Ernest Hemingway’s “soldier’s Home” is a story of a soldier who returns from World War I as a transformed person. The story depicts his inability to fit back into the society. Krebs is at home but he doesn’t feel at home. He is with family but he doesn’t feel he belongs there. Like various authors Ernest Hemingway tried to portray his own life after he came back from war throughout the character of Harold Krebs. As much as Krebs believes in the truth, people around him force him to lie. The story precisely manifests the conflict between Krebs value, which has dramatically changed after his war experience and society expectation toward him to conform to its traditional values. Eventually to maintain his existence Krebs has to choose isolation by detaching himself from social relations, love, religion and ambition.
Ernest Hemingway explored the moments of his personal life and the same struggle he had experienced in his home town after returning from World War I throughout Harold Krebs character. He stretched out his experience and emotion in Krebs personality, which illustrates the insights into his homecoming and his understanding of the dilemmas of the returned war veteran (Putnum, 2). After the war, in 1919 Hemingway returned to Oak Park for a brief stay at home and faced a difficult period of adjustment. According to Ernest’s older sister, it must have been something like being put in a box with the cover nailed down to come home to conventional, suburban Oak Park living (Johnston,75). Mentally and physically hurt from his war wounds, Hemingway entered into an idle part of his life. Ernest didn’t seem to know what he wanted to do with his life. As describing by his sister, Ernest seemed to be at loose ends (Johnston75-76). Hemingway was later able to reflect his disgust of his home life when he purposely portrayed himself as the character of Harold Krebs. When Hemingway found the germ for the story in his family life, the artist would take over and as the actual people made into literary characters-rewrite the actual into something created and quite different from the original(westbrook,35). Krebs as well as Hemingway, a World War I veteran, is forced to lie about his involvement in the war just to be heard. Hemingway fell into this norm of lying about war experience, which eventually made him sick of disgust: the deception he practiced at home uncomfortably remind him of the lies he and others have been forced to tell in order to sensationalize for home consumption the dull reality of war (Mayers, 55).
In this story the conflict has to do with Harold’s demarcation of who he has become. He recognizes he has changed and this change is played out dramatically against the background of a town, where nothing else has changed except the fact that the young girls has grown up (124). From his early childhood only value he believes in is telling the truth. Lying makes Krebs feel lost within himself and when lying he experiences nausea (122). However, he forced by the society to lie about military experience in order to be listened to, because this town has heard too many atrocity stories to be thrilled by actualities (122). It seems clear the people of the town are more into war fantasies rather than hearing the truth about it. That is the reason Krebs develops a bitter sense towards the war and distaste for everything that has happened to him (122). As pointed out by Defalco, “He is forces to tell lies about his war experience in order to gain the approval of his associates” (140). Similar point of view is presented by Petrarca, who observes that “Krebs is not able to tell any real war stories, not even for cathartic purposes, since the home town people have been so used to hearing hyperbole that anything merely true is destined to a poor reception. If he wishes to gain anyone’s attention, he too must be forced to lie” (665).
Harold Krebs returned from the war with an inability to love and determined to avoid complications which include lying. But his life is getting complicated already, when he was welcomed by the society people to be listened to at all he had to lie. As the story goes Krebs has to lie again while trying to be attached to his family. Over the breakfast when his mom tries to drew him back to the society she asks, “Don’t you love your mother, dear boy” (125)? Then he replies quite truthfully, “No…I don’t love anybody” (125). At this moment he can not repress his true feelings and his reaction causes his mother to weep. In response, Krebs is again forced to lie which makes him seek and vaguely nauseated (126). As pointed out by Johnson, “Tears blur her vision; self-pity makes her deaf to the truth. She seems unaware that she is deeply humiliating her son, forcing him into hypocrisy. Vaguely nauseated, he plays the role of a child again, calling her mummy and trying to be a good boy for her (125). But these words, as well as his actions - kissing his mother and kneeling in prayer - are lies that will speed his departure from home” (78). Even his adoring sister, who had some good memories with his brother, makes him lie about his feelings when she asks, “‘Am I really your girl?’ ‘Sure’ ‘Do you love me?’ ‘Uh,huh.’ ‘Will you love me always?’ ‘Sure’” (150). As emphasizes by Johnston, “Krebs is seeking a smooth uncomplicated life in a world of patterns and colliding forces. When the patterns or collisions are simple, predictable, and impersonal, such as in a game of pool or baseball, he can enjoy the situation….. But when the situation involves a collision of values, personalities, and attitudes, as in a family quarrel; or a social pattern of conformity, lies, and restraint, as in courtship; he would rather escape into the “cool dark of the pool room” (146), or into a book” (79). Krebs can not relate to anyone anymore, neither to his family nor the community he returns to.
Krebs family represents the society and its values. Before going away to the war, Krebs attended a Methodist college in Kansas (121). The fact that his college was a religious institute shows before the war he was connected to his mother’s religious values. As described by Johnston that, “one of the photographs described at the beginning of the story which shows Krebs at the Methodist college in Kansas with his fraternity brothers. This is a picture of conformity to the conservatism and religious dictates of his family, to the social pressures of the college, and to the fashions of the day” (76). It also shows the fact that Krebs belongs to the society which he doesn’t feel anymore. Harold’s war experience makes him reject the religion which is widely accepted by the community. As Defalco states, “Church, family, and society no longer command allegiance from the individual who was experienced the purgatorial initiation of war” (138). When his mother tries to convince him to bring out of that value in order to help her son to fit back into the society, she says, “God has some work for everyone to do….there can be no idle hands in his Kingdom” (125). Harold replies, “I am not in his kingdom”(125). According to Krebs the world he discovered during the war, had no hand of God in it. The war has stolen any religious belief Krebs might have had. His disbelieve about religion consequently pushes away from the society he lives in.
