebs to an identification with him, troubled by what he has seen in the war, lost in the new world called home, and berated by a mother who loves him but no longer knows him.
If the narrative voice of "Soldier's Home" is the first of Hemingway's characteristic stylistic devices, then surely dialogue is the second. Robert Paul Lamb, writing in Twentieth Century Literature, argues that in stories like "Soldier's Home" and "Hills Like White Elephants," "Hemingway evolved the techniques that would change the nature of twentieth-century fictional dialogue." As Lamb notes, Hemingway's technique included stripping dialogue to its barest by omitting all but the most necessary words. At the same time, Hemingway relied on the dialogue to carry the weight of the story.
"Soldier's Home" does not have the amount of dialogue present in several of Hemingway's other stories; nonetheless, the dialogue carries considerable weight in the construction of character in this story. The character with the most words in "Soldier's Home" is not the protagonist, but rather it is his mother. For a character in a Hemingway short story, Mrs. Krebs talks a lot; not only does she have more speeches, her lines are longer than those of any other character. Analyzing her lines, it is possible to deduce that her favorite mode of speech is the imperative mode. She tells Krebs not to muss the paper, to put down the paper, not to look the way he looks, to make a start at something, and to pray. In addition, she makes additional commands, thinly veiled as questions. For example, she says: "Have you decided what you are going to do yet, Harold?" This is not truly a question, but rather a statement that Harold must decide what to do. Likewise, when she asks Krebs: "Would you kneel and pray with me, Harold?", she is not interested at all in what Harold would like. Rather, this is a command made explicit three lines later: "Now, you pray, Harold."
Furthermore, Mrs. Krebs has more speeches and more words than any other character in the story at least partially because she speaks for her husband. More than half of her statements refer to her husband, or report things that her husband has supposedly said. Ironically, her speeches have erased the husband from the story. He never actually appears, as he has been effectively silenced by his wife. Likewise, Mrs. Krebs appears to be attempting the same linguistic maneuver with her son. The more that she talks, the less Harold talks. By the end of the story, readers are left with the impression that Harold might walk right out of his house, silenced by his mother, on his way to Kansas City.
World War I
World War I, fought between 1914 and 1918, engulfed Europe in some of the most terrible fighting ever experienced by humankind. To this day, the trenches of the Western Front evoke horror among scholars and students alike. When the United States entered the War in 1917, on the side of the British and the French, the fresh troops turned the tide for the Allied forces. At the same time, young American men were subjected to unbelievably brutal conditions. Many Americans suffered from what was then called shell shock, and has since become known as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Hemingway himself did not serve in the trenches, but rather was posted to Italy. That he has chosen, however, to place Krebs's service on the Western Front of France and Belgium in some of the most brutal battles of the war is highly significant. In the third paragraph, he states that Krebs "had been at Belleau Wood, Soissons, the Champagne, St. Miheil and in the Argonne." These were real battles that the Marines participated in, and Hemingway's readers would certainly have recognized these names. The new technology of war, including machine guns, mustard gas, and aerial bombardment, tied with outmoded military strategy led to an extraordinarily high casualty count in each of these battles.
Reading "Soldier's Home" without an understanding of this backdrop leads to an incomplete understanding of Krebs's complete incapacitation. His war experience, like that of men before him and men after him, becomes the pivotal focus in his life.
The Lost Generation
In the years immediately after World War I, there was very rapid social change in the United States. Technology and the economy boomed, and women achieved greater freedom, receiving the right to vote in 1920. As Krebs notices as he watches the girls while he sits on the front porch, they wore their skirts and their hair shorter than they had before he left.
As American soldiers made their way home, some found it difficult to settle back into their prewar lives. For some, particularly those with literary aspirations, the strong U.S. dollar made it possible for them to return to Europe where they could live for much less than in the United States. In addition, they were familiar with the language and they appreciated less restrictive moral codes. Between 1921 and 1924, the American population of Paris grew from 6,000 to 30,000.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1920s: The members of the American Expeditionary Force have returned from Europe to find a very different country awaiting them. Shocked by the horrors of the war, and exposed to the world at large, some men have a difficult time settling back into life in their home towns.
Today: The members of the United States Armed Forces cycle in and out of the war in Iraq, leaving their families and loved ones. Men and women serving in Iraq may have difficulty readjusting to life back at home.
- 1920s: A large group of American writers live in Paris, enjoying the low cost of living, the unrestrictive moral codes, and the vibrant cultural life.
Today: Although there are Americans living in Paris, there is no longer an American writers' colony of the size or prestige of earlier days.
- 1920s: The literary and artistic avant-garde experiment with genre and convention. They push the boundaries of representational art and abstraction.
Today: The experimentation in art and literature begun almost a century earlier continues into the twenty-first century. New technologies greatly expand the limit of what is possible in graphic arts and written texts.
By 1924, the year Hemingway wrote "Soldier's Home," the large community of expatriate writers included such literary luminaries as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and James Joyce. Hemingway found his way to this community through a letter of introduction to Stein, written for him by American writer Sherwood Anderson.
Gertrude Stein famously coined the phrase "The Lost Generation" to describe this large group of young writers that frequented her literary salon. Hemingway picked up on the phrase, using it as an epigraph for his memoir of the Paris years called The Moveable Feast, and he also used the idea of a lost generation, a generation damaged by war and violence, unable to commit or put down roots in many of his stories and novels of the period. Disillusioned by the war, the lost generation rejected the morality of their parents, believing the values they grew up with were a sham. Krebs's difficulty with his parents, and his discomfort with his mother's piety, identify him as a member of this generation.
In Our Time, Hemingway's groundbreaking collection of short stories, appeared in 1925 to extensive critical review. In many ways, this book was as revolutionary in literature as Picasso's early Cubist work had been in art. (Cubism was a highly influential art form that emerged early in the twentieth century. Cubists such as Picasso broke an object into pieces, analyzed the object, and then reassembled the object in an abstract form in an attempt to offer alternative perspectives of the object.) In a critique appearing in the New Republic shortly after the book's publication, Paul Rosenfeld writes: "Hemingway's short stories belong with Cubist painting, ‘Le Sacre du Printemps’ and other recent work bringing a feeling of positive forces through primitive modern idiom." It should be noted, however, that by 2006, critics such as Lisa Narbeshuber, having arrived at a different analysis of Cubism, argue that "Soldier's Home" and the stories of In Our Time stand in stark contrast to the ideals of Cubism. As Narbeshuber writes in the Hemingway Review, "Behind the spirit of the original Cubists working between 1907 and 1914, when Cubism was a unique way of seeing the world, rather than just a set of techniques, is an attitude towards reality that Hemingway decidedly rejects."
In any event, the book was so different from a traditional collection of short stories that contemporary critics had a difficult time even knowing how to classify it. The famous English novelist D. H. Lawrence, writing in 1927 in Calendar of Modern Letters, for example, suggests that "In Our Time calls itself a book of stories, but it isn't that. It is a series of successive sketches from a man's life and makes a fragmentary novel."
Not all critics appreciated Hemingway's style. In a famous essay included in Life and Letters, Wyndham Lewis, the English painter and writer, takes exception to American writer Gertrude Stein's influence on the young Hemingway, particularly in "Soldier's Home." He writes: "There is no possibility, I am afraid, of slurring over this. It is just a thing you have to accept as an unfortunate handicap in an artist who is in some respects above praise…. Krebs, for instance, is a full-blooded example of Hemingway [Gertrude] steining away for all he is worth."
"Soldier's Home," along with the "Nick Adams" stories, is frequently singled out from the collection for critical commentary. In 1963, Joseph DeFalco presented what continues to be one of the most important readings of the short story, and this is included in his book The Hero in Hemingway's Short Stories. He offers an analysis of the narrative structure of the story, arguing that this structure parallels Krebs's process of individuation. He further asserts that "the root of Krebs's conflict is grounded in the home environment." Further, critics John J. McKenna and David Raabe see Krebs's problems to be rooted in temperamental conflicts with his parents. They write in Studies in Short Fiction that "Hemingway's ‘Soldier's Home’ is a remarkable illustration of the conflict and tension that result from the collision of different core values arising from contrasting temperaments."
