Research Paper Directions
Your research paper should be an argumentative essay that makes a specific claim about one of the course readings. The claim should be made by applying specific schools of literary criticism from the “Critical Strategies for Reading” section of our textbook. Support this claim and argument in a well-developed, well-written, and well-organized essay of at least 2000 words (roughly 6-8 typed, double-spaced pages). To support your argument, incorporate quotes, summaries, or paraphrases from at least five sources accessed through the GMC library. In order for you to succeed in this assignment, read and reread the following directions:
-Many of the writers we cover in this class might be difficult to find information on through the GMC library. Because of this, I have narrowed down the list of authors you are allowed to write about. You MUST choose one of the following authors as the topic for your paper: Ernest Hemingway, THE SHORT STORY” SOLDIER’S HOME” Remember that the work you choose to write about must also come from assigned course readings, detailed in the Syllabus under “Course Schedule.” You are not allowed to write about any other not on this list. Note that some of these authors are covered late in the course, so you will want to read ahead to find authors that interest you.
-Reread the texts you loved or had difficulty with and take careful notes: brainstorm, journal, free-write, and research with those questions in mind. All of these things will help you narrow down your topic.
-Once you have decided on a topic, begin doing preliminary research (you will need to do a lot of research for this assignment anyway). Read what other literary critics have said. This will help you to further narrow down your topic, and even to find some of the sources you will end up using in the paper. Remember that you are a literary critic too—this means you should feel free to question and disagree with the interpretations you read.
-Make sure your thesis is an arguable one, something that readers might actually agree or disagree with. Don’t be afraid to take a leap and put forward a new, creative, and/or unique interpretation. Remember that any argument can be a good one if you properly support it with evidence from the text.
-Your paper must incorporate information from outside sources found through the GMC library. Remember that you have three methods for incorporating outside information into any paper: you can quote (use the source’s exact words), paraphrase (put the source’s words into your own words), or summarize (boil down information from a source to a 1-2 sentence summary in your own words). If you need to review these topics, check out the information at the Purdue OWL here https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/563/1/
-Avoid unnecessary plot summary and biographical information. Assume that your reader has already read the work you are discussing, and assume that your reader knows important information about the author’s life already.
-Play the numbers game. Remember that your paper must be at least 2,000 words (not counting the Works Cited), and the paper must include at least 5 sources accessed from the GMC library. Note that sources like Wikipedia, Sparknotes, and other open-web sources are not appropriate for this paper. Conduct your research through the library like a real researcher, rather than relying on Google to find open-web sources that may not be appropriate.
-MLA formatting for paper style, in-text citations, and the Works Cited is a significant part of this paper. Review the sample essays in our textbook, the Purdue OWL MLA section (https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/01/), and other MLA guides for examples of what your paper should look like.
a) PAGE 2: Use your textbook as a resource. Review the “Critical Strategies for Reading”
section in the back of our textbook (pages 2025 – 2048) and the “Reading and Writing Process”
section (pages 2049 – 2068). There is also an example of a student essay that begins on page 2068.
b) PAGE 4: For further guidance on writing thesis statements and choosing topics, see pages
2049 – 2068 in our textbook; pages 2053 – 2056 will be particularly helpful for you.
-Organize your argument to maximize its effectiveness. Your introduction should include a thesis. Each paragraph of your paper should include a topic sentence that references your thesis. Each sentence in each paragraph should directly support that paragraph’s topic sentence.
-Finally, don’t forget the little things. Spelling, grammar, and punctuation should be perfect. Edit and revise your work. Manage your time efficiently to allow yourself the opportunity to read and reread your final paper multiple times.
-As always, contact your instructor whenever you have questions.
-The general rubric for the Research Paper is provided below:
-Your Research Paper should be uploaded in the appropriate space at the end of Week #7.
Application of Critical Reading Strategy
Use, Quality, and Correctness of Research, including MLA formatting
Explication of literature (Support)
Higher-Order Concerns (Development, Organization, etc.)