Krebs not only rejects religion but also any relationships with girls. He lost his romanticism during the war. Presumably, the scenes he had encountered in World War I, such as at the battle of Belleau Wood, Soissons, and in the Argone (121-122) and the things he had done during those battles traumatized him so that he loses his emotion. Another reason that keeps him build any relationship with girls is his desire to avoid consequences. He recalls the French and German women because relationships with them were uncomplicated and without consequences. There was no needing even talk to them which means there were no space for any consequences at all. However, he mentions that “he would have liked a girl if she had come to him and wanted to talk” (123). But he does not want to work to get her or do anything drastic to get her attention. As Johnston observes, “Krebs admires the girls but their appeal vanishes when he meets them downtown. After all, he is seeking a life that is free from complications, free from consequences. The intricate harness of courtship and marriage is not for him (78). Moreover, he wanted to live along without any consequences (1230. For Krebs asking a girl would be a risk. It would lead to complications, whether good or bad, and taking the risk just wasn’t worth anything. As Imamura comments,” Krebs does not want to be disturbed; it is good enough for him simply to look at the girls on the street. He is able to keep his mind peaceful by avoiding talking to the girls and his role as on looker give him a sense of security. While Krebs remains in a safety zone on the front porch, he is protected. The girls walk on the other side of the street; nothing can touch him” (102). Krebs is now free from any pattern set by the society. He is beyond any dictations of the community. No matter how much his mother tries to drag him back into the society by suggesting that he invites girls for a ride, nothing seems to work. Krebs remains untouched by the fact that his father has allowed him to use the car, even though as a child he often looked forward to it (125). That shows clearly he has no expectation from life or perhaps he is not ready to act yet.
Another value widely accepted by the society, which Krebs rejects is an ambition of life. All the other former soldiers have already found a fitting and suitable place for themselves in the community, but Harold needs a while longer to figure out what he wants to do. After coming from war he spends much of his time waking up late, reading books, playing pools, walking around, and watching girls across the street (122-123). His attitude towards life makes his parents to worry. As Johnston points out, “Mrs. Krebs voices the same blind faith and presents the same conventional ambitious for her son which is a good job and marriage to a girl. Thus, Krebs finds no peace but conflict and tension on the home front. Krebs needs to readjust, to sort out his life, to find himself. But a month after his return his mother begins exerting pressure on him to become a really a credit to the community. She is depicted as well-intentioned but blind to his emotional needs” (77). She also brings out Krebs fathers observation that his father would approve of him doing any kind of job since no work is dishonorable (125). It shows clearly the conflict which is arising: from one side his family trying to help him join the society and to become a productive citizen, from the other Krebs rejecting the values that are very common in his home town. Tension deepen between Krebs and his parents, this is exactly what happened to Hemingway when he lived with his parents. Johnston points out Hemingway’s mother, who said you can’t have a boy just fooling around all the rest of his life; he must get interested in something (76). Shortly after his twenty first birthday his mother issued an ultimatum that he finds regular job or move out(67). Hemingway moved out as well as Krebs did, in order to leave complicated life. This might be an explanation how Hemingway uses Krebs to express his distaste for the home life after returning from the war.
Throughout the story the rising conflict has been shown between Krebs value and the community’s expectation towards him to conform the norm of the society. He is expected immediately to be a productive member of the society. Krebs family worries over his alienation from the real world; although they don’t seem to understand the intensity of the problem. War has taken away any kind of feelings he might had about life. That gives us a living example of how war can dehumanize a human mind, but also explores how the society reacts to the individual whose minds are traumatized after returning back from the war. The conflict portrays by Hemingway is not solved. Krebs doesn’t consume the strength yet to conform. The story is ironic and doesn’t give any hint about Krebs future life. Krebs decides to go to Kansas City where no one is going to bully him to conform. The fact that he prefers to go away to look for a job indicates his need to escape from the system that he no longer believes in. He plans to live there without emotional complications in order to fit back into the new society.
Defalco, Joseph. The Hero in Hemingway’s Short Stories. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1963. 136-144.
Hemingway, Ernest. “Soldiers Home.” The Bedford Introduction to Literature. Ed. Michael Meywr.2nd ed. New York: Bedford St. Martins, 1990.121-126.
Imamura, Tateo. Soldiers Home: Another Story of a Broken Heart. Hemingway Review Fall 1996: 102. Academic search Premier. EBSCOHost. LaGuardia Community Coll. Lib, Long Island City, NY. 5 May 2006http://search.epnet.com.
Johnston, Kenneth G. The Tip of the Iceberg: Hemingway and the short story. Greenwood: The Penkevill Publishing Company, 1987. 75-79.
Meyers, Jeffrey. Hemingway: A Biography. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1985.55.
Petrarca, Anthony J. “Irony of Situation in Ernest Hemingway’s Soldiers Home.” English Journal. 58 (1969): 664-67.
Putnam, Thomas. Hemingway on War and Its Aftermath. The U.S. National Archives& Records Administration 38(2006): 1.
Westbrook, Max. “Grace Under Pressure: Hemingway and the Summer of 1920.” Ernest Hemingway: Six Decades of Criticism. Ed. Linda W. Wagner. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1987. 19-40.
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