In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway: Masculinity, Anxiety, and Post World War I Time

Published: 2021-09-15 23:55:08
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Ernest Hemingway was writing during the sensitive time period of post World War I. Europe and America were in a time of social strife. The question on everyone’s mind was how the world should operate after such a disorientating tragedy. The ideals of masculinity were shattered as the veil of the supposed “bravado” of World War I was lifted and was proven to have been a falsity. Masculine and feminine values were brought into question and the ideals of the time set in turmoil. Hemingway’s commentary on the masculine runs much deeper than it is often perceived. His opinions on masculinity mirrors anxieties of the time post world war I. Throughout In Our Time men attempt to prove their masculine prowess by engaging in flaunting their masculinity to other men. These encounters take place through a variety of mediums: the battlefield, the bullfighting ring, inside of a tent, or simply a place where an intimate meeting between a few men is taking place. However Hemingway presents a complex dichotomy as “The stories contained within In Our Timepresentfor every “weak, damaged, and needy women, their fair share of weak, damaged, and needy men” (Stewart xiv). For Hemingway, masculinity does not exist without an audience; his construction of place serves for men to “prove” their masculinity with an audience. Only within these mediums can men achieve masculinity through “their dramas of power and shame” (Strychacz 2003, 76). The amalgamation of power being the equivalent to shame is Hemingway’s commentary on the current state of masculinity. It is an arbitrary display that caused World War I and has continued to disallow the world from returning to its Pre World War One State. Nick, Hemingway’s main protagonist throughout In Our Time, seeks to find his masculinity. However, his journey to assert his masculinity turns out to be futile. Only when the audience perceives Nick in “Big Two-Hearted River”, is Nick’s purpose revealed. He is a symbol of the journey it will take for the world to attain the values and innocence present before the tragedy of World War One.
World War I was caused by a generation of men whom were looking to assert their masculinity on the world stage. Hemingway’s in our time is punctuated by multiple disorientating vignettes and short stories that permeate and disrupt the flow of the main story of the novel: Nick’s story. This is a direct social commentary on the social construct of masculinity. It causes men to reach for superfluous ideas that ultimately cause them humiliation or social strife. World War I left the world feeling disorientated just as the form of In Our Time leaves the reader feeling. The numerous instances of men attempting to assert their masculinity has lost its significance and meaning after the disaster that was World War I. The world’s innocence has been tainted and thus displays of masculinity appear feeble and in some cases ridiculous. Nick has a chance to attain his innocence; however it is not through ardent displays of manliness on a pedestal. It is through quiet and contemplative healing and attaining “old feeling” that he had before World War I. His actions (in the Hemingway sense), may come off as feminine, they are indeed the only way to get back to the innocence of the world before World War I. Critics may claim that the placement of Nick in the novel is with the innate purpose of sending him on a journey to attain Hemingway’s definition of true masculinity. This is not the case within In Our time and although it is true Nick is on a sort of journey and he does encounter numerous masculine figures, it is revealed through “Big Two Hearted River” that Nick, when alone, is not a standard figure of man hood. In fact, numerous typical “masculine” figures throughout In Our Time exhibit numerous feminine qualities that they attempt to “hide” from masculine audiences. For example in Chapter XI when the young boy kills five bull– amasculine feat, he must be shielded from the world when his more feminine qualities emerge: “He sat down in the sand and puked they held a cape over him while the crowd hollered and threw things down into the bull ring” (Hemingway 83). This is relatable to Nick: when in front of an audience (such as Bill), he must put on a masculine façade. Although he never displays in masculinity in such a space as the bull fighting ring, he encounters it’s connotations through his relationship with his father and other men along with his experiences on the battlefield. He is only able to overcome the social construction of masculinity once he is bereft of an audience and truly alone in nature at the end of In Our Time.
