Hemingway’s Dr. Adams: An Analysis and a Diagnosis
The short stories of Ernest Hemingway are particularly renowned for their ambiguity and brevity, and the collection of short stories titled In Our Time contains many of these powerfully minimalistic stories. One character that appears in two separate stories is Dr. Adams, the father of Nick Adams, who is the main character in many of the other short stories. Dr. Adams in present both in “Indian Camp” and in “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife”, and Dr. Adams makes an impression in each of these stories. As Hemingway often leaves the character’s thoughts and actions open for interpretation, Dr. Adams is a prime candidate to be evaluated in a psychoanalytic criticism. Modern psychology, although a relatively new and largely still-debated scientific field, focuses on not how people do certain things, but why. Most people would agree that modern psychology began with Sigmund Freud in the early 1900s. Freud came up with many theories in the field, some of which are still adhered to today and some of which have largely been forgotten. Freud’s most important work involves his belief in the subconscious mind—a place that, although we are not aware of the impact, secretly plays a role in the things we say, do, and even dream. Since then, psychology has continued to grow and develop thanks to B.F. Skinner, Pavlov, Maslow, and other contributors that have continued to evolve Freud’s initial thoughts and develop major strides towards figuring out why humans act and react in certain ways.
One method of psychological criticism concerns the psychoanalysis of a character within the text. This will bring the motivations and desires of the character to the forefront and allow the readers a better understanding of the character. In order to effectively perform a psychological criticism in terms of a character within a text, the critic must be both creative and have a general knowledge of psychological terms in order to “diagnose” the character, which will ultimately bring the motives of the character into the foreground. Through a psychoanalysis of Dr. Adams’ actions and reactions, I will work to prove that Dr. Adams suffers from borderline personality disorder (BPD), characterized by his marital issues, problems with masculinity, and his anger and aggression issues.
Dr. Adams appears in two of Hemingway’s stories: “Indian Camp” and “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife.” For the purposes of my analysis, my primary focus will be on “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife,” although I will be using other Nick Adams stories to support my assertions throughout the diagnosis. “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife” opens with a group of Native American men, including Dick Boulton, coming to chop up logs for Dr. Adams. The logs had fallen off of a log boom that was carrying them from the mill. Dr. Adams says that this means they are driftwood, and therefore they are up for grabs. So he took them and hired the Native Americans to chop it up for him. When Dick Boulton sees that the logs are from a local logging company, he accuses Dr. Adams of stealing them. Angered, Dr. Adams tells Dick and the other men that they should just clear out if they wanted to accuse him of stealing. Dr. Adams then threatens Dick Boulton, “…. I’ll knock your eye teeth down your throat” (Hemingway 25). After this spat, Dr. Adam’s goes inside and into his bedroom (it is interesting to note that he does not share a bedroom with his wife), and he immediately begins to clean a shotgun. After a brief conversation with his wife, Dr. Adams goes outside, and he and his son, Nick, go for a walk to find black squirrels.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, borderline personality disorder is characterized by the following: Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a serious mental disorder marked by a pattern of ongoing instability in moods, behavior, self-image, and functioning. These experiences often result in impulsive actions and unstable relationships. A person with BPD may experience intense episodes of anger, depression, and anxiety that may last from only a few hours to days. Some people with BPD also have high rates of co-occurring mental disorders, such as mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and eating disorders, along with substance abuse, self-harm, suicidal thinking and behaviors, and suicide (NIMH 2016). The disorder is recognized by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The officially recognized personality dysfunctions are listed in the chart above. With these symptoms and criteria in mind, I will attempt to rationalize Dr. Adams’ actions and reactions in order to prove that Dr. Adams is suffering from an undiagnosed case of borderline personality disorder.
The first symptom displayed by Dr. Adams is his engaging in risky behavior. Dr. Adams does not own the logs that he has taken to be cut up by the Native Americans. Hemingway says that Dr. Adams “assumed” that he could take them, meaning that he knew that it was possibly stealing, which does, indeed, indicate participating in risky behavior. This indulgence in a risky behavior fulfills number 4 on the DMV’s list for diagnostic criteria. Next, Dr. Adams soon becomes angered when he is called out for taking the logs. His anger occurs quickly, and he soon threatens to get violent, promising to knock Dick’s teeth down his throat. His anger seems not only misplaced, but also excessive. According to The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, this occurrence calls into question the masculinity of Dr. Adams (Benson 35). Furthermore, when Dr. Adams goes into the house and explains that he has had an argument with Dick Boulton, his wife replies, “I hope you didn’t lose your temper” (Hemingway 25). The doctor’s wife’s response indicates that Dr. Adams is prone to losing his temper on a fairly regular basis. This type of quick and potentially violent anger fulfills number 8 on the list of symptoms. Symptom number 2 on the list involves a pattern of troubles in interpersonal relationships. There are several context clues within “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife” as well as clues elsewhere in In Our Time that indicate that Dr. Adams has a less-than-satisfactory home life. In “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife”, we learn that Dr. Adams and his wife do not share a bedroom, as Hemingway says she was “in her bed” while he was sitting “on his bed” (26). His wife also seems to belittle him, whether intentionally or not: first, by taking a motherly, authorities tone with him (“’Tell me, Henry. Please don’t try to keep anything from me’” ) and then by saying that his hypothesis is clearly wrong [“’Dear, I don’t think, I really don’t think that anyone would do a thing of that sort intentionally’” (26)]. Later, in “The Three-Day Blow”, Nick refers to Bill’s father as a “swell guy” and then immediately says that his “old man” is “all right” (Hemingway 44). The implication here is that Nick thinks higher of Bill’s father than he does of his own. While none of the short stories come out and openly discuss Dr. Adams’ relationships with his wife and son, there are several context clues that can lead us to the conclusion that neither relationship is necessarily a positive one. This could be an indication that Dr. Adams struggles with maintaining relationships, even with the people he should be closest with.