Another group of critics, while agreeing that "Soldier's Home" is autobiographical in that it reflects Hemingway's experiences, choose instead to focus on the theme of the soldier returning from war. Matthew C. Stewart, writing in Papers on Language & Literature, for example, asserts: "Clearly mother-son dynamics are of great importance in "Soldier's Home," but the story's sine qua non is the depiction of a war veteran struggling to readjust to post-war civilian life. The family tensions cannot be seen as an issue somehow distinct from Krebs's status as a returned soldier." Likewise, George Cheatham, in the Hemingway Review, takes a decidedly historical view of the story, arguing that "increasingly critics have come to realize what Hemingway's title, In Our Time, has been declaring all along—that time, place, and cultural history do matter for readers of this Hemingway text." Steven Trout, in another issue of the Hemingway Review, also provides a historical rationale for Krebs's conflict by connecting it with the actual problems encountered by the American Expeditionary Forces when they returned after the War.
Still other critics, while arguing that an understanding of Hemingway's real-life war experience as well as that of Krebs is crucial for reading "Soldier's Home," assert that this experience can be generalized to include returning veterans from other conflicts. Vietnam War veterans in particular seem to find an affinity with Krebs's dilemma. Frederic J. Svoboda, writing in A Historical Guide to Ernest Hemingway comments:
Vietnam War veterans have suggested to me that the experience of reading Hemingway's stories is like being dropped behind enemy lines, with everything to be figured out in an instant. These veterans have found the disillusioned World War I veteran Krebs of "Soldier's Home" reflecting accurately their experiences of ambiguous and unsatisfying homecoming.
It is, therefore, not much of a stretch to see Hemingway's influence on later writers of war experience, such as Tim O'Brien, the quintessential author of Vietnam War stories.
In a particularly well-written analysis of the story, Robert Paul Lamb in the Hemingway Review, provides not only an excellent overview of the published criticism surrounding "Soldier's Home," he also suggests that the story is like other iconic texts of the early twentieth century such as F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, John Dos Passos's Manhattan Transfer, and T. S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men." All attempt, according to Lamb, to capture "the experience of a people in painful transition: their failed institutions, their confused and often tragic attempts to hold onto past ideals and ideologies, and their inevitable failure."
That this small story in a slim volume provokes so many, and often heated, critical discussions is a testament to its power. As readers continue to experience the world in new and different ways, and as war continues to be a part of contemporary reality, it is likely that many more interpretations remain to be written.
Diane Andrews Henningfeld
Henningfeld is a literary critic who writes widely for educational publishers. In this essay, she regards "Soldier's Home" through the lens of reader response criticism.
Among Hemingway's short stories, "Soldier's Home" has generated some of the most diverse readings. Some critics regard this story as autobiographical, seeing in it a reflection of Hemingway's family situation or a response to his experience in the war. These critics focus on Hemingway's so-called intentions for the story as well as Hemingway's psychological state when he wrote the story. In other words, these critics find meaning in the story through an understanding and examination of Hemingway's life. Still other critics look specifically at the text itself, asking questions about how the parts of the story fit together, how the story is (or is not) unified, and how the denotation and connotation of various words create irony in the story, an irony that sometimes undermines what Hemingway seems to be saying. For these critics, meaning resides within the text itself, independent of Hemingway. Critics of this school go to great measure to identify the unifying themes, structures, and ideas of any given work.
A third approach, and one that seems particularly well suited for a reading of "Soldier's Home," is called reader response, or reception theory. This critique argues that the meaning of a piece of literature resides in the reader, and that readers make meaning through a process of negotiation between the words on the page and the reader's own understanding of the words. Reader response criticism grew popular in the 1970s and continues to exert considerable influence on the ways that literature is read and taught. Rather than being interested in the unity of a work, practitioners of reader response criticism are instead interested in the gaps in a text. It is the struggle of the reader to make meaning out of fragmentary texts and to fill in the gaps that the reader response critic seeks to describe. Likewise, the critic is interested in the ways that characters inside the story demonstrate reading strategies. Finally, reader response critics consider the implied reader of a text. That is, they consider how a reader's background, gender, age, and personal history might affect the reading of a text.
Hubert Zapf in his article in New Critical Approaches to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway correctly notes that critics have considered the role of the reader in Hemingway's fiction long before reader response critique became popular. He notes that Hemingway's style necessitates such an approach in that "the most conspicuous elements of [Hemingway's] technique were the use of emotional understatement; the extreme reduction of language, style, and fictional world; and the deliberate strategy of leaving out relevant information."
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- A Farewell to Arms (1929) is Hemingway's important novel about World War I. This novel can be read as a companion piece to the stories in In Our Time.
- The Things They Carried (1990) is a collection of related short stories by Tim O'Brien, all set during the Vietnam War. O'Brien's work has often been compared to Hemingway's, and there is a close connection between O'Brien's story "Speaking of Courage" and Hemingway's "Soldier's Home."
- Michael Reynold's Hemingway: The Paris Years (1989) is considered to be the benchmark biography about Hemingway's early years as a writer. Reynold's book covers the period immediately before and after the writing of "Soldier's Home."
- Raymond Carver is a twentieth-century American short story writer whose work shows the influence of Hemingway's style. Where I'm Calling From: New and Selected Stories (1988) is an interesting book for anyone interested in Hemingway's short stories.
- Modern Art: Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture (1992), by Sam Hunter and John Jacobus, provides an excellent overview of modernism and the Cubist revolution. Copious illustrations and photographs of important works of art are included.
- Ernest Hemingway: A Literary Reference (2002), edited by Robert W. Trogden, is a documentary history of Hemingway and his writing. Included are facsimiles of Hemingway's manuscripts as well as abundant photographs from all periods of Hemingway's life.
Therefore, the first thing a reader response critic might do in approaching "Soldier's Home" is to identify some of the important gaps in the story created by understatement, the reduction of language, and the omission of crucial details. When the story opens, two pictures of Harold Krebs are described. In the first, he is a student at a Methodist college, standing with his fraternity brothers. In the second, he is in a uniform standing with some German girls in Germany. The story immediately turns to his return to the United States, later than those men who had been drafted, and how he did not receive a hero's welcome when he arrived.
Next, the narrator tells the reader that Krebs had been present at nearly every major battle that Americans participated in during World War I. When he first returns, Krebs does not want to talk about the war. Later, he wants to talk about it, but discovers that without fictionalizing his account, people are not interested in his stories. The opening sequence, then, reveals an important and large gap: what was Krebs's experience during the war? Hemingway leaves out the details, requiring the reader to decide the nature of the experience. If, on the one hand, Krebs participated in the front lines, he would have seen terrible examples of violence and death. This could account for his lack of engagement in life, and the difficulty he has fitting back into his town. If, on the other hand, he was merely at these places, and saw no action at all, his lethargy must be caused by something else, perhaps his relationship with his family. So much of the interpretation of this story depends on Krebs's military service that readers must try to pick up hints and innuendos to fill in the blanks.
A second extraordinary gap in the text is the complete absence of Krebs's father from the story. Although Krebs's mother continually makes reference to him, and to conversations she has had with him, he never actually appears. All that remain of Krebs's father are the textual traces left by Krebs's mother. Readers, therefore, are left to fill in the blank spaces again. Is Mr. Krebs an overly strict, draconian type of father, a father that Krebs fears? Is he a man who might fly into a rage if his morning paper has been mussed? Or has he made the same choice that his son has made, to avoid emotional engagement within his own family? The way the reader chooses to interpret this absence will deeply influence his or her understanding of the rest of the story.
A third gap waiting for the reader is that of Krebs's previous experience with women. There are hints throughout the story that he has been involved with a woman before, but that it did not work out well. His repetition of the word "consequences" and his desire to live a life without consequences suggests that he experienced some unpleasant consequences as a result of his relationship with a woman. In addition, his relationship with his mother is unclear. Has she always infantilized him and used guilt to make him do what she wants? Or is her behavior to Krebs in the story the result of some profound change in him, a change that readers are not privy to, since they do not know what he was like before the war, except for the very brief picture of him at college?
Another strategy employed by reader response critics is to closely examine examples of reading within the text. In "Soldier's Home," Krebs reads a book on the war while sitting on his porch. The book contains accounts of "all the engagements he had been in. It was the most interesting reading he had ever done. He wished there were more maps." Because Hemingway offers so few clues about Krebs and his war experience, the details of his reading about the war seems to be highly significant. Although he has experienced the war himself, up close, it is not until he reads a narration of the war that he begins to understand what it was he participated in. Like the reader of "Soldier's Home," Krebs, too, must fill in the gaps of his experience. Only through an act of imagination can he, and the readers of this story, begin to understand the larger issues involved. Ironically, of course, whenever actual events are shaped into a narrative, such as in the history book that Krebs is reading, the narrative itself replaces the experience. For example, if a person takes a trip and sees the Grand Canyon, when he or she returns home, he or she will tell the story of the trip, and in the telling, the memory of the trip will change. Likewise, as Krebs reads the accounts of the battles, his own experience of the battles shifts to conform with what he has read.
