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The Killers

The Killers


by Ernest Hemingway

Analysis: Narrator Point of View

Who is the narrator, can she or he read minds, and, more importantly, can we trust her or him?

Third Person (Objective)

The narrator in "The Killers" doesn’t tell us anything we couldn’t get from being a fly on the wall. We don’t know what people are thinking unless they say it. We definitely don’t know what people are feeling unless we infer it from their actions or dialogue. The narrator doesn’t pass judgment on any of the characters. Are we asked to hate the killers? No, but we’re not asked to forgive them either. Rather than steer us in any one direction, the text simply presents the case as is and lets us deal with it how we choose.

At least, that’s what we thought the first few times we read "The Killers," and that’s the general feeling that a reader will take from the text. It feels cold and indifferent and there’s no bias toward any one character. BUT, take a closer look at the first few lines:

The door of Henry’s lunchroom opened and two men came in. They sat down at the counter.

"What’s yours?" George asked them.

"I don’t know," one of the men said. "What do you want to eat, Al?"

"I don’t know," said Al. "I don’t know what I want to eat."

Now imagine we’re a fly on the wall, as we first argued. Notice anything about names? We don’t know Max’s name yet because we haven’t heard it spoken. We know Al’s name, but not until we hear it in dialogue. And we know George’s name because…

Oh, wait. Why DO we know George’s name? And in the next paragraph, when we’re told that "from the other end of the counter, Nick Adams watched them," why do we know Nick’s name? In fact, the point of view IS biased. It IS limited. The story is told in such a way that places the reader on the side of George and Nick, and that ostracizes the killers as outsiders, as strangers, as newcomers. When do we know Max’s name, for example? Not until we hear it spoken in dialogue a good ways into the first scene. This is very subtle; we don’t feel like our loyalty is being manipulated, but in fact, like it or not…it is.

So here’s an interesting question for you to think about. Check out this passage: "The two of them went out the door. George watched them, through the window, pass under the arc-light and across the street. In their tight overcoats and derby hats they looked like a vaudeville team." They looked like a vaudeville team, or they looked like a vaudeville team to George? Are we breaking from objectivity further by going into George’s head, or do these men objectively appear as vaudeville characters?

That should keep you busy for a while, so we’re going to go hang out in Style and Tone until you’re done.

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