Lower-Order Concerns (Spelling, Grammar, and Punctuation)
Title: Performative Patterns in Hemingway’s ‘Soldier’s Home.’ Publication Information
Author(s): Ruben De Baerdemaeker Publication Details: Hemingway Review 27.1 (Fall 2007): p55-73. Source: Short Story Criticism. Ed. Jelena O. Krstovic. Vol. 117. Detroit: Gale. From Literature Resource Center. Document Type: Critical essay Bookmark: Bookmark this Document Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning Full Text:
[(essay date fall 2007) In the following essay, De Baerdemaeker notes the past circumstances that inform Harold Krebs’s sexual identity in “Soldier’s Home,” pointing out Krebs’s difficulties in “coping with the narrative of his past upon finding himself in a completely different setting.”]
Ernest Hemingway referred to “Soldier’s Home” as “the best short story I ever wrote” (SL 139). In the short story collection In Our Time, the short story does stand out if only because its protagonist, an American soldier in the aftermath of WWI, is not, as a reader might have come to expect, Nick Adams, but the oddly named Harold Krebs. It will not do to embrace Harold Krebs as just another version of the same old Nick Adams (or, indeed, as some would have it, as yet another straightforward literary incarnation of Hemingway himself). “Readers must wonder why Hemingway chose ‘Krebs’ instead of ‘Nick,'” David Ullrich asserts in an article dedicated to teasing out the meanings conjured up by this protagonist’s name. This story is different from those featuring Nick as a protagonist; this main character is not caught by the safety net of the famous Hemingway “code”–he slips through its mazes.
The text famously opens with a description of two photographs, forced into a parallelism that brings out the significant contrast between the worlds–or the potential safety nets–that they represent:
There is a picture which shows him among his fraternity brothers, all of them wearing exactly the same height and style collar. … There is a picture which shows him on the Rhine with two German girls and another corporal. Krebs and the corporal look too big for their uniforms.(CSS [The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway] 111)
These snapshots introduce the double backdrop against which Harold Krebs’s story will unfold, and they prefigure the antagonism that will direct its narrative. With reference to a theoretical framework based on the work of Judith Butler, this paper will trace how Krebs becomes an outsider to what once was his life, and how his tragedy is brought about by the conflicting social norms that govern his behavior–i.e. the norms of the respective societies represented by the aforementioned photographs.
The first picture seems to signify a traditional American schooling and education fuelled by a juvenile form of (homo)sociality:1 there are no women in this picture, and the fraternity brothers (first-rate homosocial pleonasm) wear collars of the exact same height and style, as a token of male bonding. This American ideal of youthful masculinity clashes with the uniformed male version of the second picture–a clash announced by the story’s very first sentence: “Krebs went to the war from a Methodist college in Kansas” (CSS 111). Women are suddenly present in this picture, and the hint of blossoming sexuality is highlighted by the remark that Krebs and his fellow soldier “look too big for their uniforms” (111). Though it may be far-fetched to suggest they are swollen with phallic desire, their size, their outgrowing the rigid convention of uniforms, conjures up an altered masculinity, one that is no longer strictly constrained by the limits of uniformity. That there is something out of joint in this evolution is suggested by the deadpan statement that “The German girls are not beautiful. The Rhine does not show in the photograph” (111).2 This small narrative diptych is more than a chronological prologue to introduce the protagonist, as it already contains most of the topoi and tensions that will dominate the further story.
This sense of “outgrowing” a uniform pattern is the main theme of “Soldier’s Home.” The two pictures at the beginning of this story emblematize different styles of normativity–networks or patterns of norms and regulations that shape the people they encompass. To elaborate on this interplay between normativity and subjectivity, I turn to the theoretical writings of Judith Butler, who has addressed this issue in much of her work. After Gender Trouble was published in 1990, performativity, as a “stylized repetition of acts” (Butler 1999, 179), became one of the decade’s buzzwords–even if its popularity may be declining by now, probably due to overuse, misuse, and sometimes abuse. Theorizing the institution of the subject within social norms functioning as constitutive constraints has remained at the core of Butler’s thought even into more recent work such as Giving an Account of Oneself (2005) (which has no explicitly gendered angle and thus seems to digress from the bulk of her earlier writing).