Finally, reader response critics must consider what the reader's background brings to the text. When Hemingway wrote "Soldier's Home," it was just seven years after the United States entered World War I, and only five years after the soldiers returned home. Consequently, he could reasonably expect that people reading his book would have first hand knowledge of men who marched to war, and that the readers would be familiar with the names of the battles. To place Krebs at the Argonne, Belleau Woods, and Soissons battles would have elicited a particular kind of response from a reader in 1925. In addition, readers in 1925 would have experienced first hand the radical cultural and social shifts only hinted at in the story. Students today, on the other hand, would not recognize the names of the battles, and might not have any previous knowledge of World War I. The way contemporary readers will fill in the blanks will be very different from the way the early readers of the text would fill in those same blanks.
Gender also affects how readers approach a story. Women reading "Soldier's Home" might consider what it would be like to have a son return home from war, a son who will not get out of bed, and will not find a job. Men might think about their own experiences with women. Men and women who have returned from Afghanistan or Iraq might compare their own memories of war with what little can be gleaned from Krebs's accounts.
Perhaps most fascinating of all is what happens when a reader reads a story many times. Reader response critic Stanley Fish coined the phrase "self-consuming artifacts," in his aptly titled Self-Consuming Artifacts: The Experience of Seventeenth Century Literature, to describe the way that a play destroys itself as it is being performed. That is, when a group of actors performs Hamlet for example, each night's performance is a unique event that can never be duplicated. An actor might say a line differently, or someone in the audience might cough at a crucial time. Thus, even though a playgoer might see Hamlet fifteen times, each experience will be unique, an artifact that ceases to exist once the temporal experience of watching the play is over.
This phenomenon is not limited to watching plays, however. Each time a reader approaches a story, it is a unique experience. In the case of a first reading of "Soldier's Home," a reader does not know anything about the characters ahead of time; the story unfolds with each line. However, on a second reading, the reader knows from the beginning that Mrs. Krebs will serve bacon and eggs to her son before making him get down on his knees to pray. Knowing the end of the story irrevocably changes the meaning the reader derives in each subsequent reading. Similarly, when rereading a story, a reader is likely to notice a detail that he or she overlooked in the earlier reading. This detail has the potential of undermining the set of meanings that the reader previously developed. Thus each reading destroys the previous readings. And in a text shot through with blank spaces, multiple meanings proliferate.
John A. Pidgeon, in an article in Modern Age accuses Hemingway of being "very much like the musician who knows only one note or tune and who plays it over and over again." He further suggests that Hemingway's repeated theme of non-commitment and uninvolvement ultimately removes the "honor of literary genius" from him. However, once one looks at a story like "Soldier's Home" from a reader response perspective, this criticism does not hold. The notes of "Soldier's Home" are varied and tuneful, but change with each reading. Hemingway's deliberate tactic of leaving out more information than he puts in requires an active and participatory reader, one who will hear the tune in his or her own key. Further, while Hemingway's characters might seem uninvolved and non-committed, Hemingway himself was deeply and fully involved in his writing, and deeply and fully committed to his reader. Only a writer who cared about the reader would write a text with so much room for possibility, so much space for making meaning, so many paths to follow.
Ultimately, in "Soldier's Home" there is a story that defies a univocal, or single, meaning. It deliberately pushes the reader to imaginatively fill in the gaps.
Source: Diane Andrews Henningfeld, Critical Essay on "Soldier's Home," in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning,2008.
In the following essay, the critic gives a critical analysis of Hemingway's work.
"The writer's job is to tell the truth," Ernest Hemingway once said. When he was having difficulty writing he reminded himself of this, as he explained in his memoirs, A Moveable Feast. "I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say."
Hemingway's personal and artistic quests for truth were directly related. As Earl Rovit noted: "More often than not, Hemingway's fictions seem rooted in his journeys into himself much more clearly and obsessively than is usually the case with major fiction writers…. His writing was his way of approaching his identity—of discovering himself in the projected metaphors of his experience. He believed that if he could see himself clear and whole, his vision might be useful to others who also lived in this world."
The public's acquaintance with the personal life of Hemingway was perhaps greater than with any other modern novelist. He was well known as a sportsman and bon vivant and his escapades were covered in such popular magazines as Life and Esquire. Hemingway became a legendary figure, wrote John W. Aldridge, "a kind of twentieth-century Lord Byron; and like Byron, he had learned to play himself, his own best hero, with superb conviction. He was Hemingway of the rugged outdoor grin and the hairy chest posing beside a marlin he had just landed or a lion he had just shot; he was Tarzan Hemingway, crouching in the African bush with elephant gun at ready, Bwana Hemingway commanding his native bearers in terse Swahili; he was War Correspondent Hemingway writing a play in the Hotel Florida in Madrid while thirty Fascist shells crashed through the roof; later on he was Task Force Hemingway swathed in ammunition belts and defending his post single handed against fierce German attacks." Anthony Burgess declared: "Reconciling literature and action, he fulfilled for all writers, the sickroom dream of leaving the desk for the arena, and then returning to the desk. He wrote good and lived good, and both activities were the same. The pen handled with the accuracy of the rifle; sweat and dignity; bags of cojones."
Hemingway's search for truth and accuracy of expression is reflected in his terse, economical prose style, which is widely acknowledged to be his greatest contribution to literature. What Frederick J. Hoffman called Hemingway's "esthetic of simplicity" involves a "basic struggle for absolute accuracy in making words correspond to experience." For Hemingway, William Barrett commented, "style was a moral act, a desperate struggle for moral probity amid the confusions of the world and the slippery complexities of one's own nature. To set things down simple and right is to hold a standard of rightness against a deceiving world."
In a discussion of Hemingway's style, Sheldon Norman Grebstein listed these characteristics: "first, short and simple sentence constructions, with heavy use of parallelism, which convey the effect of control, terseness, and blunt honesty; second, purged diction which above all eschews the use of bookish, latinate, or abstract words and thus achieves the effect of being heard or spoken or transcribed from reality rather than appearing as a construct of the imagination (in brief, verisimilitude); and third, skillful use of repetition and a kind of verbal counterpoint, which operate either by pairing or juxtaposing opposites, or else by running the same word or phrase through a series of shifting meanings and inflections."
One of Hemingway's greatest virtues as a writer was his self-discipline. He described how he accomplished this in A Moveable Feast. "If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written…. I decided that I would write one story about each thing that I knew about. I was trying to do this all the time I was writing, and it was good and severe discipline." His early training in journalism as a reporter for the Kansas City Star and the Toronto Star is often mentioned as a factor in the development of his lean style. Later, as a foreign correspondent he learned the even more rigorously economic language of "cablese," in which each word must convey the meaning of several others. While Hemingway acknowledged his debt to journalism in Death in the Afternoon by commenting that "in writing for a newspaper you told what happened and with one trick and another, you communicated the emotion to any account of something that has happened on that day," he admitted that the hardest part of fiction writing, "the real thing," was contriving "the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion and which would be valid in a year or ten years or, with luck and if you stated it purely enough, always."
Although Hemingway has named numerous writers as his literary influences, his contemporaries mentioned most often in this regard are Ring Lardner, Sherwood Anderson, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein. Malcolm Cowley assessed the importance of Stein and Pound (who were both friends of Hemingway) to his literary development, while stressing that the educational relationship was mutual. "One thing he took partly from her [Stein] was a colloquial—in appearance—American style, full of repeated words, prepositional phrases, and present participles, the style in which he wrote his early published stories. One thing he took from Pound—in return for trying vainly to teach him to box—was the doctrine of the accurate image, which he applied in the ‘chapters’ printed between the stories that went into In Our Time; but Hemingway also learned from him to blue pencil most of his adjectives." Hemingway has commented that he learned how to write as much from painters as from other writers. Cezanne was one of his favorite painters and Wright Morris has compared Hemingway's stylistic method to that of Cezanne. "A Cezanne-like simplicity of scene is built up with the touches of a master, and the great effects are achieved with a sublime economy. At these moments style and substance are of one piece, each growing from the other, and one cannot imagine that life could exist except as described. We think only of what is there, and not, as in the less successful moments, of all of the elements of experience that are not."
