A LITERARY ANALYSIS of "SOLDIER'S HOME"
by Jean Paul Comtois (Pauly)
One of the most prolific writers of the 20th century, Ernest Hemingway continues to capture our imaginations. Born during the First World War, Hemingway served in the Ambulance Corps. After being wounded, he used these experiences in many of his writings. One such writings is Soldier's Home, the short story taken from the compilation In Our Time. It tells the tale of Harold Krebs, a soldier returning late from World War I. Krebs struggles with reintegrating into a post war society. Harold sees reintegration as conforming to a society he no longer feels he belongs in. In "Soldier's Home," Hemingway uses conflict to show how society demands conformity, and the unfair struggles of those who do not fit the mold.
Harold Krebs returns from World War I having lost everything. His home town immediately impresses its demand for conformity upon Harold's arrival. The people of the town find it odd that he should return so much later than the other men, which begins to show the conflict between Harold and the views of the local community. Hemingway paints a dark picture of how society demands that all participants fall in line with mainstream ideals. Why should Harold be so late in returning home? Why could he not be like the other men, and arrive with them? It is as if they believe he is out to make trouble. It lends to the idea that Hemingway himself was an outsider, and that he saw himself as an interloper in his rural home town. Krebs arrives home too late for the heroes welcome, and instead finds a society interested only in lies not the realities of war. These lies are acceptable, because they allow Krebs to fit neatly into society's expectations of him and others.
Unlike the other men returning home, Krebs does not wish to talk about his war experiences. This gives insight into the conflict raging inside of Krebs. When the time comes for him to finally speak of his experiences, no one wants to listen. This extends the conflict from within Krebs to his community. As Karen Bernardo writes, "People want Harold to justify his existence by talking about the glories of the war, but the experience wasn't glorious for him"(1). The true stories he tells of the war differ dramatically from the lies that the others tell. Krebs does not feel the need to embellish his stories, but at first makes an attempt to do so, in a futile effort to fit in. Here Krebs is giving into his conflict, wanting it only to be over. Unfortunately for Krebs, the lies weigh heavily on him, and quickly become a burden he cannot bear. Giving up the stories he gains a dislike for the events of the war due to his lies (348). This is another example of the conflict that Harold is experiencing. He wants to be a participant, and gain acceptance, but cannot deal with the guilt of the lies. This sets him apart from the other men who have come home from the war, and deepens the conflict between him and the people of the town.
He loses the purity of experience which he encountered at times in the war. Hemingway writes, "The times so long back when he had done the one thing, the only thing for a man to do, easily and naturally, when he might have done something else, now lost their cool, valuable quality and then were lost themselves" (348). Hemingway is making the comparison to Krebs himself, when he remarks on these past experiences. Not only is the thing lost, so is the man that used to do them. Harold Krebs now finds himself adrift, in a society that he no longer feels he belongs in. The main conflict s to show through, one where Krebs must decide if he should give in and be like the others or attempt to regain the self he knew in the war.
Krebs has been thrust into the confines of small town America, and all the cultural doldrums that go with it. He made an effort to stay away, as shown by his delayed return years after the war was finished. This time away from home, was his way of not dealing with the building conflict within him. He knew all to well what was waiting for him at home. His fears were made real by the stark reality of the town's relentless desire to remain stagnant. His father drove the same car, and as Hemingway says, "Nothing was changed in the town except that the young girls had grown up" (349). It appears as if the town was never affected by the war, not as Krebs had been. The town radiates conformity, such as the girls all wearing the same clothes. Harold's mother and father wish for him to conform too, as he once did in college where he too wore the same clothes as his fraternity brothers.
Krebs' mother reflects the typical view of women during this era; she is a God fearing mother, and a housewife. She attempts to persuade Harold that he should find a job and be more like the other boys. Krebs, having once been faithful himself, now finds that he has lost the thing his mother holds so dear; her belief in God. Harold feels the conflict of his belief in God, and is unsure of how to deal with this. This is shown when his mother states "There can be no idle hands in His Kingdom", to which Krebs replies, "I'm not in His Kingdom" (Hemingway 351).
Caught between his desire to return to a simpler life, and the wishes of a pious mother and materialistic father, Krebs descends into self induced paralysis. He is unable to function in the society he now finds himself. Hemingway sees Krebs as an observer, rather than a participant. He is always looking and watching, but rarely interacting. He watches girls walk by his house, but does not like to interact with them in town. He wants a girl, but does not want to deal with the consequences. "He did not want any consequences ever again. He wanted to live along without consequences" writes Hemingway (349). Krebs experiences the conflict of the town's rules that dictate he should court a girl and get married and settle down. He does not believe this to be true, and in fact doesn't feel he needs a woman to survive at all.
To fully comprehend Kreb's behavior, it is important to view the style in which the story is written. Hemingway's writing style is flat and lifeless, with much of it in a negative connotation. The narrative voice is supplied for support only, and lends no depth or feeling to the story. This void is felt when the two photographs are being described. There is no mention of any characters behind the camera, nor are the characters in front of the camera round or dynamic. The narrator tells us that the uniforms are too small, but does not expound on the why, or even who. The voice is there only as a supplier of facts. Third person limited omniscience is used by the narrator, as we see insights into Krebs mind, but no one else's.
This lack of verbosity in the narrator helps to convey the dilemma faced by Krebs. He is lifeless and flat, wishing only to lie in bed and ignore the world. Whenever life appears to get too close to him, he sulks away to his porch to watch it pass him by. He enjoys the show of the world, but no longer feels he belongs in it.
Hemingway relates his experiences in this story, having grown up in small town America and experiencing military life during World War I. He sets about making the narrators voice detached and emotionally drained, to mimic the emptiness in Krebs. The narration's lack of involvement mirrors Krebs lack of involvement with his family, and life within the community. Unlike Walt Whitman's enumerations, Hemingway obsesses over Krebs likes and dislikes. Krebs never ventures from the confines of his own reality, nor does the narrator venture from the confines of his descriptions. Jumping from one thought to another, Krebs seems to edge slowly toward an end, but never seems to get there. This aspect of feeling and being lost shows how the society has forced Krebs into being a martyr for his individuality.
Hemingway had a family much like the one in this story, and it is apparent that it is a rough draft of his life. Krebs is caught somewhere in the mix of his former life, his life in the military, and his new life at home. Hemingway too was caught in a mental turmoil, and ended up taking his own life. Krebs may have been a foreshadowing look into the future of Hemingway. Harold Krebs came home to a place that he felt he no longer belonged in, and rather than accepting him for his new self, everyone wanted him the way he was. They expected the same person to return, because after all, they were the same people as when he left. Faced with the conflict between the expected and the reality, Krebs finally gives in and it is not stated if this turns out to be good or bad.
"Soldiers Home." Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing, 6th ed. Ed. Edgar Roberts and Henry Jacobs. Upper Saddle River: Prentice, 2001
"Ernest Hemingway's A Soldier's Home." 8 Aug. 2003. 8 Aug. 2003
Bernardo, Karen. "Ernest Hemingway's 'Soldier's Home'." 11 Aug. 2003. http://www.storybites.com/hemingwaysoldier.htm