“The Killers” by Ernest Hemingway is a story based upon Hemingway’s view of the big city in the late 1920’s. During the era of prohibition whoever controlled the flow of alcohol controlled the city. Unfortunately, the police were powerless against man thirst for booze. The Mafia also expanded into the bookie field, and if someone didn’t pay up or double crossed the Mafia they were taken out. Hemingway was unfamiliar with this city scene and we can see a very strong correlation between him and one of his characters, Nick Adams. Nick was a newcomer to the city, completely unfamiliar with the boldness of disregard for the law that was present. The Theme that I feel Hemingway is trying to convey is how much corruption and disregard for the law there was in the late 1920’s.
The plot of this story primarily consists of an attempted murder that takes place in a lunchroom diner. The diner itself plays an important role in the setting of the story. It gives us insight into the lives of two of the customers, Nick Adams and Ole Anderson. When we ask ourselves what type of a person would have gone to a diner in the late 1920’s, it reminds us of the common, single, working man. This is also the type of person who would be more susceptible to making a bet with a
bookie, throwing a fight for a bet, or even making some other sort of deal with the Mafia. The town in which the diner is located in also plays an important task in giving the killers an underlying importance. This underlying importance displays an early dominance from these two characters. “The backdrop to the action in the ‘The Killers’ is a static, conventional town that, like the universe in which the killers operate, is colorless and passive”(Taube 5). The lack of any other people, places or things being singled out shows the reader that the story will be centered in the diner.
The Theme of the story was more or less an actual event that could have taken place in any one of the major cities in the late 1920’s. When Mobsters ruled and the police where simply a slight annoyance. The two killers who entered the lunchroom were most likely Mafia hit men. “As they leave, with Al only partially concealing the sawed-off shotgun, they further flaunt their disdain for the law”(Geimer 1260). This “Disdain for the law” points to a more powerful organization than a simple murder. Ole’s response also points to a larger, higher power. His response “is much like that of the older waiter: he is resigned not to life but to death. He repeatedly tells Nick Adams that there is nothing for him to do; he turns his face to the wall”(Taube 6). Ole’s response also sheds light on the general attitude of the 1920’s, which was to just mind your own business and leave everyone else alone. Even the cook, Sam, told Nick “You better not have anything
The reader was led to believe that the two killers, Max and Al, were Mafia hit men. While Hemingway never says if they were or weren’t, we can see instances where they switched from one to another. After Max and Al enter the diner they look at the menu to try and find something to eat so as not to look suspicious. When one of them tries to order from the dinner menu the waiter George states, “‘That’s the dinner, you can get that at six o’clock’”(Hemingway 12). The two men are left with no choice but to take a short order, so Al orders ham and eggs and Max orders bacon and eggs. When George returns with their food he can’t remember which person ordered which meal, so he asks Al “‘Which is yours’”? Al replies “‘Don’t you remember?, Ham and eggs.’”(Hemingway 13) After Al says this Max takes the platter closest to him which happens to be Al’s ham and eggs. “Not only do the Killers acquiesce to George in accepting the short orders instead of the ‘big dinner,’ but they accept, without question, the food that they did not order.”(Houston 27) This can also be seen as more evidence into the fact that the killers are Mafia hit men. A Mafia hit man would be so accustomed to taking orders that he wouldn’t think anything of taking what was given to him by the waiter. Most likely he doesn’t even remember what he ordered because he has
something else on his mind, something far more important. However, it can be also be seen as a flaw in the killers performance with the waiter. This could be attributed to inexperience or possibly even a momentary flash of confusion. The rest of the time that the killers spent in the diner is consistent with that of a Mafia hit man, showing us that in all likelihood the were Mafia hit men.
There were also several instances of symbolism in the killer’s lines. When Al asks the waiter “‘Got anything to drink?’”(Hemingway 13) He thinks Al is asking for a soda or even water. When Al asks again “I mean you got anything to drink?” (Hemingway 13) we are led to believe that Al is accustomed to a lifestyle where alcohol is not a prohibited substance. We can see that Al and Max are mixed up in the type of people who have their own little corner of the town where the police have no value. This was quite typical of a mobster’s lifestyle. When Max asks Al “‘This is a hot town, What do they call it?’” (Hemingway 13) we can interpret another case of symbolism. Max’s reference to Summit as a “hot town” hints us to a darker side of the town. The town could very well be a booming area that is prime for a mobster to move in. His reference to summit could mean that the town is a golden opportunity for the Mafia or sarcasm for a small, dismal town.
Hemingway’s “The Killer’s” is a story that has been analyzed for a long time. However, the simplest critique would reveal that this story is Hemingway’s own view of the era of the mobster. With Nick Adams relating very strongly to the
sheltered youngster or possibly Hemingway himself. “That is, the hero-a boy, as in ‘The Killer’s’-discovers something about the nature of evil, and tries to find some way of coming to terms with his discovery.”(Brooks, Warren 344) This story may have been the result of Hemingway’s own “initiation” or his discovery of something about the “nature of evil” in the life of the big city. Hemingway also disagrees with the idea of conformity, having everyone just go with the flow. His personal opinion is that of Nick, not wanting to see such disregard for the law go unpunished, yet he is surrounded with people who just want to mind their own business.
? Houston, Neal B. “Hemingway’s Nervous Killers”. 25-28