Saturday, January 29, 2005

Read if You Dare...

Well, I said I'd post my first essay for my "Modern Novel" class, and here I go.

First, the assignment (paraphrased):

  1. In the first part, take one of the chapters of In Our Time and write a short essay about how the two parts in it connect.

  2. In the second part, write about "Big Two-Hearted River" in relation to the chapter you have studied.

Analysis of "The Three Day Blow"

One striking difference between "Chapter IV" of Ernest Hemingway's In Our Time and many of the previous chapters is that in both the opening, italicized section and the story, "The Three Day Blow," begin with their characters being in a surprisingly good mood. The soldiers in the opening section seem quite pleased with themselves, describing the barrier they have erected with adjectives such as "perfect," "priceless," and "topping." In fact, they were "frightfully put out" when they had to retreat (43). In a similar way, Nick is in a good mood—and why not? He's relaxing by the fire with a friend, he'll be going hunting the next day, and he is having a good conversation with Bill about things he enjoys "on a high plane (54)." However, these upbeat attitudes shared by the two sections of the story are far from what they appear. They are instead subordinated to and merely another form of the more dominant theme that emerges through comparison of the two sections: screens of an intangible, transparent, and devious nature.

The primary screen, that one which is most obvious, is the "...big old wrought-iron grating from the front of a house" that the soldiers use to barricade the bridge. We are led to understand that what is so useful about this screen is that it is "[t]oo heavy to lift and you could shoot through it... (43)." In other words, it has been turned into an effective way to kill enemy soldiers. Yet it is even more useful applied to "The Three Day Blow" as the primary key for unlocking the more complex screens that Nick has employed.

At first glance, there does not seem to be any screens in or around Nick's section of the chapter. The only one ever named is the screen near the fireplace which Bill warns Nick not to "dent the screen," which Nick is careful to avoid doing (47). Yet even such a minor screen has an importance in the context of the story as it unfolds. What will happen when screens are dented, broken, or rendered ineffective? In each case to follow, there will be consequences if such a breaking of the screen were to take place. Had the soldiers' screen broken, it would probably have meant their deaths. But although the soldiers' screen does not break, it is rendered ineffective through a different means, and they are forced to retreat. In this context, the near denting of a seemingly insignificant screen takes on a greater meaning. But although no other screens are evident in Nick's story, they are there.

First, consider the purpose of alcohol in the story. Like the Soldiers' screen, it is insubstantial, but effective. Obviously, it isn't something that can be seen or felt, but it is a sort of screen for emotions and thoughts one would rather keep out. For instance, twice in the story, alcohol seems to be Nick's reaction to feeling alone. When Nick initially wishes for the presence of the authors Chersterson and Walpole, perhaps knowing the impossibility of achieving this desire, his first response is to agree with Bill's suggestion, "Let’s get drunk (51)." Later, when he considers "[h]e might never se [Marjorie] again," his first response is, "Let's have another drink" as a way to block the welling of unpleasant emotion. Yet even as the alcohol is proving as an invisible screen behind which he can hide, it is also a screen from which, like the soldiers, he and Bill can still "shoot through it" by criticizing authors like Walpole and Chesterson ("I guess [Chesterson's] a better guy...[b]ut Walpole's a better writer (51)") and by pointing out how fishing is "...better than baseball (55)."

Again like the soldiers, Nick is quite pleased with the barricade he has chosen to use, but neither proves as infallible as either Nick or the soldiers had hoped. Certainly the soldiers are happy with their barrier, the adjectives quoted above attest to how pleased they are. So too pleased is Nick. He points out about his father, "He claims he's never taken a drink...He's missed a lot, (52)" inferring that alcohol is a terrible thing to have missed. Nick is as proud of his barrier as the soldiers are of theirs. Even drunk, Nick feels "...quite proud of himself...thoroughly practical (53)" even after knocking over a pan of food. Yet, again, the alcohol shields him from any such negative emotions as guilt or blame which would likely attack him if he were to knock over the same pan sober.