While most critics have found Hemingway's prose exemplary (Jackson J. Benson claimed that he had "perhaps the best ear that has ever been brought to the creation of English prose"), Leslie A. Fiedler complained that Hemingway learned to write "through the eye rather than the ear. If his language is colloquial, it is written colloquial, for he was constitutionally incapable of hearing English as it was spoken around him. To a critic who once asked him why his characters all spoke alike, Hemingway answered, ‘Because I never listen to anybody.’"
Hemingway's earlier novels and short stories were largely praised for their unique style. Paul Goodman, for example, was pleased with the "sweetness" of the writing in A Farewell to Arms. "When it [sweetness] appears, the short sentences coalesce and flow, and sing—sometimes melancholy, sometimes pastoral, sometimes personally embarrassed in an adult, not adolescent, way. In the dialogues, he pays loving attention to the spoken word. And the writing is meticulous; he is sweetly devoted to writing well. Most everything else is resigned, but here he makes an effort, and the effort produces lovely moments."
But in his later works, particularly Across the River and Into the Trees and the posthumously published Islands in the Stream, the Hemingway style degenerated into near self-parody. "In the best of early Hemingway it always seemed that if exactly the right words in exactly the right order were not chosen, something monstrous would occur, an unimaginably delicate internal warning system would be thrown out of adjustment, and some principle of personal and artistic integrity would be fatally compromised," John Aldridge wrote. "But by the time he came to write The Old Man and the Sea there seems to have been nothing at stake except the professional obligation to sound as much like Hemingway as possible. The man had disappeared behind the mannerism, the artist behind the artifice, and all that was left was a coldly flawless facade of words." Foster Hirsch found that Hemingway's "mawkish self-consciousness is especially evident in Islands in the Stream." Across the River and Into the Trees, according to Philip Rahv, "reads like a parody by the author of his own manner—a parody so biting that it virtually destroys the mixed social and literary legend of Hemingway." And Carlos Baker wrote: "In the lesser works of his final years … nostalgia drove him to the point of exploiting his personal idiosyncrasies, as if he hoped to persuade readers to accept these in lieu of that powerful union of objective discernment and subjective response which he had once been able to achieve."
But Hemingway was never his own worst imitator. He was perhaps the most influential writer of his generation and scores of writers, particularly the hard-boiled writers of the thirties, attempted to adapt his tough, understated prose to their own works, usually without success. As Clinton S. Burhans, Jr., noted: "The famous and extraordinarily eloquent concreteness of Hemingway's style is inimitable precisely because it is not primarily stylistic: the how of Hemingway's style is the what of his characteristic vision."
It is this organicism, the skillful blend of style and substance, that made Hemingway's works so successful, despite the fact that many critics have complained that he lacked vision. Hemingway avoided intellectualism because he thought it shallow and pretentious. His unique vision demanded the expression of emotion through the description of action rather than of passive thought. In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway explained, "I was trying to write then and I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel, was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion you experienced."
Even morality, for Hemingway, was a consequence of action and emotion. He stated his moral code in Death in the Afternoon: "What is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after." Lady Brett Ashley, in The Sun Also Rises, voices this pragmatic morality after she has decided to leave a young bullfighter, believing the break to be in his best interests. She says: "You know it makes one feel rather good deciding not to be a bitch…. It's sort of what we have instead of God."
Hemingway's perception of the world as devoid of traditional values and truths and instead marked by disillusionment and moribund idealism, is a characteristically twentieth-century vision. World War I was a watershed for Hemingway and his generation. As an ambulance driver in the Italian infantry, Hemingway had been severely wounded. The war experience affected him profoundly, as he told Malcolm Cowley. "In the first war I was hurt very badly; in the body, mind, and spirit, and also morally." The heroes of his novels were similarly wounded. According to Max Westbrook they "awake to a world gone to hell. World War I has destroyed belief in the goodness of national governments. The depression has isolated man from his natural brotherhood. Institutions, concepts, and insidious groups of friends and ways of life are, when accurately seen, a tyranny, a sentimental or propagandistic rationalization."
Both of Hemingway's first two major novels, The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms, were "primarily descriptions of a society that had lost the possibility of belief. They were dominated by an atmosphere of Gothic ruin, boredom, sterility and decay," John Aldridge wrote. "Yet if they had been nothing more than descriptions, they would inevitably have been as empty of meaning as the thing they were describing." While Alan Lebowitz contended that because the theme of despair "is always an end in itself, the fiction merely its transcription, … it is a dead end," Aldridge believed that Hemingway managed to save the novels by salvaging the characters' values and transcribing them "into a kind of moral network that linked them together in a unified pattern of meaning."
In the search for meaning Hemingway's characters necessarily confront violence. Omnipresent violence is a fact of existence, according to Hemingway. Even in works such as The Sun Also Rises in which violence plays a minimal role, it is always present subliminally—"woven into the structure of life itself," William Barrett remarked. In other works violence is more obtrusive: the wars in A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls, the hostility of nature which is particularly evident in the short stories, and the violent sports such as bullfighting and big game hunting that are portrayed in numerous works.
"Hemingway is the dramatist of the extreme situation. His overriding theme is honour, personal honour: by what shall a man live, by what shall a man die, in a world the essential condition of whose being is violence?" Walter Allen wrote. "These problems are posed rather than answered in his first book In Our Time, a collection of short stories in which almost all of Hemingway's later work is contained by implication."
The code by which Hemingway's heroes must live (Philip Young has termed them "code heroes") is contingent on the qualities of courage, self-control, and "grace under pressure." Irving Howe has described the typical Hemingway hero as a man "who is wounded but bears his wounds in silence, who is defeated but finds a remnant of dignity in an honest confrontation of defeat." Furthermore, the hero's great desire must be to "salvage from the collapse of social life a version of stoicism that can make suffering bearable; the hope that in direct physical sensation, the cold water of the creek in which one fishes or the purity of the wine made by Spanish peasants, there can be found an experience that can resist corruption."
Hemingway has been accused of exploiting and sensationalizing violence. However, Leo Gurko remarked that "the motive behind Hemingway's heroic figures is not glory, or fortune, or the righting of injustice, or the thirst for experience. They are inspired neither by vanity nor ambition nor a desire to better the world. They have no thoughts of reaching a state of higher grace or virtue. Instead, their behavior is a reaction to the moral emptiness of the universe, an emptiness that they feel compelled to fill by their own special efforts."
If life is an endurance contest and the hero's response to it is prescribed and codified, the violence itself is stylized. As William Barrett asserted: "It is always played, even in nature, perhaps above all in nature, according to some form. The violence erupts within the patterns of war or the patterns of the bullring." Clinton S. Burhans, Jr., is convinced that Hemingway's "fascination with bullfighting stems from his view of it as an art form, a ritual tragedy in which man confronts the creatural realities of violence, pain, suffering, and death by imposing on them an esthetic form which gives them order, significance, and beauty."
It is not necessary (or even possible) to understand the complex universe—it is enough for Hemingway's heroes to find solace in beauty and order. Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea cannot understand why he must kill the great fish he has come to love, Burhans noted. Hemingway described Santiago's confusion: "I do not understand these things, he thought. But it is good we do not try to kill the sun or the moon or the stars. It is enough to live on the sea and kill our brothers."
Despite Hemingway's pessimism, Ihab Hassan declared that it is "perverse to see only the emptiness of Hemingway's world. In its lucid spaces, a vision of archetypal unity reigns. Opposite forces obey a common destiny; enemies discover their deeper identity; the hunter and the hunted merge. The matador plunges his sword, and for an instant in eternity, man and beast are the same. This is the moment of truth, and it serves Hemingway as symbol of the unity which underlies both love and death. His fatalism, his tolerance of bloodshed, his stoical reserve before the malice of creation, betray a sacramental attitude that transcends any personal fate."
Death is not the ultimate fear: the Hemingway hero knows how to confront death. What he truly fears is nada (the Spanish word for nothing)—existence in a state of nonbeing. Hemingway's characters are alone. He is not concerned with human relationships as much as with portraying man's individual struggle against an alien, chaotic universe. His characters exist in the "island condition," Stephen L. Tanner has noted. He compared them to the islands of an archipelago "consistently isolated [and] alone in the stream of society."
