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The Indian camp is generally recognized as one of Hemingway’s best and most interesting short stories. It primarily focuses on the relationship between father and son, and on its attendant rites of initiation into the world of adult experience: child birth, loss of innocence and suicide. (Werlock).
The boy, Nick Adams, accompanies his doctor father to the Indian camp where a pregnant woman has serious complications as she labors to give birth. Dr. Adams ultimately saves her life and that of the baby by performing a caesarian section, but, shortly afterwards, the woman’s husband commits suicide. The story dramatizes what is apparently the young Nick Adams first confrontation with profound personal suffering. This can be reflected in the numerous questions that he poses to his father, “do ladies always have such a hard time having babies?” and “do many men kill themselves, Daddy?” ,the afflictions and torments of life now seem clear to Nick for the first time in his life.
A number of specific questions arise from this short story, such as, why does the Indian husband kill himself? What is Uncle George’s role, and why does he disappear by the end of the story? How are we supposed to feel toward Dr. Adams? although the story is consistently read as a father-son initiation tale, these sort of questions encourage a reader to look beyond the simple and benevolent fact that Dr. Adams almost surely saved the life of the Indian woman and her baby and focus attention on some more disturbing aspects of the story. (Tyler)
The story Indian camp, was crafted with a lot of symbolism and other aspects of literature that are so characteristic of Hemingway’s, approach and technique of narrating his stories, that is, in a very simple and obvious way but full and rich with hidden meanings. These aspects of the story are what this paper will seek to look at and address, with the expectation that they will come as close as possible to what other writers have attempted to imply Hemingway meant when he wrote the short story.
The story through various aspects portrays the notion of initiation, young Nick Adams is being initiated into adulthood. From the beginning of the story, nick and his father, “got in the stern of the boat” and then “crossed over” from one area to another by use of water. The water herein represents not only a means of travel but also, the cycle of life from birth to death. moreover, when they are heading back, the writer states, “The sun was coming up over the hillsâ€¦” this too symbolizes a new beginning for young nick who through the experience at the Indian camp, returns home ,having passed through another rite of passage. In addition, when they arrive at the Indian camp, “the young Indian stopped and blew out his lantern”. This literal shift from lightness to darkness represents the figurative separation for nick. He no longer is positioned in his comfort zone.
The description and the meticulous details that Hemmingway has narrated in regards to the journey that they take to arrive at the Indian camp. A journey that was seemingly very long and endless. They had to travel across the river and through the forest overcoming all the obstacles and being blinded by nightfall. This journey tends to signify the passage that an individual takes after birth all the way through to adulthood, commonly referred to as ‘the journey of life’.
The Indian woman’s screams have been going on for a long time, so long that the men of the village have purposely moved out of earshot; but Dr. Adams tells nick that the screams “are not important”(68) and chooses not to hear them. As a doctor, he adopts this attitude as a professional necessity in order to accomplish the difficult task of performing the operation without aesthetic. Conversely, it may indicate his callousness to the woman’s evident pain.
Dr. Adams is coolly professional to the point of callousness. His jubilant pride in his work immediately after the operation becomes particularly pronounced when the writer writes, “He was feeling exalted and talkative as football players are in the dressing room after a game.” In addition when he addresses Uncle George and says, “That’s one for the medical journal, George,” “Doing a Caesarian with a jack-knife and sewing it up with nine-foot, tapered gut leaders.” Ironically this ends, the moment he realizes that his indifference to his patients’ screams blinded him to the acute emotional suffering of her husband in the upper bunk, suffering that directly led to the man’s suicide. Readers’ view of DR. Adams may influence the way they interpret the Indians husband’s suicide: why does he slit his throat moments after Dr. Adams has operated and the baby is successfully delivered? Do readers see a connection between the presence of Uncle George and the husband’s decision to commit suicide? Is Uncle George the father?
We also have to look at uncle George’s remarks to Dr. Adams,” oh, you’re a great man, all right”(69), this could have been taken either as a seriously remark, meant to congratulate him for the successive delivery or sarcastically intended, in reference to the widely speculated thought that the born child could be his son ?
The short bust of questions from Nick to his father on the significance of life and death leave him with his final thought: “he feels quite sure he would never die” (70). Nicks reflections on immortality, here in the protective warmth of his father’s arms, may represent his last moments of youthful innocence before he falls into such adult experiences such as romance and war which are reflected in the latter chapters of ‘in our time’.
It is also worth noting the father’s cruelty in compelling his son to participate in a bloody, exquisite painful operation, which the boy is too young to see. Well before the suicide, the evidently overwhelmed young boy elects to stop watching the operation. Moreover, the fathers’ reference to his son as an “interne” indicates his egoistic motivation in compelling his son to witness the messy and painful surgery. He wants to remake his son into his own image
There is also the explicit description that Hemmingway gives while relating to the graphic image of the Indian who commits suicide, “His throat had been cut from ear to ear. The blood had flowed down into a pool where his body sagged the bunk. His head rested on his left arm. The open razor lay, edge up, in the blanket”(69.), this great detail description is employed to show the effect that the picture had on Nick, since shortly after, he commences a conversation with his dad, whereby he questions his father about suicides. This leads changes the focus to death rather than the birth of a new child. Nick is shocked at the sight of a dead person and through this he learns that indeed life is very easy to cut short. And in addition removes the peaceful image that they had of the world, a harmless and untouched world.
The birth of the baby and the subsequent death of the Indian husband is an ironic tragic event. Through this happy yet tragic chain of events, the true message of humanity’s own mortality is revealed. Life gives way to death and the reverse is also true
Many if not all initiation stories end with a sort of epiphany which usually signals the prime of the maturity process of the protagonist, in Indian camps, the story does not follow the conventional orthodox pattern of an initiation stories. Nick, Dr. Adams sons does not come to this accepted realization and ending, from his final thought: “he feels quite sure he would never die” (70). He shows that his maturity process still remains incomplete in the initiation. (Campbell)
Hemingway’s’ oblique and sparse writing style encourages such open-ended questions, and his ending to the story refuses to settle on a single clear. This can be reflected in his end statements which leave the reader with more questions than answers to think and pounder about.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 3, illustrated. New World Library, 2008.
Hemingway, Earnest. “Indian Camp.” In the Complete Short Stories of Earnest Hemingway. The
Finca Vigfa Edition. New York: Charles Scribner’s sons, 1987.
Tyler, Lisa. Student companion to Ernest Hemingway. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001.
Werlock, James P. The Facts on File companion to the American short story, Volume 2. 2.
Infobase Publishing, 2010.
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