The real message in Hemingway’s “Indian Camp”

This is another small excerpt from my forthcoming book of transcripts of altered-state conversations with what I take to be the still-living mind that was Ernest Hemingway. The process of talking to Papa proved educational in many ways. Not only did the sessions give me insight into Hemingway’s life and opinions, they often gave me ways of seeing his work that I found not only convincing but helpful beyond their own framework. This one, for instance.

A boy’s perspective

[May 16 and 17, 2010]

A friend of mine, a retired teacher of literature in Denmark, followed these conversations as I sent them around on the Internet, and one day wrote me that her students never could decide which was the point of “Indian Camp,” that Uncle George was really the father of the baby and so the Indian killed himself, or that the Indian couldn’t stand her pain, and so he killed himself. So I asked which it was.

Neither. When you read my stories, look at every element in them. You may not know why, but every element is there for a reason. And, remember, you are to get an emotion from it. Look at the last line.

Nick knew that he would never die.

List the elements in “Indian Camp.”

[“Indian Camp” is only three pages long, but I listed many thing, including: the rowboat with two waiting Indians; Nick, his father, Uncle George; two rowboats, each with an Indian rowing; George smoking a cigar and giving the Indians cigars; a dog barking, then more dogs; an old Indian woman holding a lamp; the young Indian woman who had been trying to give birth for two days; her husband, who had cut his foot badly three days earlier; Nick’s father explaining that her screams were not important; no anesthetic; hot water, coffee, and sterilization; the doctor washing hands carefully and thoroughly, explaining why; the woman biting Uncle George during the operation; Nick’s father showing Nick, and Nick looking away; Nick’s curiosity had been gone for a long time; Uncle George looked at his arm. The young Indian smile reminiscently; Nick’s father excited and talkative afterwards. “One for the medical journal”; “oh you’re a great man all right.” The proud father dead with throat cut. “sorry I brought you, Nick. Awful mess”; always such a hard time? Exceptional”; “Why did he kill himself? Couldn’t stand things, I guess”; do many kill themselves? Not very many; do many women? Hardly ever; “is dying hard?” “I think pretty easy. Depends”; the sun coming up. Bass jumped. Hand in water; quite sure he would never die]

So compressed; hard to summarize more than it already was.

All right. Now, try to relax and we’ll get it through. Can you see how sex and death are interwoven in the boy’s experience?

I guess it was his first sight of a woman’s sex organs, and in a gory context. I guess that’s why “he looked away, his curiosity gone for a long time.”

And he asks if many men kill themselves, if many women do, and why, and is dying hard. And the physical surroundings — the morning, the warmer water, the fish, his father rowing — makes him “quite sure that he would never die.” Going forward in the dark it had been first the three white men, or the two and the boy, then they met the Indians and divided, then they were all together, then George went off by himself, then it was Nick and his father returning in the daytime.

I’m afraid I am still too dense to get the full intent.

The doctor intended to begin Nick’s education, but he got more than he had bargained for. He was not an evil or cruel man, but he turned off his emotional response to do the job he was there to do. Coming back he told Nick he was sorry he had gotten him involved, but he wasn’t sorry for anything else — not his lack of sympathy for the mother, not his own unawareness of the effect of someone’s pain on someone else. He didn’t realize. He didn’t realize that the Indian — who couldn’t get away because of his foot — would be affected by the pain that he himself had disregarded — not the pain but the evidence of pain, the screams.

I don’t understand the Indian smiling reminiscently. Just to bring the connection to sex back?

The same action in different contexts has different meanings, and it can suggest connections. As it did.

Nick was a boy and he didn’t really understand a lot about what he was seeing, did he?

That’s the point exactly. That’s exactly it. He was quite sure he would never die. He would also never get involved in messy situations, would never be callous or unimaginative, would never cause pain and certainly would never kill himself. That’s why the last line. He recorded, he remembered, he observed, but he didn’t really understand — and the reader who did understand got the point. It wasn’t designed to teach obstetrics or fishing, and it wasn’t a detective story. It was to feel that state of observing but not understanding.

And Uncle George?

He showed sympathy in contrast to his brother’s (or could be his brother in-law’s; didn’t matter) businesslike manner-of-fact attitude. George shared cigars; George helped, though it is mentioned only in the doctor asking him to move the blanket; George was a little disgusted by the doctor’s slight bragging and his self-satisfaction; George was upset by the suicide and didn’t want to be around the doctor’s matter-of-fact attitude about it, even though the doctor was upset. The two men were upset about it in different ways. The doctor was upset that Nick had seen it, that it was senseless and unnecessary. George could imagine the man’s cumulative state — for he had been unable to get away, remember. He had badly cut his foot the day before she had started going into labor two days before. He’d stood it all. The doctor abstractly understood, but he didn’t necessarily let himself feel it. His concern was for Nick. Where did Uncle George go? He’ll turn up all right. In other words, nothing happened to him; he’s safe. But he’s not in sight. So you see, George was there to bring out certain aspects that couldn’t have come out if the doctor and Nick had been there alone among the Indians. George was hurt, he was injured, by the woman’s pain, as the doctor was not. But there’s no need to make George the baby’s father — if I’d had that in mind, you’d have known, and if I’d had that in mind and you hadn’t known, I’d have failed (assuming perception on your part).

Another strand to the story was good intentions going astray, wasn’t it?

Yes. The doctor saved the baby and the mother but never thought of the father; he wanted to give Nick experience but gave him more than he wanted to. George was there in sympathy but never realized who needed it, and wasn’t able to do anything except help in the operation.

Other elements in the story?

Well, reread it again and see if it looks different now.

I see that it is a description as a young boy would see it. The objects that stood out to him. And I noticed, this time, the line about the men having moved off up the road to be out of the range of her screaming. Her husband is smoking a pipe, like them, but he is right there. As you say, he couldn’t get away.

When the doctor says the screams are not important is when the husband rolls over against the wall. And you will notice, the young Indian woman after the operation “did not know what had become of the baby or anything.” Nick’s perception, you see. Sensory inputs still wide open, regardless of what he did or didn’t understand.

I can see how the stories were aimed: you wanted people to react to them as they reacted to life. The stories affect you as life comes at you, and they affect you but you may not know why or how.

That’s it exactly. Does this say anything about how far off the critics were? If you criticize the facts of the story but don’t absorb the atmosphere of it, you can’t see the reason for the facts. So you don’t know what you’re talking about. You wind up trying to make George the father because of the cigars, or you ask about the wrong things. But the reason for the story is right there in the final line: “In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die.”

That’s as much as I can do for now. Thank you. I’m learning something.

4 thoughts on “The real message in Hemingway’s “Indian Camp”

  1. A nice lesson in context…wow…his spare delivery really does make everything meaningful. I’ll have to read that a couple more times.

  2. I have to admit, I enjoyed this post more after deciding to read the story Indian Camp. The story is easily accessed on the Web, is short, and well worth reading. So much of what I felt viscerally was examined in your conversation with Hemingway. All the elements that stuck out as I read are discussed in your post. Quite thoughtful. It does leave an impression.

  3. I’m a professor of English at a mid-sized university. I’m teaching two courses at the moment: a course on literary theory and a seminar on the paranormal. So I read your piece with great interest. Tell me: Papa spent a good bit of time in Paris; did he ever read Barthes on “The Death of the Author”?

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