The healing power of retreating to Nature has long been a natural instinct, and its use has been recorded in some of the oldest written literature. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, the quest that Gilgamesh takes forces him out of his own castle and into a long march into treacherous parts of the world. In the New Testament, Jesus often followed up stressful situations, such as speaking to crowds of thousands, by retreating into Nature to meditate and pray. Nature allows for a sense of inner quiet and calm that are just not available in the hubbub of ordinary life. When Nick gets off the train, it is clear that he needs a break from the constant emotional noise that life is broadcasting to him – this noise being a part of the PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) that appears to be affecting him. As he walks into nature, leaving a burned town and a burned hill in his wake, he thinks about the fact that the entire “country was burned over and changed” (Hemingway 254). However, he knew that “it could not all be burned” (Hemingway 254). This is the reason for his retreat into nature: to find a part of the world that has not been burned by war, so that he can heal his own soul – which appears also to have been burned. However, even the grasshoppers, turned a “sooty black” (Hemingway 254) have been changed by the destruction of war. The effect of these metaphors is to show how pervasive and corrosive war is on the human soul. When Nick wonders “how long [the grasshoppers] would stay that way” (Hemingway 254), the reader also wonders how long Nick will continue to be affected by his experiences.
Stein’s removal of any considerations of plot and setting for the description of Lena constitutes an ingenious method of expressing the abject passivity of the character’s life. Her description even undulates with long sentences that wind through adjectives and never quite get anywhere: “She stood in the hallway every morning a long time in her unexpectant and unsuffering german patience calling to the young ones to get up. She would call and wait a long time and then call again, always even, gentle, patient, while the young ones fell back often into that precious, tense, last bit of sleeping” (Stein 267). Note the repetition of the words patient and call in that excerpt. While the repetition does indicate the tedium in which this character lives, it is the syntax that drives the point home even more firmly. The middle part of the first sentence, beginning with a long and ending with german patience, is unnecessary for the sentence to be grammatically or even contextually correct. Adding these superfluous modifiers, though, gives the reader a sense of the mundane, unnecessary tasks that fill Lena’s life. The repeated calling in the second sentence, with three adjectives describing the calling when one (if not even fewer) adjective would do the trick, also shows just how pointless all of the effort in Lena’s life appears to be. The tone, over the course of the story, takes on the same unending drone as the indecipherable sounds that come from the mouth of Charlie Brown’s teacher in all of the Peanuts cartoons.
Hemingway, Ernest. “Big Two-Hearted River.”
Stein, Gertrude. “The Gentle Lena.”