Although Hemingway’s construction of Nick may appear to be that of a journey towards masculinity In Our Time is much more complex than this. “The celebration of masculinity, scenes of male bonding, machismo victories—all of these hack-eyed and unidimensional expectations of Hemingway’s work must give way to the much richer, much nuanced, much more complicated world that is present” (Stewart xv). This gives rise to the “iceberg” theory of Hemingway—what appears on the surface is not what is truly occurring.It is true that Hemingway does appear as an inherently masculine figure, however although people often “come to the texts armed with their knowledge of Hemingway’s tough male chauvinism only to find his fiction runs counter to the stereotype” (Stewart xiv ). This becomes apparent in “The End of Something”. Nick appears to have lost interest in Marjorie and this is concretized by the appearance with Bill on the scene. However, once Nick states “Oh, go away, Bill! Go away for a while” (Hemingway 35), it is clear that he has been affected. Bill must depart in order for Nick to unmask his façade of masculinity, something that he can only achieve without an audience.
For Hemingway Place and space is crucial in In Our Time in setting the stage for displays of overt masculinity to occur. To understand Nick’s role in the novella, Hemingway’s definition of an “audience” and his use of space must be implicit. “Part of the audience’s function is to appraise rituals of manhood and bestow praise or condemnation on the protagonist” (Strychacz 245). Only with an audience does masculinity exist, without it, it becomes simply a social construction with no real roots in the real world. In Our time an audience “may comprise only one other person, or even the protagonist watching himself. “Many symbolic spaces in this early work- houses and hotels, bedrooms, camps and clearings-take on the characteristics of a ceremonial arena” (Strychacz 246). This sets Nick up for numerous tests of masculine prowess, many of which he excels at, however the true test exists in “Big Two Hearted River”. By the same token, the kid and Villalta are just two of many characters whose potency as men depends on their ability to transfigure space into spectacle (Strychacz 246).These characters are foils to Nick and mirror his journey to masculinity, however to very different ends. Villalta serves as the perfect figure of masculinity; he is a spectacle to the crowd and knows how to successfully portray his manhood. Nick, on the other hand, is more closely related to “the kid”. He appears manly, in the face of an audience, however, once unaccompanied by an audience; he can become his true self and reveal his feminine characteristics alongside the masculine.
The notion of Nick going on a journey transcends from the story of “The Battler”. This is the first example we see of Nick away from his home town and he has just been ejected from a train. Nick comes into contact with a man named Ad. Ad appears to exemplify a masculine hero: he has proven himself through numerous bouts in the boxing arena (in front of large audiences) and has the battered exterior to prove it. He is described as such: “He had only one ear. It was thickened and tight against the side of his head. Where the other ear should have been there was a stump” (Hemingway 55). In juxtaposition to this, Nick has sustained a black eye in his tussle with the railway conductor, the importance of validating his injuries through himself and others witnessing his injuries are apparent in his thoughts: “he wished he could see it. Could not see it looking through the water though” (Hemingway 53). The men assume Nick is masculine as a result of his visible facial injuries. However, the reality of the situation becomes apparent to Nick when he realizes Ad is actually crazy. Although his performance in the ring in front of an audience solidifies his manliness, it is a warning to Nick to stay away from pursuing the ultimately unattainable goal of the social construct of masculinity. It simply has no place in a Post World War I society. Francis’ humiliation has grown because of the audience that has witnessed his downfall. “His compensatory solution in the clearing is to recall the scene of his most successful dramatizations of physical prowess: the boxing ring” (Strychacz 250). The encounter is not part of Nick’s journey towards masculinity but his journey away from the male purported stereotype. Ad is a warning to Nick: seek masculinity through an audience and it shall be granted: at a price. Ad has lost his ability to see his wife as a result of public scrutiny and is now a homeless vagabond. Nick feels nothing but pity and embarrassment towards Ad—a once respected masculine figure in the public eye. A warning from Hemingway about embracing over masculinity in a post World War I world.
The idea of being injured in front of a male audience is a crucial point throughout In Our Time. This is highlighted when Nick receives a black eye in “The Battler”; however his real injury occurs when he is severely wounded during World War I. “He had been hit in the spine” (Hemingway 63). The battlefield serves as a stage with the world as an audience. However, Nick’s only “audience” “lay face downward against the wall” (63). Nick thinks “Rinaldi was a disappointing audience” (63). Time and time again Nick is faced with chances to prove his masculinity and is disappointed: He is not certain in his decision to leave Marjorie (which he questions throughout the novella) and he receives injuries in battle, however is let down with the lack of bravado for his actions. Nick seeks his own path away from the audiences of male attention: he seeks to capture his masculinity and fails as it is an arbitrary concept post World War One. The roots of which can be traced back to “Indian Camp” and an incident with Nick’s father. This story sets the ground work for the “stage” or “arena” that Hemingway’s character’s operate within and sets up Nick for the rest of his journey away from masculinity…culminating with Big Two Hearted River.
