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In Our Time | Study Guide

Ernest Hemingway

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In Our Time | Context


World War I

During World War I (1914–18), much of the fighting occurred in Europe. However, the conflict involved troops from Russia, the United States, the Middle East, and elsewhere. Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Turkey—known as the Central Powers—fought against France, Great Britain, Russia, Italy, Japan, and the United States, known as the Allies. The United States did not enter the war until 1917.

The war began with a conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. To further the cause of Slavic liberation, Serbian Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the emperor of Austria-Hungary, on June 28, 1914. In response, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Russia intervened on Serbia's side. Germany then declared war on Russia. In August, Germany invaded Belgium. Great Britain responded by declaring war on Germany.

World War I was remarkable for its vast number of casualties. Roughly 8,500,000 soldiers died from wounds or disease. World War I saw the first use of chemical weapons in the form of poison gas. The style of fighting also contributed to the number of casualties. Trench warfare pitted large infantry forces against each other on open ground between artillery gun emplacements. Troops dug in and stayed there until they were killed or replaced.

Ernest Hemingway served in the war as an ambulance driver for the American Red Cross. He was wounded in July, 1918, on the Austro-Italian front. He recovered in a hospital in Italy, where he fell in love with a Red Cross nurse. These experiences inform In Our Time.

Greco-Turkish Wars

There were two Greco-Turkish wars in which Greece and Turkey fought for territory. The first was in 1897 and was also called the 30 Days War. In that war the two sides fought over who would rule the island of Crete. Under pressure from other European countries, Greece withdrew from Crete.

The second Greco-Turkish war lasted from 1921 to 1922. As part of the settlement of World War I, the Treaty of Sevres was signed in 1920 between Turkey and the Allied Powers (including Greece). Thrace (in Europe) and the district of Smyrna (now Izmir, in Turkey) were given to Greece in the Treaty of Sevres. Turkey did not recognize Greece's right to Smyrna. In January 1921 the Greek army attacked Turkey in Anatolia, the eastern part of Turkey. In August 1921 the Turkish forces decisively defeated the Greeks at the Battle of the Sakarya River. In September 1922 Turkish forces occupied Smyrna and drove Greek forces out of Anatolia. The Treaty of Lausanne, signed in 1923, formally concluded the war and forced Greece to give up its claims to Thrace, Smyrna, and other territories.

The Greek defeat in the Greco-Turkish war of 1921–22 was followed by a coup in Greece. Colonel Nikólaos Plastíras was a leader of the 1922 coup, which forced King Constantine I to abdicate.

The first story in In Our Time, "On the Quai at Smyrna," is set during the Greek evacuation of Smyrna. Not only Greek soldiers but also Greek civilians are fleeing the fallen territory. An officer or solider describes horrific scenes of chaos as the refugees flee. The final vignette in In Our Time, "L'Envoi," concerns the deposed King of Greece, King Constantine. Under house arrest, the king remarks on the actions of Plastíras, a leader of the coup.


Modernism was a late 19th- and early 20th-century artistic movement that influenced music, painting, architecture, and literature. It especially flourished after World War I (1914–18) in Europe and North America. Modernism rejected the styles and forms of the past, seeking to invent new ones. Modern architecture rejected exterior ornament and the overstuffed interiors of the 19th century in favor of sleek, machined forms. In place of painstaking handwork, modernist paintings incorporated machine-made surfaces in collage and abstraction. In these modernist experiments, artists sought new forms of expression to reveal and reflect all that was new in 20th-century life.

In literature these tendencies show up mostly as fragmentation and collage. Irish writer James Joyce wrote the novel Ulysses (1922) in an array of styles. Along with the fragmented, discontinuous style, Joyce incorporated newspaper headlines in his prose, like a modernist collage painting. In Mrs. Dalloway (1925), English writer Virginia Woolf incorporates an advertising slogan into a scene that captures "life; London; this moment of June."

In Our Time seeks to capture life during a particular moment in history: World War I and its aftermath. Many of the stories and vignettes appear as fragments of war experiences. Rather than presenting one unified story of a single character, In Our Time gives voice to soldiers, sportsmen, students, and other ordinary people. Like sleek modernist architecture, the prose of In Our Time strips away ornament in favor of a pared-down style.

Publication and Reception

The publication history of In Our Time reflects Hemingway's growing reputation as a writer. In Paris in 1924, Hemingway first published 170 copies of a very short chapbook called in our time. The pamphlet-like book contained 18 chapters or vignettes, most of them only one page long. These vignettes demonstrate Hemingway's "theory of omission." He believed it was important to leave crucial elements of a story undescribed. Hemingway wanted the reader to figure them out by paying attention to the elements he did describe. Chapter 10 of in our time does not describe the main character's emotional response to his broken engagement, but the reader can infer that emotional response through Hemingway's description of the character's contraction of gonorrhea.

Even though the run of in our time was only 170 copies, it was well received. American critic Edmund Wilson praised it in a review in The Dial, a modernist magazine, saying Hemingway had "almost invented a form of his own." The American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, in New York, telling him to read Hemingway's vignettes. The enthusiastic reception for the little book of vignettes led to the American publication of Hemingway's short story collection In Our Time in 1925. The 1925 book contained new short stories in addition to the earlier vignettes, some of which appear transformed. The Chapter 10 vignette of the earlier version becomes "A Very Short Story" in the 1925 version. In Our Time was then republished in 1930 with the added story "On the Quai at Smyrna." Hemingway's little Parisian booklet of modernist vignettes had become an American success.

In Our Time is a short story collection that is more unified than most. The English writer D.H. Lawrence called In Our Time a "fragmentary novel." In Our Time begins and ends with the Greek defeat at Smyrna 1922, an event Hemingway covered as a journalist for the Toronto Star. The second story in the book is about a young Nick Adams, long before the war. One of the last stories in the book, "Big Two-Hearted River," is about Nick Adams, a wounded veteran, returning home after the war. In a letter to American writer Edmund Wilson, Hemingway described In Our Time's alternating vignette and story structure, explaining it would "give the picture of the whole between examining it in detail." He compared it to "looking with your eyes at something ... and then looking at it with 15X binoculars." Not all the stories are about Nick Adams, but the structure of the collection makes it a unified portrait of a particular time.

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