The idea of fatherhood emerges in several places throughout In Our Time. In "Indian Camp," Nick's father teaches him about childbirth and tries to answer Nick's questions about death. The father figure is distanced from Nick, and many of the things he tells him do not make any sense to the young boy. The preoccupation with Nick's father shows how the complex relationship between father and son as well as how difficult true communication is between a man with so much experience and boy with so much innocence. This theme also arises in "My Old Man," although the narrator starts losing much of his youthful innocence towards the end of the story.
In the vignette for Chapter XIII the narrator tries to persuade Luis to prepare for his bullfight, but he shrugs him off by saying, "You're not my father." With this statement comes the suggestion that fatherhood is about authority and control, and these not necessarily in a positive light. In "Three-Day Blow" Nick and George discuss their fathers, and although they repeat what they hear and see, their discussion centers upon issues they have to experience in this regard.
The Problem of Relationships
One of Hemingway's major concerns is failed marriage. Many of his stories deal with unhappy couples and the difficulties they face. His style, however, often omits concrete details about their problems but instead focuses on an indirect approach. It suggests that much like with war, Hemingway sees relationships as difficult to communicate about, and as a result the technique of omission acts as a way of capturing an issue that cannot be explained in a direct manner. In "The End of Something" Nick's and Marjorie's relationship ends abruptly, but even while they are still together they tend towards conflict. In "Three-Day Blow" Nick and George discuss the dangers of relationships. For George it threatens a man's very independence. Hemingway is often preoccupied with the conflict between married couples. The problems are never directly outlined for the reader, but each couple's actions and words continually suggest unhappiness regarding their marriages.
Uncertainty about the Future--Fate and Destiny
Fate separates men from boys. In "Indian Camp" as a young boy, Nick refuses to believe that he could die. Likewise in "Three-Day Blow" he struggles with the loss of Marjorie because he believes it to be a permanent and final loss. Yet when he holds his destiny in his own hands, when he sees the possibility of "a way out"--of getting back with Marjorie--he feels much better. Fate troubles youths, but as men grow older they learn to deal with fate as part of life. In "Cross-Country Snow" Nick and George discuss the future and the possibility of skiing again, and although Nick says they must do so, he refuses to promise. In doing so, he recognizes the uncertainty of the future.
The youth of any nation always plays a part in its wars, and given that In Our Time concerns itself so frequently, if often indirectly, with war, it is not surprising that the theme of youthful innocence often arises in several stories. In "Indian Camp" the story ends on Nick's firm belief that he will never die. In "The Battler" some of Nick's youthful innocence is lost when the brakeman throws him off the train. He is frustrated and angered at being tricked by an adult, and he vows never to let it happen again. Throughout the book youth has a precarious and complex relationship with the future and with the process of aging. In "Three-Day Blow" Nick and Bill act childishly and horse around as they drink. They discuss their fathers and the tragedy of missed opportunity, yet they cannot truly understand what they are talking about without experiencing it. Later, In "Cross -Country Snow," Nick and George talk together on a ski trip, and there are only slight traces of Nick's youth left behind. His attitude has turned much more cynical, like when he notes the fruitlessness of making a promise to ski again in the future. In "The Battler" the boy narrator slowly learns about the cruel and cynical world, and his final thought is one that suggests a turn away from his youthful innocence.
Death plays a prominent role from the very beginning of In Our Time. In "The Quai At Smyrna" the English naval officer remembers the horrors of war; mothers would not give up their dead babies. In "Indian Camp" the father of the newborn baby commits suicide, presumably from the torture of listening to his wife's screams. Then on their way Nick asks his father about death, concluding in the end that he will never die. Death represents a dark side, but it always illuminates the youthful exuberance of Nick. Such is the complicated role of death here. Throughout the bullfighting vignettes, death is celebrated as a type of victory. Whenever a bull is killed the matador is hailed as the victor. When a matador is killed they just replace him with someone new. This is very similar to war, where soldiers die and then are replaced by more soldiers. When soldiers on one side die, the enemy claims it as a victory, even though both sides are part of the same race. Thus, Hemingway probes into the issue of death within the context of war, but he does so in a very indirect style. In "My Old Man," the narrator's father dies, and some men who saw him as a crook now see the death as justice.
The theme of loss arises continually, usually in conjunction with a preoccupation with the passage of time. In "Three-Day Blow" Nick fears the finality of his breakup with Marjorie, but when he realizes getting back together with her is a possibility he feels a renewed sense of hope. Yet there are many things lost that are not reversible, despite his feelings in that moment that nothing is lost forever. The old ruins of Horton Bay Mill provide one example, and the remnants of the town of Seney in "Two Big Hearted River" are another. These parts of the land are lost, much like Ad Francis's mental capacity in the "Battler" or the love between the unnamed soldier and Luz in "Another Short Story." These are all small losses within the larger and more ultimate loss of life that attaches itself to the loss of life in many of the chapters and vignettes. There are numerous paths of death as well: war, suicide, execution, accident, and bullfighting. These moments represent the ultimate loss, but certainly not the only type of loss able to cause human pain and suffering.
The Art of Omission
Critics have constantly discussed Hemingway's precise style, and especially in the case of In Our Time, they have noted that he discusses certain topics such as war or personal relationships in a very indirect manner. He often creates meaning by omitting crucial details. In the vignettes he discusses the profound effect of violence by focusing on the reaction of humans to violence. These characters are usually soldiers or matadors, but in many cases he avoids describing the violence directly. Instead his omission of violent details draws attention to other aspects of the scene. In the case of war and personal relationships, his omission of details often captures the complicated emotions these topics encompass. His omission of details does not try to define the way the characters deal with these conflicts, but instead represents the difficulty of communicating such experiences.
Fishing and Skiing
Fishing and skiing activities dominate many of the stories. They represent an escape from the problems of society and of personal relationships. In "The End of Something" Nick and Marjorie are able to exist together as they fish for trout, but once they sit by the fire they end their relationship. In "Cross-Country Snow" skiing allows Nick and George to escape from the realities of their lives: George's education, and Nick's impending fatherhood. At George's suggestion that they may never go skiing again, Nick replies, "We've got to," as if their happiness depends upon it. In "Out of Season," fishing serves as an escape for Peduzzi and for the gentlemen. They escape society's rules but also the realities of their own lives. Although they never end up fishing, Peduzzi uses the trip to make money and get liquor, while the gentlemen escape for a short time the argument with his wife. In the story "Big Two Hearted River: Part II," fishing isolates Nick from society. He likes fishing on his own, much because he sees other fishers as a destructive force in nature. The details of fishing dominate the chapter and provide Nick with a way of escaping the mechanics of society.
In Our Time Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for In Our Time is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Hemingway expands (think the word constellation as in something large) on the main conflicts that all men experience regardless of time and regardless of place. Everyone worries about how they fit into the world (cosmos); this statement is saying...