In Our Time | Study Guide

Ernest Hemingway

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In Our Time | Soldier's Home | Summary

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Summary

A soldier named Harold Krebs joins the Marines and serves in World War I. He remains in Germany until summer 1919, many months after the armistice.

Krebs returns to his hometown in Oklahoma. The town has already given its parades for returning heroes, and Krebs's return is ignored. He does not want to talk about the war, but when he finally does, no one wants to hear. "His town had heard too many atrocity stories to be thrilled by actualities," says the narrator.

To get people to listen, he tells lies about the war. As a result, he becomes disgusted and no longer wants to talk about his experiences. The lying seems to alter and destroy his memories. During wartime, Krebs had often "done the one thing, the only thing for a man to do, easily and naturally." Thinking back on those experiences had made him "feel cool and clear inside himself." His lies destroy that.

The narrator gives an example of such a lie. When he talks with other soldiers he pretends "he had been badly, sickeningly frightened the whole time."

Krebs likes to watch the young women in the town from a distance; he is not interested in them up close. He vaguely wants a girlfriend, but "[h]e did not want to have to do any courting." He enjoys the friendship of one of his sisters, Helen and spends his time reading and practicing clarinet. Helen asks Krebs to come watch her play indoor baseball, but he declines.

Krebs's mother has a talk with him about the direction his life is taking. She announces solemnly he will be allowed to use his father's car in the evenings. His parents hope he will court a young woman if he has a car. She asks Krebs if he loves her. He replies no, he does not, adding he does not love anyone. She weeps. Embarrassed and regretful, Krebs takes her by the arm and apologizes. Krebs's mother asks him to pray with her, but he can't. Krebs resolves to go to Kansas City to get a job. He decides he will not go see his father before he leaves, but he will watch Helen play indoor baseball.

Analysis

In this story, Hemingway shows how fickle and impermanent patriotism can be. At the end of the war, returning soldiers are welcomed with parades as though the gratitude people feel for soldiers is permanent. However, by the time Krebs comes home, all the feelings of gratitude have evaporated. The townspeople resent Krebs for coming home "years after the war was over." In fact, it has only been six to nine months. (The armistice was in November 1918; Krebs comes home in the summer of 1919.) The exaggeration—years, not months—shows how resentful and impatient people are.

Krebs's mistiming affects everything about the way he is treated. People are not just tired of parades; they are also tired of hearing about the war. Their appetite for war stories has been glutted by fantastic, horrifying "atrocity stories." The truth about one man's war is too small and boring for them: "His town had heard too many atrocity stories to be thrilled by actualities."

Krebs resorts to lying so he can talk about the war, but his lies are not interesting enough to satisfy the townspeople. His acquaintances have "heard detailed accounts of German women found chained to machine guns in the Argonne forest." These are ridiculous, propagandistic lies about the sexually ferocious, morally depraved German enemy. Krebs's acquaintances eat those stories up, but they don't want to hear Krebs's less impressive lies. The narrator uses verbal irony and understatement to show how fickle and superficial patriotism is, remarking that people are "barred by their patriotism from interest in, any German machine gunners who were not chained." If they were true patriots, they might give a returning soldier a hearing. Instead, they are consumers of atrocity stories.

Krebs's lies "were quite unimportant;" no chained women or ferocious German gunners. Krebs "attribut[es] to himself things other men had seen, done or heard of." His way of lying is strikingly similar to what Hemingway does in writing In Our Time. The vignettes and stories about war might contain "things other men had seen, done or heard of." Like Krebs, Hemingway tells about things that are "quite unimportant." His characters are not named Mike Steele or Mark Danger, and they do not encounter chained gunners. Hemingway's characters, sometimes nameless, encounter the ordinary horrors and wonders of war.

Krebs's most interesting lie is the one he tells about being frightened. When he meets other soldiers, he "falls into the pose" of pretending "that he had been badly, sickeningly frightened all the time." One might expect a soldier to lie and say he was always brave, only to have the truth be that he was frightened. In Chapter 7 a soldier conceals the truth that he begged Jesus to save him. Krebs covers up something different, however, something Hemingway only vaguely alludes to. In war Krebs "had done the one thing, the only thing for a man to do, easily and naturally." It is impossible to say for sure, but the one thing might have been killing enemy soldiers. Krebs did it "easily and naturally," and remembering it used to "make him feel cool and clear inside himself."

Krebs's experiences have not been too frightening for him to get used to town life in Oklahoma. His experiences in war are too deep; his confrontation with killing, and the ease with which he accomplished it, is too deep. Now he has a "nausea in regard to experience." He cannot tolerate lying, his mother's display of emotion, or the small, shallow life he is expected to fit back into.

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