An Impressive Performance
Sons have long been taking after their fathers. Such is the case in Ernest Hemingway’s 1925 collection of short stories, In Our Time. In the stories, we see that the character of Nick has internalized his father’s traditionally masculine ways of interacting with women, and of suppressing emotion. The foundations for this are laid in chapter 1, “Indian Camp”, through the ordeal that is Nick’s father’s surgical performance, and his stoic and brief answers to the important questions that Nick asks him afterward. We later see some repercussions of these father-son interactions in chapter 3, “The End of Something”, in the form of Nick’s conversations with Marjorie, and his decisions as to their relationship.
Nick is a firsthand witness of his father’s harsh and hyper-masculine operation on the Indian woman in the first chapter. Very quickly we see that Nick is naturally caring and feels concerned for the woman, as he asks his father to “give her something to make her stop screaming” (Hemingway 16). His father coldly replies that he does not hear her screams “because they are not important” (16). His response almost completely shames his son for caring about the woman in labour’s pain, and expresses to Nick that he should not care himself. The young boy is given the idea that it is masculine and ‘grown up’ to suppress personal cares or feelings toward others. In literary professor Thomas Strychacz’s article, Dramatization of Manhood in Hemingway’s In Our Time and The Sun Also Rises, he gives insight into Nick’s father’s motives for the way that he acts while performing surgery, and in his interactions with his son. He calls into reference Hemingway’s description of the doctor shortly after he has completed the surgery, Hemingway writes “He was feeling exalted and talkative as football players are in the dressing room after a game” (Strychacz 18). The masculine image that is given is easy to recognize, and Strychacz describes it further here, in that the image of “…the football arena functions as a ceremonial space in which particular rules of conduct govern violent action” (249). Nick is now a part of the world where open wounds and underlying misogyny are praised. Furthermore, he internalizes his father’s dominance while performing surgery in the shanty, which Strychacz also describes. “…the doctor more or less consciously plays quarterback, controlling the field of play with his vision and expertise. His son… and the reader of some future medical journal act as audience” (249). His father craves this control and dominance of a situation, which comes back around in chapter 3 when Nick himself is struggling to interact with Marjorie.
In chapter 3, The End of Something, we see a teenaged Nick struggling to communicate with his girlfriend, Marjorie, as a result of the internalized ideas that he learned from his father in the past. First, we see Nick’s need for control over his girlfriend in their relationship while they are out fishing early in the chapter. Nick constantly instructs Marjorie as to what she needs to do on the boat, even though it is apparent that his girlfriend knows what she is doing. He always makes sure to ‘one-up’ her, or to get the last point in so that it becomes clear that he holds the upmost fishing knowledge in the boat. ‘“They’re feeding,’ Marjorie Said. ‘But they won’t strike,’ Nick said” (32). In interactions likes these it becomes easy to see that Nick wants to feel like he is in control, and that he is the ‘man’ of the situation. This mirrors his father’s personality and his actions during the operation in “Indian Camp”. Nick himself all but completely admits his need for control, or at least his problem with Marjorie’s control in their relationship, later in the chapter. After his girlfriend responds that she knows there will “be a moon tonight”, Nick replies ‘“You know everything… I’ve taught you everything. You know you do. What don’t you know, anyway?”’ (34). In a strange, defensive type of response, Nick is attempting to assert his dominance, announcing that everything Marjorie knows is thanks to him, while that obviously cannot be true. He comes off as somewhat jealous and clearly frustrated with his girlfriend’s ability to fish, to lead, and to know in general.
The idea of Nick inheriting his father’s mannerisms is pushed further in “The End of Something” through Nick’s brief and evasive answers to important questions. In what seems to be the final conversation of their entire relationship, Marjorie asks the tough questions, and Nick responds with very lacklustre answers. ‘“What’s really the matter?’ ‘I don’t know… No I don’t’”, and in the response where we see Nick admit what’s been bothering him, or rather when he opens up for the first time, his big answer comes in the form of ‘“It isn’t fun any more”’ (34). Such answers come at the cause of Nick’s upbringing with his father, rather than Nick being purposely evasive. This can be seen in “Indian Camp” in him and his father’s conversation after his father found the dead Indian man, and Nick witnessed the encounter firsthand. Nick, young and innocent, has plenty of questions for his father concerning life and death. While his father must be aware that his answers to these questions will be important to his son, he gives rather brief and vague responses. ‘“I don’t know, Nick. He couldn’t stand things, I guess’”, and ‘“Not very many, Nick… Hardly ever… I think it’s pretty easy, Nick. It all depends”’ (19). This speaks volumes to the kind of man that Nick’s father was, and helps us understand why Nick is the way that he is in “The End of Something”.
Finally, on the concluding page of the third chapter, we see Nick’s tendency to suppress his feelings, so as to come off as ‘manly’, or more masculine. After he tells Marjorie that he isn’t in love with her anymore, his friend Bill emerges and questions him about the breakup. ‘“Did she go all right?’ Bill said. ‘Yes,’ Nick said, lying, his face on the blanket” (35). Nick would clearly rather internalize his personal issues than discuss them with someone else, though it is still obvious that he is bothered by them. When Bill specifically asks Nick how he feels, he responds in an aggressive tone, ‘“Oh, go away, Bill! Go away for a while”’ (35). Drawing back to Thomas Strychacz’s article, the professor provides a take on what Nick is effectively doing here. Strychacz states that “Performance itself does not guarantee manhood; but manhood does require successful performance” (260). He is expressing that you cannot be masculine without the ability and willingness to perform – to put on a mask and act in a way other than you feel, to do something that is essentially not what you want to do – this masking of true feelings and innermost fears is exactly what Nick is doing after his breakup with Marjorie. One can come to different conclusions after learning this; perhaps Bill put Nick up to the breakup and he knows he still cares for her after all. Though what’s done is done.
Hemingway was a man’s man in his life and his career, though through his stories he was able to express that which was haunting him, whether it be past conversations with women, or encounters with death. The socially constructed definition of masculinity has influenced, and will continue to influence literature and stories of the nature. Though they do not have to continue to shape truths, feelings, or what is spoken versus what is kept inside. There is great passion to be expressed, and, for that very reason, there is no need for masks here.
Hemingway, Ernest. In Our Time. New York, NY: Scribner, 2003. Print.
Strychacz, Thomas. “Dramatizations of Manhood in Hemingway’s In Our Time and The Sun Also Rises.” American Literature 61.2 (1989): 245-260. JSTOR. Web. 5 February 2017.
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