"The Killers" is presented to us rather nakedly. Here’s what happens, judge for yourself. The author’s attitude towards the work, then, is basically neutral. If the reader feels sympathetic, it’s because the reader is compassionate, not because the tone encourages sympathy. This really fits the bill as far as the story goes; if "The Killers" is about an encounter with unadulterated evil, then it should be presented to us in an unadulterated manner. Or, to put it another way, we as readers encounter "The Killers" the same way Nick Adams encounters the killers.
If you’ve read Nick Adams’s character analysis, you’ve heard plenty by now about the interpretation of "The Killers" as a loss-of-innocence gig that focuses on Nick encountering evil in the world. So enough about that. The "Drama" label speaks for itself through the terse, intense emotion expressed mainly through dialogue and character interaction, but it’s this last genre that’s really the most interesting to discuss.
In one sense, "The Killers" is a very stark, realistic, unexaggerated portrayal of an event that just happens to be disturbing and unusual. Considering that we’ve got mobsters, guns, men getting tied up and gagged and an impending death, the story does an admirable job of not going overboard with the drama. On the other hand, however, you’ve got some oddly unreal images. The killers, for example, are theatrical and strange. Max wears a silk muffler and cliché hat. They wear their gloves during their meal. They’ve got your typical mobster overcoats on. This sounds like something out of the movies, NOT something that might really happen in a small town lunchroom. The conflict between these two opposite genres – realism and theatrical fantasy – is fascinating to watch (and to talk about in discussions devoted entirely to genre).
Since "The Killers" tells the story of two would-be hitmen, we’re not entirely surprised by the title. It’s worth taking a closer look, however, when we realize one key fact: the killers don’t actually kill anyone.
Oh. If they don’t kill any people, then what do they kill?
When you check out Symbols, Imagery, and Allegory, you’ll see that we talk about the clock as being particularly important. Time, then, is no trivial matter in this story, and while the killers stand around waiting for Ole, they’re pretty much just killing time.
But what else do they kill…How about Nick’s innocence? In Robert Penn Warren’s famous essay on the story, he argues that "The Killers" is really just about Nick encountering evil in the world for the first time. Since the evil in question = the killers, it’s fair to say that they’re responsible for killing a piece of Nick’s youthful innocence. There’s probably more where that came from, but we’ll leave the rest to you.
Before talking about "The Killers," it’s a good idea to think about what was going on at the time Hemingway wrote it. We’re looking at the mid-west in 1927, which means two big things: Prohibition and organized crime in Chicago. They’re related. When alcohol was illegal, the mafia made a lot of money supplying it. Prohibition is definitely in effect at the time "The Killers" takes place; look at the line where the killers pointedly ask George if he has anything to drink. They’re asking for alcohol, but he responds only with non-alcoholic options. In the 1920s, Al Capone was running the mafia show in Chicago, so he would have been in the front of reader’s mind at the story’s mention of this city and of mob activities.
What mob activities? Well, the killers pretty much give the game away when Max says that they’ve never met Ole but are killing him "for a friend." Later on we hear that Ole "must have got mixed up in something in Chicago," so we’re thinking that, as a prizefighter, he didn’t go along with fixing a fight and pissed off some pretty important Mafiosi. Hence the hitmen.
One last thing: vaudeville. You can read in the Character Analysis for Al and Max that the two of them act as a sort of vaudeville duo. Again, this makes a lot more sense if you’re thinking about it from a 1927 mindset instead of a 21st century one. By the 1920s, vaudeville had been popular for around forty years – readers would have known the form well.
Now what about the actual locations where the story takes place – the lunchroom and the boarding house? Take a look at the names. We find out in the first line that the diner in question is called "Henry’s lunchroom." Except George is the guy running the place. Who is Henry? We don’t know. Then you take a look at the boarding house, which is owned by Mrs. Hirsch. But the landlady we meet is Mrs. Bell. Where’s Mrs. Hirsch? We don’t know. This looks like another case of things not being what they seem, and further, of uncertainty. In this way, the setting compliments the themes, which is always nice.