Indian camp is where Nick’s divergence from archetypal masculinity begins. His father commands the tent as his stage—offending the masculinity of the Native American father. The doctor plays out the fantasy of being both director and star actor in his own operating theater, to the point of imagining critical appraisals of his performance: “That’s one for the medical journal.” Clearly, the doctor’s goal is less to initiate his son into the mysteries of birth than to draw attention to his skillful manipulation of those mysteries “(Strychacz 248). The tent is constructed as a stage however, the Indian father “rolled over against the wall” (Hemingway 16), furthermore the men have “moved up the road to sit in the dark out of the range of noises she made (Hemingway 16). Furthermore, Nick himself cannot bear to look at the feminine spectacle taking place that his father is attempting to transfix into a masculine ordeal. It is clear that the doctor wishes to attain the spot light in order to assure his son of his competence over the situation and thus assert his masculinity. His display, however, is a disappointment as the Indian’s suicide overshadows any masculine agenda that the doctor may have attained. “In stories like “Indian Camp,” “The Doctor and the Doc- tor’s Wife,” and “The Battler,” Hemingway explores the ways characters watch each other, exhibit their potency, and-more often-reveal their shame” (Strychacz 247). After the incident, Nick washes his hands of and is renewed of the whole thing—literally, “Nick trailed his hand in the water” (Hemingway 19). In this way Nick is “baptized” of the sins of his father and thus from the get go is set apart from other potent figures of masculinity. “Indian Camp” ends with a similar scene in which Big Two Hearted River takes place. “They were seated in a boat, Nick in the stern, his father rowing. The sun was coming up over the hills. A bass jumped, making a circle in the water” (Hemingway 19). This scene foreshadows what will take place in Big Two Hearted River…in a way the short stories come full circle. Indian Camp foreshadows the future search for the self that Nick will experience and will set him apart from his father—an extreme figure of overt masculinity.
“Big Two Hearted River” is in direct contrast to “Indian Camp”—in many ways the stories are foils of one another. In “Big Two Hearted River”, Nick inhabits a tent which is relatable to his father’s manipulation of the tent as a stage in “Indian Camp”. However “this tent differs importantly from all of them in that it witnesses no exhibition of manhood” (Strychacz 253). In fact many of the activities that Nick takes part in whilst in the tent can be portrayed as inherently feminine. “When it was cooked Nick regreased the skillet. He used all the batter. It made another big flap jack and one smaller one” (Hemingway 146). Within the space Nick is portrayed as cooking and gathering—generally “feminine” tasks. This immediately sets him apart from his domineering father whom uses the tent as a way to stage his masculinity. “Nothing suggests that more than his Adamic ability to move into a space devoid of the audience that has, in the stories of In Our Time, customarily watched and celebrated tough male roles. If anything, Hemingway emphasizes Nick’s cultivation of a tradi- tionally female role as he organizes and tends his “homelike” space” (Strychacz 253). The space that Nick inhabits in “Big Two Hearted River is immediately set apart from the other short stories contained within In Our Time, Nick stands alone, without a masculine audience.
Big Two Hearted River presents a divergence away from the typical short story present throughout In our time. If the entire story it is a circular stage as Nick ends up where he started—in a river fishing.However, as the landscape is changed, so has Nick. He has come back from World War I much changed and wounded. He comes to nature to escape the theater of masculinity and thus find the Nick we see in Indian camp—the innocent Nick who although witnessed a horrific event (the woman giving birth), he was able to wash his hands clean of such acts of masculinity in the river. In Big Two- Hearted River Part I he states “Nick’s heart tightened as the trout moved. He felt the old feeling” (Hemingway 134). It is clear that Nick is trying to find something he has lost. His search for masculinity has failed: the stage has revealed itself to be a hoax. A social construct created for men to “prove” themselves. However, from his experiences, it is clear to Nick that the life of men in the spot light is not always ideal. His father tries to change a feminine space into a masculine space in “Indian Camp” and instead is humiliated by the Indian father’s death. Ad—a upstanding figure of masculinity has been shunned by the society who originally embraced his overt manliness, is a warning to Nick as to the dangers of giving into the social construct of masculinity as it has driven him crazy. Nick finally experiences the pitfalls of the stage as a way to demonstrate masculinity when he is wounded in World War I. He is left wounded, without an audience, and disillusioned. As a result in Big Two-Hearted river he retreats from the stage in order to heal from the social construction of masculinity that been the catalyst for World War I.
