The narrator, 38-year-old Nick Adams, is driving through a small town with his son and admiring the fall scenery. It is farming and timber country, and Nick speculates where he would find coveys of quail in the thickets. Thinking about quail hunting reminds him of his father, who taught him to hunt and who has recently died. Nick remembers the most striking thing about his father were his deep-set eyes and extremely keen eyesight. He remembers standing with his father on the shore of a lake, and how his father would be able to see things on the opposite shore that he could not.
Nick then begins to describe his father, a nervous, sentimental, cruel, and abused man who died in a trap and was betrayed by everyone he knew. Nick reflects he can’t write about his father yet because too many people are alive who knew him, but he says that his father’s would be a good story to tell, and that he might be able to get his father out of his system if he wrote about him.
Nick is grateful to his father for teaching him about two things: fishing and shooting. Nick still harbors a passion for those two activities that he inherited from his father at an early age. Nick says that his father was thoroughly unsound on sex, however, and recounts the older man’s advice on the subject by way of illustration.
Once, when Nick was younger, he shot a squirrel out of a tree and the squirrel bit him when he picked it up. He called it a “dirty little bugger,” and his father informed him that the word “bugger” also referred to a person who engaged in bestiality, which was a heinous crime. His father also told him that “mashing,” masturbation and frequenting prostitutes were highly undesirable activities. In conclusion, his father said, it is best to keep your hands off people.
In spite of his defective advice, Nick says, he loved his father. He reflects on the job the undertaker did on his father’s face, and how it failed to cover up the ravages of the previous few years.
Nick then remembers that he received his first lessons in sex as an adolescent from Trudy Gilby, a Native American of the Ojibway tribe, behind the Indian camp in some hemlock woods. He describes the route from his family’s cottage through the woods to the Indian camp, and how he used to keep company with Trudy and her brother Billy by alternately shooting at squirrels and having sex with Trudy. Trudy reveals that her older half-brother Eddie wants to sleep with Nick’s sister Dorothy, and Nick tells her he would shoot Eddie if he even spoke to Dorothy. He even imagines it, and his description is so vivid that Trudy gets upset. Then Billy goes off to shoot squirrels so Nick and Trudy can have sex, returning with a dead squirrel bigger than a cat. Presently, Nick and the siblings part ways.
Nick’s thoughts return to the present, and he spins through a list of things that remind him of his father, including the fall, early spring, lakes, geese and ducks, fields, and open fires. After Nick was 15, he says, he lived apart from his father. His father loved manual labor on the farm and Nick did not. Nick once pretended to have lost a set of his father’s underwear that had been passed down to him because it smelled like his father, and after his father whipped him for lying he drew a bead on his father from the woodshed.
A question about the Indians Nick knew as a boy from Nick’s son jerks Nick back to the present, and he tells his son how he used to hunt black squirrels with Trudy and Billy Gilby. He then remembers his sexual experiences with Trudy and his thoughts on Native Americans in general. He tells his son that Nick’s father grew up around Native Americans as well and had friends among them.
Nick’s son says he cannot remember what his grandfather was like, and Nick describes him as a great hunter and fisherman, an even greater shot than Nick. His son disputes this, and then asks why they never go to pray at his grandfather’s tomb, as people do in France, where he goes to school. Nick says because it isn’t geographically convenient, and his son says he wants to go anyway, and that he wants to be able to pray at Nick’s tomb as well. Nick ends the story by saying that he sees they’ll have to go to his father’s tomb.
“Fathers and Sons” is the final story Hemingway wrote featuring his semi-autobiographical protagonist Nick Adams. There are aspects of Hemingway’s own life, including his father’s suicide, that are discernible in the tale, which centers on Nick’s ambivalent feelings toward his father. The story consists of Nick’s memories of his childhood, his hunting lessons with his father, his father’s advice on sex, and Nick’s first sexual experiences with a Native American girl. Apparent in Nick’s musings are hints of admiration, regret, guilt, hatred and love that are all centered on his father’s memory. Nick,’s reflections are interrupted by his son, who is traveling with him and who is curious about the grandfather he has all but forgotten.
