In Our Time

In Our Time Summary and Analysis of Chapter XV


A man named Sam Cardinella is hanged in the corridor of the country jail. The narrator notes that there are five to be hanged. Sam has to be carried to the gallows, and when they come to put the cap over his head he loses control of his sphincter muscle. The guards drop him in disgust. They strap him into a chair. A priest kneels beside the chair until just before the drop falls.

The chapter continues with the story of Nick from the previous chapter. Nick wakes up and crawls out from under the mosquito netting. He is so excited by the early morning and the river that he must force himself to sit for breakfast. He collects grasshoppers as the water heats, and he puts them into a bottle. He makes a breakfast of flapjacks and then packs a lunch. Then he takes out his fly rod and prepares to fish, and as he moves toward the river he is happy carrying all his fishing equipment.

He steps in the river and is shocked by the cold. He puts a grasshopper on the hook and soon has his first trout. It is a small one, so he lets it go. But the trout is motionless, so Nick touches it to make sure it is ok.

Before touching it he wets his hand (a dry human hand disturbs the delicate mucus that covers the fish, which will eventually kill it). The trout suddenly darts away.

Because of this rule about fish, he likes fishing on his own or with people he knows. He moves out of the shallows in order to find bigger fish. He soon catches a huge trout, but the leader breaks and he loses it, to his intense disappointment. He has never seen such a big trout. He thinks of the big trout on the bottom of the river and how angry it must be at having a hook in its jaw. He leaves the water, smokes a cigarette, and then returns to the river. He hooks two more big trout and keeps them alive in a sack. He then sits on a log and ponders going out into the swamp in front of him, but he decides against such an adventure. He kills and cleans the two trout and then heads back to camp.


The vignette shows how the subject of an execution deals with his impending death. His response contrasts sharply with the gentle peacefulness of the final two chapters. Death here takes its most real and frightening form, and Sam Cardinella represents the terror of the human response to death.

The natural environment excites Nick, and he enjoys the isolation it affords him. Society seems destructive when one spends time in pure nature. As he begins to fish, his desire to interact with nature is in tension with the death and destruction inherent in catching and killing fish. He likes fishing alone because he can control the amount of damage he causes, remembering a time when he fished with ignorant fishermen who would touch trout with their dry hands and inadvertently kill them. He takes care with the trout and treats them with reverence, making sure to wet his hands before touching the trout. In keeping with his environmental ethic, he keeps the big fish and returns the little ones. Also, he only catches as many as he needs for food.

The details of fishing dominate the narrative. The largest trout he has ever seen bites his line, but he ends up losing it, which brings forth a strong emotional reaction. This is the most violent or exciting event in Nick's narrative, so powerful that he must stop fishing for a time until he calms down. This experience pales in comparison to the suffering, death, and conflict in the previous narratives, but within the gentler and more peaceful context of this chapter, it is a serious personal disappointment. Hemingway explores a person's response to this kind of loss as well.

The focus of the book sometimes engages a more universal experience of death and violence, but in this moment we are focused on the personal importance of fishing. Fishing becomes a communicative experience for Nick; every detail of nature matters in reality or as a symbol. The process engages Nick so completely that it becomes the entire narrative and structures our experience of the chapter. Nick lets himself become completely immersed in this experience, escaping from all his other thoughts. We can sense the peace he feels in this satisfying isolation.