Although Big-Two Hearted River is different than other stories within the novel it does draw important parallels to previous stories. An example of this is the violence that occurs in conjunction with Nick capturing the fish. He does kill them and slit them open which brings grotesque images to mind. However, his surgical cutting of the fish are “are far removed from the blood and terror of the Indian’s cabin. Dramatically and psychologically, however, the value of such restorative rituals is less obvious (Strycachcz 254). Big Two-hearted River is a story of healing and recapturing of the self. Nick witnessed a horrifying ordeal in “Indian Camp”; however he was able to cleanse himself of the memory by recapturing his innocence through nature. Now he has seen the world, gone on a journey to find his masculinity. What he has discovered is that “Performance itself does not guarantee manhood; but manhood does require successful performance. Fashioning manhood “while the crowd hollers” and looks on is the crucial drama men undertake in Hemingway’s early work: the moment when his characters undergo their most intense experiences of authority or humiliation(Strychacz 260). Nick realizes that masculinity is simply a social construct that destroys men. This becomes apparent in Nicks admonition to return to his “feminine” camp instead of exploring the swamp. Most masculine figures in Hemingway would take on the swamp and make a great show of it. Nick, however, sees the arbitrary nature of this masculine display, he returns to camp because “There were plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp” (Hemingway 156). Nick knows that social constructions have created the need for men to “prove” themselves. He has no audience, he knows the cost of proving ones masculine values, as a result he chooses to not face the swamp and returns to camp.
Nick realizes the cost of society’s anxiety over retaining masculine values: he has lost Marjorie, witnessed masculinity at its ugliest (with his father and Ad), and become wounded through the disorientating ordeal that was World War I. However, “Because this space never becomes an arena, “Big Two-Hearted River” at least postulates the existence of an autonomous male identity, fashioned without an empowering audience (Strychacz 252). Nick presents a conundrum to the norm of having to “prove” masculinity through an audience. He never gets a chance to show society his masculine prowess on the “stage” as many other characters do throughout In Our Time.“Big Two Hearted River reads like a modern male equivalent of the Victorian Heroine overcome with vapors”. (Stewart xiv). Nick knows how to balance masculine and feminine values in order to heal and retain what has been lost as a result of World War I.His journey proves the social construction of masculinity to be seriously flawed. In Big-Two Hearted River, Nick is portrayed as having feminine qualities; this however, points to Hemingway’s ice berg principle. There is often a lot going on under the surface. In this case, Nick is the only character throughout the novella that has a chance to regain his innocence. This is a result of his failure to put on a display of masculine values, and the solace he has found in nature to cleanse himself of the societal expectations and pressures.
Nick Adam’s represents the struggle of the world to break free of masculine constructs and retain innocence in the wake of World War I. Hemingway wields the ice berg technique in every sense as he navigates the tough terrain of being a writer writing post World War I. Although he appears to write about the importance of masculine values post World War I, what he is actually saying is that to regain innocence the world must ascribe to new values. The new values being joint masculine and feminine values: this is the only way the world can regain what has been lost. “for every villalta moment there is a battle-fatigued Nick Adams so over excited by a fish he hooked and lost he has to sit down to collect himself (Stewart xiv)” . In other words, for every display of masculinity, Hemingway balances the scene by either rendering the display arbitrary or sets the scene of a male displaying feminine qualities. The balance is what has been lost and as a result the calamity World War I occurred. Nick represents the possibility that life can go back to the way it was and the old feelings can be attained. Hemingway’s overt stage settings and plays of masculinity are not a commentary that the world needs to retain masculine values. One need to only look past the tip of the ice berg to perceive that Hemingway’s commentary is a much more complicated ordeal that it appears to be. It is apparent from In Our Time that the restoration of the world will not require overt public displays of masculinity; the healing will take place away from the spot light, quietly with both masculine and feminine values to play a part.

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