Reading Butler alongside Hemingway can be productive, as shown by Thomas Strychacz in his book Hemingway’s Theaters of Masculinity. As the title implies, Strychacz focuses explicitly on the performative quality of Hemingway’s male protagonists, most notably Francis Macomber. He proposes a “hermeneutics of performance [that] undertakes to enter the sliding ground of signification, which renders meaning contextual and constative utterances rhetorical” (48). My own project, though similar, does not want to highlight the theatricality of Harold Krebs’s gender identity so much as to investigate its underpinnings.
It is certainly not the intention of this paper simply to apply a dab of queer theory to Hemingway’s text and give it a pink coating. This reading is triggered by the recurrent references to “patterns” that, in this story, crop up in various guises–from geometric to social. This paper therefore analyzes the patterns and matrices, nets and mazes in which protagonist Harold Krebs attempts to live his life.3 If the individual is always instituted, again and again, by performing the norms laid down by its environment, this may account for Krebs’s difficulties in coping with the narrative of his past upon finding himself in a completely different setting.
Upon returning to his home town, wanting to talk about his war experiences, “Krebs found that to be listened to at all he had to lie” (CSS 111). Having moved from the Methodist college in Kansas to the war in Europe and then home again, Krebs cannot retrieve the sense of fitting in so tellingly illustrated by the story’s opening snapshot. The setting of postwar Europe differs so greatly from homey Oklahoma that it becomes impossible to speak the truth about the war. Krebs moves from the “pattern” of college to the pattern of war back to the pattern of home, but he has lost his talent for uniformity. Krebs’s life in Okla-home is patterned, but does not fit in with the local ethos:
… he was sleeping late in bed, getting up to walk down town to the library to get a book, eating lunch at home, reading on the front porch until he became bored and then walking down through the town to spend the hottest hours of the day in the cool dark of the pool room. He loved to play pool.In the evening he practised on his clarinet, strolled down town, read and went to bed.(112)
Clearly, our soldier’s home is beset with fewer extremes than Belleau Wood and Soissons, and its inhabitants seem scarcely interested in the truth about the war. Even Krebs’s parents show no real interest in their son’s recent experiences: “[His mother] often came in when he was in bed and asked him to tell her about the war, but her mind always wandered. His father was non-committal” (112).
The “quite unimportant lies” (CSS 111)4 that Krebs finds himself compelled to tell have a curious effect on him: “A distaste for everything that had happened to him in the war set in because of the lies he had told” (111)–a distaste evolving into “the nausea in regard to experience that is the result of untruth or exaggeration” (112). At this stage, Krebs is in the process of losing whatever positive memories he may have had about his time in Europe–for it becomes clear that not all was miserable there, especially after the war had finished.5
Krebs’s growing distaste for his own war memories is emblematized in the way he interacts with former fellow-soldiers:
… when he occasionally met another man who had really been a soldier and they talked a few minutes in the dressing room at a dance he fell into the easy pose of the old soldier among other soldiers: that he had been badly, sickeningly frightened all the time. In this way he lost everything.(CSS 112, my italics)
That Krebs is obliged to pose even in the company of people with whom he shares parts of his past illustrates the extent to which views of the past are tainted by the present. Past experiences become embedded in the pattern of the present, encapsulated in a narrative that adapts itself to present circumstances, not facts in the past. Memories, then, as soon as they are actualized and “present-ed” in the form of narrative, acquire a performative value. Memory needs to be re-enacted or, rather, reconfigured in language to become intelligible within the discourse of the present. As Peter Messent has observed, this is a transition that Harold Krebs is not capable of making:
Belleau Wood has rendered his mother’s pious language and framework of conventional belief a nonsense. The world now contingent to Krebs is one from which he is absolutely disconnected–whose language and values he cannot share.(15)
Krebs, then, has come undone, or “lost everything” (CSS 112), because he is not in touch with home, or does not feel at home in Oklahoma, and because this present unease taints his past, rather than vice versa. Paradoxically, Krebs’s past actions do not give him a particular status (such as “war hero”) within the present regime; instead, the present alters Krebs’s very memory of the past. In the extreme case of Harold Krebs, there is such a disconnect between the war and his American home that his narrative about the past war cannot be accommodated in the present.
