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You have to admit: talking about Nick Adams in any sort of analytical way is a hugely intimidating endeavor. He’s featured in 24 of Hemingway’s stories and some think he’s really a "youthful alter ego" for Hemingway himself. But at least at the start, we have to look at who Nick Adams is in "The Killers."
About that…Hemingway doesn’t give us too much to work with – explicitly. Nick was talking to George before the killers come in, so he’s probably a local. (This is confirmed later, because he knows who Ole Andreson is.) He sounds amicable, because he answers without hassle when the killers start giving him a hard time. We gather that he’s young, probably a teenager, because of lines like Sam’s: "Little boys always know what they want to do." He’s earnest and helpful – just look at his conversation with Ole – but he never veers into what might be considered feminine compassion. When Ole says he’s not going to run, Nick doesn’t push the issue past a reasonable objection. He simply says OK and leaves.
Of course, the most important dialogue for Nick – and maybe for "The Killers," if you agree with the argument that the story indeed belongs to Adams – is his second-to-last line of the story: "I’m going to get out of this town."
Whoa there. For a guy who just left Ole Andreson with a casual, "I better go back and see George," this is big stuff. Fortunately, Nick explains it a bit with his last line: "I can’t stand to think about him waiting in the room and knowing he’s going to get it. It’s too damned awful."
Notice what Nick is upset about. He’s not disturbed by his getting tied up and gagged in the kitchen – he tried to "swagger [that] off" back in the first scene. He’s not upset at the impending murder – he reported that to Ole and thought that it "sounded silly" afterwards. Nothing really perturbs Nick until he gets a look at "the big man lying on the bed." That’s when he’s ready to get out of there. So what is it about an ex-prizefighter lying on the bed in a rooming-house that is somehow more disturbing than an up close and personal encounter with two killers?
There’s any number of answers to this question. And that’s in part why everyone is still talking about this story: there is no clear right answer. But that’s good news for you, because you could argue that Nick’s ideal of masculinity – a heavyweight prizefighter who ought to be tough and invincible – has just been completely destroyed. You could also argue that Nick sees in Andreson’s impending death a vision of his own mortality. Then again, maybe the killers’ intentions weren’t real for Nick – didn’t leave the realm of the movies and enter into his world – until he saw their intended victim lying helpless on the bed. Your theories are as good as ours – and author Robert Penn Warren’s, if you defend them well.