Study Guide

The Killers Quotes

  • Innocence

    Outside it was getting dark. The streetlight came on outside the window. The two men at the counter read the menu. From the other end of the counter Nick Adams watched them. He had been talking to George when they came in. (5)

    Because Nick’s character is introduced as someone watching, observing, we know he is going to be affected by whatever happens in the story.

    "Hey, bright boy," Max said to Nick. "You go around on the other side of the counter with your boy friend."

    "What’s the idea?" Nick asked. (57-8)

    Nick’s question is echoed twice in the following lines, but he establishes the general feel of innocence in the lunchroom. The three victims are so unaccustomed to such behavior, they can’t even figure out what’s going on.

    "No," said Max. "It ain’t that. Bright boy is nice. He’s a nice boy. I like him." (122)

    For being a killer, Max definitely has a more compassionate, emotionally innocent side to him.

    Nick stood up. He had never had a towel in his mouth before. (145)

    In his essay on The Killers, author Robert Penn Warren talks specifically about this line as evidence of Nick’s innocence. He points out that the word "towel" is used instead of "gag," making the experience more real and jarring – it may be something out of a movie, but it’s really happening to poor Nick.

    "I was up at Henry’s," Nick said, "and two fellows came in and tied up me and the cook, and they said they were going to kill you."

    It sounded silly when he said it. (175-6)

    For Nick, there is still an element of absurdity to all this. Because of his innocence, he finds this sort of encounter with evil a bit fantastical.

    "Isn’t there something I could do?"

    "No. There ain’t anything to do."

    "Maybe it was just a bluff." (187-9)

    Nick’s eagerness to help is an indication of his innocence and inexperience; he’s never before been up against a situation like this, so he naively believes he can stop it.

    "I wonder what he did?" Nick said.

    "Double-crossed somebody. That’s what they kill them for." (228-9)

    George speaks with all the authority of experience; though he’s likely never encountered a situation like this before, he’s accepted that these sorts of things do happen.

    "I’m going to get out of this town," Nick said. (230)

    This is arguably the most important line in The Killers; this is when we see that Nick has been deeply affected by the evening’s course of events. We understand that he has changed, and that part of that change has to do with losing innocence.

  • Passivity

    "Just a bright boy," Max said. He leaned forward and took the ham and eggs. Both men ate with their gloves on. George watched them eat. (46)

    Max takes the wrong meal – why? Is he too passive to bother correcting the error? Does he not notice?

    "All right," George said. "What you going to do with us afterward?"

    "That’ll depend," Max said. "That’s one of those things you never know at the time." (114-5)

    Both men are being passive here, George in deference to the demands of the killers, and Max in deference to circumstance.

    "Come on, Al," Max said.

    "What about the two bright boys and the nigger?"

    "They’re all right." (135)

    The killers seem surprisingly inactive about the task at hand. They’re not alarmed that Ole didn’t show up, and they’re not concerned about leaving three witnesses who are free to run to the police or to Ole.

    "Listen," George said to Nick. "You better go see Ole Andreson."

    "All right."

    "You better not have anything to do with it at all," Sam, the cook, said. "You better stay way out of it." (154-6)

    Sam’s passive attitude contrasts with Nick’s active approach to this problem; passivity seems to correlate to experience. Those who are more jaded (like Sam) are able to sit idly by, while those who are more innocent (like Nick) feel the need to act – probably because the latter feels he can change things, and the former knows he can’t.

    "I’ll go see him," Nick said to George. "Where does he live?"

    The cook turned away. (160)

    Sam’s turning away parallels Ole’s turning to the wall – a significant action in The Killers.

    Ole Andreson said nothing.

    "They put us out in the kitchen," Nick went on. "They were going to shoot you when you came in to supper."

    Ole Andreson looked at the wall and did not say anything. (176-8)

    Look at the repetition of language regarding Ole’s passivity. We are told twice that he says nothing and twice that he looked at the wall.

    "There isn’t anything I can do about it," Ole Andreson said.

    "I’ll tell you what they were like."

