Essay Topic 1
There are a number of father and son relationships written about in these stories. Choose some of these to compare and contrast. How are they different? How are they similar?
Essay Topic 2
The pursuit of happiness was a common theme found in these stories. What stories embody this theme, and how does that pursuit affect the characters involved?
Essay Topic 3
Despair was an emotion that affected a number of the characters in these stories. Which characters are most affected by despair, and how does this change the course of the plots they are involved in?
Essay Topic 4
Nick Adams was a character we were able to follow through a number of different stories. How does he change over the course of his life, and what causes these changes?
Essay Topic 5
There were many characters in these stories who were manipulated and persuaded to do things they...
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SOURCE: Summerhayes, Don. “Fish Story: Ways of Telling in ‘Big Two-Hearted River.’” The Hemingway Review 15, no. 1 (fall 1995): 10-26.
[In the following essay, Summerhayes examines Hemingway's use of language in “Big Two-Hearted River.”]
We've reached a stage of modernity where it is very difficult to accept innocently the idea of a “work of fiction”; from now on, our works are works of language; fiction can pass through them, contacted obliquely, indirectly present.
What do I want to communicate but what a hell of a good time I had writing it? The whole thing is performance and prowess and feats of association. Why don't critics talk about those things—what a feat it was to turn that that way, and what a feat it was to remember that, to be reminded of that by this. Why don't they talk about that?
It was really more fun than anything. That was really why you did it. He had never realized that before. It wasn't conscience. It was simply that it was the greatest pleasure. It had more bite to it than anything else. It was so damn hard to write well, too.
Near the end of “Big Two-Hearted River,” as Nick Adams anxiously anticipates fishing in the swamp, we find this passage: “He wished he had brought something to read. He felt like reading. He did not feel like going on into the swamp” (IOT [In Our Time] 211).2 In this moment the mimetic code seems to vacillate: to what voice can we assign these words? We put an asterisk or a question mark in the margin of our text to signify our intention to come back to the passage, because there's something perplexing in the alternatives Nick postulates for himself. There seems to be a misstep or lapse in the tone. Can we imagine Nick saying these words to himself? If so, could he be kidding? Is there a kind of rueful self-mockery at his bookish evasiveness?3
Other passages in “Big Two-Hearted River” similarly outplay obvious or direct meaning with extra possibilities. For instance, the narrator's voice and the character's voice seem sometimes distinct, sometimes merged. Or, now and then, through the migration of particular words or phrases, other voices or traces of voices obtrude from earlier stories in In Our Time or from earlier passages in this story, with confusing or distracting associations. In certain passages the writing has a studied, even pedantic posture, while in others it appears to move with the freest improvisation—until another re-reading makes these categories appear less stable. Finally, this is a text in which both character and narrator seem to be involved in the process of writing as it goes along, self-consciously, often even playfully, trying out phrases and locutions, reaching for ways to conjure verbal consciousness out of feelings and sensations. Every reader feels an unmistakeable energy in this text, an exhilaration that is not necessarily confined to the themes and the author's success in “trying to do country,” but that generates itself over and over in the writing, in the “words you don't remember.”4
Writing is often engaged in numerous other or extra activities besides those required to tell a story, or even to make the reader feel as if s/he's “there,” and these activities in themselves are also what this story is about. From this perspective, the question is not so much ‘what does it mean?’ but ‘what can we make of this text?’ in which “nothing happens and the writing is swell”?5 How can we “perform” it at those moments where the cleft between writing and fiction is most noticeable, and the language as language most high-spirited and playful? Questions like these, irritating or amusing from reader to reader, invite responses that deviate from our usual strategies of interpretive analysis.
What follows is a series of ruminations on passages, like the one where Nick “felt like reading” because he “did not feel like going on into the swamp,” which seem to invite a freer play of association than usual and to attract attention to the self-consciousness of the writing as writing. Reading and re-reading this way—with a kind of perverse distractibility—tends to fragment and disperse the text, of course, and to disrupt narrative sequence. Yet when we rough things up a bit we are more likely to spot those inconvenient details and patterns—loose ends, hiatuses, undecidables—that often embarrass readings that strain after complete coherence and certitude. Re-reading “Big Two-Hearted River” for forty-odd years and layering my margins with questions hasn't helped me to master the text, but it has kept it open and unpredictable and unfailingly fascinating. It so often ingeniously declines to assent to what it so often confidently asserts. Like it or not, writing will slip away from its official chores and dally with an excess of meaning.
