Summary and Analysis
Big Two-Hearted River: Part II
Hemingway recounts in precise detail Nick's rituals of preparation for fishing before he wades into the river. He successfully catches two trout and begins to gather sufficient courage so that in the days ahead, he can easily fish across the river, in the dark swamp, a symbol of Nick's fears and uncertainties. Clearly, Nick's recovery from the trauma of war has already begun, and readers finish this story with a sense of hope.
This section presents Nick's preparations for fishing and his actual wading into the river to fish for trout and examines his accompanying emotions and reactions. Every detail, every action, is understated. Hemingway describes no grandiose epiphanies. The river is the central element in this section, as Nick is constantly in the river, following the river, and looking to the swamp at the end of the river. The river is a consistent thread here that parallels Nick's subconscious and the memories contained therein.
First, Nick must have some bait. He is surrounded by grasshoppers, and luckily, they are sluggish this early in the morning because of the heavy dew. Nick gets an empty bottle and collects enough bait for the entire day; he knows that he can get all the "hoppers" he needs each morning of each day for the rest of his stay in the woods. It is important here to note the contrast between the grasshoppers in Part I, which were black and covered with soot, and these grasshoppers, which are nestled in the grass amongst the drops of dew, waiting for the sun. If the river is Nick's subconscious, then the grasshoppers represent the mundane, methodical camping tasks that are calming to Nick and enable him to dip into his subconscious without fear, much like the kingfisher in Part I.
Nick retrieves his fishing rod from the leather rod case and prepares the leader line, the gut line, and the hook, and tests them: "It was a good feeling."
All preparations completed, Nick is ready to enter the water. As he leaves camp, he feels "awkward" but "professionally happy" with all of his paraphernalia hanging from him: His sandwiches are in his two front pockets; his bottle of grasshoppers is hanging around his neck; his landing net is hanging from a hook in his belt; a long flour sack is tied round his shoulder (this will hold the trout that he catches); his "fly book" is in one of his pockets; and he is carrying his fly rod.
Nick's first catch is too small, so he removes the hook and throws it back. Note that before he touches the trout, he wets his hand because he knows that "if a trout was touched with a dry hand, a white fungus attacked the unprotected spot." This kind of knowledge emphasizes again that Nick is an expert in this type of fishing; readers respect him. However, it also indicates something deeper: Nick has a specific code of fishing that separates him from other fishermen. It places Nick into a select, morally "higher" group that respects the fish and Nature. This totally integrates Nick with the fish and Nature itself.
Nick then rebaits his hook and, this time, spits on it for good luck, a typical thing for an experienced fisherman to do. This time, and it does not take long, he hooks an enormous trout: When it leaps high out of the water, Nick is overcome because he has never seen such a large trout, but then "tragedy" strikes: The leader line breaks, and the trout escapes.
Nick's hand is shaking. He slowly reels in his empty hook. He vaguely feels a little sick, as though it would be better to sit down.
These details illustrate Hemingway's belief that if people — men, in particular — give in to their emotions, they are in danger of losing everything. For Nick, the thrill of hooking this large trout is overwhelming. Some may also surmise that the trout represent happy memories, and that this big trophy trout that gets away is a symbol for a memory that made Nick very happy but didn't come to fruition for whatever reason. The emotional investment in something that makes him happy that he ultimately can't connect with again at this point in his recovery is a sickening disappointment to him, especially because it's his fault. However, after the jarring experience of war, Nick must expect to "lose a few" at first during his journey into his own river of recovery.
After he rests and smokes, Nick rebaits, and this time, upon reentering the river, he works his rod carefully. He catches a good-sized trout, and note that he says that it was "good" to hold — he had "one good trout." Nick catches another, but for the second time, the trout gets away, although this time, it isn't Nick's fault. The fish dives into heavy underbrush.
Almost immediately, Nick has another strike, and after some struggling, he brings this trout into his net. Nick then spreads the "mouth of the sack and [looks] down at the two big trout alive in the water." He concludes that they are good trout.
After Nick eats his sandwiches, he sits and watches the river; then he kills and dresses the two trout. Both are males because each is exuding "milt," a substance found only in male fish. Nick returns to camp completely satisfied and looks forward to the days to come when he will fish the swampy areas, as he steadily moved downstream into deeper water today.
Nick's steady progress downstream into deeper water leads him to reach a point in the river that intersects the present moment: His wish for something to read. This return to thinking and cerebral pursuits indicates a mental rejuvenation. It isn't a total rejuvenation, because Nick has yet to fish in the swamp, but it is a rejuvenation that indicates to the reader that Nick's recovery is well underway.
Another signpost of Nick's progress in recovery is his emotional reaction to swamp fishing. The swamp is a deep, dark place at the end of the river covered by cedar branches. It is a dangerous place to fish because of the muck on the bottom and the fast, deep water that sometimes has whirlpools that take anything in the water down with it. It is here that the really big trout seek the shade and cool water, and it is here that Nick reacts to it: first, by concluding that he won't do it just yet, and second, that it is "tragic," which is an emotionally charged description. The swamp can be seen as the dark, sooty place in Nick's subconscious where the war and all of the bad memories from it reside. For Nick, this swamp (and swamp fishing) is the final frontier of healing and transmutating the war experience. It is no surprise that he concludes that he will try it another time, without any reference to a timetable or a goal for doing it. He is satisfied with his present progress, and he'll simply do it when it occurs to him that he is ready.
After having followed Nick through his two days in the woods by the river, readers are filled with confidence that Nick is a survivor and that he will be able to put all of the horrors of the war behind and find a suitable niche in life.
condensed milk canned milk.
a fly an artificial fishing lure, often resembling an insect.
leaders lengths of wire or gut or nylon connecting hooks to fishing lines.
milt fish sperm, along with seminal fluid.
offal intestines or waste parts of butchered fish.