As you’ve probably heard by now, Hemingway is famous for his tight, short prose. But "The Killers" in particular is composed of language charged with meaning to the utmost degree. Every word matters, and every word says something. Often, words are charged with subtext and double meanings. When Al asks George if he has anything to drink, he isn’t really asking what there is to literally drink. The word "drink" is filled with all the implications of liquor during Prohibition. Right afterwards, when he says, "This is a hot town," the word "hot" is similarly powerful and, in this case, ironic. Does he "hot" in the sense of "hopping" or "happening," or "hot" in the sense of "illegal"? Either way he’s being sarcastic, as clearly the town is neither. The point is that these tiny little words have HUGE consequences. Look at Max and Al’s conversation when they’re leaving the lunchroom:
"What about the two bright boys and the nigger?"
"They’re all right."
"You ought to play the races, bright boy."
Let us translate:
"Should we kill these guys?"
"Nah, I think it’s OK to leave ’em alive, since they are unlikely to run to the police and do anything that may lead to our apprehension and/or impede our mission as mafia hitmen in any way."
"Man, you’re lucky we didn’t blow your brains out. We very much might have blown your brains out if things had gone differently, like if Ole had shown up or if I wasn’t feeling so generous. Keep that in mind, sucker."
Like we said: little words, lots of meaning.
At the start of the story, George tells the killers that dinner won’t be available until six. He then looks at the clock and declares that it’s five. Max makes a point of saying, actually, it’s 5:20, and George has to explain that the clock is fast.
FIRST of all, if he knows the clock is fast, why hasn’t he changed it? Second of all, 5:00 or 5:20, who really cares if dinner isn’t ready either way? We’re pretty much with Al when he says, "to hell with the clock."
But, unfortunately, that is not it for the clock. It makes several more appearances during the rest of the tension-filled wait for Ole, and every time we’re told what time it is we have to wonder whether we’re talking about real time or the fast time that’s read off the clock. We just don’t know. Ole usually comes in at six – according to which clock? The men leave at 7:00 – but it’s not really 7:00 if they’re going by the lunchroom time. The phrase "George looked at the clock" is repeated three times in the story, at 6:15, 6:20, 6:55, and we never know what time it really is.
It could be that we’re made to feel the same frustrating uncertainty as the characters and that’s that. It could be, as one daring scholar, Quentin E. Martin, suggested, "The Killers" is a dramatic representation of Einstein’s theory of relativity. It could also just be more of the "appearances aren’t what they seem" motif. But before you move on from the clock, think about this slightly weird passage:
At six-fifty-five George said: "He’s not coming."
Two other people had been in the lunchroom. Once George had gone out to the kitchen and made a ham-and-egg sandwich "to go" that a man wanted to take with him. Inside the kitchen he saw Al, his derby hat tipped back, sitting on a stool beside the wicket with the muzzle of a sawed-off shotgun resting on the ledge. Nick and the cook were back to back in the corner, a towel tied in each of their mouths. George had cooked the sandwich, wrapped it up in oiled paper, put it in a bag, brought it in, and the man had paid for it and gone out.
What the heck is up with that? At 6:55, our hearts should be in our throats. If Andreson isn’t coming, then the killers are going to check out, and if the killers are going to check out, they might not want to leave three witnesses behind. Something big is about to happen. And then… …. we get a flashback. A flashback! When we’re dying to know what happens next, Hemingway make us go back in time. What for?? And what does this have to do with the clock?
We list Mrs. Bell as a symbol and not a character because we don’t really know anything about her. And we don’t need to. She serves her purpose just fine by 1) giving the reader more information about Andreson, and 2) having a name that isn’t Mrs. Hirsch.
It’s this second one we want to talk about here. We’ve already talked about how appearances are deceiving in "The Killers," so at first it looks like this is simply another example. Nick thinks the landlady is Mrs. Hirsch, since the place is called Hirsch’s boarding house, and she ends up being Mrs. Bell. OK. Confusion, uncertainty – same old same old.
