Hemingway’s “The Battler”:
The theme of protagonists trying to make sense of the postwar world by connecting with other people recurs throughout Modernist literature. In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway searches New York City in attempts to find one genuine person in the artificial Upper Class during the chaotic Roaring Twenties. In “Recuerdo,” the narrator and her companion cope with their dissatisfaction with the workaday business world by simply not participating in commerce, roaming the city for recreation instead. In The Waste Land, Tiresias the soothsayer watches as a weary typist literally connects with a young man through intercourse.
Similar to these models, Ernest Hemingway’s self-modeled protagonist from In Our Time, Nick Adams, seeks meaningful social connections after his traumatic experience as a soldier in the First World War. In “The Battler” Nick attempts to befriend two hermits—with strange and disconcerting consequences. Hemingway illustrates Nick’s desire to have purpose by exposing the inner workings of his psychology: his mental tracing and retracing of past events through the narrator’s repetition of certain words and phrases, as well as the anxiety that halts his quest for friendship. Hemingway shows psychological detail by writing revealing dialogue and subjective third person narration.
The story starts with two short sentences, written in third person narration: “Nick stood up. He was all right” (53). At first glance, the sentences appear to be simple, declarative statements of objective fact. And why would the sentences not be true if the information comes to readers from a third person narrator?
Consisting of seven words in total, the first two sentences use basic structures: Subject – Verb – Adverb and Subject – Verb – Adjective, respectively. Yet, as Hemingway himself wrote, his writing is like an iceberg—the shard breaching the surface tops a mountain of ice below. The pseudo-simplicity of the sentences’ construction belies the meaningful depth beneath. If the first sentences in a story show a character standing up, and the narrator declares that he is “all right,” one wonders why the character starts on the ground. Why would Nick not be “all right?” The narrator gives more information in the second paragraph, when we find out Nick’s “pants were torn and the skin [of his knee] was barked” (53). We know Nick stood up after scraping his knee, but how did that happen? Here Hemingway plants a seed of doubt about his narrator’s reliability; readers question the narrator’s decision to withhold the reason for Nick’s injury.
Before readers learn what hurt Nick, the narrator details his act of self-cleansing for the remainder of the second paragraph:
His hands were scraped and there were sand and cinders driven up under his nails. He went over to the edge of the track down the little slope to the water and washed his hands. He washed them carefully in the cold water, getting the dirt out from the nails. He squatted down and bathed his knee. (Hemingway 53)
In the second paragraph, the narrator repeats five words: “knee,” “hands,” “nails,” “water,” and “washed.” Through repetition, images of those nouns burn into the readers’ minds. Thanks to Hemingway’s terse prose, no unnecessary adverbs and figures of speech clutter the second paragraph, enabling readers to picture the scene with photographic clarity. Nevertheless, for all of Hemingway’s clear imagery via repetition, the circumstances behind Nick’s wound still remain a mystery.
By the third paragraph’s conclusion, readers can finally solve the puzzle, discovering at the same time that the narrator’s point of view intermingles with the protagonist’s. The narrator complains about the “lousy crut of a brakeman,” vowing to “get him some day” (53). First we learn that Nick’s knee and hands are scraped, then Nick washes himself, and then the narrator curses the brakeman through the third person narrator. Why would the narrator call the brakeman a “lousy crut?” Shouldn’t that judgment be reserved for the main character? Hemingway could have written, “Nick thought the brakeman was a lousy crut,” but instead he wrote, “That lousy crut of a brakeman,” as if the narrator possessed a personality. Because this comment comes directly from the narrator and not Nick, we can read the narrator as opinionated and subjective instead of factual and objective. The narrator sees the world from Nick’s point of view, which means we cannot necessarily trust the narration. “He was all right” could have been a lie, after all.
Knowledge of the third person narrator’s subjectivity shines a new light on the second paragraph’s repetition of five words. Perhaps the narrator writes “knee,” “hands,” “nails,” “water,” and “washed” two times apiece not only to create a clear image, but also to illustrate Nick’s need for repetition. Nick seeks order and explanation through repetition. Having witnessed the explosive disorder and confusion of the First World War, even the simplest processes—like cleaning his hands and knee after scraping them—require methodical thinking and rethinking. Nick makes sense of the world through the repetition of small thoughts. Bit by bit, he rebuilds his world, preparing himself for new interactions with people that do not involve machine gun fire.
