One night, Dr. Adams is summoned to help an American Indian woman who has been in painful labor for two days. The doctor takes his young son, Nick, and his brother, George, to the American Indian camp on the other side of a northern Michigan lake. There, the doctor performs impromptu, improvised cesarean with a fishing knife, catgut, and no anesthetic to deliver the baby. Afterward, he discovers that the woman's husband, who was in the bunk above hers, silently cut his throat during the painful ordeal.
This story is a good example of the "initiation story," a short story that centers around a main character who comes into contact with an idea, experience, ritual, or knowledge that he did not previously know. Hemingway wrote a number of initiation stories, or as they are sometimes referred to, "rite of passage" stories, and the main character in most of these stories is Nick Adams, a young man much like Hemingway himself.
In this story, Nick Adams is a very young boy in the Michigan north woods, accompanying his father, Dr. Adams, and his uncle George to an American Indian camp on the other side of a lake. Hemingway's own father was a doctor, who spent much time with his son in the northern woods of Michigan (most critics read this story as somewhat autobiographical). Here, a very young Nick is initiated into concepts that remained of highest importance to Hemingway throughout his writing career: life and death; suffering, pain, and endurance; and suicide.
Nick's father goes to the American Indian camp to help a young American Indian woman who has been screaming because of severe labor pains for two days, still unable to deliver her baby. When Dr. Adams arrives, she is lying in a bottom bunk; her husband, who cut his foot badly with an axe three days before, is lying in the bunk bed above her. Doctor Adams asks Nick to assist him, holding a basin of hot water while four American Indian men hold down the woman. Using his fishing jackknife as a scalpel, Dr. Adams performs a cesarean on the woman, delivers the baby boy, then sews up the woman's incision with some gut leader line from his fishing tackle. Exhilarated by the success of his impromptu, improvised surgery, Doctor Adams looks into the top bunk and discovers that the young American Indian husband, who listened to his wife screaming during her labor pains and during the cesarean, has cut his throat.
Although this very short story deals with violence and suffering, with birth and death, sexism and racism, Hemingway's emphasis is not on the shocking events themselves; instead, Hemingway shows the effect of birth and death on young Nick Adams. Nick's progression in this short story is vividly portrayed in polarities. For instance, on the way to the camp in the boat, Nick is sitting in his father's arms; on the way back, Nick sits on the opposite end of the boat. Similarly, while his father wants Nick to witness the birth (and his surgical triumph), Nick turns his head away; when the American Indian husband is discovered dead in his bed, Nick sees it, even though his father wants to protect him from it. The fact that Nick sits across from his father in the boat on the way back after this experience can indicate a pulling out from underneath his father's influence.
The young boy asks his father why the young American Indian man cut his throat and is told, "I don't know. . . . He couldn't stand things, I guess." However, there are more subtle undercurrents for the American Indian husband's suicide as well. The treatment and attitude of Dr. Adams toward the woman, who is an American Indian, are key also. When Dr. Adams tells Nick that her screaming is not important, it is at this point that the American Indian husband rolls over in his bunk toward the shanty wall, as he is found later, after slitting his own throat with a razor. While this failure to confront the events at hand indicates fear, it can also indicate the American Indian husband's resignation to the thoughtless racism of the White men who have come to help her.
Some have suggested that Uncle George is possibly the father of the child, as he seems to have a friendly relationship with the American Indians in the beginning of the story and hands out cigars to everyone after the birth. His handing out cigars to the men present could possibly be interpreted as paternity, although one could also surmise that he is simply sharing his way of celebrating the miracle of birth with the American Indians. Additionally, he stays behind in the camp after Dr. Adams and Nick leave. Following the interpretation of Uncle George being the baby's father, the husband's suicide could be seen as an inability to deal with his own shame and the cuckoldry of his wife.
Here, Dr. Adams emphasizes to Nick that although this young American Indian man committed suicide, women rarely do. Fear conquered the young American Indian man; he did not have the courage and strength to cope with it. He failed his test of manhood. During the boat trip back across the lake, while Nick and his father are talking, the reader learns that Nick feels "quite safe — that he would never die." Even at this young age, Nick vows never to succumb to fear. His resolve never to bow to fear is so great that he's ready to defy even the concept of natural, mortal life.
Throughout his entire writing career, Hemingway would write about men who could "stand things" and men who couldn't "stand things." Of vital importance to him was the concept of being able to "stand things," no matter how violent and painful the situation is. He called this strength "grace under pressure." A real, authentic man never succumbs; most of all, he does not kill himself. Ironically, both Hemingway and his father committed suicide.
In his later stories about Nick Adams, Hemingway explores how this young boy matures and how his vow never to bow to fear is central to the crisis in each story.
stern the rear part of a boat.
shanties crudely built cabins, or shacks.
interne a recent graduate of medical school undergoing hands-on, practical training.
peroxide a substance such as sodium peroxide that cleanses a wound.
St. Ignace a resort town on the southeast part of the northern peninsula of Michigan.
cesarean a surgical incision made through the abdomen and uterus to deliver a baby when vaginal delivery is dangerous to both mother and baby.