But Hemingway drops a hint that there’s more going on. Check it out in context:
"Well, good night, Mrs. Hirsch," Nick said.
"I’m not Mrs. Hirsch," the woman said. "She owns the place. I just look after it for her. I’m Mrs. Bell."
"Well, good night, Mrs. Bell," Nick said.
"Good night," the woman said.
Nick walked up the dark street to the corner under the arc-light, and then along the car-tracks to Henry’s eating-house. George was inside, back of the counter.
In case we forgot that the lunchroom was called "Henry’s," we get a little reminder. Mrs. Bell is running Hirsch’s boarding-house, and George is running Henry’s lunch-counter. On top of that, the killers haven’t met Ole, they just want to kill him. Everyone’s a hired hand. Everyone is acting on behalf of someone else. In a way, this Bell/Hirsch, George/Henry stuff gets the killers off the hook, as far as the reader’s judgment is concerned. It reminds us that they’re not calling the shots here; they’re just doing their job. And that, too, makes it easier for us to smile a bit at their antics instead of disliking them for being murderers.
We think we’ve talked enough in the rest of our analyses about the cool "movies meets reality" thing going on in "The Killers." So we think we’ll just point out to you the fact that Max asks George if he goes to the movies and tells him he should go more often, which isn’t that interesting until you realize that George is the one who’s really operating on the principles of theatrical drama. Just look at the end of the text: "They’ll kill him," he explains, adding, "He must’ve got mixed up in something in Chicago." He goes on to speculate that Andreson "double-crossed somebody," since "that’s what they kill them for." Thanks, Mr. Mob Expert. If we didn’t know better, we’d think George was calling all these shots based on romantic notions of how the mob operates in classic film. Oh, wait…
(Of course, the irony in our even poking a little fun of George is that, in fact, that IS how the mob is operating in "The Killers." That’s the point: it’s a little ridiculous when a lunch counter employee whose only seen mobsters in movies or comic books can accurately explain the goings-on of real live Mafiosi.)
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.
OK, so it’s not a bar so much as a lunchroom, but you get the point. Because of the title of the story, there’s a fair bit of conflict implied (we sense that these creepy men in overcoats and wearing gloves are in all likelihood the killers in question), but for main character Nick Adams, this is still unknown.
OK, so this isn’t the world’s most outrageous conflict. And it doesn’t come in any one instance; it sort of gradually builds as Max and Al become more and more antagonistic. Look at how they harass George about the menu and taunt him with the "bright boy" nickname. Sounds like conflict to us.
It’s clear that something is up once Al and Max tie up Nick and Sam in the kitchen. This is no longer about some unfriendly strangers; there’s something seriously sinister (and illegal) going down.
Well! Impending murder sounds like a great climax. Also, we’ve been building towards this moment since the story began. We got hints as to the men’s motives (the gloves, the overcoats) as well as an indication of their malevolence (they generally acted like antagonists). So this is the climactic moment we’ve all been waiting for.
This is some nail-biting action. When the door to the lunchroom opens, we have to worry that there’s going to be shooting. When Ole doesn’t show up, we have to worry that the killers will kill the three spectators.
No, that title wasn’t a typo; Ole Andreson is "denouement" personified. There’s no excitement here, no fireworks – it’s clear from the moment we see the guy "lying on the bed with all his clothes on" that the big action of the story has passed.
The conclusion to "The Killers" definitely belongs to Nick Adams. We see that the series of events which just transpired have had a HUGE effect on him. Exactly what he’s concluded is, as usual, subject to debate: the world is evil? Death is inevitable? He won’t accept his own death?
The scene with the killers in the lunchroom.
The scene between Ole and Nick in the boarding house.
The scene back in the lunchroom with Sam, George, and Nick.
Andre Anderson (Ole Andreson’s character): Andre Anderson was an American heavyweight boxer in the decade leading up to Hemingway’s "The Killers." He was killed in 1926 by Chicago mobsters, supposedly for not "taking a dive" (losing on purpose) in one particular match. Hemingway cleverly references both Andre’s first name and his last name in his character’s last name: Andreson.