Several critics have noted that Hemingway's novels suffer because of his overriding concern with the individual. For Whom the Bell Tolls, a novel about the Spanish Civil War, has engendered controversy on this matter. While it is ostensibly a political novel about a cause that Hemingway believed in fervently, critics such as Alvah C. Bessie were disappointed that Hemingway was still concerned exclusively with the personal. "The cause of Spain does not, in any essential way, figure as a motivating power, a driving, emotional, passional force in this story." Bessie wrote. "In the widest sense, that cause is actually irrelevant to the narrative. For the author is less concerned with the fate of the Spanish people, whom I am certain he loves, than he is with the fate of his hero and heroine, who are himself. … For all his groping the author of the Bell has yet to integrate his individual sensitivity to life with the sensitivity of every living human being (read the Spanish people); he has yet to expand his personality as a novelist to embrace the truths of other people, everywhere; he has yet to dive deep into the lives of others, and there to find his own." But Mark Schorer contended that in For Whom the Bell Tolls Hemingway's motive is to portray "a tremendous sense of man's dignity and worth, an urgent awareness of the necessity of man's freedom, a nearly poetic realization of man's collective virtues. Indeed, the individual vanishes in the political whole, but vanishes precisely to defend his dignity, his freedom, his virtue. In spite of the ominous premium which the title seems to place on individuality, the real theme of the book is the relative unimportance of individuality and the superb importance of the political whole."
Hemingway's depiction of relationships between men and women is generally considered to be his weakest area as a writer. Leslie A. Fiedler has noted that he is only really comfortable dealing with men without women. His women characters often seem to be abstractions rather than portraits of real women. Often reviewers have divided them into two types: the bitches such as Brett and Margot Macomber who emasculate the men in their lives, and the wish-projections, the sweet, submissive women such as Catherine and Maria (in For Whom the Bell Tolls). All of the characterizations lack subtlety and shading. The love affair between Catherine and Frederic in A Farewell to Arms is only an "abstraction of lyric emotion," Edmund Wilson commented. Fiedler complained that "in his earlier fiction, Hemingway's descriptions of the sexual encounter are intentionally brutal, in his later ones, unintentionally comic; for in no case, can he quite succeed in making his females human…. If in For Whom the Bell Tolls Hemingway has written the most absurd love scene in the history of the American novel, this is not because he lost momentarily his skill and authority; it is a giveaway—a moment which illuminates the whole erotic content of his fiction."
In 1921, when Hemingway and his family moved to the Left Bank of Paris (then the literature, art, and music capital of the world), he became associated with other American expatriates, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Archibald MacLeish, E. E. Cummings, and John Dos Passos. These expatriates and the whole generation which came of age in the period between the two world wars came to be known as the "lost generation." For Hemingway the term had more universal meaning. In A Moveable Feast he wrote that being lost is part of the human condition—that all generations are lost generations.
Hemingway also believed in the cyclicality of the world. As inscriptions to his novel The Sun Also Rises, he used two quotations: first, Gertrude Stein's comment, "You are all a lost generation"; then a verse from Ecclesiastes which begins, "One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever…. " The paradox of regeneration evolving from death is central to Hemingway's vision. The belief in immortality is comforting, of course, and Hemingway evidently found comfort in permanence and endurance. According to Steven R. Phillips, Hemingway discovered permanence in "the sense of immortality that he gains from the otherwise impermanent art of the bullfight, in the fact that the ‘earth abideth forever,’ in the eternal flow of the gulf stream and in the permanence of his own works of art." Hemingway's greatest depiction of endurance is in The Old Man and the Sea in which "he succeeds in a manner which almost defeats critical description," Phillips claimed. "The old man becomes the sea and like the sea he endures. He is dying as the year is dying. He is fishing in September, the fall of the year, the time that corresponds in the natural cycle to the phase of sunset and sudden death. … Yet the death of the old man will not bring an end to the cycle; as part of the sea he will continue to exist."
Hemingway was inordinately proud of his own powers of rejuvenation, and in a letter to his friend Archibald MacLeish, he explained that his maxim was: "Dans la vie, il faut (d'abord) durer." ("In life, one must [first of all] endure.") He had survived physical disasters (including two near-fatal plane crashes in Africa in 1954) and disasters of critical reception to his work (Across the River and Into the Trees was almost universally panned). But due to his great recuperative powers he was able to rebound from these hardships. He made a literary comeback with the publication of The Old Man and the Sea, which is considered to be among his finest works, and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953. In 1954 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. But the last few years of his life were marked by great physical and emotional suffering. He was no longer able to write—to do the thing he loved the most. Finally Hemingway could endure no longer and, in 1961, he took his own life.
In the 1980s Scribner published two additional posthumous works—The Dangerous Summer and The Garden of Eden. Written in 1959 while Hemingway was in Spain on commission for Life magazine, The Dangerous Summer describes the intense and bloody competition between two prominent bullfighters. The Garden of Eden, a novel about newlyweds who experience marital conflict while traveling through Spain on their honeymoon, was begun by Hemingway in the 1940s and finished fifteen years later. While interest in these works was high, critics judged neither book to rival the thematic and stylistic achievements of his earlier works, which have made Hemingway a major figure in modern American literature.
The fifth of Hemingway's posthumous publications, a self-termed fictional memoir titled True at First Light, was released on July 21, 1999 to conincide with the 100th anniversary of his birth. The book, edited by Hemingway's middle son, Patrick, and paired down to half the length of the original manuscript, recounts a Kenyan safari excursion that Heminway took with his fourth wife, Mary, in 1953. The story centers around Mary's preoccupation with killing a lion who is threatening the villagers' safety, and the narrator's involvement with a woman from the Wakamba tribe, whom he calles his "fiancée."
Many critics expressed disappointment over True at First Light for its peripatetic lack of vision, its abdication of intellectual intent (what New York Times critic James Wood termed "a nullification of thought") and its tepid prose. Kenneth S. Lynn, writing for the National Review, pointed out that "Ernest Hemingway's name is on the cover, but the publication of True at First Light is an important event in celebrity culture, not in literary culture. For the grim fact is that this ‘fictional memoir’ … reflects a marvelous writer's disastrous loss of talent." Many of the critics pointed to Hemingway's increasing preoccupation with the myth of his own machismo as a catalyst for the devolution of his writing. New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani commented, "As in so much of Hemingway's later work, all this spinning of his own legend is reflected in the deterioration of his prose. What was special—and at the time, galvanic—about his early writing was its precision and concision: Hemingway not only knew what to leave out, but he also succeeded in turning that austerity into a moral outlook, a way of looking at a world shattered and remade by World War I. His early work had a clean, hard objectivity: it did not engage in meaningless abstractions; it tried to show, not tell."
True at First Light also inflamed classic critical debate over the true ownership of authorial intention. While Hemingway's physical and mental deterioration, toward the end of his life, rendered his final wishes for unpublished works unclear, many critics have objected to the posthumous "franchise" of his deepest failures, novels that he, himself, abandoned. James Wood offered the observation that True at First Light's lack of substance may serve "as a warning to let Hemingway be, both as a literary estate and as a literary influence." There is evidence, however, that the literary storm the book stirred would not have bothered Hemingway much. As Tom Jenks pointed out in a review for Harper's, "Hemingway's own belief was that in a writer's lifetime his reputation depended on the quantity and median of his work, but that after his death he would be remembered only for his best." If this is true, then, as one Publishers Weekly reviewer opined, perhaps True at First Light will "inspire new readers to delve into Hemingway's true legacy."
In 2002, Cuban and American officials reached an agreement that permits U.S. scholars access to Hemingway's papers that have remained in his Havana home since the author's death in 1961. The collection contains 3,000 photographs, 9,000 books, and 3,000 letters, and will be available on microfilm at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts. Efforts to gain access to the collection were led by Jenny Phillips, the granddaughter of Maxwell Perkins, Hemingway's long-time editor.
Source: Gale, "Ernest (Miller) Hemingway," in Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2005.
In the following article, Imamura discusses omissions and subtle suggestions in the description of Krebs's attitude toward women, concluding that Krebs has experienced an unsuccessful love affair.
In the works of Ernest Hemingway, that which is excluded is often as significant as that which is included; a hint is often as important and thought-provoking as an explicit statement. This is  why we read and reread him. "Soldier's Home" is a prime example of this art of echo and indirection.