With regard to “Soldier’s Home,” John McKenna and David Raabe, inspired by “temperament theory,” boldly claim: “Language is an abstraction. Talk can never substitute for the event itself” (204). But what the story really shows is that language and talk are necessary in order to preserve an event as a factor in one’s self, in one’s narrative identity.6 The tragedy of Harold Krebs, then, lies not in having to talk or having to lie, but in being unable to translate experiences into the paradigm(s) expected in small-town USA. One may even suggest that it is this inability to translate the past into a past-as-present that causes Krebs’s passivity and apparent disaffectedness.
He would have liked to have a girl but he did not want to have to spend a long time getting her. He did not want to get into the intrigue and the politics. He did not want to have to do any courting. He did not want to tell any more lies. It wasn’t worth it.He did not want any consequences. He did not want any consequences ever again. He wanted to live along without consequences. Besides he did not really need a girl. The army had taught him that. It was all right to pose as though you had to have a girl. Nearly everybody did that. But it wasn’t true. You did not need a girl.(CSS 112-113)
Sexuality is a crucial factor in this particular story and in the construction of our protagonist’s identity. Krebs’s sexual development is woven through the story’s background and foreground and mixed up with his inability to (re-)adapt to life as he once knew it. Harold Krebs’s heterosexual desires have a strong homosocial incentive. The college photograph introduces homosociality in the opening lines of the story, and the concept is naturally extended into the military. The second snapshot sporting two German women may seem to speak against this reasoning, yet, as the passage just quoted makes clear, sexual encounters were part of the army’s male homosocial regime. Heterosexuality becomes an extension of homosociality, and the latter remains in the background as a safety net–there is no need for Krebs to become committed to a heterosexual relationship, or to a female other, because wanting to have a girl is only a “pose” associated with the male world of the army.7
Assumedly, Krebs’s first sexual experiences take place in Europe against the backdrop of the war (this seems to be implied by the story’s opening paragraphs), which goes some way in explaining his unwillingness to make an effort to get in touch with an American girl. Back in Oklahoma, Krebs suddenly lacks the homosocial bonds that shaped his sexuality and finds himself facing a complex cluster of relationships he is no longer a part of: “But they [the girls] lived in such a complicated world of already defined alliances and shifting feuds that Krebs did not feel the energy or the courage to break into it” (CSS 112). Having lost the male bonds that shaped his life (and his sexual desire) thus far, Krebs is unable to substitute the proper American heterosexual matrix for the tightly woven homosocial fabric he is used to. In her discussion of Freud’s take on melancholia, Butler writes:
In cases in which an ambivalent relationship is severed through loss, that ambivalence becomes internalized as a self-critical or self-debasing disposition in which the role of the other is now occupied and directed by the ego itself.(Gender Trouble 73-74)
The loss that Krebs suffers upon returning home–the loss of the homosocial ties he had relied on since high school–becomes part of his identity structure. The ambivalence of his sexuality (heterosexuality as produced by homosocial desire), as Butler tells us, can only result in melancholy self-debasement. Freud was, of course, particularly interested in the development of sexuality in childhood–and Butler focuses on the same issue–but this does not make the idea of melancholia as a necessary component of sexuality any less relevant to Krebs. We will see that Krebs’s relationship with his parents is problematic, to say the least–which becomes most blatantly obvious when Harold flatly tells his mother that he does not love her. The crux of Krebs’s sexuality is a nexus of loss and melancholia that reflects the formation of identity in the Oedipal stage. Krebs, through the loss he sustains, relives an oedipal scenario in which love for the (m)other has to be disavowed in order to be deflected onto a different object. Only, in Krebs’s case, he does not find his way out of the triangle.
