In the fall in Milan, a group of soldiers wounded in World War I receives treatment at a hospital not far from the front. The narrator is Nick Adams, an American former football player, who has been wounded in the knee. He sits in a row of machines that exercise his leg with a middle-aged Italian officer who was once a fencing champion but who now has a withered hand. Despite the encouragement of his doctor, the Italian has no confidence in the machines.
Nick describes the group of friends he has made at the hospital: three wounded Italian officers who had planned to be a lawyer, painter, and soldier before the war, respectively. All three, like Nick, have won medals from the Italian government for their service during the war. The aspiring lawyer, in fact, has three, and is admired for it.
Another young wounded soldier tags along with Nick and his group, but has to wear a handkerchief over his face as most of it was damaged and rebuilt during the war. Nick feels a kinship with the officers because they have all, to a certain extent, been through the same experiences, and because it is safer for officers to stick together in Milan as the local people despise and taunt them.
At the same time, there is a wall between Nick and the Italians because, as he says, he received his medal for being an American, and they actually performed feats of bravery to receive theirs. Nick feels closer to the boy with the handkerchief because he was wounded before he had a chance to prove himself in the war.
As Nick returns to the hospital daily to sit in the machines that exercise his leg, the major with the withered hand teaches him Italian. One day, the major becomes angry when Nick mentions he plans to marry, saying that men must not marry because they will inevitably lose their wives. Then he apologizes to Nick, explaining that his young wife has just died.
Thereafter, each time the major returns to the hospital to use the machines, he stares out the window rather than paying any attention to his treatment.
Though its narrator is never named, “In Another Country” is widely accepted as one of Hemingway’s series of stories featuring Nick Adams, a largely autobiographical character, as the protagonist. It was based on Hemingway’s own experiences recuperating in a Milanese hospital after being wounded in World War I. This experience also gave rise to A Farewell to Arms.
Though the story begins with Nick’s relieved announcement that he and his fellow wounded soldiers are out of the war and recuperating at a military hospital, it becomes clear that they are in need of more than physical treatment in order to erase the war’s effects. Though the tone of the narration is superficially sanguine and the setting seemingly reassuring, there are strong underlying currents of dislocation, conflict, emptiness, and futility that indicate Nick has been deeply marked with more than shrapnel, and that his recovery cannot be effected by physical therapy.
Nick is alone in a foreign country and feels isolated. He states that people on the street hate officers and yell at him as he walks past. The effect of this harassment is partially offset by Nick’s association with three other officers and the boy with the handkerchief over his face. The five men, brought together by necessity, walk together through the town, and feel a certain friendship born of their status as wounded veterans. Even in this distinguished company, however, Nick is not fully accepted. He feels inferior to the three other officers with medals as they proved their bravery in battle and he received his medal merely for being an American. His citation is, in a sense, hollow, and the Italians subtly shun him for this reason. He feels that he was injured before he could prove his courage, and this gnaws at him.
Yet another source of discontent for Nick is the fact that the hospital, with its newfangled physical therapy machines, doesn’t seem to be doing any of the soldiers much good. Nick explains that the surgeons at the hospital were not able to rebuild satisfactorily the face of the boy with the handkerchief. He came from an old family and his nose was never the same after the wound and surgery, so he had to immigrate to South America after the war.
In addition, Nick strongly suggests the physical therapy machines are ineffective, both for him and for the Italian major with the withered hand. The major repeatedly voices the opinion that the machines are useless. At the end of the story, he hardly pays attention to his treatment, choosing instead to stare out the window of the hospital. The whole reason that Nick remains in Italy and associates with the people described in this story is to receive treatment at the hospital, and Hemingway implies that this treatment is futile.
What Nick and his fellow wounded truly need, many scholars have asserted, is not physical treatment but mental and emotional healing. These remedies are conspicuously absent from the story, and explain Nick’s sense of depression and isolation.
Stylistically, the story makes use of repetition to emphasize the narration. For example, in the first paragraph, which sets the tone of the story using descriptions of the landscape and fauna of Milan, Hemingway states, “It was cold in the fall in Milan and the dark came very early.” He repeats this idea with a slightly different emphasis at the end of the paragraph: “It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains.” In the second paragraph, too, he states “We were all at the hospital every afternoon,” and later on he repeats, “Beyond the old hospital were the new brick pavilions, and there we met every afternoon.” This technique not only highlights the ideas Hemingway wants to drive home to the reader, but also gives the narration a sort of cyclical, complete, and self-contained feeling as the same ideas are revisited with slightly different words.