Soldier's Home


He knew he could never get through it all again.

"Soldier's Home"

"I don't want to go through that hell again."

In the works of Ernest Hemingway, that which is excluded is often as significant as that which is included; a hint is often as important and thought-provoking as an explicit statement. This is why we read and reread him. "Soldier's Home"is a prime example of this art of echo and indirection.

Harold Krebs, the protagonist of "Soldier's Home," is a young veteran portrayed as suffering from an inability to readjust to society--Paul Smith has summarized previous critics on the subject of how Krebs suffers from returning to the familial, social, and religious"home"(71). Moreover, as Robert Paul Lamb notes, the story is also about "a conflicted mother-son relationship"(29). Krebs' small-town mother cannot comprehend her son's struggles and sufferings caused by the war. She devotes herself to her religion and never questions her own values; she manipulates her son. She is one of the Hemingway "bitch mothers" who also appear in "The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife"and "Now I Lay Me." Her sermons to her son lack any power to heal his spiritual wounds. She has determined that Krebs should live in God's "Kingdom," find a job, and get married like a normal local boy .

Although Hemingway locates the story in Oklahoma and excludes it from the Nick Adams group, the husband and wife relationship observed in"Soldier's Home"is also similar to those in "The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife" and "Now I Lay Me," revealing the mother's dominance of a troubled marriage. Krebs' noncommittal father is obviously dominated by his wife; she makes the decisions. Her advocacy of marriage for Krebs is ironic: not yet recovered from his various psychic wounds and trapped by the sick marriage of his parents, marriage is the very commitment he must avoid.

Furthermore, a careful reading of "Soldier's Home" reveals yet another story discernible beneath the main one. Krebs' indifference towards the girls in the town seems to reflect his disillusionment not only with the war and his parents' marriage, but also with another experience--Krebs' breaking up with a lover:

Now he would have liked a girl if she had come to him and not wanted to talk. But here at home it was all too complicated. He knew he could never get through it all again. (147-48)

Here is a significant ambiguity: "it all" may well connote the whole process of being and ceasing to be a lover, and "again" suggests that Krebs has been through this process before.

Descriptions of Krebs' lack of involvement with the local girls occupy one fourth of the story. These descriptions converge around the word "complicated," repeated four times in this context. The girls live in "a complicated world" (148); "They were too complicated" (148); "it [to talk to a girl] is too complicated" (149); and "He had tried so to keep his life from being complicated"(152). The latter quotation suggests that the most difficult problem is not the complicated realm of the girls, but Krebs' fear of the complexity that might result from any approach he might make. Once he talks to a girl, he must get through a complicated sexual encounter all over again. Conversations, for Krebs, make the male/female sexual relationship complicated.

His aversion to such relationships, we are to infer, derives from previous experiences with women that have perhaps reinforced his observations of his parents' marriage. As many have noted (see Smith 71-72), one of the photographs discussed in the story's opening paragraphs suggests an unsatisfactory experience with German girls. Krebs and another corporal, both in poorly fitting uniforms, stand with two German girls Who are "not beautiful"beside a Rhine that "does not show in the picture"(145).[1] The picture suggests an irony: the American soldiers, once enemies, date German girls with whom they share no common language. Because the American soldiers do not have to talk, and because the German girls are probably prostitutes, relationships between them are uncomplicated. Without any need for conversation, the soldiers simply satisfy their lust on the prostitutes' bodies. Just as he emphasizes the German girls' lack of beauty, Hemingway also erases the Rhine to show the lack of romance in such relationships. In "Soldier's Home," he juxtaposes two worlds: the simple one