Study Guide

The Killers Themes

By Ernest Hemingway

  • Innocence

    The standard take on "The Killers" is that it is a typical "loss of innocence" story. Nick Adams, a main character and frequent protagonist in Hemingway’s short stories, experiences evil in the world and is a different person at the close than he was at the start. In this tale, it is experience that jades and hardens, as evidenced by the older characters who are unfazed even by an attempted mob murder. Innocence, then, has more to do with naïveté than anything else.

    Questions About Innocence

    1. Is Nick’s loss of innocence an inevitable event that is merely hastened by the incident with the killers, or is he corrupted in a somehow atypical, unnecessary way by these events?
    2. If we agree with the classic interpretation of "The Killers" as a loss of innocence story, which scene takes Nick’s innocence away – the first one with Max and Al, or the second one with Ole?
    3. What does Nick’s conversation with Mrs. Bell contribute to his loss of innocence?
    4. Why are Sam and George so unaffected by the evening’s events? Actually, ARE they affected by the evening’s events?

    Chew on This

    Despite popular opinion, "The Killers" is not about the loss of innocence. Nick Adams is already jaded when the story begins.

  • Passivity

    Passivity is condemned in "The Killers." The story’s arguable hero is a man of action who attempts to save a defeated man of inaction. The notion of passivity is largely contrasted with masculinity; real men should be decisive and resolved, the story seems to argue.

    Questions About Passivity

    1. After the killers leave the diner, Sam believes that Nick should leave himself out of it. When Nick comes back, Sam shuts the door to the kitchen and doesn’t want to listen to it. How does Sam’s passivity in response to the killers differ from that of Ole, whom we see lying on his bed with his face to the wall?
    2. What is the difference in "The Killers" between heroically accepting fate and cowardly running from it?
    3. What is the relationship between innocence and action, between age/experience and passivity?

    Chew on This

    In "The Killers," Ole Andreson is emasculated by his refusal to fight against his impending death.

    In "The Killers," Ole Andreson is emasculated not by his acceptance of his death, but by his refusal to leave the boarding-house.

  • Appearances

    Nothing is what it seems in "The Killers." The story is pervaded with feelings of confusion, unease, and uncertainty. From people to buildings to names, we just can’t trust what we see. Part of this has to do with irony: killers are comic, fighters are weak and defeated. The story’s loss-of-innocence theme is related to the realization that the world is filled with this sort of sad, illogical irony.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. OK, OK, we get it, "nothing is what it seems." But so what? What does this have to with the way we read the story? How does it effect what we take away from "The Killers"? What does it have to do, for instance, with the loss of innocence, or evil in the world, or masculinity?
    2. What do the killers "appear" to be – killers, or vaudeville comedians? And which are they?

    Chew on This

    The killers are the only characters in "The Killers" who appear as who they are.

    The killers are the characters most at odds with their own appearances; in this way, the story’s title is meant to be ironic.

  • Criminality

    The criminality we see in "The Killers" is that of the 1920s Chicago mafia. The two characters in question – the killers themselves – are attributed every mob cliché known to man: big black overcoats, "tight lips," gloves, and major attitudes. At the same time, they manage to operate with Vaudevillian undertones: the two-man-act, constant bickering, sarcastic exchanges. It is this odd duality that renders "The Killers" and its portrayal of criminality a strange mix of fantastic and the real, a snapshot of a feasible-if-atypical scenario injected with a healthy dose of theatrical drama.

    Questions About Criminality

    1. Do the killers portray typical notions of organized crime, or do they satirically mock them?
    2. How can the killers possibly be criminals and comedians at the same time? Isn’t this a contradiction in terms? (Have you seen Pulp Fiction?)

    Chew on This

    "The Killers" is an exploration of what happens when movie clichés meet reality. It concludes that these two worlds are incompatible.

  • Men and Masculinity

    In "The Killers," masculinity has a lot to do with action. The killers themselves are decisive and resolved, sure of themselves, and unapologetic. As a result, they are undeniably male. Ironically, the man who should be the most masculine – an ex-heavyweight prizefighter, is passive and weak. For the young Nick Adams, coming of age as a man means learning to take action. Because masculinity is so highly valued in the world of "The Killers," any and all joking insults revolve around insinuated femininity on the part of the men.

    Questions About Men and Masculinity

    1. Who is the most masculine character in "The Killers?"
    2. How is Max’s masculinity different from that of Al’s?
    3. What defines masculinity in "The Killers"? How is that accomplished in the text?

    Chew on This

    For Nick Adams, the events in "The Killers" are more about understanding masculinity than about losing innocence.

    The killers are the least masculine character in "The Killers."