‘SOLDIER’S HOME’: ANOTHER STORY OF A BROKEN HEART
He knew he could never get through it all again.
In the works of Ernest Hemingway, that which is excluded is often as significant as that which is included; a hint is often as important and thought-provoking as an explicit statement. This is why we read and reread him. “Soldier’s Home”is a prime example of this art of echo and indirection.
Harold Krebs, the protagonist of “Soldier’s Home,” is a young veteran portrayed as suffering from an inability to readjust to society–Paul Smith has summarized previous critics on the subject of how Krebs suffers from returning to the familial, social, and religious”home”(71). Moreover, as Robert Paul Lamb notes, the story is also about “a conflicted mother-son relationship”(29). Krebs’ small-town mother cannot comprehend her son’s struggles and sufferings caused by the war. She devotes herself to her religion and never questions her own values; she manipulates her son. She is one of the Hemingway “bitch mothers” who also appear in “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife”and “Now I Lay Me.” Her sermons to her son lack any power to heal his spiritual wounds. She has determined that Krebs should live in God’s “Kingdom,” find a job, and get married like a normal local boy .
Although Hemingway locates the story in Oklahoma and excludes it from the Nick Adams group, the husband and wife relationship observed in”Soldier’s Home”is also similar to those in “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife” and “Now I Lay Me,” revealing the mother’s dominance of a troubled marriage. Krebs’ noncommittal father is obviously dominated by his wife; she makes the decisions. Her advocacy of marriage for Krebs is ironic: not yet recovered from his various psychic wounds and trapped by the sick marriage of his parents, marriage is the very commitment he must avoid.
Furthermore, a careful reading of “Soldier’s Home” reveals yet another story discernible beneath the main one. Krebs’ indifference towards the girls in the town seems to reflect his disillusionment not only with the war and his parents’ marriage, but also with another experience–Krebs’ breaking up with a lover:
Now he would have liked a girl if she had come to him and not wanted to talk. But here at home it was all too complicated. He knew he could never get through it all again. (147-48)
Descriptions of Krebs’ lack of involvement with the local girls occupy one fourth of the story. These descriptions converge around the word “complicated,” repeated four times in this context. The girls live in “a complicated world” (148); “They were too complicated” (148); “it [to talk to a girl] is too complicated” (149); and “He had tried so to keep his life from being complicated”(152). The latter quotation suggests that the most difficult problem is not the complicated realm of the girls, but Krebs’ fear of the complexity that might result from any approach he might make. Once he talks to a girl, he must get through a complicated sexual encounter all over again. Conversations, for Krebs, make the male/female sexual relationship complicated.
His aversion to such relationships, we are to infer, derives from previous experiences with women that have perhaps reinforced his observations of his parents’ marriage. As many have noted (see Smith 71-72), one of the photographs discussed in the story’s opening paragraphs suggests an unsatisfactory experience with German girls. Krebs and another corporal, both in poorly fitting uniforms, stand with two German girls Who are “not beautiful”beside a Rhine that “does not show in the picture”(145). The picture suggests an irony: the American soldiers, once enemies, date German girls with whom they share no common language. Because the American soldiers do not have to talk, and because the German girls are probably prostitutes, relationships between them are uncomplicated. Without any need for conversation, the soldiers simply satisfy their lust on the prostitutes’ bodies. Just as he emphasizes the German girls’ lack of beauty, Hemingway also erases the Rhine to show the lack of romance in such relationships. In “Soldier’s Home,” he juxtaposes two worlds: the simple one Krebs shared with the German girls, and the potentially complicated realm of the hometown girls.
Both the physical distance between Krebs and the girls and his role as onlooker 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 (147-48). Like sophisticated Brett Ashley, these small-town Oklahoma girls celebrate a new era with short skirts and short hair. Krebs admires them, yet he protects himself from the danger of sexual involvement as if he were still suffering from a previous affair. He has to control himself. Only as an onlooker can he avoid the “complicated world”:
Ironically, Hemingway uses the terms “alliances” and “feuds,” words appropriate to conflicts between nations and families, to describe the girls’ complicated world. Moreover, he uses related terms to describe Krebs’ feelings towards that world: “He did not want to get into the intrigue and the politics” (147). By emphasizing discord and friction, such terms suggest a conflict already experienced by Krebs, a conflict further revealed as follows:
He did not want any consequences. He did not want any consequences ever again. He wanted to live along without consequences. Besides he did not really need a girl. (147)
The discontinuity between Krebs’ prewar and postwar periods is obvious. Through the experience of battle, he seems to have lost his belief in God and the Kingdom which his mother claims. Krebs is isolated, having lost all feeling of belonging or togetherness. But he is attracted by the girls’ “patterns” which represent their identification with a group, an identification he once shared. Perhaps his is a bitter and only half-realized nostalgia.
Here is a veteran, a possibly heartbroken young man, who keeps himself away from the complex world, stays on the porches, and simply watches girls on the street. However, Krebs makes an exception for his young sister Helen. She is accepted in his realm. She extracts his pledge to be her “beau”(150). On a superficial level, she seems to be just another girl attempting to pull him into a complex world; however, in her innocence she intends no such thing. An incestuous relationship between brother and sister is suggested in Hemingway’s later, posthumously published work “The Last Good Country” and its related manuscripts . But here, in “Soldier’s Home,” there is no hint of incest.
The brother-sister relationship remains a simple form of love in “Soldier’s Home.”The young sister’s love for her brother is a mixture of respect and innocent affection. Her regard and love have a healing effect on Krebs. Although she is as talkative as her mother, Helen’s invitation is to a simple world. Moreover, Krebs, who has yet to exchange a word with the girls in the town, enjoys talking with his sister because there is no danger of being trapped in the complex man-woman world. Krebs simply accepts her invitation, and goes to the schoolyard to see her pitch, as proof of their mutual love.