Harold Krebs, the protagonist of "Soldier's Home," is a young veteran portrayed as suffering from an inability to readjust to society—Paul Smith has summarized previous critics on the subject of how Krebs suffers from returning to the familial, social, and religious "home"(71). Moreover, as Robert Paul Lamb notes, the story is also about "a conflicted mother-son relationship" (29). 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; she manipulates her son. She is one of the Hemingway "bitch mothers" who also appear in "The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife" and "Now I Lay Me." Her sermons to her son lack any power to heal his spiritual wounds. She has determined that Krebs should live in God's "Kingdom," find a job, and get married like a normal local boy.
Although Hemingway locates the story in Oklahoma and excludes it from the Nick Adams group, the husband and wife relationship observed in "Soldier's Home" is also similar to those in "The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife" and "Now I Lay Me," revealing the mother's dominance of a troubled marriage. Krebs' noncommittal father is obviously dominated by his wife; she makes the decisions. Her advocacy of marriage for Krebs is ironic: not yet recovered from his various psychic wounds and trapped by the sick marriage of his parents, marriage is the very commitment he must avoid.
Furthermore, a careful reading of "Soldier's Home" reveals yet another story discernible beneath the main one. Krebs' indifference towards the girls in the town seems to reflect his disillusionment not only with the war and his parents' marriage, but also with another experience—Krebs' breaking up with a lover:
Now he would have liked a girl if she had come to him and not wanted to talk. But here at home it was all too complicated. He knew he could never get through it all again.
Here is a significant ambiguity: "it all" may well connote the whole process of being and ceasing to be a lover, and "again" suggests that Krebs has been through this process before.
Descriptions of Krebs' lack of involvement with the local girls occupy one fourth of the story. These descriptions converge around the word "complicated," repeated four times in this context. The girls live in "a complicated world"; "They were too complicated"; "it [to talk to a girl] is too complicated"; and "He had tried so to keep his life from being complicated." The latter quotation suggests that the most difficult problem is not the complicated realm of the girls, but Krebs' fear of the complexity that might result from any approach he might make. Once he talks to a girl, he must get through a complicated sexual encounter all over again. Conversations, for Krebs, make the male/female sexual relationship complicated.
His aversion to such relationships, we are to infer, derives from previous experiences with women that have perhaps reinforced his observations of his parents' marriage. As many have noted (see Smith 71-72), one of the photographs discussed in the story's opening paragraphs suggests an unsatisfactory experience with German girls. Krebs and another corporal, both in poorly fitting uniforms, stand with two German girls who are "not beautiful" beside a Rhine that "does not show in the picture." The picture suggests an irony: the American soldiers, once enemies, date German girls with whom they share no common language. Because the American soldiers do not have to talk, and because the German girls are probably prostitutes, relationships between them are uncomplicated. Without any need for conversation, the soldiers simply satisfy their lust on the prostitutes' bodies. Just as he emphasizes the German girls' lack of beauty, Hemingway also erases the Rhine to show the lack of romance in such relationships. In "Soldier's Home," he juxtaposes two worlds: the simple one Krebs shared with the German girls, and the potentially complicated realm of the hometown girls.
"A Very Short Story," written between June and July 1923, helps shed light on this aspect of the later "Soldier's Home," composed in. April 1924. An equally bleak story, also a mixture of Hemingway's own experiences and fictitious material, "A Very Short Story" appeared first as the untitled Chapter Ten in the 1924 three mountains press in our time, and was later titled and revised for inclusion in the 1925 Scribner's In Our Time. The crucial difference between the two versions is that the name of the protagonist's lover has been changed from Ag in the 1924 edition to Luz in the 1925 edition.
It is well known that the love affair between a wounded soldier and a nurse, as well as the miserable end of that affair, are based on Hemingway's own experience of being jilted by Agnes von Kurowsky. However, the story's conclusion, where the protagonist has a sexual encounter with a sales girl in a taxicab and contracts gonorrhea, is considered fictitious. As Robert Scholes and Scott Donaldson have observed, this conclusion reflects Hemingway's undisguised anger towards "Ag" and his own self-pity. Taking some expressions and ideas directly from Agnes' "Dear John" letter of 7 March 1919 (qtd. in Villard and Nagel 163-64), Hemingway drew the raw materials for "A Very Short Story" from his own experience.
If "A Very Short Story" is one version of Hemingway's unhappy love affair With Agnes, "Soldier's Home" may be another—more sophisticated because its author's bitterness is more sublimated. The "it" in "never get through it all again" may fruitfully be interpreted as Hemingway's suffering after he received the letter from Agnes. He describes Krebs' self-protective attitude, his aversion to being trapped by another love affair that may bring him new pain: "It was not worth it. Not now when things were getting good again." Krebs does not want to be disturbed; it is good enough for him simply to "look at" girls on the street. He is able to keep his mind peaceful by avoiding talking to the girls. Although the first part of the story suggests that some of Krebs' trauma has been caused by the war, a related and complementary inference is that he may also be recovering from the shocks of a failed love affair.
In The Sun Also Rises, Brett Ashley speaks of her inner torment—"I don't want to go through that hell again" (SAR 26)—in language that echoes Krebs'. Brett rebuffs Jake. Because of his impotence, Jake and Brett can never fully satisfy each other. "That hell again" suggests both their unconsummated love affair and their suffering from the hesitant and inconsequential encounters they have already experienced. Both Krebs and Brett decline to repeat such experiences. When we consider the intentionality behind Hemingway's intertextuality, we realize that both characters share a deep wound. In "Soldier's Home," Hemingway avoids any explicit description of what happened to Krebs during the war, especially in the matter of the love affair. Instead, Hemingway portrays Krebs' postwar reaction to the town girls, and we note his condition and behavior, and infer a cause.
Both the physical distance between Krebs and the girls and his role as onlooker give him a sense of security. While Krebs remains in a safety zone "on the front porch," he is protected. The girls walk "on the other side of the street"; nothing can touch him. Like sophisticated Brett Ashley, these smalltown Oklahoma girls celebrate a new era with short skirts and short hair. Krebs admires them, yet he protects himself from the danger of sexual involvement as if he were still suffering from a previous affair. He has to control himself. Only as an onlooker can he avoid the "complicated world":
But they [the girls] lived in such a complicated world of already defined alliances and shifting feuds that Krebs did not feel the energy or courage to break into it.
Ironically, Hemingway uses the terms "alliances" and "feuds," words appropriate to conflicts between nations and families, to describe the girls' complicated world. Moreover, he uses related terms to describe Krebs' feelings towards that world: "He did not want to get into the intrigue and the politics." By emphasizing discord and friction, such terms suggest a conflict already experienced by Krebs, a conflict further revealed as follows:
He did not want any consequences. He did not want any consequences ever again. He wanted to live along without consequences. Besides he did not really need a girl.
The repetition of "consequences" sounds too portentous for the previous problem to have been a merely casual love affair.
The discontinuity between Krebs' prewar and postwar periods is obvious. Through the experience of battle, he seems to have lost his belief in God and the Kingdom which his mother claims. Krebs is isolated, having lost all feeling of belonging or togetherness. But he is attracted by the girls' "patterns" which represent their identification with a group, an identification he once shared. Perhaps his is a bitter and only half-realized nostalgia.
Here is a veteran, a possibly heartbroken young man, who keeps himself away from the complex world, stays on the porches, and simply watches girls on the street. However, Krebs makes an exception for his young sister Helen. She is accepted in his realm. She extracts his pledge to be her "beau." On a superficial level, she seems to be just another girl attempting to pull him into a complex world; however, in her innocence she intends no such thing. An incestuous relationship between brother and sister is suggested in Hemingway's later, posthumously published work "The Last Good Country" and its related manuscripts (NAS 70-132). But here, in "Soldier's Home," there is no hint of incest.
The brother-sister relationship remains a simple form of love in "Soldier's Home." The young sister's love for her brother is a mixture of respect and innocent affection. Her regard and love have a healing effect on Krebs. Although she is as talkative as her mother, Helen's invitation is to a simple world. Moreover, Krebs, who has yet to exchange a word with the girls in the town, enjoys talking with his sister because there is no danger of being trapped in the complex man-woman world. Krebs simply accepts her invitation, and goes to the schoolyard to see her pitch, as proof of their mutual love.
