Ernest Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” is a story of transformation. The story begins when Nick arrives in Seney, a town that has been destroyed by a fire and transformed to rubble. Nick is literally unable to stay in a town that he no longer recognizes and instead looks for the river that he knows is unchanged. Metaphorically, he is attempting to immerse himself in a part of his past that he understands and finds comfort in. Nick is in turmoil and, like the trout in the river, clings to the firm ground beneath him as he struggles with the strong current of his past. Nick’s need to forget and his projections on the world around him reveal an internal struggle that is acted out in the external world. Through Nick’s bond with nature, and through various structural techniques, Hemingway’s story elucidates a conflict that is hidden just beneath the surface of the text. Nick embodies the world around him as a way to stabilize and strengthen himself before he can embrace the “swamp.”
A town that Nick knows very well, Seney, has been destroyed in a fire. To begin, the loss of the town seems like it should be a tragedy for Nick, but Nick’s feelings for the town are ambiguous at best. Nick is distanced from the impression of this burnt town. In the first paragraph, only the visual representation of the town is given, there is no retrospection on what that means to the character: “Nick looked at the burned-over stretch of hillside, where he had expected to find the scattered houses of the town and then walked down the railroad track”(651). While Hemingway doesn’t allow the character to reflect on his feelings about this, the reader is clued into what the character may be feeling by the statement: “The thirteen saloons that had lined the one street of Seney had not left a trace” (651). The town had one street and it was full of liquor establishments. These details tell the reader that this town, Nick knew well, was small and its people were very passionate about drinking. If Nick had a fond memory of Seney, the reader might expect a distinctly personal reaction rather than a simple description. Therefore, it can be speculated that he has little or no positive feeling for the town itself. This empty or negative reaction shows that there is a discernable negativity that exists just beneath the surface of what is said in the text.
The story is written in close third person, highlighted by moments of free indirect discourse. Nick does not allow himself the time to think about much and stifles his thoughts by focusing on the tasks at hand. Likewise, the narrator does not delve deeply into Nick’s interiority, but sticks closely to his actions. Any understanding of Nick’s feelings, that the narrator shares, are done sparsely and pointedly; “[The trout] were very satisfactory” (651) and “He was happy” (652) are two early examples of this. The reader is given the most basic descriptions of his feelings, but brought in closer to the character later in the story by the use of free indirect discourse: “There had been this to do. Now it was done” (654). It is hard to distinguish who the speaker is in these lines, they seem to be Nick’s thoughts. There is no subject alerting the reader that these sentences are strictly in the third person and the use of the word “this” instead of “that” brings the reader closer still. Hemingway could have said “He had to do that, but now that was done,” which would have delineated the narrator from the speaker and distanced the reflection temporally. Immediately before those two sentences, the reader is clued into Nick’s past: “Already there was something mysterious and home-like. Nick was happy as he crawled inside the tent” (654). That Nick’s feelings of home are in close proximity to his nearly internal thoughts, literally brings the reader closer to Nick’s interiority. Nick is remembering his past, if only briefly and abstractly, and the reader is brought in close. This demonstrates that as Nick moves inward, so does the reader. The context is embodied by the narrative.
The narrative is bound to the character. This embodiment cues the reader to the complex and compact elements of the story, showing that each part of the structure is shining light on the plot. The strict focus on action in the story squeezes out everything else, like reflections or explanations, that Hemingway could have chosen to write into the moment. That there is so much pressure on action alerts the reader to something that is being pushed out or held at bay, something else exists beneath the surface of the action. When there are glimpses at his interiority, as stated in the previous paragraph, they are just that, glimpses. After which, the focus is immediately returned to the physical: “He was in his home where he had made it. Now he was hungry” (655). Nick’s interiority is embattled and once he wins one small part, like finding a new home, he must move onto the next challenge. This demonstrates his transformation as tedious, but rewarding.
This subtext continues to be embodied throughout the narrative as Nick focuses his attention on the shadow of things:
“As the shadow of the kingfisher moved up the stream, a big trout shot upstream in a long angle, only his shadow marking the angle, then lost his shadow as he came through the surface of the water, caught the sun, and then, as he went back into the stream under the surface, his shadow seemed to float down the stream with the current” (651).
The fish has a physical self and a shadowed self. The fish doesn’t see his own shadow, but Nick does. Just as Nick doesn’t see that his interiority is being gleaned by the reader. The shadow that reappears and disappears can be interpreted as a glimpse into another part of the self, something darker that lurks behind every movement of the fish. The fish’s actions of jumping out of the water and coming through the surface represent the meaning that attempts to break through the surface of the narrative. This reading may be skeptical at first glance, but upon further analysis, the connection between Nick’s life and the life of the trout becomes more evident. Nick’s physical experience and the narrative’s metaphorical interpretation are intertwined.
