Study Guide

Big Two-Hearted River (Parts I and II) Themes

By Ernest Hemingway

  • Suffering

    Nobody knows the troubles Nick’s seen. No, really. We never get to hear about it. We just know that they’re there because Nick seems to be going through a rough period. It’s the little things that make Nick tick in a big way, and we’re left to put together the pieces of why the movement of fish or the darkness of a swamp set him off. But how are we supposed to get into Nick’s head, short of laying him on a couch and asking him about his mother?

    Questions About Suffering

    1. How would you characterize Nick’s suffering? Is it internal, external, mental, emotional, etc.?
    2. How does Nick’s suffering manifest itself?
    3. How do we link Nick’s suffering to experiences from his past?
    4. Do the details of why Nick is the way he is matter to the story?

    Chew on This

    “Big Two-Hearted River” is more a story about interiority (that’s fancy for inner-world) than it is about physical actions.

    Nick’s suffering threatens to boil over at any given moment in the story.

  • Man and the Natural World

    “Big Two-Hearted River” begins with Nick getting off a train in what looks like the middle of nowhere. When a character leaves the hustle and bustle of other people's company and heads for a sojourn in the woods, we know that Nature-with-a-capital-N is going to be a key player. Nick is always interacting with the natural world in this story: with the river, the grasshoppers, the trout… heck, even the swamp is important. Nature allows Nick to explore his feelings without the meddling interference of other people. It also, in a way, lets him ease back into a simpler life that we sense he’s been missing. After all, what’s more natural than nature?

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. This might seem obvious, but what actually counts as “nature” in the story? For instance, does the burnt town count, or is it something different? Does fishing and camping count? How do these things interact with “pure” nature?
    2. What is nature’s role in the story? How does Nick interact with it? Is nature set against anything?
    3. Does nature ever cause Nick to become anxious? When? What might this tell us about Nick’s feelings?
    4. Can you think of other works where nature is used in ways similar to how it’s used in “Big Two-Hearted River”?

    Chew on This

    Nature is vital to the story because it allows us to directly experience Nick’s raw emotions.

    Nick’s healing doesn’t come from nature, but from isolation.

  • Rules and Order

    Slightly different from Law and Order, Rules and Order in this case refers to the fact that Nick likes things organized, predictable, and controllable. There is no slovenliness in his camp. No sir, no cutting corners here. In fact, Nick seems to relish the idea of neatness and predictability. You would think that nature would be a place where rules could be slackened, but instead we see Nick as someone who is a little obsessed with doing things right. But even though we like a clean campsite as much as the next person, do we see Nick’s meticulousness as a good thing?

    Questions About Rules and Order

    1. At what point do we notice that Nick’s attention to detail is a bit more, um, attentive than your average guy's?
    2. In what ways does Nick’s fastidiousness manifest itself?
    3. How does the story’s language reflect Nick’s fastidiousness?
    4. What things in the story threaten to undermine Nick’s neat and ordered world?

    Chew on This

    Nick’s attention to tactile, physical acts shows his desire for things that are within his control.

    By focusing on things he can manage, Nick deflects attention away from the mental things that he can’t manage.

  • Change

    Change can be good, or it can be bad: we might come out of an experience changed for the worse, or we might undergo a transformation for the better. Okay, so how does this help us understand change in “Big Two-Hearted River”? Well, it’s actually not as difficult as you’d think. If you pay attention to when the story’s language is being positive and when it’s being negative, you’ll notice that change can cause despair. But in order to pull back from despair, you need hope. Think about it in terms of the war: Nick comes back from it changed for the worse, but that doesn’t mean he can’t change again.

    Questions About Change

    1. Identify some of the things in the story, aside from Nick, that have undergone a change. How do their changes reflect on Nick’s?
    2. What indications are there that Nick has been changed from the person he was before, given that we never get to see that person?
    3. What is a good metaphor to describe change in this story?

    Chew on This

    This story says that we can never really change back to who we were after something major has happened to us.

    The changes in “Big Two-Hearted River” are generally portrayed as destructive and associated with the war.