At the climax, when Nick has lost the big trout, we read:
He had never seen so big a trout. There was a heaviness, a power not to be held, and then the bulk of him, as he jumped. He looked as broad as a salmon. … That was a trout. He had been solidly hooked. Solid as a rock. He felt like a rock, too, before he started off. By God, he was a big one. By God, he was the biggest one I ever heard of.
The vividness and immediacy of the whole passage surrounding this, including the aftermath of Nick's feeling “vaguely, a little sick” (204), don't escape us. By God, this is writing! But I can't suppress my suspicion that I'm hearing one of the innumerable fish stories I've listened to and told all my life. The biggest ever that got away! The text doesn't acknowledge any awareness of these echoes; and of course can't, like us, anticipate their return in, notably, The Old Man and the Sea. And is there an indication of something just slightly off-stride with the confusion over the narrative voice? Who says, “By God”? If it is “I,” what happened to “he”? Well, the good reader says, who has trouble with this, after all? It's probably a case of the text getting so exuberant it jumps out of the hands of the narrator. Yet that it can do so with (relative) impunity here might make us wonder where else it might be doing it without being noticed.
At its first moment of narrative the text of “Big Two-Hearted River” compromises its autonomy. The opening sentence echoes and partly reiterates the opening sentence of an earlier story in In Our Time. “The Battler” (written later than “Big Two-Hearted River” but inserted earlier into the text to replace the banned “Up in Michigan”) starts, “He looked up the track at the lights of the caboose going out of sight around a curve” (65). “Big Two-Hearted River” starts, “The train went on up the track out of sight, around one of the hills of burnt timber” (177).
The similarity in the language, like the similarity of Nick's standpoint, can't be innocent. Whether Hemingway thoughtlessly or cunningly (mis)quotes himself, any reader of In Our Time still retains some traces of Nick's reaction to being “busted” by the brakeman. And some echo still lingers, unmeasurable, of the meeting with the nightmarish Ad Francis and his companion Bugs. The language, not the narrator, tells us that Nick is not entering an idyllic fishing trip. Or not only idyllic.
The text doesn't openly acknowledge echo or trace. The voice that speaks here, like a voice momentarily booming in on a car radio from some distant station, is heard only through the reader's unwillingness to ignore it.6 Call it the reader's voice, perhaps, since it speaks on behalf of the reader who wants to hear everything a text has to say.7
Further down the opening page, Nick registers delayed shock to the discovery that “There was no town, nothing but the rails and the burned-over country” (177). The text intimates—what, surprise? dismay?—with the timing of the phrase, “The river was there.” We can hear Nick whisper to himself. We can sense the calculating narrator set up a metonymic sequence—“burned-over stretch of hillside … railroad track … bridge … river”—delaying and then delivering the punchline: “The river was there!”
As if the matter were in doubt. The sentence confirms the presence of the river, and it seems to confirm also the nature of Nick's presence. He is there, too. He is really there, and this is no dream. But the sequence that sets up the sentence confirms also the presence of a narrator ordering the language, and manipulating the reader. For the reader's pleasure. Some time later, Nick “was there, in the good place” (186). The text is quoting, the reader remembering.
“Big Two-Hearted River” comes in two “Parts.” “Part One” ends, “He curled up under the blanket and went to sleep” (192). “Part Two” begins, “In the morning …” (195). Nick presumably sleeps between the two parts. When the story appears in anthologies “Part Two” immediately follows “Part One.” In In Our Time, however, the parts are separated by “Chapter XV” (“They hanged Sam Cardinella … [at six a.m.] in the corridor of the county jail” (193-4)). One of five men sentenced to be hanged, Sam has been “like that since about four o'clock in the morning”—“like that” meaning so immobilized by fear that he is unable to keep control of his “sphincter muscles” and has to be carried. He is admonished, “Be a man, my son,” by one of two priests, maybe the one who “skipped” back on the scaffolding just before the “drop” fell.
“Chapter XV” is positioned precisely where we might expect, in a certain kind of story, to encounter a dream. This text, however, will not acknowledge any such design, and leaves readers to speculate independently on whether the account of Sam's death constitutes some of the material Nick Adams's unconscious is working with at the beginning of his fishing trip: “Be a man, my son.”
