Notwithstanding his considerable talent as a fiction writer, Ernest Hemingway was not prone to plumbing the emotional depths of his characters, especially his male characters. Still, a careful reading of the author’s work suggests that he at least possessed keen insights into certain aspects of human psychology and behavior, even though he tended not to dwell long on them in prose. However, the few pointed, matter-of-fact psychological details he does provide in his stories are nearly always powerful, meticulously chosen, and placed for maximum effect.
In two of his early short pieces—“Soldier’s Home” and “In Another Country”—Hemingway demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of the impact of war on the minds and behaviors of those who have experienced it firsthand. Both of these stories also stand out as early examples of this phenomenon in American literature. Using narrative in his distinctive style, the author sheds light, economically but effectively, on the private torments of his World War I-Era protagonists: one, a young veteran in postwar Oklahoma; the other an injured American volunteer convalescing in Italy.
“Soldier’s Home” appeared in the 1925 short-story collection, In Our Time, which was Hemingway’s first American publication. The story is set in the summer of 1919. The protagonist, former Marine Harold Krebs, has recently returned to his hometown, long after “the greeting of heroes” has ended.
Outside of a brief mention that Krebs had fought in some of the major late campaigns of the war, Hemingway does not provide any details of the young Marine’s personal combat experience. Rather, he uses third-person narrative to fill in the blanks, focusing at first on Krebs’ difficulties communicating with his family and friends. Initially, Krebs is reticent about his experience; but later, when he feels “the need to talk … no one [wants] to hear about it.” His father only wants him to take a job and become “a credit to the community.” His religious mother at least asks him about the war, but then doesn’t seem terribly interested, apart from her grave concern that he might have given in to carnal temptations. As for the people in his home town, they’ve already heard too many outlandish tales told by returning veterans to find entertainment value in Krebs’ very real but unadorned stories. In his typical sardonic style, author Hemingway explains the situation:
His acquaintances…had heard detailed accounts of German women found chained to machine guns in the Argonne forest and…could not comprehend, or were barred by their patriotism from interest in, any German machine gunners who were not chained….
So Krebs shuts his mouth about the war once again. It becomes clear that his time in combat has set him apart fundamentally from those who did not share the experience. As Hemingway phrases it, the “world they were in was not the world he was in.” The only exceptions to this are the few occasions where Krebs finds himself in the company of a fellow veteran. Here he can talk, if only for a brief time; and in this capacity he adopts “the easy pose of the old soldier among other soldiers: that he had been badly, sickeningly frightened all the time.”
The unnamed first-person narrator in Hemingway’s 1927 short story, “In Another Country,” feels a similar detachment from non-combatants. He is an American volunteer officer in Italy, probably a member—as Hemingway himself had been during World War I—of the Red Cross ambulance service. The young man has suffered a serious leg wound during the fighting and is now invalidated from service. He spends his recovery time with other war invalids, all Italian men except for him, and they develop a loose confederation based on their common circumstance, each of them knowing “there was always the war, but we were not going to it anymore.” On their way to and from the hospital, where the men endure pointless physical therapy sessions on ineffectual new machines, they travel together through the streets of Milan for their own safety. This is especially true in the city’s communist quarter, where the locals hate them “because we [are] officers, and from a wine shop [someone] would call out ‘A basso gli uficialli!’ as we passed.”
But the bond between the young men, rooted mainly in their invalidation due to injury, only goes so far; and in fact, it soon begins to break down entirely. This is where Hemingway demonstrates an even keener understanding of the psychology of combat veterans, which he undoubtedly gleaned from his own observations in wartime Italy. He creates a hierarchy of experience between the men that is based on time spent in battle; and automatically, the narrator becomes the low man. While most in the group had received commendations for heroic conduct, the narrator’s medals, by his own admission, were awarded chiefly because he is an American volunteer serving the Italian war effort. To be sure, he has sacrificed dearly in that service; but, in the eyes of his fellow invalids, that fact alone doesn’t count for much. “I had been wounded,” the narrator explains, “but we all knew that being wounded, after all, was really an accident.” Another young man, who had been shot in the face and grievously disfigured on his first and only day at the front, is similarly marginalized because of the relative brevity of his combat experience.
In contrast, Hemingway, through the voice of his narrator, describes the three young veterans at the top of the hierarchy as “hunting hawks.” He notes one man especially—a pale-faced, highly-decorated lieutenant who had “lived a very long time with death and was a little detached.” And here again, Hemingway makes another important distinction that further illustrates his insight, not only into the merit-based structure of this small, tenuous confederation of warriors, but also the manner in which they are likely perceived by the many non-combatants surrounding them in Milan. During his discussion over the “hunting hawk” nature of the three top men, the narrator candidly admits:
…I was not a hawk, although I might seem a hawk to those who had never hunted; they, the three, knew better and so we drifted apart. But I stayed friends with the boy who had been wounded his first day…because he would never know how he would have turned out; so he could never be accepted either, and I liked him because I thought perhaps he would not have turned out to be a hawk either.
Given Ernest Hemingway’s no-nonsense approach to writing—the “lean, athletic” style that is his trademark—it is perhaps inevitable that he came to avoid delving too deeply into the emotional lives of his characters. His early experience as a journalist in Kansas City might have influenced his embrace of hard facts conveyed through the use of “simple declarative” sentences. His own hang-ups regarding masculine comportment doubtless also contributed to his sober narrative style. Over the decades, literary critics have built an industry on the question of what motivated Hemingway to write as he did. But in the final analysis, it matters little. Motivation and style aside, his literary work, while spare in style, demonstrates unmistakable brilliance and insight into human behavior. And these two early short stories are distinct examples of the author’s keen understanding of war and its lingering, private effects on the lives of combat veterans.