Literature: Big Two-Hearted River part I and II
‘Big Two-Hearted River’, a short story by American writer Ernest Hemingway, consisting of two parts, was firstly published in 1925, in the ‘In our time’ edition, which appeared to be the first American collection of his short stories.
Simple on the surface, the plot, however, hides a complicated story of the process of healing through the contact and blending with the nature, the main motive force in the narration.
The story describes a soldier, Nick Adams, who having returned to his native place, after suffering the post-traumatic stress syndrome from the World War I, finds courage and strength to recover from the trauma through the healing powers of the nature. The process of healing is represented through fishing on the river, where he used to catch trout as a boy. Carrying out all the fishing rituals and at the same time finding fascination in it helped the protagonist to regain the serenity. It turned out to be a hard task, as the homeland was completely burnt, with all the memories destroyed: ‘There was no town, nothing but the rails and the burned-over country. The thirteen saloons that had lined the one street of Seney had not left a trace. The foundations of the Mansion House Hotel stuck up above the ground. The stone was chipped and split by the fire. It was all that was left of the town of Seney. Even the surface had been burned off the ground’ (Hemingway).
‘Big two hearted river’ has many autobiographical connections. The first to mention is the setting, where the story takes place – town of Seney. Seney situated in Michigan originally was a center for the lumber industry, offering nothing but hard life in camps for its dwellers. The small river Fox, 25-30 kilometers in length ran through it, being best known for rich opportunities for fishing. Unlike his character Hemingway never visited the town before the end of the World War I. While visiting Seney, the writer created his short story.
Nick’s route reproduces in details the route which three friends, Ernest Hemingway, Jack Pentecost and Al Walker took, heading to the Northern Peninsula of Michigan. The after-war trip of the young men, with fishing and hunting on their way actually became the basis for the story (Seney).
It’s important to note that the traces of three people as main participants of the real journey can be observed in the manuscript. Pronouns in plural form are widespread, so one can suppose that the first version of the story included more than one character. However, the publication describes only Nick, roaming around the woods.
Here an interesting detail should be mentioned: the described Two-Hearted River flows twenty miles northwest from the Fox river, so it could be concluded that the author purposefully made a mistake. This suggestion can be proved by the supposition that the author intended to describe Nick Adam’s twofaced nature: one Nick is an innocent, childish soul, unspoiled by the realities of the severe world; another is re-born Nick, wounded emotionally and physically by horrors of the war. Besides, the deliberate mentioning of the Fox River can symbolize an endeavor to re-gain his boyish purity.
Another characteristic of Hemingway’s style involves a so-called Iceberg theory, especially on the early stages of his creative career. The Iceberg theory, also known as ‘The theory of omission’, represents a modernist approach, which brings out the meaning through hints, without explicitly showing it. Hemingway was sure that the meaning could be conveyed to the reader while talking about entirely different notions. In point of fact, all the activities Nick fulfils, lack in originality. These are everyday, mundane doings, pictured in detail: gathering grasshoppers, sipping cold, sweet coffee, catching and losing trout. However, such monotonous work hides tension and excitement, which having reached climax, are expressed in Nick’s taking a break (Adkins).
‘Big Two-Hearted River’ is considered to be an interesting exemplar because it possesses the deep meaning, being mainly descriptive and devoid of the dynamic plot. The depth is achieved through images and symbols, which is the main characteristic of Hemingway’s style.
Hemingway’s imagism was inspired by Ezra Pound’s works, which he applied in his own writings. Minimalist style is a characteristic of Hemingway’s early works. If the main principles of imagery the author drew from Ezra Pound, visual inspiration he got from Cezanne’s paintings, transforming his idea of presenting the details rather than the whole image. Thus, the description of having coffee ceremony, for example, or catching and releasing fish becomes a perfect representation of the technique. Another example is the landscape, to be more exact absence of its detailed description, especially taking into consideration that it’s where the action of the story happens (Svoboda).
Symbols are the fundamental characteristic of Hemingway’s creative work, implying that almost every word can be considered as a symbol. The author portrays the images of two fish – the younger and the older. They represent the protagonist’s discrepant soul. The younger fish stay close to the top of water, in the light. Its innocence is not yet touched, and its experience is not so valuable. This fish in light pictures Nick’s essence before departing to war. The second, older fish is dragged down to bottom, having already experienced joys, sorrows and disappointments. The weight of knowledge pushes it down. The older fish is Nick’s reversed side of the soul, which was severely damaged in the war. And it’s only up to the main character which of these two parts wins, after choosing between the opportunity to fly and regain serenity or to be buried down by one’s own bitterness and disappointment.
The main theme of Hemingway’s creative work was imposed by circumstances in which his personality was developing. Wounded by the World War I physically and mentally, he reflected his thoughts and opinion in his stories. In ‘Big Two-Hearted River’ Nick Adams experiences war and post-war devastation, but these themes are never directly pointed out. It’s the story not about inner struggle, but rather about the process of healing through nature. Several times throughout the story Nick ‘felt all the old feeling’ meaning that dim spirits of the past still haunted him and watching moving trout obviously brought its comforting feeling: ‘He watched them holding themselves with their noses into the current, many trout in deep, fast moving water, slightly distorted as he watched far down through the glassy convex surface of the pool, its surface pushing and swelling smooth against the resistance of the log-driven piles of the bridge’ (Hemingway). Peaceful picture of the nature contrasts greatly with destruction and devastation of the town Seney. Yet the nature helps Nick to recover from horrors of the past and return to harmony.
Thus, ‘Big Two-Hearted River’ is the early short story by Ernest Hemingway, based on real events. Main themes of war and healing through nature, which is dominant here is shown through imagism and symbolism – major techniques Hemingway preferred to use.
Ernest Hemingway. Big Two-Hearted river. 03 May 2013
Jason Adkins. Healing and Regeneration in Hemingway’s ‘Big Two-Hearted River’. 03 May
Seney. 03 May 2013
Frederic J. Svoboda. Landscapes real and imagined: ‘Big Two-Hearted River’. Oct.1996. 03