In Our Time | Study Guide

Ernest Hemingway

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Course Hero, "In Our Time Study Guide," October 5, 2017, accessed September 19, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/In-Our-Time/.

In Our Time | My Old Man | Summary

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Summary

The first-person narrator, Joe, starts by describing his father's size. Given his father's build, he should have been "one of those regular little roly fat guys you see around." However, his father exercises a lot, and the narrator goes running with him. Late in life, "when he was riding the jumps only," he did put on weight, but "then it wasn't his fault."

Joe's "old man" is a jockey. He races in Italy, and his son, Joe, lives with him. Joe describes some trouble his father has "at San Siro" with a man named Regoli. Joe thinks of other race courses his father rode in Milan and Torino and describes San Siro as "the swellest course I'd ever seen." His father says racing is "a dog's life," but Joe remains enthusiastic.

Joe's father speaks disparagingly of the horses at San Siro, saying that they don't compare to the racehorses of Paris.

Joe recalls when they left Italy. His father had ridden the winning horse at a race called the Premio Commercio. After the race, his father, a man named Holbrook, and an Italian man have an argument. Joe doesn't understand because they speak French. His father sends him off to buy a racing sheet, and when he comes back with the paper, he hears Holbrook say to his father, "You son of a bitch." The men leave, and Joe's father looks pale and sick.

Three days later, Joe and his father sell their belongings and take a train to Paris. They settle outside Paris in a town called Maisons-Lafitte, where his father reconnects with old racing acquaintances from before the war.

Joe recalls a race at St. Cloud, in which a yellow horse named Kzar is favored to win. Joe's father gets a tip from a jockey named George Gardner. "What's the dope, George?" the father asks. George tells him Kzar won't win; a horse named Kircubbin will. Kircubbin is a long shot, with odds at 8 to 1, and Joe's father bets on him.

Joe describes the race in detail. At the end, Kzar and Kircubbin are neck and neck. The official result declares Kircubbin the winner. Joe asks his father, "Wasn't it a swell race?" His father replies that George Gardner is a "swell jockey," but he says it without admiration. "It sure took a great jock to keep that Kzar horse from winning," he adds. Joe is shocked to hear his father say the race was fixed although he "knew it was funny all the time."

With his winnings, his father spends more time in Paris, drinking. Joe is attracted to a girl, but nothing much comes of it. His father reminisces about his boyhood in Kentucky, and he tells Joe that when he has enough money they will move back to the United States.

At a steeplechase at Auteuil, his father buys the winning horse, named Gilford. To save money, he rides and trains the horse himself.

In his second steeplechase race, a pack of horses gets jammed together at the water jump. There is crash, and Joe's father falls from his horse. Joe goes down from the stands to see. Stretcher bearers retrieve his father, and he is dead. Gilford's leg is broken, and Joe hears the gunshot when Gilford is put down. "I lay down beside my old man," says Joe. He sobs and sobs. "I loved my old man so much," he says.

George Gardener tries to console him, and as they wait for the ambulance they hear two men talking about his father. "Butler got his, all right," says one. The other calls Joe's father "a crook." He continues, "He had it coming to him on the stuff he's pulled." The first man agrees and tears up his betting slips.

George tells Joe not to listen to them. He assures Joe, "Your old man was one swell guy." Joe thinks about what the men say.

Analysis

In "My Old Man," Hemmingway uses dramatic irony. With irony, a text says one thing but means another. Joe praises his "old man" and enthuses about how great he is. However, something is shady about Joe's father, long before Joe understands.

At the beginning of the story, Joe excuses his father for gaining weight at the end of his life. "It wasn't his fault," Joe says. This excuse sets the pattern for the rest of the story: Joe makes excuses for his father. As in the title of the story, Joe continually refers to his father as "my old man." He is proud to be associated with him.

He thinks it is a pity Paris doesn't have "a Galeria," an enclosed shopping arcade like the one in Milan. In the Galeria in Milan, his father hung around with his friends. In fact, Paris does have enclosed shopping arcades, but Joe only knows the small part of the world his father shows him. Joe thinks the Café de la Paix in Paris is a lesser place than the Galeria in the Milan. Joe is unwittingly naïve and provincial rather than sophisticated.

Joe describes the excitement of watching horse races. He uses the same language Nick does to describe skiing in "Cross-Country Snow:" "There wasn't ever anything like it for me." (Nick: "There's really nothing can touch skiing, is there?") Joe says, "I was nuts about the horses, too." The "too" might mean his father also loves horses. Still, it's not clear his father does love them. Horse racing—and race fixing—is simply his way of life.

Joe adopts his father's views on everything. His father has told him "everything's on the bum" in the United States. Perhaps he means everything is broken, or the Great Depression has left the economy idle, so Joe does not dream of returning there for school. If his father dismissed it once, there is no point in it. Likewise, when Joe tries to court a girl, he can do it only in terms of the world he knows. He imagines offering a horse racing tip. He worries she'll think he is "a tout" (a hustler) instead of someone who's "really trying to give her a winner."

Joe knows more than he lets himself admit, though. He is shocked when Holbrook calls his father a son of a bitch, but "inside I knew something had happened." When Kzar loses the race and his father explains Kzar's jockey held him back, Joe is shocked, but again he says, "I knew it was funny all the time."

Joe knows deep-down there is something down there is something shady or "funny" about his father's dealing. This feeling is why his admiration for his father can blow away so easily at the end of the story. If Joe was secure in his opinion of his father, what the two strangers said would not matter. Joe's brittle image of his father cannot stand any alteration. When the strangers make their comments, they destroy that image completely. "Seems like when they get started they don't leave a guy nothing," Joe thinks.

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