But fallibility of their barriers turns out to be the problem both for the soldiers and for Nick: something will somehow get through. For the soldiers, "...the flank had gone, and we had to fall back." Not surprisingly they were "frightfully put out (43)" by this occurrence. Nick loses his screen in the same way. Nick did not expect to be exposed to a threat over which he had no control; in this case, it was Marjorie that flanked him. Nick, like the soldiers, could have held out indefinitely on his own, but in both cases, their peers, whether other soldiers or Bill, rendered the screens useless. All of a sudden, Nick's barrier was gone: "The liquor had all died out of him and left him alone...He wasn't drunk. It was all gone (57)." All of a sudden, upon losing their screens, both Nick and the soldiers were no longer in the good moods they were in as the story began. But what was it, specifically, that causes both the soldiers and Nick to be so attached to their barriers in the first place?

Another hint at this answer is found in a third screen found in "The Three Day Blow" in the form of a mirror. The mirror mimics the soldiers' screen in a different manner than does the alcohol, and in this case it is seen in reverse, from Nick's story to the Soldiers'. The way in which the mirror can be interpreted as a screen for Nick is that when he looks into it he does not see a reflection. Instead, "He smiled at the face in the mirror and it grinned back at him. He winked at it and went on. It was not his face but it didn't make any difference (54)." In other words, Nick is seeing something else through the mirror that is not he, though he cannot touch or personally interact with that image, as though they were separated by an invisible, yet solid barrier. It even seems like a jolly, likeable image in the way " grinned back at him." In the same way, the soldiers see the enemy officers in their uniform, definitely an "other" as seen through their screen which serves much the same function in keeping the officers and soldiers out of contact. Again, the soldiers seem to feel quite cordial to the officers, remarking how "very fine (43)" they are.

One way to interpret this analogy is to assert that of course the image Nick sees through the mirror is his own, even if he doesn't seem to think so. He simply does not associate himself with that image. Under this interpretation, Hemingway is implying that the enemies the solders are firing at are, too, in some way the soldiers themselves. It is not that two enemies in war are so different (they are all people, just on different sides of a national boundary); it is just that each side refuses to associate itself with the enemy. This is what makes war possible.

When considered together, these screens begin to illuminate that there is one screen both the soldiers and Nick are using from whence all the screens noted above are derived. The biggest screen of all is the good mood and upbeat attitudes that dominate much of the story. It is a screen between Nick and the solders and their true feelings. Nick's happiness, whether artificially created through alcohol or because he feels like "[t]here was not anything that was irrevocable (59)" is his tool to delude himself into belittling the cares and mistakes of his past by putting such them into a context where they don't hurt. For the soldiers, their barrier on the bridge is a thing to feel happy about that will take their cares off the fact that they are in fact killing people who are likely remarkably similar to themselves. It is only when this ultimate screen is dented—through the denting of those less important ones as Nick is careful not to do at the fireplace—that reality and the unhappiness that Nick and the soldiers truly feel sets in.

*               *               *

As noted in the previous section, one characteristic of "The Three Day Blow" in Hemingway's In Our Time that stands out among the stories that immediately surround it is the upbeat attitude that Nick displays for much of the story. This is also a trait present, and most evident, in "Big Two-Hearted River." However, the difference in the quality of the happiness of the two stories is what is most noticeable. As established above, the quality of Nick's happiness in "The Three Day Blow" is artificially created at times through alcohol and at times through self-delusion, thinking that "[t]here was not anything that was irrevocable (59)." Meanwhile, "Big Two-Hearted River" is remarkable for the authenticity of Nick's happiness. The difference is not most noticeable in the way he lives or what he does; it is in the way his actions reflect a healthier relationship with time—past, present, and future.