“Fathers and Sons” owes its title to a novel of the same name by Ivan Turgenev, a Russian novelist of the mid-19th century. The novel is about the intellectual and social divide between aging conservatives and young nihilists. Given that Nick’s father is, to a certain degree and in certain respects, characterized as conservative in this story, and that Hemingway, through his hero Nick, is often viewed as disillusioned and nihilistic, the selection of this title is apt. It is also telling in terms of drawing conclusions about the ultimate nature of the relationship between Nick Adams and his father; ultimately, their relationship seems to have been filled with misunderstandings, tension and conflict on every subject save hunting.
Scholarship on “Fathers and Sons” emphasizes the parallels between Nick’s relationship with his father and Hemingway’s relationship with his. Certainly, both relationships are fraught with ambivalence; none of Nick’s memories of his father is happy or joyful.
Nick’s first memory of his father is of his eagle eyesight; he speaks with admiration but not warmth of his father’s ability to see clear across to the other side of a lake. Indeed, Nick’s father brags to his son of his ability to count the sheep on a hillside that Nick can barely make out. Nick out-and-out says his father was cruel, and softens this adjective only by adding the ones “abused” and “betrayed.” The only positive thing his father ever contributed to Nick’s life was the knowledge of how to fish and shoot, and even this contribution was poisoned for Nick by the fact that his father “was always very disappointed in the way [he] shot.” At the end of the story, Nick’s son insists on visiting his grandfather’s grave to pray, and the fact that the family has never made a pilgrimage there is a clear indication that Nick has never cared to. He is still reluctant to go even as his son urges him, and seems to acquiesce at the very end of the story only so his son will have a grandfatherly figure to admire.
In terms of the parallel with Hemingway’s life, the most striking similarity is that Nick’s father has just died via a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, the same manner in which Hemingway’s father Clarence died. In addition, Hemingway confessed to his official biographer that as a child, after Clarence beat him, he used to retire to a shed with his gun and draw a bead on his father’s head, plotting to injure the very body part that eventually was disfigured by a gunshot wound. Clarence, according to Hemingway’s siblings and Hemingway’s biographers, was cruel, exacting, hard, and implacably resentful toward anyone who he determined had wronged him. The only positive emotion Hemingway felt toward him was a cool, detached admiration regarding some of his abilities. This portrait of father-son relations comes across vividly through Nick’s memories in “Fathers and Sons.”
Yet another strong parallel with Hemingway’s life is the fact that Nick is a writer. With respect to his unpleasant memories about his father, Nick states, “If he wrote it he could get rid of it. He had gotten rid of many things by writing them.” This belief in the ability of writing to process and put into perspective personal traumas is surely demonstrated in Hemingway’s life; his experiences in World War I and the Spanish Civil War, for example, are the subjects of many of Hemingway’s works.
Vivid as they are, Nick seems well able to repress his unpleasant memories of his father when discussing his father with his son. He tells his son no negative things about his grandfather, and the juxtaposition of Nick’s myriad awful memories of the man with his laudatory words about him to his son indicates Nick’s stoicism, a quality many recognized in Hemingway himself. According to Nick, his father was a crack shot, a great hunter and fisherman with “wonderful eyes.” Aside from the fact that the entire story is written from Nick’s point of view, Nick’s decision to embellish his father’s memory for his son’s sake, leaving his own traumas at his father’s hands out of the picture, makes Nick a somewhat heroic figure in this story. Even taking into consideration the fact that Nick’s son is not yet 12 and therefore may need to be shielded from unpleasantness, Nick’s behavior is admirable.
As in all Hemingway stories, nature provides a wholesome contrast to human cruelties. The farming and timber country Nick is driving through is described as “good” country, while all of Nick’s memories of his father are termed “not good remembering,” things that he needs to “get rid of.” The longest and most positively inflected passages in the story are the ones that deal with the pathways through the woods to the Indian camp. The hemlock forest where Nick had his early hunting and sexual experiences is presented as a sort of escape from life with his father. In the midst of Nick’s childhood misery and in the midst of his adult memories of that misery, nature stands as a source of inspiration, beauty, and escape.