    "I don’t want to know what they were like," Ole Andreson said. He looked at the wall. (180-2)

    Ole’s passivity is contrasted with Nick’s willingness to act. Part of what makes this scene tragic is Nick’s eagerness to stop the murder.

    "The only thing is," he said, talking toward the wall, "I just can’t make up my mind to go out. I been here all day."

    On the surface, it looks as though Ole has resigned himself to fate. But the fact that he hasn’t yet gone out to meet that fate is an indication that he hasn’t accepted it completely. In actuality, he still wants to live, even if he is too passive to fight for it.

    The cook opened the door from the kitchen when he heard Nick’s voice. (215)

    "I don’t even listen to it," he said and shut the door.

    The cook’s inaction is very different than Ole’s. He’s decided not to be involved and actively removes himself from the situation, whereas Ole accepts his death but passively avoids it.

    "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."

    "Well," said George, "you better not think about it." (232-3)

    It’s interesting that we end on this note – a note of passivity – instead of on Nick’s line of action (his declaration that he’s getting out of town). This way, the reader is left with a sense of futility, rather than hope.

  • Appearances

    "I’ll have a roast pork tenderloin with apple sauce and mashed potatoes," the first man said.

    "It isn’t ready yet."

    "What the hell do you put it on the card for?" (6-8)

    This is the first case of false appearances that we get in the story. The menu lists food that isn’t really available. Yes, this is trivial, but it’s easing us into this theme.

    George looked at the clock on the wall behind the counter.

    "It’s five o’clock."

    "The clock says twenty minutes past five," the second man said.

    "It’s twenty minutes fast." (10-13)

    And right away we’re hit with the second instance – the clock reads one time when it is in fact another. More false appearances, more "seeming."

    "This is a hot town," said the other. "What do they call it?"

    "Summit." (26-7)

    The town’s name is deceptive; far from being a peak of any sort, the town is a veritable valley of deadened passivity.

    "Just a bright boy," Max said. He leaned forward and took the ham and eggs. Both men ate with their gloves on. George watched them eat. (46)

    Did you notice that Max ends up eating what Al ordered? Interesting…

    "Hello, George," he said. "Can I get supper?"

    "Sam’s gone out," George said. "He’ll be back in about half an hour." (117-8)

    Here’s a double case of deceptive appearances; to the man who comes in, the diner appears open but is in fact closed. Of course, to the reader, the diner appears closed but is in fact concealing two would-be murderers.

    "You talk too much, all the same," Al said. He came out from the kitchen. The cut-off barrels of the shotgun made a slight bulge under the waist of his too tight-fitting overcoat. He straightened his coat with his gloved hands. (140)

    Notice how this bulge under the overcoat is revealed to us only now, after we know that Al has a gun, not earlier when he first entered the lunchroom.

    Nick opened the door and went into the room. Ole Andreson was lying on the bed with all his clothes on. He had been a heavyweight prizefighter and he was too long for the bed. He lay with his head on two pillows. He did not look at Nick. (173)

    Ole’s appearance as a burly ex-fighter belies his passivity.

    "I’m sorry he don’t feel well," the woman said. "He’s an awfully nice man. He was in the ring, you know."

    "I know it."

    "You’d never know it except from the way his face is," the woman said. (204-6)

    It seems that Ole is not only passive, but also gentle; his appearance hides both of these characteristics.

    "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." (208-9)

    Again we see that nothing is what it seems; even the landlady is a case of mistaken identity.

  • Criminality

    "I’ll take ham and eggs," the man called Al said. He wore a derby hat and a black overcoat buttoned across the chest. His face was small and white and he had tight lips. He wore a silk muffler and gloves. (20)

    This is the portrait that Hemingway paints of criminality; there’s a sort of cliché to the black overcoat and derby hat.

    "Give me bacon and eggs," said the other man. He was about the same size as Al. Their faces were different, but they were dressed like twins. Both wore overcoats too tight for them. They sat leaning forward, their elbows on the counter. (21)

    The men are made identical by their criminal status. Because criminals are defined simply by what they do, there is little difference between criminal A and criminal B.

