In Our Time | Study Guide

Ernest Hemingway

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In Our Time | Themes



"Be a man, my son," a priest tells condemned prisoner Sam Cardinella in Chapter 15. In the face of his imminent death, Sam loses control of his bowels. In Our Time shows men facing life—and death—bravely. In "Indian Camp," the doctor is momentarily stunned and shaken by the suicide of the father, but the doctor gets a grip on himself and examines the dead man's throat. There might not be any medical point to this examination; the father is dead and will not be revived. Still, the doctor becomes a master of the situation, even lifting the dead man's bloody head. Cases like Sam losing control or the soldier pleading with Jesus to save his life show the kind of terror the other men are suppressing.

Masculine men in these stories are active. Mr. and Mrs. Elliot might be doomed in their attempt to have a baby. One of their difficulties is Mr. Elliot's passivity. Mr. Elliot cannot "remember just when it was decided that they were to be married." He can't remember because it was Mrs. Elliot's idea. The passivity of the sentence reflects the way Mr. Elliot just goes along with the idea. Their attempts to have a baby become comical, which Hemingway reflects by repeating they "tried very hard to have a baby." A man like Nick Adams manages it easily.

Men do not say very much in In Our Time. Women prattle, like the wife in "Cat in the Rain": "I want a cat. ... I want a cat. I want a cat now." Women scold, like the wife in "Out of Season": "Of course you haven't got the guts to just go back." The men, in contrast, use few words. George refuses to talk about the feeling of skiing, not wanting to spoil it, in "Cross-Country Snow." And Hemingway uses very few words to describe men's states of mind. When the young soldier in "A Very Short Story" is jilted by his bride-to-be, his emotional state is only hinted at. His response is to "contract gonorrhea from a sales girl in a loop department store while riding in a taxicab through Lincoln Park." Masculine men not only don't say very much in In Our Time, they don't write very much, either. The less-than-masculine Mr. Elliot ceaselessly writes "long poems." In "Big Two-Hearted River," on the other hand, Nick is glad to leave behind "the need to write." Hemingway is either praising masculinity or showing what it costs.


In In Our Time, death is ever-present. Some characters face it bravely and some do not. In "Indian Camp" a young Nick Adams asks his father about death. He has just seen a birth and a death: A woman gives birth and the baby's father kills himself. "Is dying hard, Daddy?" asks Nick. His father replies with a vague answer, saying "No, I think it's pretty easy Nick. It all depends." Nick and his father have just seen the aftermath of a very difficult death. The baby's father slit his own throat from ear to ear, and he must have done it quietly because it happened while Nick and his father were in the room not having noticed. Nick's father's answer is probably intended to be reassuring. It does not usually take such a tremendous act of will to die. Death finds you. That could sound like a strangely disquieting answer, as if to mean, don't bother with thinking about death; it's already thinking about you. However, Nick is young, and death seems far from him. He notices the lake and the feeling of being secure in a boat with his father. "He felt quite sure that he would never die," the narrator says, using verbal irony to remind readers Nick will die.


In Our Time shows a man owes his worthy opponent a worthy death in combat. (There are no women in combat in In Our Time.) This combat extends to blood sports like hunting, fishing, and bullfighting. Part II of "Big Two-Hearted River" shows worthy and unworthy ways to kill a fish. Careless sportsmen handle fish with their dry hands, causing them an unsightly death by white fungus. Nick sees these careless sportsmen's handiwork: "dead trout, furry with white fungus, drifted against a rock, or floating belly up in some pool." To perform well and treat the opponent as worthy has a cost. Chapter 9 shows how much it costs "the kid" to perform well as a matador. He kills five bulls after his feckless and incompetent competitors fail to kill any. The effort leaves him exhausted: "He sat down in the sand and puked."

War itself does not always provide opportunities to treat the opponent as worthy. The mechanized battle style of World War I results in ugly, inglorious deaths, as in Chapter 3. The narrator describes "potting" (taking potshots at) German soldiers as they pop up over a garden wall. "Then three more came. ... We shot them all. They all came just like that." In contrast to the brutality of mechanized death in war, bullfighting gives In Our Time its most stylized, artful, ritualized deaths. In Chapter 12 the bull and the bullfighter become one—perfectly matched opponents.


For a book mostly about male characters, In Our Time also shows a lot of births and pregnancies. Because the main characters are men, the births are seen through their eyes. Birth appears as a distressing reality of life men must accommodate and sometimes medically master. In "Indian Camp" the doctor brings his son, Nick, to watch a Native American woman giving birth. He believes it will be educational for Nick to see how "all her muscles are trying to get the baby born." In war men face not only death but also the ongoing reality of birth. Refugees give birth in the hold an officer's ship in "On the Quai at Smyrna." The officer claims he "didn't mind" about "the women having babies." That is something a person says when they do mind, or when they think they would be justified in minding. A refugee gives birth behind a blanket in Chapter 2, causing an onlooker to "feel scared sick looking at it." Still, it is up to men in In Our Time to overcome their queasiness, the way Nick is being taught to in "Indian Camp."

A similar theme is the relationships between men and women. In "Soldier's Home," Krebs can appreciate women from a distance only. His only experience with them is in the casual and perhaps commercial relationships in wartime. "Besides he did not really need a girl. The army had taught him that." However, Krebs is desperately unhappy; he is an example of a bad adaption to life after war. Nick, in "Cross-Country Snow," is the good example. He notices the waitress's pregnancy and imagines she is angry about being unmarried and pregnant. In "Cross-Country Snow," George wants to stay on an endless ski trip. Nick, however, can't be part of it because he must return to the United States for the birth of his child.

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