He Liked the Pattern
In an attempt to deal with life in Oklahoma, Krebs decides to step outside of social life; he becomes interested in patterns:
There were so many good-looking young girls. Most of them had their hair cut short. When he went away only little girls wore their hair like that or girls that were fast. They all wore sweaters and shirt waists with round Dutch collars. It was a pattern.(CSS 112)
The pattern Krebs likes to watch only becomes a pattern when observed from the outside. Only by remaining on the outside of society is it possible to perceive social phenomena as structures. “If the ‘I’ is not at one with moral norms, this means only that the subject must deliberate upon these norms, and that part of deliberation will entail a critical understanding of their social genesis and meaning” (Butler, Giving an Account 8). If, in her early work, Butler emphasized how the subject is constituted by the social norms that condition its emergence, her recent writing leaves more room for a critical subject, a subject that is reflexive and takes itself and its own emergence as an object of thought. Krebs, rather than studying himself, is not “at one” with the norms he inhabits and is therefore able to study those norms as an uninvolved spectator. The patterns he finds in–or, more accurately, imposes upon–his surroundings are problematic; his longing for structure seems to reflect the melancholic desire for that lost homosocial space. It is not a coincidence, then, that he likes the girls with the boyish haircuts8 and flat shoes, nor is it a coincidence that he likes them for the patterned regularity reminiscent of his own high school picture:
He liked the look of them much better than the French girls or the German girls. But the world they were in was not the world he was in. He would like to have one of them. But it was not worth it. They were such a nice pattern. He liked the pattern. It was exciting.(113)
The sexualized desire for regularity becomes apparent not only in Krebs’s observations of these American young ladies, but also in his pastimes: For one thing, “He loved to play pool” (CSS 112)–an activity harmless enough in its own right, but one that heavily relies on geometrical abstractions. Billiards demands the construction of an abstract mathematical pattern from the actual position of balls on the table. In “Hemingway’s Concept of Sport,” Robert W. Lewis commented on Krebs’s affection for games because of their patterned and inconsequential nature: “Truly, pool, motoring (as pastime), and girls’ softball are mindless activities that are patterned (carefully patterned in the case of pool and softball), just as courtship and ‘getting ahead’ are, but the restrictions or rules of sport are purely arbitrary and gratuitous and without pretense to meaning or significance outside themselves” (Lewis 25).
Apart from sports, there are still other patterned activities in Harold Krebs’s life, such as playing the clarinet (CSS 112). Few things are more mathematically patterned than music–and clarinets, like many other musical instruments, require knowledge of fingering patterns. Consider also that the clarinet was originally a German instrument that became very popular in American jazz in the early 20th century. The instrument even shares Harold Krebs’s ethnic background, so that one might go so far as to say that this instrument (the shape of which is perhaps too obviously phallic to be interesting) symbolizes a successful transition from the old world to the new that Krebs finds himself unable to emulate.
We are also told that reading plays a big part in Krebs’s life-pattern, and later find out what it is Harold reads:
He sat there on the porch reading a book on the war. It was a history and he was reading about all the engagements he had been in. It was the most interesting reading he had ever done. He wished there were more maps. He looked forward with a good feeling to reading all the really good histories when they would come out with good detail maps.(CSS 113)
A map is an abstraction from reality yet again, reducing geographic space to an interpretation.9 Krebs is attempting to acquire an overview of his own past, and finds enjoyment in treating his present surroundings in the same way. However, this approach to life leads only to a rational and abstract view of Krebs’s troubles. In an extra Oedipal twist, Krebs becomes exactly like his father–non-committal.
One of the most striking (and hence often remarked-upon) characteristics of this particular short story is the way Hemingway uses repetitions and parallelisms. In the middle section of the story especially, we find an alternation of sentences beginning with “He liked” and “He did not want,” occasionally varying into “He would have liked” or “He wished.” Wendolyn Tetlow suggests that “in the second paragraph the recurrence six times of ‘he did not like’ and ‘he did not want’ counterpointing ‘he liked’ in the first paragraph, creates a rhythm of ‘yes-no’ that parallels the tension in the story between reluctance and persistence. The rhythm makes clear the conflict between Krebs’s desires and what he is able to deal with, or rather, life as it is” (73). Others, such as Kennedy and Curnutt, point out that “[t]hroughout ‘Soldier’s Home,’ echoes of [Gertrude] Stein’s rhythms and repetitions infuse Hemingway’s style” (5).10 There may be a specific reason for Hemingway’s use of Steinian repetitions in this particular story, however; through the repetitions, the story gains structural unity because of the recurring pattern. The reader is forced into a position similar to Krebs’s, forced to read the pattern and impose meaning on the story. In imposing meaning upon a story, the reader is arguably caught up in the same desire for abstraction that Krebs suffers from.