In the first paragraph of "The Three Day Blow," we are introduced to Nick walking through a bare orchard where "[t]he fruit had been picked...Nick stopped and picked up a Wagner apple from beside the road, shiny in the brown grass from the rain (45)." This image leaves us with the impression of an apple that is as out of place as it can be: fruit where all the fruit is gone and bright and standing out in front of a dull, drab background. It's as if by the act of picking up the apple, Nick is admitting to an attraction for something out of place—as if he himself feels as out of place and is resisting being where he is, as is this solitary apple in a fall storm. As the story rolls on, we again and again find Nick escaping from the immediacy of life. He uses the screens of alcohol, delusion, and therefore the happiness described above as ways to keep his cares at bay. He speaks of baseball and authors and alcohol ("'[the whiskey's] got a swell smoky taste,' Nick said, and looked at the fire... (46).")

What Nick doesn't talk about until Bill brings it up is what is truly consuming him, "All he knew was that he once had Marjorie and that he had lost her...That was all that mattered (57)." Suddenly, Nick's former happiness is entirely erased. Before Nick admits this, there is no suggestion whatsoever of Marjorie or that this is the one topic that is "all that mattered" to him. We discover here how consumed Nick has become with the past, his mistakes, and how he cannot let them go peacefully. The only way Nick is able to repress the past again is to delude himself into thinking he can go back, that "...he could always go into town on Saturday night (61)," and he technically could. But from both the previous story, "The End of Something" and, as he says, "I couldn't help it...All of a sudden everything was over...It was my fault (58)," it truly is over. He just doesn't know how to admit it.

"Big Two-Hearted River" finds Nick at a much later and greatly altered point in his life. Instead of trying to search for something else—something different or out of place—we find Nick very much at peace with himself and his present. Instead of remarking on an apple, Hemingway goes out of his way to give at least six instances of Nick remarking the "...sweet fern, growing ankle high..." that covers the non-scorched land through which Nick travels. He even picks some so "...he smelled it as he walked (182)," displaying a oneness with his physical surroundings that he lacked before. Also, rather than being struck by the apple that sticks out in the previous story, Nick is now struck by how the grasshoppers blend in. "...He realized that they had all turned black from living in the burned-over land." They had adapted to the "burned-over land" as a way to better survive by blending into their environment. Nick realizes the value of this, and questions " long they would stay that way (181)." In other words, when the land heals they'll be at a disadvantage until they change back to brown—but eventually adapt back they would. These two examples of Nick reconciling with nature suggest a parallel with his own inner healing from "The Three Day Blow" fascination with being almost against nature as the apple of the first story suggests. Nick is finally content to be where he is.

A powerful clue to this newfound contentment is the style Hemingway uses in "Big Two-Hearted River." Instead of Nick focusing on baseball or books or booze as in the previous story, he is mostly occupied with his immediate present. He focuses on what is present and what Nick is doing. The style of writing is, for long stretches, descriptive and reportorial:

Nick ate a big flapjack and a smaller one, covered with apple butter. He put apple butter in the third cake, folded it over twice, wrapped it in oiled paper and put it in his shirt pocket. He put the apple butter jar back in the pack and cut bread for two sandwiches (197-198).
It isn't that, as in many other stories, Hemingway is shying away from emotion for fear of dark thoughts and feelings such as the Marjorie memories that attack Nick on "The Three Day Blow." Instead, Hemingway makes the point that the past is no longer a source of pain for Nick. He is able to be present without fear now with those things that concern him in the present. To further this point, Hemingway makes sure we know that Nick hasn't forgotten his past; he is simply now at peace with it.

Nick's peace with his past is clear from the moment he is off the train in "Big Two-Hearted River." In "The Three Day Blow," Nick comforts himself knowing he can go back to town. Now, in "Big Two-Hearted River," he actually does try to go back to town only to find it is not there. Instead of the town, he finds scorched countryside and foundations where the town used to be. But Hemingway gives the impression that the town is not what concerns Nick. Instead, Nick acts very much unconcerned that the town is not there. He simply continues on his journey, not giving the town another thought. His first stop is the bridge to watch the trout struggle upstream where "Nick's heart tightened as the trout moved. He felt all the old feeling (178)." While this seems similar to his reaction to Bill talking about Marjorie in the previous story, we are corrected two paragraphs later when we are told, "He was happy (179)." Hemingway gives us a reason for this happiness: "He felt he had left everything behind, the need for thinking, the need to write, other needs. It was all back of him." In other words, Nick has finally mastered the fears, needs, and desires which had, in the previous story, mastered him.