    "Just a bright boy," Max said. He leaned forward and took the ham and eggs. Both men ate with their gloves on. George watched them eat. (46)

    Before we know for sure that Max and Al are killers, we get little hints. Here, for example, they eat with their gloves on (presumably to avoid leaving fingerprints at the scene of the crime).

    "I can hear you, all right," Al said from the kitchen. He had propped open the slit that dishes passed through into the kitchen with a catsup bottle. "Listen, bright boy," he said from the kitchen to George. "Stand a little further along the bar. You move a little to the left, Max." He was like a photographer arranging for a group picture. (89)

    Here’s another hint: now that we know for sure that something is up with these guys, we get hints as to what that "something" may be.

    "We know all that, bright boy," Max said. "Talk about something else. Ever go to the movies?" (98)

    Actually, now that Max mentions it, Hemingway’s portrayal of the killers is a lot like something out of the movies.

    "He knew I’d blow his head off," Al said from the kitchen.

    "No," said Max. "It ain’t that. Bright boy is nice. He’s a nice boy. I like him." (121-2)

    Now we see that, despite their shared occupation, Al and Max are in fact different. Of course, that’s only if you take Max’s line as genuine. If you think it’s sarcastic, this doesn’t really hold water.

    "You talk too much, all the same," Al said. He came out from the kitchen. The cut-off barrels of the shotgun made a slight bulge under the waist of his too tight-fitting overcoat. He straightened his coat with his gloved hands. (140)

    Al is portrayed as the more hardened criminal, while Max seems more relatable.

    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. (143)

    The word "vaudeville" really undermines the cliché of the criminals; they are both intimidating, dangerous men and somehow comic at the same time.

    "He must have got mixed up in something in Chicago." (223)

    Chicago was a hotbed of organized crime when Hemingway way writing "The Killers," so the suggestion is that Ole must have failed to follow through on some deal with the mob, probably having to do with a fixed fight.

    "I wonder what he did?" Nick said.

    "Double-crossed somebody. That’s what they kill them for." (228-9)

    It sounds like George is getting his idea of criminality from fiction and film.

  • Men and Masculinity

    "You’re a pretty bright boy, aren’t you?" (35)

    Al and Max antagonize George with this taunt, a dig at his masculinity (because they call him a ‘boy’ and not a ‘man’).

    "What are you looking at?" Max looked at George.

    "Nothing."

    "The hell you were. You were looking at me." (47-9)

    In portraying stereotypical criminals, Max and Al end up embodying a number of "tough guy" clichés, as we see here.

    "You talk too damn much," Al said. "The nigger and my bright boy are amused by themselves. I got them tied up like a couple of girl friends in the convent." (108)

    Al infers inferiority on the part of Sam and George by insulting their masculinity.

    "That was nice, bright boy," Max said. "You’re a regular little gentleman."

    "He knew I’d blow his head off," Al said from the kitchen.

    "No," said Max. "It ain’t that. Bright boy is nice. He’s a nice boy. I like him." (120-2)

    Al seems more intent on expressing his masculinity in traditional ‘tough guy’ ways than Max.

    "Bright boy can do everything," Max said. "He can cook and everything. You’d make some girl a nice wife, bright boy." (125)

    Again, basically every insult in this story has to do with a lack of traditional masculinity.

    "I’ll go see him," Nick said to George. "Where does he live?"

    The cook turned away.

    "Little boys always know what they want to do," he said. (159-61)

    Sam raises an interesting issue: how do notions of masculinity change with age? This is a particularly important question with regards to Nick who, as a young man, is coming into adulthood during the course of "The Killers."

    Nick opened the door and went into the room. Ole Andreson was lying on the bed with all his clothes on. He had been a heavyweight prizefighter and he was too long for the bed. He lay with his head on two pillows. He did not look at Nick. (173)

    As a former heavyweight prizefighter, Ole should be the epitome of masculinity. Since Ole is passive and defeated, this is another case of things not being what seem.

    Nick looked at the big man lying on the bed. (184)

    It would seem that Nick gets the irony here.