In Our Time Summary & Study Guide

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In Our Time Summary & Study Guide Description

In Our Time Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Related Titles and a Free Quiz on In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway.

Published in 1925, when Hemingway was 26 years old, living in Paris and just beginning his illustrious career, In Our Time was arguably the most innovative and groundbreaking book to be published in the United States up until that time. Essentially a book of short stories, it is unique, both in its physical layout and in its artistic content.

The physical layout of the book enabled Hemingway to bring together in one volume the literary gems that he had been nurturing in his mind and writing bit by bit since he had started working for the Kansas City Star in June 1917 immediately after graduating from Oak Park High School in a suburb of Chicago. Not only are his short stories organized in a roughly chronological order in this book, they are woven together in such a way as to give a kind of cohesive order so that the whole effect is that of one unified work--an extraordinary accomplishment for a writer in the early stages of his career.

The first story of In Our Time, "On the Quai in Smyrna," is placed before Chapter I, as if it is meant to set the tone for the book or perhaps as if the cruelty and the human suffering portrayed is meant to exemplify the times in which the author and the world are living. The story here is told from the point of view of an American officer serving aboard The Simpson, a U.S. cutter present at the evacuation of the Greek forces from Smyrna after their defeat by the Turkish army in 1922. In a brief two-page story, Hemingway captures the horrors of war, yet he renders the small details and the attitudes of those who witnessed the tragedies at the Turkish port.

The memoir of a kitchen corporal proceeding with his drunken battery of men toward the front lines in World War I precedes the Chapter I story, "Indian Camp," in which Nick Adams and his father, a doctor, interrupt a camping trip with Nick's Uncle to attend to an Indian woman who is having a baby. After Nick's father successfully performs a Caesarean section on the woman, his exhilaration at saving her life is destroyed by the shock of discovering that her husband has committed suicide at some time before or during the operation.

The memoir heading up Chapter II, "The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife," sketches a scene in the evacuation of Greeks from Adrianople, an incident that ties into the Smyrna evacuation described earlier. The short story is told from the viewpoint of Nick Adams. Nick's father has hired Dick Boulton, a Mytis from the Indian Camp, to saw up some logs that have drifted onto his property from the log boom of a logging company. Nick's father loses his temper over Boulton's reference to the logs as "stolen property," and the two men almost come to fisticuffs, after which Boulton leaves. The incident creates a difference of opinion between Nick's father and mother, and Nick finds himself in the position of taking sides, even though he is just a boy.

Chapter III, "The End of Something," portrays a fishing trip taken by Nick and his teen-aged girlfriend, during which they break up, and Nick struggles with his angst over their split. The aftermath of the breakup is addressed in Chapter IV, when Nick is stormbound with his close friend Bill, and Bill tries to put a positive twist on the breakup and convince Nick that he's better off.

In Chapter V, "The Battler," Nick is "riding the rails" when he gets thrown off a train by the brakeman, who punches him in the face. He takes refuge with a punch-drunk fighter and the fighter's hobo companion, a black man who feeds him and looks after him. The next memoir introducing Chapter VI, "A Very Short Story," is the first to mention Nick being wounded during combat and propped against a church wall. This memoir introduces a story that recounts a love affair between a wounded young man and his nurse, which ends by letter, as in fact did Hemingway's affair with his war nurse, Agnes von Kurowsky.

The memoir preceding Chapter VII, "Soldier's Home," sketches a vignette of a soldier cowering in a trench during a bombardment sweating and praying to Jesus to get him out of this and promising to believe in him, but after the soldier has survived, he tells no one about Jesus. In the subsequent story, a returned soldier named Krebs stays at home, does virtually nothing, except practice his clarinet and play pool. His religious mother forces him to lie to her that he loves her, when in truth he feels he doesn't love anybody. In the end he decides to leave home and get a job in Kansas City. In the memoir immediately following, which introduces Chapter VIII, "The Revolutionist," the narrator relates an incident in which two Kansas City cops see two Hungarians who have just robbed a cigar store. One of the officers shoots and kills both without asking any questions, thinking they are Italians and that no one will care. The following story paints a literary portrait of a Hungarian communist who travels through Italy to Switzerland and is arrested there.

The juxtaposition of memoir and story in Chapter IX, "Mr. and Mrs. Eliot" seems to have no logical connection. However, Hemingway is a writer who broods about life and the things in it. There is a great likelihood that the marriage of memoir and story here is meant to contrast the life-and-death stakes of the bull ring and its inhabitants, both bulls and matadors, with the sterile, effete existence and behavior of puritans who would be artists. The memoir in this case portrays an incident when two of the three bullfighters in an afternoon are both inept and unlucky, and the younger, third matador is left the task of killing five bulls.

It could be argued that this chapter is the one in which Hemingway makes his strongest fictional statement about what it takes to be a "real" literary artist, and he makes this statement by means of what could be considered a cautionary tale. The short story sketches the life of Hubert Elliot, a prissy postgraduate student and poet, who at 25 years of age is saving himself for the woman he will marry, and he does marry--a woman very like himself in moral behavior and life experience.

