Thursday, December 11, 2014

Ernest Hemingway's "Soldier's Home"

Hemingway in World War I
During the Second Annual Ernest J. Gaines Lecture a couple of weeks ago, Dr. John Lowe spoke broadly about Catherine Carmier, its genesis, plot, and early drafts. (The lecture will be available online soon.) Among the myriad of interesting moments from Dr. Lowe's lecture, one comment stuck out to me. When discussing the scene in Catherine Carmier where Aunt Charlotte talks with Jackson to explain to him why she sent him to California and about his lack of faith after his education, Dr. Lowe brought up Ernest Hemingway's "Soldier's Home" from In Our Time. I have written about Hemingway's influence on Gaines and about the role of religion in Gaines' works. Today, I want to examine "Soldier's Home" and the scene mentioned above together. Both contain a maternal figure confronting their charge with questions about religion and faith after traumatic events.

In "Soldier's Home," Harold Krebs, recently returning to his Midwestern town after World War I, tries to come to grips with the things that he experienced. What troubles him throughout the story is the fact that the community he left behind maintains specific ideas about what happened during the war. In order to try and appease those who did not experience the carnage of war, Krebs, like other veterans, lies and exaggerates to placate his listeners. However, "his lies were not sensational at the pool room" where he retreated to because most had already "heard detailed accounts of German women found chained to machine-guns in the Argonne forest" (137). Any story that did not have details like this were not interesting to the men. Telling all of the lies caused Krebs "nausea" because, if truth be told, "he had been badly, sickeningly frightened all the time" (137).

Even though Jackson did not encounter the horrors of war when he left the quarters for California, he still felt "sickeningly frightened." Even though Jackson does not mention racial incidents in California, it can be implied that some occurred. For instance, when speaking with Madame Bayonne, he tells her, "But when we went up there [California], we found it all a pile of lies. There was not truth in any of it. . . . They don't come dressed in white sheets with rope. But there's no truth" (81). Even before he went to California, Jackson was scared. Responding to Aunt Charlotte's speech about him succeeding for the community and about his loss of faith in the church, Jackson informs her, "You sent me there. . . I didn't want to go. I cried, I cried to keep from going" (100). Krebs enlisted to join the war effort, so any fear that he may have had before his deployment is not mentioned. However, Jackson did not have a say in whether or not he would leave for California. The prospect scared him, and he made sure to let his aunt know that it did. Jackson knew that the community wanted him to go. If he failed, Aunt Charlotte says, "that's all for us" (98). Krebs does not have this responsibility hanging over his head, but his father does want him to get a job instead of lying around all day. His father doesn't even care what that job may be, as long as Krebs works.  

These are just a couple of the similarities and differences between Krebs and Jackson. The main similarity that I want to discuss deals with Krebs' and Jackson's dismissal of faith. At the end of "Soldier's Home," Krebs' mother speaks with him about love and faith. Over the breakfast table, Krebs' mother asks, "Don't you love your mother, dear boy?" (143). Coldly, Krebs replies, "No. . . I don't love anybody," as his mother begins to weep (143). After comforting his mother and telling her that he does not really mean that he doesn't lover her, Krebs agrees to kneel and pray with his mother; however, he tells her, "I can't [pray]" (144). Krebs cannot pray because of the trauma he endured during the war. Instead, his mother prays for him.

The two incidents between Krebs and his mother are similar to the relationship between Aunt Charlotte and Jackson. After Aunt Charlotte slaps Jackson when he tells her that he doesn't "believe in that bourgeois farce" called church, his aunt asks him to kneel with her and pray (100). Jackson responds in the same manner that Krebs does; he says, "I can't" (100). Jackson's reasons for not being able to kneel and pray differ from Krebs'. While it is implied Krebs does not have the power to kneel because he has lost faith after seeing the destruction of war, Jackson simply refuses because he does not want to show weakness. Aunt Charlotte ultimately kneels and prays for Jackson as he stands there quietly. All the while, Jackson thinks about the calendar in the room. The picture on the calendar is of Christ kneeling in the Garden of Gethsemane. For Jackson, "both the idea and the portrait were disgusting" (99). For Aunt Charlotte, however, the image gave her strength, thinking about "the Master on his knees" (102). Later, when Jackson finally tells Aunt Charlotte that he plans to leave and return to California, he hurts her in the same way that Krebs does when he says, "I don't love anybody." In this scene, Gaines implies part of the conversation between Jackson and Aunt Charlotte in much the same way that Hemingway does in his work: "But he had not said half of what he wanted to say to her when she staggered against the door as if someone had hit her with his fist" (162). Aunt Charlotte maintains her composure and tries to walk into the house, but she falls again. Before getting into the house, she screams, "Get away from me, Jackson" (163).

Both Krebs and Jackson hurt the maternal figures in their lives by denying religion and essentially telling those who love them that they do not reciprocate that same affection. Krebs' reasons, of course, differ from Jackson's. In Europe, Krebs experienced the horrors of war, and those horrors caused him to feel disillusionment and isolation from the community and his family upon his return. Jackson feels isolation from his family and community as well, but for a different reason. Aunt Charlotte sent Jackson away so he could have the opportunity to return to the quarters to teach and uplift those that remained. His education, though, alienated him from the community. After receiving an education, he could no longer accept the beliefs that Aunt Charlotte held or suffer the oppression that he left behind.

What other similarities do you see in these two works? Are there any other stories in Hemingway's In Our Time or elsewhere that you see reflected in Gaines' writings? What are they?

Gaines, Ernest J. Catherine Carmier. New York: Vintage Books, 1993. Print.
Hemingway, Ernest. The First Forty-Nine Stories. London: Jonathan Cape, 1946. 136-144. Print.  

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