Study Guide

Indian Camp Suffering

By Ernest Hemingway

Suffering

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

Let's notice a few things here: first, the woman is on the lower bunk, and her husband is on the top. Symbolic of the hierarchy between men and women maybe? Second, the Indian woman's head is turned to the side. And what are we told a few lines down? "The husband in the upper bunk rolled over against the wall" (19). So the woman and her husband are actually in the same position, mirroring one another. Hmm, maybe this contrast is worth exploring more…

"Oh, Daddy, can't you give her something to make her stop screaming?" asked Nick. (17)

This quote tells us that the Indian woman is in a world of pain, but it also shows us that Nick doesn't like the sight (or sound) of suffering. Her suffering is making him suffer! Ok, probably not nearly as much. But still—the kid's hurting.

The husband in the upper bunk rolled over against the wall. (19)

For someone having a baby, this husband sure doesn't seem all that sympathetic to his wife's plight. On first reading, we probably assume that he's just tired of listening to screaming for the past two days. But in hindsight, we can read a lot more into this line: it occurs right after Nick's father's comment that he doesn't hear the woman's screams because they're not important. This comment is supposed to be a reflection of Nick's dad's manly stoicism in the face of adversity, but the husband clearly is affected. Who would have thought that you could convey all of that just by having a character roll over?

He bent over the Indian woman. She was quiet now and her eyes were closed. She looked very pale. She did not know what had become of the baby or anything. (36)

This is really more of a victory for Nick's father than it is for the mother. She's just been operated on without anesthetic, and here is the doctor congratulating himself on a job well done. It's one for the gender-disparity books, that's for sure: Nick's father is acting more like he's the one that just gave birth.

"Ought to have a look at the proud father. They're usually the worst sufferers in these little affairs," the doctor said. "I must say he took it all pretty quietly." (42)

You notice how "Nick's father" has now become "the doctor"? It's like he has for the moment stepped out of the role of didactic father and is now Doctor-with-a-capital-D. But he's also now not the only father in the room, so our focus is being shifted to a character whom we didn't think was all that important to the story—but whose suffering, ironically, is about to become very important.

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

Because this is the world of the story (meaning that the Indian man doesn't have a backstory, unless it's in fan fiction), this is just about the best reason we're going to get. The fact is, though, that suicide leaves many unanswered questions. See, Nick's dad is trying to rationalize the man's suicide, because by rationalizing it he regains some kind of control over it. But the rationalization he gives seems shaky at best.

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

Why do you think Nick makes this distinction between men and women instead of just asking "Do many people kill themselves?" Maybe it's because Nick has just witnessed a man's suicide in light of a woman's ostensible suffering. But also, it's a distinction that Nick's dad seems to agree with, because he gives different answers to Nick's questions. So at least for the characters in this story, the act of committing suicide as a way of dealing with suffering seems to be a gendered thing—for better or for worse.

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