A teenager now, Nick Adams has been dating Marjorie, a girl who has been working during the summer at a resort on Hortons Bay. This evening, the two of them row to a beach on the bay. After a picnic supper, Nick tells Marjorie that he wants to break off their relationship; being with Marjorie, he says, is no longer fun. After she leaves, Nick feels bad about having to sever his friendship with Marjorie; however, he tells his friend Bill that the breakup wasn't too difficult.
The setting is the north Michigan woods, familiar territory in Hemingway's early fiction. Nick Adams is now a young man, dating a girl named Marjorie. The story concerns not only the "end of something," but the end of three things: the end of the heydays of logging, the end of the mill town on Hortons Bay, and the end of a romance between Nick and Marjorie.
Hortons Bay is no longer a lively, fun place; its great saws, rollers, belts, and pulleys have been removed. What remains barely resembles the once-bustling, full-of-life mill town. There is nothing to remind a stranger what it used to be. Marjorie points out the ruin of the mill, romantically likening it to a castle. Nick doesn't comment on the romantic parallel that Marjorie points out.
The setting that Hemingway describes is proof that when Hortons Bay ended its noisy, financially booming years, the finale was indeed an end — and a time to move on — because the way of life that the town's inhabitants had taken for granted had vanished. This shocking revelation must have been momentous.
Nick's decision to end his romantic relationship with Marjorie will also be the "end of something," but, to Nick, it's not the end of something momentous. It's simply the end of a relationship that's gone stale, that's no longer fun.
The story is closely autobiographical. In the summer of 1919, 20 year-old Hemingway was dating 17 year-old Marjorie Bump, a waitress in a resort town. Marjorie often fixed picnic meals for them that they would eat beside evening campfires. When Marjorie's summer job ended after Labor Day, Hemingway began dating someone else. The fictional "Bill" in the story is no doubt based on Bill Smith, a good friend of Hemingway's who spent time with Hemingway that summer.
What's surprising about this very brief sketch is the amount of suppressed emotion. In 1919, the fictional (and the real) Marjorie would have typically been dating Nick Adams with marriage in mind. When Nick breaks off the relationship with only the weak explanation that being with Marjorie is no longer "fun," his remark is uncommonly cruel. In "The Three-Day Blow," we'll see that Nick prides himself on being articulate and learned. He is neither in "The End of Something." Marjorie's reaction is stoic; she doesn't even accept his offer to help push off her boat. She leaves him beside the campfire and paddles back across the bay alone.
Nick acknowledges to Bill that the breakup went "all right." There "wasn't any scene." Obviously, he and Bill had discussed what Nick had planned to do when he and Marjorie set out at the beginning of the story, rowing along the store, trolling for rainbow trout. The breakup was not spur-of-the-moment. Nick even initiated a quarrel to strengthen his revolve to break off the relationship with Marjorie.
Afterward, Nick feels bad about having to sever the friendship, but clearly, he is not looking for someone to take care of him, someone to be a domestic anchor. He has done what he had to: He has followed his instincts and made sure that he would be free to explore the world in search of fun and adventure.
trolling fishing by trailing a baited line from behind a slow-moving boat.
striking Here, the reference is to fish taking the bait.
the ventral fin A fin situated on or close to the abdomen of a fish.