Readers understand the cause of Nick’s injury from the narrator’s scattered hints. A brakeman hurled Nick from a moving train, which tore Nick’s pants and dirtied his hands and one knee, requiring him to clean it in a nearby water source to reduce the chance of infection. Hemingway’s narrator refrains from explaining all of that simultaneously at this point in the narrative. The author’s understated “iceberg” style of writing cuts the connective tissue many readers expect from prose, helping them to understand his fragmentary vision of modern life. This very sense of disconnectedness in writing style forms the heart of “The Battler” because it shows Nick’s interiority. If the narrator writes in such disjointed fashion, and the narrator’s words reflect Nick’s inner state, then Nick must himself feel disconnected. His deep need for connection forces his encounter with Ad Francis and Bugs.
On his way to meeting Ad and Bugs, Nick finds himself drawn to an “easy walking” path on the railroad track that the narrator describes as a “causeway” (54). The word choice of “causeway” fits the situation to a tee. On the literal level, the track rises above the ground of the swamp, which prevents Nick from wasting energy trudging in moist ground. On the metaphorical level, the term “causeway” works because it implies that Nick has cause to walk on it. Adding to the sense that Nick walks with a cause, the narrator writes that “He must get somewhere” (54). That loaded sentence packs a lot of meaning. First of all, Nick appears in this story out of nowhere. The narrator neglects to mention where Nick hopped the train. Finding civilization in any form—“getting somewhere”—could help him at this point on a practical level since his hunger and fatigue plague him. More importantly, Nick wishes to “get somewhere” in a symbolic way. Void fills his life where meaning used to reside. He wants to mend the connective tissue between himself and humanity—the tissue so ruptured that his thoughts repeat and events transpire without adding up to anything. And then Nick spots Ad’s campfire.
Approaching the fire, Nick announces his presence with a piping “Hello!” In an instant, he and Ad start a conversation about the brakeman. A pattern of speech repetition between the two begins. Ad calls the brakeman “the bastard” and recalls the brakeman singing happily as the train passed his camp. Nick replies, “The bastard!” The pattern repeats when Ad said, “It must have made him feel good to bust you,” to which Nick replied, “I’ll bust him.” The pattern continues when Ad proposes that Nick “Get him with a rock sometime when he’s going through,” and Nick replies, “I’ll get him” (55). Nick becomes fast friends with Ad by offering to match his speech. His repeating of Ad’s phrases suggests a sort of equivalence between them. They speak and think alike, and they had both been battlers—Nick in war and Ad in boxing.
Before too long, however, Nick realizes that his likeness to Ad will hurt him instead of help him. Only moments later, Nick sees Ad’s mutilated face, and Ad confesses his insanity:
“Listen,” the little man said. “I’m not quite right.”
“What’s the matter?”
He put on his cap. Nick felt like laughing.
“You’re alright,” he said.
“No, I’m not. I’m crazy. Listen, you ever been crazy?”
“No,” Nick said. “How does it get you?”
“I don’t know,” Ad said. “When you got it you don’t know about it.” (Hemingway 56)
Having seen Ad’s physical disfigurement, Nick expects Ad will admit to some kind of physical ailment after saying he is “not quite right.” Instead, Ad openly announces his insanity. Because Nick identifies with Ad, he almost laughs; Ad being crazy would mean that he is also crazy, and Nick refuses to accept that label. Yet Ad repeats himself, saying “I’m crazy” once more. Because Nick has a history of repeating his thoughts, Ad’s repetition of that sentence reemphasizes his likeness to Nick. The most frightening part of this exchange for Nick comes at the end, when Ad implies that Nick could also be insane, because “When you got it you don’t know about it.” Nick’s near-laughter signifies his denial of the truth, preconditioned for insanity since the first stage of craziness is disbelief.
Nick frets about his own mental condition only after Ad assumes a sudden unwarranted hostility toward him. When his friend Bugs calls out “Mister Francis” three times to offer him food and Ad keeps quiet, “Nick felt nervous” (59). The sheer concision of this sentence gives it power. Writing something like “Nick felt as nervous as a cat in a dog kennel,” would have diluted the raw nerve of the sentence. Immediately afterward, Ad begins a tirade against Nick that ends with Bugs knocking Ad unconscious. The moment Bugs suggests that Nick depart, he bolts, leaving Bugs to blab unanswered for more than ten sentences, perhaps because recognizing his mental instability troubles him deeply, beyond speech.
Instead of leaving and never looking back, the final sentence of “The Battler” shows Nick glancing back in the direction of Ad and Bugs’s fire. He looks again because a meeting that should have created new meaning in his life destroys it. Nick believes he left senseless violence behind in Europe, but then his mirror image attacks him for no real reason. He fails to connect with humanity, even with a human who was essentially himself. Nick returns to where he started in “The Battler,” with no friends and no purpose, despite his earnest attempts to find both.
Hemingway, Ernest. In Our Time. First Scribner trade paperback ed. New York: Scribner, 2003.
College Essays >