The reader attempting to puzzle out the patterns in the story is not necessarily a social failure like Krebs, but he or she assumes a similar position of outsideness. If society can be read as a normative structure, and a text can be seen as a pattern, then this is only possible because the structure or pattern is not entirely self-contained, but allows for (or even produces) an “outside” to itself. Normativity necessarily conjures up the spectre of that which is not normative and laws always establish that which is not lawful–structural entities create an “excess” that is not contained within the structure, though it depends on it. This concept of excess is vital to linking Butler’s thought with Krebs, and puts Krebs in a different light–he is fundamentally tied up in the “pattern” he attempts to study, as the structure of society makes his own subjectivity possible. A person is always more, however, than the position society allots to him or her. In Butler’s account of subjectivity, social constraints always create more than they can contain–a certain “psychic excess.”
Excess, that which is not captured by norms and regulations, is already apparent in the picture that shows Krebs and the other corporal looking “too big for their uniforms.” If, as argued previously, this phrase has a sexual connotation, it may well show Krebs’s evolution into a more mature individual, both in terms of sexuality and of intellectual development. Krebs’s uniform does not contain him–the structure meant to constitute him as a soldier produces something more than a soldier. The American structure Krebs returns to cannot encompass him either. Krebs no longer fits in, and the ways in which he has “grown” in Europe lead him into passivity. Being and remaining outside of the pattern he studies forecloses any serious form of commitment. Turning his surroundings into an object of study, Krebs no longer interacts with them, or the people in them.
Interaction is precisely what Krebs intends to avoid: “He did not want any consequences. He did not want any consequences ever again. He wanted to live along without consequences” (CSS 113). Consequences are parts of patterns governed by causality. The pool table may be seen as a symbol of the workings of causality safely confined to a non-permeable frame (even quite literally); one ball causes another to move in a mathematically predictable direction, but its course will be stopped by the frame of the pool table and not prove of any consequence outside. In the case of human interactions, however, psychology and indeterminacy take over and consequences can no longer be accurately predicted. Krebs therefore resolves to stay away from intersubjectivity and chaos, and lives in a world of rational abstraction limited to predictable outcomes.
Butler suggests that “ethical deliberation is bound up with the operation of critique” (Giving an Account 8), implying that the subject who is “not at one with moral norms” and who deliberates upon those norms shares this position with the critic. This is not to say that Krebs becomes a cultural critic, but his outlook on society allows him to obtain a view of norms and patterns that the critic would be equally eager to tease out. Krebs’s delicate position on the margins of society will ultimately cause him to trespass against some of its most fundamental values. To reflect on moral norms is to assume a distance from them–only from a position of awareness can we sin against them; only after eating from the tree of knowledge, do we find out what constitutes sin–and thus we find ourselves outside the social field of paradise. In choosing to step outside the social field he enjoys observing, Krebs becomes more liable to break its rules. He thinks too much–such men are dangerous.
The Great Taboo
A dimension of “Soldier’s Home” that seems to have been downplayed or underemphasized in much criticism is the relationship between Krebs and his younger sister and, especially, to what extent this relationship might be justifiably thought of as incestuous.11
“I tell them all you’re my beau. Aren’t you my beau, Hare?””You bet.””Couldn’t your brother really be your beau just because he’s your brother?””I don’t know.””Sure you know. Couldn’t you be my beau, Hare, if I was old enough and if you wanted to?””Sure. You’re my girl now.””Am I really your girl?””Sure.””Do you love me?””Uh, huh.””Will you love me always?””Sure.”(CSS 114)
This whole dialogue may be friendly banter or innocent playacting, but conjures an incestuous relationship between Harold and one of his sisters at least on a discursive level. Add into the equation that “[h]e was still a hero to his two younger sisters” (112)–the hero that he could not be to his fellow townsmen–and it seems that Harold’s affects vis-à-vis his sister may not be altogether “innocent” by the simple moral standards of, for instance, his deeply religious mother.
