Nick Adams has been wounded in Italy during World War I and is suffering from shell-shock, or post-traumatic stress syndrome. He is plagued by nightmares, in which he sees the eyes of the Austrian soldier who shot him. Nick's friend, the Italian Captain Paravicini, believes that Nick's head wound should have been treated differently; he worries about Nick's bouts of "craziness."
One hot summer day, Nick bicycles from the village of Fornaci to Captain Paravicini's encampment. On the way, he witnesses the miles of bloated corpses and the hundreds of blowing pieces of military papers.
When Nick reaches camp, an Italian second lieutenant questions Nick's identification papers before Paravicini intervenes and coaxes Nick to lie down and rest before he returns to Fornaci; he fears for Nick's sanity and safety despite the young American's valiant attempt to deal with his war-torn memories.
Here, Hemingway has written what is essentially an account — sometimes realistic, sometimes impressionistic, and sometimes plainly confusing — of Nick Adams' coping with post-traumatic trauma and possibly a concussion suffered in battle during World War I.
As he is riding his bicycle along the Austro-Italian front in northern Italy, Nick sees scattered evidence of the ravages of war, described in a surrealistic manner: Pornographic cards are scattered among the dead bodies of Italian soldiers that have never been buried. The heat-swollen, rotting bodies have been stripped of anything of value, as have the corpses of the Austrian soldiers.
This setting — the Austro-Italian border — is an area that Hemingway knew well. As a volunteer Red Cross ambulance driver, he was often bored because there were no battles in which he could prove his heroism. As a result, he volunteered to help staff one of several supply centers, from which he'd take chocolate, cigarettes, and postcards to men on the front lines.
When Nick arrives at the encampment, he tells the battalion commander that he "should have a musette of chocolate . . . [but] there weren't any cigarettes and postcards and no chocolate." Nick's role here is clearly autobiographical. What is not autobiographical, however, is Nick's head injury and his mental anguish. Hemingway suffered severe leg and thigh wounds on just such an errand as Nick is doing.
Nick also suffers from the severe heat. Early in the story, he notes how the heat has humped and swollen the bodies of the dead soldiers. The sun causes "heat-waves in the air above the leaves where [it] hit . . . guns hidden in mulberry hedges." When Nick readies himself to return to the supply center camp, Captain Paravicini cautions him that "it is still hot to ride."
One of the keys to understanding this confusing, short sketch is Hemingway's focus on Nick's identity. Nick is officially questioned when he reaches the battalion of Italian soldiers camped along the Piave River. The soldier who reads Nick's identification card is clearly not convinced that Nick is a bona fide soldier despite the fact that Nick says that he knows the Italian soldier's captain. Nick does indeed know Captain Paravicini — for the same reason that Hemingway took pleasure in making friends with high-ranking Italian officers: American Red Cross volunteers were free to fraternize with Italian officers.
Although glad to talk to the captain about the success of the last attack, Nick is self-conscious and restless. He's aware that the captain knows that Nick's head wound and battle trauma have changed him, and thus he uses humor to keep their talk from centering too keenly on himself.
The captain, however, sees through the ruse and joshes Nick about his preposterous tale that he is a decoy, dressed — albeit a bit flawed — like an American so that the Austrians will conclude that at any moment, millions of American soldiers — brave and clean — will suddenly burst onto the battlefield and decimate the Austrians.
The muddled stream-of-consciousness technique that Hemingway uses to describe Nick's dream is a rare instance of his using this particular narrative technique. His writing style is usually characterized by short, crisp declarative sentences. The technique here is remarkably different.
According to Carlos Baker's biography of Hemingway, the title of this short story comes from a situation in Cuba; the heat was intense, and Hemingway remarked that it reminded him of the way it was on the lower Piave in the summer of 1918, while he was watching "a hell of a nice girl going crazy from day to day." Hemingway borrowed pieces of this girl's madness for Nick's confused behavior; for example, as Nick is leaving the captain, he feels another attack of confusion coming on: "He felt it coming on again. . . . He was trying to hold it in. . . . He knew he could not stop it now."
Many of Hemingway's novels and writings would focus on physical wounds and on the death and blood in this story. However, Hemingway also focuses on wounds unseen — the psychological results of war and the effect of a head wound on Nick Adams, a subject that he would return to in "Big Two-Hearted River."
the attack The setting of this story is northern Italy during World War I; an Italian town has been attacked by an Austrian military offensive.
haversacks bags carried over only one shoulder to transport supplies.
stick bombs hand grenades with handles.
mustard gas an oily, highly flammable liquid; it was used during World War I as a chemical weapon.
shrapnel an artillery shell filled with metal balls that explode in the air and rip into flesh.