Thus, "Soldier's Home" is a sophisticated story of a variously wounded veteran's return home. While "A Very Short Story" is a relatively explicit story of heartbreak, revealing biographical raw materials and the author's anger, "Soldier's Home" is a more refined and distanced treatment of Hemingway's own experiences during and after the war. Later, these same experiences, more refined and distanced still, will find expression in perhaps the ultimate veteran's story, "Big Two-Hearted River."
Source: Tateo Imamura, "‘Soldier's Home’: Another Story of a Broken Heart," in Hemingway Review, Vol. 16, No. 1, Fall 1996, 6 pp.
Cynthia M. Barron
In the following article, Barron contends that the alienated protagonists of both "Soldier's Home" and J. D. Salinger's novel The Catcher in the Rye return to the world of childhood.
J.D. Salinger and Ernest Hemingway both succeeded in capturing the essence of an entire generation. Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises was to the Lost Generation what Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye was to the children of the 1950's and 1960's. The two authors met when stationed in Europe during World War II; Hemingway was a war correspondent and Salinger was with the 4th Infantry Division. Salinger sought out Hemingway, who agreed to read his work. As the story goes, Hemingway was so impressed by Salinger's work that he pulled out his Luger and blew a chicken's head off. The admiration was mutual. In a letter from Salinger to Hemingway, Salinger humorously attributes his hospitalization in Nürnberg to an attempt to find a nurse like Catherine Barkley. He also mentions that he has just completed two more of his "incestuous" short stories and a part of a play about a boy named Holden Caulfield and his sister Phoebe. In light of this mutual admiration, it is not surprising that one should find similarities between their works.
William Goldhurst, in "The Hypenated Ham Sandwich of Ernest Hemingway and J.D. Salinger: A Study in Literary Continuity," asserts that both Salinger and Hemingway are continuators of a literary tradition originating with Mark Twain. Expanding on Philip Young, Goldhurst views Huckleberry Finn as the prototype for the composite characters of Nick Adams-Harold Krebs and Seymour Glass-Holden Caulfield. He also notes that the idea of "child-as-refuge," a major component of Salinger's works, was first introduced in Hemingway's short story "Soldier's Home." It is my contention that "Soldier's Home," more than any other single work of Hemingway's, exerted the greatest influence upon Salinger's novel The Catcher in the Rye. Although the idea of the "child-as-refuge" provides solace to many of Salinger's older characters, in the case of Holden, as in the case of Harold, it is an attempted retreat to childhood itself that provides the refuge. Because of their ages—Holden is sixteen and Harold is slightly older—both protagonists are in a unique position, caught in the limbo between childhood and adulthood. Thus, faced with their inability to adapt to an adult world that is hypocritical and corrupt, both boys seek a return to the realm of childhood.
The protagonists' reluctance to leave the realm of childhood manifests itself in, as Salinger himself noted, the incestuous overtones of the relationships between the boys and their respective sisters. In "Soldier's Home" Helen asks Harold if he is her beau and he replies "Sure. You're my girl now." In The Catcher in the Rye Holden compliments a girl by telling her that she dances almost as well as Phoebe. Although Holden normally objects to adults dancing with children, he makes an exception for himself and Phoebe because "It's different with her … She can follow anything you do." Phoebe's ability to "follow" Holden is not simply confined to dancing, through, for he explains that " … If you tell old Phoebe something, she knows exactly what the hell you're talking about" (p. 67). The girls themselves help to maintain this type of relationship. Helen asks Harold to watch her play softball, telling him that "If you loved me, you'd want to come and watch me play indoor." Similarly, Phoebe seeks Holden's approval and attention and is very adamant that he come to see her perform in the school play.
The quasi-romantic feelings both boys possess for their sisters represent a rejection of the artificiality represented by girls their own age and the artificial world they belong to. Harold describes the girls in the town as forming "a pattern." They all dress exactly alike, much as he and his fraternity brothers did before he went to war. Now that he has broken out of the mold, however, their emptiness and comformity hold little appeal for him. "They lived in such a complicated world of already defined alliances and shifting feuds that Krebs did not feel the energy or the courage to break into it." This, then, explains his attraction to Helen. She lives in a child's world with its connotations of simplicity, honesty, and innocence—qualities that Harold's world lacks.
Just as Harold rejects the intrigues of the town girls or an intrigue of his own with one of them, Holden spurns the services of the prostitute he has hired, telling her that he is ill. He is disturbed by her youth, and her well-rehearsed techniques make him feel "much more depressed than sexy" (p. 95). Holden's aversion to adult sexuality is partly due to his fear of adulthood and partly due to his identification of adult sexuality with the duplicity of people like the egotistical Stradlater. By turning to Phoebe, Holden symbolically rejects the corrupt adult world in favor of the more innocent world of children. Holden cherishes innocence and strives to preserve it whenever he finds it. He wishes to erase all the "F—— You's" of the world, and fantasizes about becoming a "catcher in the rye" and saving children from adulthood and the accompanying fall from innocence.
This cherishing of innocence is due to both boys' strong aversion to the hypocrisy of the adult world. When Harold returns from the war he finds that in order to be listened to, he must invent melodramatic war stories. These lies soon destroy any meaning the experiences had for him, and even make him physically ill. "Krebs acquired the nausea in regard to experience that is the result of untruth or exaggeration." Krebs had been a soldier during the war and, while this is not an innocent occupation, it is, in some respects, an honest one. During the war Krebs had behaved as a good soldier ought, doing what was necessary for survival. Thus, Harold is able to retain a certain amount of integrity during the war, in contrast to the hypocrisy and artificiality of the world he comes home to.
Holden's and Harold's disgust with the adult world cause them to turn not only to their sisters, but also to the innocence and order provided by childhood games. In "Soldier's Home,'" Harold goes to watch Helen play indoor baseball. In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden describes his brother Allie playing baseball and even writes a composition about Allie's baseball mitt. He watches two boys play ball while waiting for Phoebe, and later he describes the gym where indoor baseball is played. These games are significant because while they mirror the artificiality and restrictions of the adult world, the chaos of the adult world is absent. The rules are logical, fair, well-defined, and do not change radically with time. Thus, for Holden and Harold, they represent a world far more sensible and comprehensible than the real world. Harold symbolically chooses this world over the adult world when he decides to watch Helen play [baseball] rather than visit his father. "He would not go down to his father's office … He wanted his life to go smoothly … He would go over to the schoolyard and watch Helen play indoor baseball." The notion of shelter is reinforced here by the emphasis on indoor baseball rather than outdoor. Holden, too, prefers the world of children, and he resents the march of time that is forcing him to grow up and enter the world of adulthood. "Certain things they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone" (p. 122). Hence, Holden's desire to make time stand still and Harold's search for a simpler, more honest world lead them both to the realm of children and childhood games.
It is specifically pointed out in Catcher that games are an inaccurate for life metaphor because they are ordered and comprehensible, while life is not. When Spenser explains to Holden that life is a game which must be played according to the rules, Holden replies:
Game, my ass. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it's a game all right—I'll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren't any hot-shots, then what's a game about it? Nothing. No game. (p. 8)
Spenser's romantic view of life is mirrored in "Soldier's Home" when Harold's mother tells him that he must get a job because "There can be no idle hands in God's Kingdom." To this Harold replies "I'm not in His Kingdom," just as Holden is not on the winning team in the game of life. The war has stripped Harold of any romanticism he may have possessed, and he has no use for his mother's platitudes.
This cynical view of life is perhaps why Holden and Harold are both considered misfits by society's standards. Both realize that they are on the side without the hot-shots, and consequently they refuse to play the game according to the rules, even though they nostalgically look back on games with affection. Evidence of their alienation abounds. Harold doesn't have a job. Holden can't stay in school. Harold returns from the war after everyone else is already back. "People seemed to think it was rather ridiculous for Krebs to be getting back so late, years after the war was over." Holden leaves the fencing team's equipment on the subway, causing them to be disqualified from the meet. He also is afraid of fighting and describes himself as "yellow" (p. 89). Holden's dilemma is accurately perceived by Mr. Antolini, who warns him that his present method of coping with the world will only result in a terrible fall.
I have a feeling that you're riding for some kind of a terrible, terrible fall … The man falling isn't permitted to feel or hear himself hit bottom. The whole arrangement's designed for men who, at some time or other in their lives, were looking for something their own environment couldn't supply them with. (p. 187)
Antolini's remarks are equally applicable to Harold.