After Dr. Adams’ brief argument with Dick and his conversation with his wife, Dr. Adams retires to his room where he takes his time first cleaning his shotgun, and then he sits and pumps all the shells out of it, only to load it and then pump them out again. There are two possibilities for what this could mean, and either of them would fit into the category of impulsivity and potentially risky behavior. The first possibility is that having easy access to the gun and the fact that this is the first place he turns when angered is proof that Dr. Adams may be mentally unstable. He immediately leaves an argument and goes to get his gun: this could be seen as a sign not only a sign of aggression, but also possibly the possibility of a threat of violence. On the other hand, it is possible that Dr. Adams’ shotgun ritual is a euphemism for masturbation. According to the article “Trophy-Hunting as a Trope of Manhood in Ernest Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa”, the pumping of the shells out of the shotgun is a “masturbatory display of phallic power” (Strychacz 168). This theory does make sense: bare in mind that Dr. Adams has not only been humiliated by Dick Boulton, but he has also just been emasculated by his wife. What better way to remind himself that he is a man than by performing as only a man can do? In addition, Hemingway uses several word choices that could indicate the possible double-entendre at work here. For example, Hemingway gives the reader an image a Dr. Adams “pumping” the rifle and the shotgun shells “scattering on the bed” (26). Hemingway also makes sure to tell his readers that Dr. Adams is “very fond of it” (26). Whether it is a sign of aggression or a genteelism for masturbation, Dr. Adams’ actions in this scene are clearly questionable and leave plenty of room for interpretation. He either is so angry that he has notions of shooting Dick Boulton, or he is so emasculated that he impulsively goes directly to self-stimulation, a possible vice of his.
As it stands, there are sufficient instances of personality impairment to satisfy that category of the DSM’s guide to diagnosis. However, that is just the first step. The next step in being able to properly establish that Dr. Adams is struggling with borderline personality disorder is accessing any impairments in interpersonal functioning. The way to discover interpersonal impairments is to see if either of the following are present: lack of empathy or lack of intimacy. Although only one interpersonal skill must be impaired to get a diagnosis, Dr. Adams is subpar in both of these categories, which is typical for somebody with borderline personality disorder. According to the DSM, empathy is defined as “the ability to recognize the feelings and needs of others”, an interpersonal skill that Dr. Adams undoubtedly lacks. The best example of this shortcoming can be seen in the short story “Indian Camp.” In this short story, Dr. Adams is heading to the Indian reservation to help a young Native American that has been trying without success to deliver a baby for days. Dr. Adams and Nick arrive to help the woman. Dr. Adams soon find that the baby is breech, so he performs an emergency cesarean-section on the young lady without any anesthesia. He used a jack-knife to cut her open and tapered gut leaders to sew her back up. Dr. Adams tells Nick that he does not hear the woman’s screams because “they are not important” (16). Dr. Adams is unaffected by the event, even after he discovers that the baby’s father has committed suicide in the bunk above his wife. He is proud of his surgery and even jokes about it on the way home. Hemingway says that he felt like “as exalted and talkative as football players are in the dressing room after a game” (Hemingway 18). It is clear that Dr. Adams not only feels bad for the pain he caused the woman, he also is unaffected by the suicide victim that he discovered. The second interpersonal impairment is a lack of intimacy, which we have already briefly discussed in the previous explanation of Dr. Adams’ unsatisfactory relationships. It is clear that he and his wife do not share much intimacy because they clearly do not share beds, or even bedrooms. If the shotgun scene is a euphemism for masturbation, that may imply a dissatisfying sex-life or even some form of sexual dysfunction. Whatever the case, we can see through Mrs. Adams’ speech as well as the couple’s sleeping arrangement that there is something lacking in the intimacy department of their relationship.
According to what Hemingway tells us in In Our Time, what we can ascertain based on context clues and other research, and the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it is very possible that the reason the Dr. Adams acts and reacts in the ways that he does is because he is suffering from an undiagnosed case of borderline personality disorder. He meets the criteria on every level, and it is plain to see that he is not “neuro-typical” in the ways that he acts, in his family’s dynamic, and in how he lacks emotions when they are necessary but then is overly emotive in unnecessary circumstances. Ernest Hemingway’s short stories, as ambiguous and open-ended as they usually are, invite psychological criticisms to be performed upon his seemingly-simple characters. However, with a little research and reading between the lines, it becomes clear to see that Hemingway gave us much more than what we may find on our first read-through. Perhaps if this much care was taken by every reader with all of Hemingway’s work, more and more people would come to realize that, while some of these stories seem to be about nothing, there is just as much in what Hemingway does not say than there is in what he tells us.
Works Cited Benson, Jackson J., ed. The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: Critical Essays. Duke University Press, 1975, p 32. “Borderline Personality Disorder.” National Institute of Mental Health, 2016. “Criteria for Personality Disorders.” Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed., American Psychiatric Association, 2012, pp. 6-7. Hemingway, Ernest. “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife.” In Our Time, Simon & Schuster, 1925, pp. 23-7. Hemingway, Ernest. “Indian Camp.” In Our Time, Simon & Schuster, 1925, pp. 15-9. Hemingway, Ernest. “The Three-Day Blow.” In Our Time, Simon & Schuster, 1925, pp. 39-49. Lynn, Steven. Texts and Contexts: Writing About Literature with Critical Theory, Pearson, 2017. Strychacz, Thomas. “Trophy-Hunting as a Trope of Manhood in Ernest Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa.” The Hemingway Review, vol. 13, no. 1, Fall 1993, pp. 36-47.
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