In Our Time | Study Guide

Ernest Hemingway

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In Our Time | Mr. and Mrs. Elliot | Summary

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Summary

After a short courtship, Mr. and Mrs. Elliot marry in Boston and try to conceive a child. They take a boat to Europe; the trip makes Mrs. Elliot seasick.

The narrator describes them, briefly. Mrs. Elliot is named Cornelia and is 40 years old. Hubert Elliot is a poet and graduate student. He believes in chastity and did not have success dating young women his age. He is "shocked and horrified" that young women become engaged to unchaste men "whom they must know had dragged themselves through the gutter." Cornelia, however, is attracted to this aspect of Hubert. She loves when he talks about remaining chaste: "The declaration always set her off again."

They spend a disappointing wedding night in a hotel in Boston. Two days later they sail for Europe. In France, Hubert writes long poems, and Cornelia types them. They stay in various parts of the country: Paris, Dijon, and the Touraine valley. A "girl friend" of Mrs. Elliot's comes to visit and cheers her up. The Elliots' other expatriate friends soon leave the Touraine for a seaside resort, Trouville.

The Elliots and the girl friend remain in a chateau in Touraine. Mr. Elliot drinks wine and writes poems. Mrs. Elliot learns touch typing and makes typing mistakes. Mrs. Elliot and her friend share a bed.

Analysis

Although the narrator knows the couple's first names, he keeps calling them "Mr. and Mrs. Elliot." This formal style is stiff and comical, like the Elliots themselves. There is verbal irony in the narrator's observation about their sex lives: "They tried [to have a baby] as often as they could stand it." The sentence purports to show how eager they are, but it actually demonstrates their lack of eagerness. Copulating seems to be drudgery for them. They are awkward, virginal, and not enjoying themselves. All this conflict seems amusing to the narrator. It is amusing because the narrator knows more about the Elliots than they know about themselves. He knows they both might not be heterosexual.

There is also a suggestion Mrs. Elliot is in charge in their relationship. Mr. Elliot cannot "remember just when it was decided that they were to be married. But they were married." He can't remember because he wasn't the one who proposed—she proposed. In contrast, Nick Adams would not be caught in this situation, telling Marjorie of his need to be without her.

The Elliots appear to be mimicking a happy marriage. They do the right things. They book a wedding night hotel, but their wedding night is "disappointing." They set sail for a honeymoon in Europe, but the journey makes Mrs. Elliot seasick. Before they leave, they also visit Mr. Elliot's mother. Alone among the characters in In Our Time, Mr. Elliot does not favor his father over his mother. Perhaps this makes him a fool in the narrator's eyes. Young Nick Adams would rather go hunting with his father than go inside to see his mother. His teenage friend Bill mentions only his father, never the existence of his mother. Harold Krebs feels a positive revulsion for his fawning, yearning mother. Among these sportsmen and heroes, Mr. Elliot is a poet who adores his wife but who can't satisfy his wife.

The Elliots' mimicry of a happy marriage reaches its high and low points in Touraine. The Elliots' friends all go off with "a rich young unmarried poet to a seaside resort in Trouville." In contrast to the Elliots, "there they were all very happy." The Elliots seem unhappy. Mr. Elliot drinks a lot, writes, and looks exhausted, and the wife and her girlfriend share a bed, where "they had many a good cry together." The narrator, however, says the same thing about them: "they were all quite happy." Perhaps "quite happy" is a trite, clichéd phrase that doesn't mean much, or perhaps we can take the narrator at his word. Their unconventional, childless marriage may make them "quite happy."

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