Thus Holden and Harold, alienated from the adult world, turn to the world of children. Childhood, with its connotations of innocence and simplicity, stands in direct contrast to the adult world. Childhood games symbolically provide the sense of order so noticeably lacking in the real world. Even romance in the adult world is tainted with artificiality and corruption; consequently both boys reject girls their own age, engaging instead in quasi-romantic relationships with their sisters. The latent incest represents a lack of mature development, an unwillingness to go beyond the comforting realm of the family, and constitutes a symbolic rejection of the adult world. It is significant that one of Holden's favorite fictional characters is Jay Gatsby who, like Holden, is also trying to turn back time. However, a retreat to childhood can only provide temporary relief from the chaos of the adult world. In the end, one sees that both protagonists, convinced of the environment's inability to supply their needs, are "heading for a terrible fall." Circumvention of this fall will depend on their ability to find a more suitable method of coping with a world that is hypocritical, corrupt, unfair, and often absurd.
Source: Cynthia M. Barron, "The Catcher and the Soldier: Hemingway's ‘Soldier's Home’ and Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye," in Hemingway Review, Vol. 2, No. 1, Fall 1982, 4 pp.
John J. Roberts
In the following article, Roberts compares Harold Krebs to Nick Adams, another of Hemingway's characters, and suggests that "Soldier's Home" represents only one phase in Krebs's postwar psychic recovery.
The protagonist in Ernest Hemingway's "Soldier's Home" is often seen as a failed apprentice, a Nick Adams who gives up and quits. Such a reading is persuasively argued by Arthur Waldhorn: "Krebs is Nick's ‘double,’ an extreme version of the apprentice who abandons the trade of life, yields to nada to assure that his life will run smoothly, and accepts oblivion without dignity…. For Nick, as for most of Hemingway's apprentices, Krebs's way is inadequate." This interpretation rests upon the premise that Krebs will never change, that his withdrawal from life is final and irrevocable; however, there is ample evidence in the story against such an assumption. Far from breaking the pattern evinced by Nick and other Hemingway apprentices, Krebs reflects and reinforces it: his way and Nick's are, in fact, closely allied. "Soldier's Home" may be seen as a detailed study of one phase in the process of psychic recovery through which the generic apprentice-hero passes after his wounding.
The second paragraph of the story reports, "There is a picture which shows him [Krebs] on the Rhine with two German girls and another corporal…. The Rhine does not show in the picture." The unseen Rhine suggests Hemingway's well-known iceberg analogy: the dignity of movement of good writing is due to seven-eighths of the story remaining beneath the surface. Whatever else the picture of Krebs on the Rhine with no Rhine in the picture may mean, it stands at the opening of "Soldier's Home" to warn the reader against taking only what is seen at first glance.
The story portrays Krebs at a particular point in his life, the late summer of 1919 after his return to Oklahoma from the war, but considerable background material is also provided about Krebs in the past, before the war. Another photograph is described in the introductory paragraph: "Krebs went to the war from a Methodist college in Kansas. There is a picture which shows him among his fraternity brothers, all of them wearing exactly the same height and style collar." The fraternity brother, whose sartorial conformity underscores his camaraderie, is hardly the isolated, passive figure Krebs seems after his return from Europe; neither does the student at a Methodist college in Kansas much resemble the Krebs who informs his mother he is not in God's Kingdom.
Krebs was brought up by parents who accepted without question the Midwestern form of the Protestant work ethic: "Your father doesn't care what you start in at," his mother tells him. "All work is honorable as he says. But you've got to make a start at something." His parents—or his mother, at least—are obviously worried by his post-war lassitude. They do not understand what has happened, but they do perceive that he is not the same boy who had gone away to war. The mother, who obstinately persists in seeing Krebs as her pre-war little boy, calls him "Harold"; one of the two daughters, Helen, calls him by an affectionate abbreviation of the same name, "Hare." But the narrative voice, which reports the main character's innermost thoughts and feelings, refers to him consistently as "Krebs." Harold and Krebs are virtually two different people; the distance between them is an index to how extensive a journey the young man has made in only two years.
Another index is the revealing note that other men from Krebs's town were drafted into the war, while Krebs himself enlisted in the Marines. The contrast between the passivity of being drafted and the initiative and aspiration of joining the Marines is stark—as stark as the contrast between pre-war Harold and post-war Krebs. The fraternity boy who had once ambitiously solicited a place in the Marines now "did not want any consequences. He did not want any consequences ever again. He wanted to live along without consequences."
Superficially, the story shows Krebs in the past and the present, and leaves the future open. But if Krebs was in the past quite a different person from what he is in the story, the clear possibility exists of further changes in the future. This possibility is enhanced by the fact that Krebs is not psychologically stable in his withdrawal; his quiescence and acquiescence are superficial and misleading. Nearly a fourth of the story consists of his internal monologues about girls—even though he assures himself, "You did not need a girl unless you thought about them." When his mother mentions God to him, Krebs feels embarrassed and resentful; such resentment also indicates the intense emotional turmoil just beneath the carefully controlled, bland surface. Nor has Krebs totally retreated into himself: he does respond to his kid sister, Helen ("He liked her. She was his best sister").
Waldhorn writes that Krebs's wartime adventures are less harrowing than Nick's. We do not know exactly what Krebs experienced at Belleau Wood, Soissons, the Champagne, St. Mihiel, and in the Argonne, although he seems to have come to terms successfully with war in the war: he feels "cool and clear inside himself" when he thinks of all the times "when he had done the one thing, the only thing for a man to do, easily and naturally, when he might have done something else … " But war offers other psychic shocks besides Frederic Henry's shrapnel-throwing trench mortar and Nick's spine smashing machine-gun fire. Ironically, Krebs's great trauma comes after the war ends. What disorients him is not the truth of war but the lie of the Midwestern view of war, not the truth of death but the lie of life. Krebs cannot reconcile the two, and in trying he loses even the truth he had had, so he stops trying for a time. He sees everything around him as lies, from the way girls play sexual politics and the way men talk about girls to the way ex-soldiers confess to their secret battle fright. Through the war, Krebs has come face to face with all the sham and hypocrisy of Middle America, and in recoil he escapes to "the cool dark of the pool room."
Krebs's withdrawal from society does not set him apart from the pattern of Hemingway's apprentices; quite the contrary. Withdrawal marks one clearly distinguishable stage in the process of healing that the Hemingway apprentice goes through in the aftermath of trauma. Sheridan Baker is right to see "Soldier's Home" as "a preliminary study of the war-shocked or shell-shocked state of mind portrayed in ‘The [sic] Big Two-Hearted River,’ published immediately after." The meticulous rituals of going off alone to nature, making camp, and fishing the Big Two-Hearted River help Nick after the war repair his psyche, just as Krebs takes comfort in the order and ritual of sports, especially pool. Nick rejects society for the quiet wilderness beyond the fire-blackened Seney country where he can leave behind his own burned-out parts and salvage what remains: "It could not all be burned. He knew that." In the same way does Krebs pull back from social commitments and interaction.
As Nick for the time being retreats from the swamp which reminds him of the place where he was wounded—"There were plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp"—so Krebs withdraws from everything around him. He sees his own swamp on all sides and will make any promises to avoid having to fish it just yet. But there will be other days for Krebs, too. It is significant that the story ends with his forced entry into another stage of his pilgrimage, the physical journey to Kansas City serving as an objective correlative for the continuation of his psychic and spiritual journey.
Source: John J. Roberts, "In Defense of Krebs," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 13, No. 4, Fall 1976, 4 pp.
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Cohen, Milton A., Hemingway's Laboratory: The Paris in Our Time, University of Alabama Press, 2005.
This is a close, yet readable study, of Hemingway's in our time, the slim volume of vignettes that were incorporated into the later collection, In Our Time.
Howard, Michael, The First World War: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2007.
This book provides a useful introduction to the causes and conditions of World War I, providing the necessary context for a reading of Hemingway's early work.
Rovit, Earl, and Gary Brenner, Ernest Hemingway, revised edition, Twayne Publishers, 1995.
Written for students, this text provides a biography, bibliography, and thorough introduction to Hemingway.
Vernon, Alex, Soldiers Once and Still: Ernest Hemingway, James Salter, and Tim O'Brien, University of Iowa Press, 2004.
Vernon provides an excellent analysis of the war literature produced by three of the twentieth century's best war writers.