On the occasion that Nick is affected by the past, he shows his ability to master it and keep it in the past where it belongs. Upon recollecting the last time he ever saw his friend, Hopkins, the story ends, "Nick drank the coffee, the coffee according to Hopkins. The coffee was bitter. Nick laughed. It made a good ending to the story (191)." He handles the loss of a friend by expressing the sentiment the story leaves him with ("The coffee was bitter"), but able to laugh at the joke, put it into the context of an ending, and move on. This contrasts sharply with his hopeful self-deceit he goes through with Marjorie. In the latter case, he is only able to go on by denying there is an end. On the occasion that Nick does let the moment overwhelm him, after hooking the large trout, he is able to re-presence himself by allowing time to slow back down and stretch out:

He sat on the logs, smoking, drying in the sun, the sun warm on his back, the river shallow ahead entering the woods, curving into the woods, shallows, light glittering, big water-smooth rocks, cedars along the bank and white birches, the logs warm in the sun, smooth to sit on, without bark, gray to the tough; slowly the feeling of disappointment left him (205).
Nick is able to re-establish himself into the present and let the past and his disappointment slip away. Next time he loses a trout his reaction is, "He reeled in and holding his hook in his hand, walked down the stream (208)." Not only has he put the event immediately in the past, but the difference in the two reactions to losing trout show off his ability to adapt—much like the grasshoppers.

Evidently, Nick has learned a great deal and made large strides in the intervening time between the two stories about how to live in the present and how to deal with the past. From Nick's varied experiences, Hemingway seems to suggest that the best way to live in the present is to actually allow oneself to be surrounded by it; not to resist it and to adapt when necessary. Certainly, it probably took the grasshoppers time to adapt to the scorched land, and it will take them yet more time to re-adapt, during which time they'll be exceptionally good prey for birds and such, when the land heals. However, as Hemingway was quite probably aware, and he shows Nick to be aware, is that it takes time, pain, and often loss to adapt—much like the soldier of "Soldeir's Home." The only fear is when one is so far out of one's natural element that adaptation is not possible. The grasshopper who jumps from the jar, only to drown in the river, oblivious to what jumping really means. But once the adaptation has taken place, and Nick is able to live out of the past, which allows him to enjoy and control his present. This seems to be what Hemingway wants to say about the right way to live with one's past and present.

And the right way to live with the future? Hemingway seems to say that with control of the present comes an ability to influence the future, so don't rush it. Nick can fish where he wants. In "The Three Day Blow," the story ends with Nick and Bill rushing to join Bill's father shooting in the swamp. But by the end of "Big Two-Hearted River," Nick realizes that "In the swamp fishing was a tragic adventure. Nick did not want it." Instead, he knows that if it is necessary for his survival, "[t]here will be plenty of days coming when he could fish in the swamp (212)."

Hemingway, Ernest: In Our Time. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons: ????. (Year not listed. The Scribner Library is the series.)


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At November 5, 2005 at 5:24 AM, Blogger Hoodia said...

Help me Dude, I think I'm lost..... I was searching for Elvis and somehow ended up in your blog, but you know I'm sure I saw him in a car lot yesterday, which is really strange because the last time I saw him was in the supermarket. No honest really, he was right there in front of me, next to the steaks singing "Love me Tender". He said to me (his lip was only slightly curled) "Boy, you need to get yourself a San Diego cosmetic surgery doctor ,to fit into those blue suede shoes of yours. But Elvis said in the Ghetto nobody can afford a San Diego plastic surgery doctor. Dude I'm All Shook Up said Elvis. I think I'll have me another cheeseburger. Then I'm gonna go round and see Michael Jackson and we're gonna watch a waaaay cool make-over show featuring some Tijuana dentists on the TV in the back of my Hummer. And then he just walked out of the supermarket singing. . . "You give me love and consolation,
You give me strength to carry on " Strange day or what? :-)


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