When they travel abroad to live in France and Hubert fails to impregnate his wife, he imports a friend of hers from the tea shop where she worked. In the end, Hubert sleeps in a separate bedroom, works late on his book of poetry, which he pays to have published, and the two women sleep together. The final sentence of the story says, "Elliot drank white wine and Mrs. Elliot and the girl friend made conversation and they were all quite happy." The story presents the facts of Hubert's career, but the voice behind the presentation of the facts is ripe with veiled contempt for this arid life and its pretensions of literary achievement.

This chapter is not only a statement about how not to be a real artist, but it is also the pivotal point of the book, inasmuch as it leaves the war and wartime behind and moves on to a post war phase when the narrator is in Europe, drinking in the exciting events of a continent recovering from a world-altering conflict. The writer who narrates has an unabashed obsession with the bull ring and those connected with this deadly "entertainment."

Again in Chapter X, "Cat in the Rain," the chapter page deals with the bull ring and a horse, gored by the bull, that is brought to its feet and tries to move its rider into contact with the bull. The chapter itself is a poignant story about a childless woman at a hotel, who wishes to rescue a stray cat stranded in the rain, but fails, ending up with a calico house cat delivered to her by the manager of the hotel.

On the first page of Chapter XI, "Out of Season," a matador performs ineptly in the ring and is humiliated by the crowd, one of whom cuts off his braided pigtail and swings it around. In the story that follows, a young gentleman and his wife are staying at the hotel, and the husband hires the town drunk to be their guide on a fishing trip. They are the butt of humor as they trek through the town, and it seems as if the wife and husband are out of sorts with each other because the wife will follow only some distance behind the husband, as if she might not even be with him.

The drunken guide insists that she walk with them, the husband stops so she can catch up, and then eventually she decides she won't walk any further and returns to the hotel. When they arrive at the fishing place, the young gentleman and the guide get set to fish and discover that the young husband doesn't have any sinkers, and they are forced to return. When they reach the hotel, the guide asks for money as an advance for the next day, and the young gentleman gives him some money, but says that he probably won't go fishing, anyway.

In Chapter XII, "Cross-Country Snow," Nick Adams and his friend, George, go Alpine skiing, enjoying the beauty and freedom of it and the thrill of speeding through the snowy landscape. At the inn, part-way down the mountain, they stop for a bottle of wine and talk about how the girls in this area don't get married until they are pregnant. Then the talk turns to George's plans to go back to the states and go to college. George asks Nick about his wife, Helen, who is going to have a baby in late summer. The talk turns to whether or not they will ever go skiing again. Maybe they will, and maybe they won't, but when they go outside to collect their skis, they realize with pleasure that they will have this last run home.

Chapter XIII, "My Old Man," changes pace to a new background, the racetrack, told from the viewpoint of a young boy whose father is a jockey. The young boy follows his father along the circuit during the racing season. At first, they race in Italy, but then his father gets involved in something crooked, loses his license, and has to get it back again when they move to a smaller city in France. His father continues to race until one night, there is an accident on the track and the young boy sees his father take a spill. His father dies, and later when they are taking the body away, the boy overhears some other jockeys talking about how they think the boy's father deserved what he got because of the ..."stuff he's pulled."

Chapter XIV opens with a memoir that echoes against the theme of the previous story. The memoir concerns the death of a matador named Maera, who dies a gruesome death in the bullring. The chapter itself, however, is entitled, "Big Two-Hearted River: Part I" and returns to Nick Adams, after the war, going on a solo trout fishing trip in Northern Michigan and camping out in areas where he used to go before he went overseas. A fire has raged over a great part of the area, leaving devastation reminiscent of the war itself, and Nick has to walk much farther than intended to get past the burn.

Eventually, he finds a place to camp. His trip through the blackened landscape, his connection with the wilderness, and his ability to survive alone in it are all detailed in exquisitely simple prose, the effect of which rests on an accumulation of tiny precise details. This use of detail and its subtle effect on the reader create a sense of reality that goes beyond ordinary storytelling because while the reader is focused on the detail itself, there is an unmistakable impression of a man who is compelled to escape from things in his past that haunt him.

The final chapter, Chapter XV, continues the story of Nick's trek into the wilderness of Northern Michigan. Again, the memoir introducing the chapter continues the theme of violence that has been increasing since the first-chapter memoir about the narrator's being a kitchen corporal on a march with his unit to the front lines, in which violence and death was not even alluded to, except to mention that they were a long way from their destination, the front lines of the war. In this memoir, the subject is the state execution of a Chicago Mafioso, Sam Cardinella, whose fear was so great he had to be carried to the gallows and thereafter tied into a chair on the trap because he couldn't, or wouldn't stand. The ensuing short story, entitled, "Big Two-Hearted River: Part II," stands in sharp contrast to the memoir. Nick's experience is described in obsessive detail, and the details are, for the most part, mundane: how he catches grasshoppers for bait, how he makes coffee and cooks pancakes for himself, how he ties the leader to his fly casting line and attaches the grasshopper for bait, how he searches for a good place to catch the bigger trout, how the trout behave in which type of water at which time of day and year, tow two trout are caught, and how they are prepared for eating.

The final memoir, L'Envoi, is tacked onto the end of the book, and concerns a visit to the King of Greece the narrator made as he tended the palace garden, accompanied by his wife because they have been confined to the palace grounds.

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