Literature Study GuidesIn Our TimeOn The Quai At Smyrna Summary

In Our Time | Study Guide

Ernest Hemingway

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In Our Time | On the Quai at Smyrna | Summary



An unnamed narrator relates what an officer told him about civilians huddled on the docks of Smyrna during a war. (Smyrna is now the city of Izmir in Turkey.) The officer, who stays on a ship in the harbor, remarks to the narrator about "the strangest thing ... they screamed every night at midnight." "They" refers to civilians on the pier. "We used to turn the searchlight on them to quiet them," says the officer. As if by some agreement, the Turkish forces do not shell the area; they fire only a few blanks. The officer speaks of women clinging to dead babies and women giving birth to babies in the hold of his ship. He speaks of other strange happenings he has witnessed, including the death of an old woman. He tells of Greek civilians or perhaps soldiers executing their pack animals because the animals could not be taken aboard ship.


Very little is said about the officer or the narrator. The officer might be British. He uses the words chap and quai where an American might say fellow and docks. The narrator seems also to have been at Smyrna in war. "You remember the harbor," the officer says to the narrator.

This story is about war, but it also about stories. "On the Quai at Smyrna" could have been told by a first-person narrator, but it is not, so the story is also about which stories this officer chooses to tell the unnamed narrator, and how he tells them. He chooses to tell stories about civilians. These could also be called stories about wonders he saw in war since he focuses on the "strange" screaming and the medical oddity of the old woman's death.

Though he's seen war, the narrator does not talk about combat now. Instead, he talks about women and animals in states of suffering: terrified and screaming, or in the throes of giving birth, or rigid in death. The slaughtered animals meekly accept the cruel manner of their death, first crippled and then drowned. The civilians on the pier, like the animals, seem no longer able to reason. They scream and are quieted by a light for no good reason. The grieving mothers refuse to part with their dead babies.

The officer tells of others' terror. Through repetition and verbal irony, he also subtly indicates how their terror affected him. He refers to floating corpses as "nice things" floating in the harbor, which are not nice at all. He repeats the vague term "things," saying, "That was the only time in my life I got so I dreamed about things," the repetition showing how the scene has affected him. He calls the slaughtering of the pack animals "a most pleasant business," again meaning the opposite. He repeats this word, too, for emphasis, in the story's final line: "My word yes a most pleasant business."

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