If so, whose voice can we speak it in? If not, then what can we make of it? Does a trace of the priest's voice linger in other admonitions scattered through the text? Should we search Nick's earlier sleep in the “island of pine trees” (183-84) for possible implications?
Lacking companions, Nick talks to himself. He is speaker and listener, actor and audience. He tosses a blackened grasshopper into the air: “‘Go on, hopper.’ Nick said, speaking out loud for the first time. ‘Fly away somewhere.’” (181) Later, making his meal: “‘I've got a right to eat this kind of stuff, if I'm willing to carry it,’ Nick said. His voice sounded strange in the darkening woods. He did not speak again” (187). Didn't want to hear his voice again? Didn't want to sound “strange”? All the same, one page later, after tasting the hot beans and spaghetti: “‘Chrise,’ Nick said. ‘Geezus Chrise,’ he said happily.” Three times the text distinguishes between Nick's speaking out loud and speaking silently:
1) an idle echo of child-like communion with an insect—(“Ladybug, Ladybug,/Fly away home”) (“Fly away, Peter, fly away, Paul”); or is this a sophisticated writer's self-conscious imitation of child-like communion, an impersonation?
2) a gratuitous self-defence, a peevish reaction to internalized judges and critics: “I've got a right.” (Be a man, my son.)
3) a burlesque blessing on a meal, saying grace by accident—“Chrise.”
The speeches, and the impulse to speak out loud, are part of the story of Nick Adams. Suppose he's taking the kind of pleasure he might take in posturing in front of a mirror, just to find out how he looks or sounds, or might look or sound to an audience. Suppose these little bits of natural behaviour don't merely enhance the narrative's reality illusion, but also provide spot-checks whereby Nick tests and confirms his identity? Or maybe not his identity so much as the high spirits (the “old feeling”) that insist on breaking out. Whose high spirits? Try the narrator too. Try Hemingway. Try language itself.
Earlier, after confirming that the river is there, Nick stands on the bridge and watches the trout “keeping themselves steady in the current” (177). We wait for more than twenty pages for “steady” to confirm its function as a word the text conjures with. When Nick releases the first trout he catches, it pauses on the bottom until Nick reaches down to touch it: “The trout was steady in the moving stream, resting on the gravel, beside a stone” (201). Another few pages on, after he has lost the big one, we read: “He thought of the trout somewhere on the bottom, holding himself steady over the gravel, far down below the light, under the logs, with the hook in his jaw” (204). The repetition of “steady” turns it inward, reinforcing its earned new power, so that it becomes, almost explicitly, a kind of admonition to himself to be steady—for example, not to “rush his sensations any.”
At the same time the repetition discreetly invites the reader to respond to language as language, writing as writing, at play with itself even as it promotes the story's negotiations with meaning. In fact, in our pleasure at the text's ingenuity in generating these recycled words and sentences, we may even forget that we are reading a “work of fiction.” Over and over the text quotes itself, plagiarizes itself, reproduces itself, and dangles invitations to its [re]reader to read it as a “work of language.”
Let's try another cast over that early scene in Seney:
Nick looked down into the pool from the bridge. It was a hot day. A kingfisher flew up the stream. It was a long time since Nick had looked into a stream and seen trout. They were very satisfactory.
In the fitful, half-perceptible oscillation between voices throughout this text, whereby from time to time we suspect that the character is aware of the language which operates his story, these words register Nick's self-conscious detachment from his activity and his commentary on it. The whole process of looking, as of inscribing the looking, holds off generalization until a series can be laid down that permits the subject to say, “They were very satisfactory,” decanting the word either for its modest precision or for its ironic value to the self-amusement Nick sometimes favors. A term like this—this term, sa-tis-fac-to-ry—is hard to come by; it has to be worried, then tested by being spoken (out loud or in one's head, it doesn't matter), which requires that the speaker choose the tone of its speaking. Like “tightened” at the bottom of the same page it invites a ludic performance, as one might imagine Henry James saying with deliberative pauses, “They were, as you might say, very satisfactory.”
Until it's actually used, there's no way to establish its function. It stays ready in the reader's memory, the first of a series of words by which this text glosses its vocabulary of sensation. Almost immediately it's followed by another “found” word: “He was happy … but Nick felt happy” (179).
At the beginning of “Part Two” Nick crawls out of his tent “to look at the morning”:...