Nick’s metaphorical transformation begins with his placement in the setting: “Nick looked at the burned-over stretch of hillside (…) and then walked down the railroad track to the bridge over the river (…) Nick looked down into the clear, brown water” (651). He is standing on a bridge, literally between two places. He has looked at the burned down town, a place he can no longer exist in, and now looks down at the river, a place of hope for him and a site of metaphorical cleansing. From the ruined state of his past to the transformative bridge leading to his future, Nick has begun a journey of the self.
For Nick’s transformation to occur, he must turn away from the town (civilization) and move in to the natural world. His problem with civilization and people, more specifically, is elucidated by his memories and by his preference to be alone. “He once argued everything with Hopkins” (656). The first instance of another person in Nick’s life is negative, he was constantly arguing with Hopkins and the trip they were on ended badly when Hopkins got a telegram and left. “That was a long time ago on the Black River” (656). The people in his life are connected with anger and the past, they don’t seem to be a part of him any longer. Immediately after remembering this, he attempts to shut down his thoughts: “His mind was starting to work. He knew he could choke it because he was tired enough” (656). Later the narrator states “Nick did not like to fish with other men on the river” (659). This complete isolation from both his thoughts on the past and from any human around him is important to his transformation because he must focus only on himself. He does so by projecting onto the creatures around him and the narrative does so by placing his needs and actions closely to similar needs and actions of the world.
Nick’s projections and closeness to the world around him are revealed by a mimicry of that world: “[The trout] tightened, facing up into the current. Nicks heart tightened as the trout moved” (651-652). Here, he is demonstrating a close bond with the trout. He is physically changed by watching the trout in the stream. He can relate to the trout’s struggle. Other moments of this mimicry can be seen later in the text: “The trout were feeding steadily all down the stream” and a few sentences later “He was very hungry” (654). Even the language of Nick’s new home is similar to that of the trout’s new home: “mouth of the tent” (654) and “mouth of the sack” (662). Nick is experiencing the world around him in near tandem with the what the trout are experiencing. He is allowing the external, present world to guide his actions. He finds comfort through these actions and it is as though he is stabilizing himself and keeping himself together (internally) by bonding with the external. He cannot do this with other people around because they are complex, but the trout are simple and live in the present. That is what Nick is attempting to do, reconcile his past by forcing himself to live in the present. Action by action he is focused intently on the moment and seems to be learning to do this by mimicking the fish. He also projects on the grasshopper: “He realized that the fire must have come the year before, but the grasshoppers were all black now. He wondered how long they would stay that way” (653). He is curious about the grasshopper’s transformation and this is relevant because so little is given about Nick’s thoughts. That his thoughts are on transformation and directly linked to the fire (and his past with the town) gives weight to the idea that this text is about his own attempt to transform.
Why Nick needs to transform and what it is that he is pushing out of his mind are never directly revealed, but there are moments that allow conjecture on what his problems may revolve around. There is a moment where it is stated that “Nick did not like to fish with other men on the river. Unless they were of your party, they spoiled it” (659). This can be a reference to a point made earlier about a need for isolation to focus on the self, but the word “party” is interesting in and of itself. Camaraderie in the field is highly motivational and important during battle. The need to know that one can depend on another is essential to morale and high morale is directly linked to successful missions in the military. The reason that his feelings on fishing with other men can be linked to a very subtle hint at Nick’s past and the military is the mention of the town St. Ignace. The town is named after Saint Ignatius of Loyola who, after being wounded at the battle of Pamplona, had a spiritual conversion (Ignatius 5). This may seem like an insignificant detail at first, but in a story with direct statements made in simple sentences, it’s appearance is suspect. It is the only other town mentioned in the story. The other town is directly linked to Nick’s past and a transformation. That Saint Ignatius went through a transformation himself seems to illuminate what Nick’s past entailed and why he is in need of transformation.
Nick is a man who knows nature and takes on its familiar characteristics in an effort to move on. Nature is a language he reads and internalizes, it is the metaphorical language of the text. He sees the swamp, but: “There were plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp” (663). This structural technique allows the story to embody the context. Even though Nick’s actions seem topical or simplistic, the reader is experiencing the actions as Nick is experiencing them and Nick’s internal journey is carefully revealed through syntax and memory. As he mimics the world around him, the world becomes an external representation of his interiority. He has many moments of feeling at home and feeling good, but those moments are pressed upon by memories that he is trying to suppress. As he sees the swamp in the distance, he knows that there are many days ahead of him in this journey and parses his time. The edge of the river is safe and familiar and full of sunlight and warmth, the swamp is dark and entangled with many branches to get caught on. Since he knows the fish venture into that area, he knows he must venture there as well. This confrontation with the swamp is a reflection on his interior struggle, it is part of his full transformation and exposes nature’s purpose in the story as mirroring his internal journey. He has not yet fully transformed, much like the grasshopper who hasn’t regained his usual color, but he is changing and making himself ready to face the hardest part of his journey.
Ignatius, Saint. The autobiography of St.Ignatius, with related documents. Trans. Joseph F. O’Callaghan. Ed. John C. Olin. New York: Fordham University Press, 1992. 4-5. Google Books. Web. 15 Nov. 2011.