Study Guide

Indian Camp Mortality

By Ernest Hemingway

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She lay in the lower bunk, very big under a quilt. Her head was turned to one side. (10)

Not very lively, is she? In our discussion of suffering earlier in the "Themes" section we talk about how the Indian woman's pose mirrors the pose of her husband in the top bunk. If we're going to pursue the birth-death comparison (and we are), it would be really easy for us to say something like, "Oh look, she's birth and he's death." Something tells us, though, that Hemingway wouldn't have liked that kind of easy symbolism, because what end does it serve, really? A better question is, if the Indian woman and her husband are birth and death respectively, why are they in the same pose? And why is the Indian woman described as dead-looking after the birth (36)?

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 blankets. (43)

You know what would have been a really boring way of conveying this scene? "The Indian man had slit his throat with a razor." Instead, we see everything in the same order as Nick sees it and we put the pieces together at the same moment he does. Also, the fact that the razor is "edge up"—not laying benignly on its side—is a great touch.

"Why did he kill himself, Daddy?"
"I don't know, Nick. He couldn't stand things, I guess." (50-51)

We're just gonna put it out there that this sounds like a pretty evasive answer. What "things" couldn't he stand? Of course, you can never really know why a person decides to kill themselves (it's too late to ask, after all), but here we see Nick's dad trying to; and his weak answer just reinforces that we're asking for something that we just can't know.

"Do many men kill themselves, Daddy?"
"Not very many, Nick."
"Do many women?"
"Hardly ever." (52-55)

Notice how vague answers seem to be a thing with Nick's dad? It's like he's diminishing the reality of suicide for Nick. Sure, he's not going to say "People kill themselves every day, Nick. Lots of people. Now go outside and play with the other kids." But as adults (and young adults) reading this story, we see how he might be sugar-coating it a wee bit.

"Is dying hard, Daddy?"
"No, I think it's pretty easy, Nick. It all depends." (62-63)

Is this supposed to be comforting? Nick's dad seems to be assuaging Nick's fears by telling him that death isn't as scary as it might seem, but it's also a foreboding statement, taken on its own: the word "easy," instead of, say, "painless," makes death sound like it's something that can easily happen.

In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die. (65)

Wow, what an ending! And what a way to wrap up with the idea of death. Has death won in this story? Remember, Nick is a young kid, so he comes with that naiveté that lets him ask questions like "Is dying hard, Daddy?" So when he feels like he will never die, we know that it's coming from that same naiveté; at the same time, there is something about it that makes us agree, or want to agree, with Nick. He shouldn't have to face the fact of his own mortality just yet, and maybe the only way for him not to right now is by continuing to see death as a personal impossibility.

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