Significantly, Krebs’s sister engages in an activity that can be called patterned,12 and she trespasses against a gender boundary whilst doing so, firmly treading on the homosocial ground of Krebs’s past. She plays baseball and, according to herself, “can pitch better than lots of the boys. I tell them all you [Krebs] taught me. The other girls aren’t much good” (CSS 114). Significantly, she is the one who brings in the mail and hands Harold The Kansas City Star, which he then opens to the sporting page. She even seems to have picked up on the interest this situation may arouse in Krebs and, when the latter is reluctant to come and watch her play (indoor) baseball, actively twists sexuality and sports into emotional blackmail: “Aw, Hare, you don’t love me. If you loved me, you’d want to come over and watch me play indoor” (115). The whole conversation between Harold and his sister takes up no more than a page, much of it space-consuming dialogue. After Helen’s first teasing sentence, we read: “Krebs looked at her. He liked her. She was his best sister” (114). The conversation ends abruptly (but by no means coincidentally) when Mother Krebs comes in with Harold’s breakfast (an invigorating start to a man’s day, consisting of two fried eggs, crisp bacon, and a plate of buckwheat cakes to be topped with maple syrup) and tells her daughter to “run along.” Mrs. Krebs interrupts the (mock) sexualized conversation between brother and sister, and emphatically addresses the latter using her first name. Not until this moment do we find out that her name is Helen. We never learn the other sister’s name, nor does she put in an appearance anywhere in the story.
The story concludes with the sentence: “He would go over to the schoolyard and watch Helen play indoor baseball” (CSS 116). Helen is here named here for only the second time in the story. All in all, she crops up four times in the story, with surprisingly regular intervals in between–a lovely pattern indeed. The first time, she is one of “his two young sisters” (112) and the second time she is explicitly focalized through Harold as “his best sister” (114). The contrast between Harold thinking of her as “sister” before their flirtatious chat, and his subsequent decision to go and watch “Helen” play baseball, thus seems tied up with the mother’s naming the sister. Mother Krebs names Helen in order to try and pull Harold back into normal family life, but it seems that, because of the concretization of “sister” into “Helen,” she becomes more attractive instead. It is her company Harold decides to seek at the end of the story.
If mere naming is significant, then so is the name itself: the mythological Helen (of Troy) was blessed with legendary beauty and a talent for seduction. The sexual attraction inherent in the name Helen may well be the result of her parentage, her mother, Leda, famously having slept with Zeus, in the guise of a swan. The name “Helen” thus carries connotations of illegitimate sexuality and a disregard for the rules that constitute a normally functioning family. Apart from that, she is alliteratively associated with her brother, who is not only Harold, but also a Hero to her. (This alliteration is emphasised by the line: “You run along, Helen,” she [mother] said. “I want to talk to Harold” (CSS 115).)
Interrupted at this crucial point, the conversation between Helen and Harold becomes the perfect situation for Krebs in being of no consequence. For a man like Harold Krebs, who wants no consequences, how can any conversation be better than an eroticized chat with his sister (in whom he can have no official sexual interest, seeing that she is his sister), about an event as confined as indoor baseball (if baseball is already appealing in its own right–being a sport–it resembles pool even more when played indoors, safely framed by literal walls to contain the pattern of girls playing sports)–a conversation which has no issue (because it is fortuitously cut short by the maternal intervention)?
Along these lines, I do not claim that Harold and Helen have an incestuous sexual relationship, but that the cultural prohibition against incest allows for a “pose” of sexuality that would strongly appeal to Krebs’s sensibilities. Their conversation would plainly be flirtatious if it did not take place between brother and sister, so it paradoxically relies heavily on the incest taboo not to be incestuous, and to become culturally acceptable. Even so, Mrs. Krebs does not seem to like it and quite literally takes the sister’s place in joining Harold at the breakfast table.
“I Know, Mummy”
The scene between Harold and his mother is the most painful in this story, perhaps in all of In Our Time. She immediately pulls him back into the world of consequences, the very world that Krebs thought he was successfully managing to avoid. “There can be no idle hands in His kingdom,” the mother pleads, to which her son replies: “I’m not in His kingdom” (CSS 115). His mother appeals to him on the same grounds Krebs has tried to leave behind: religion, sexual morality (“I know the temptations you must have been exposed to. I know how weak men are” ), and the standard American business life. Krebs disavows being in God’s kingdom, and emotionally distances himself from his mother and the world she represents: “Krebs looked at the bacon fat hardening in his plate” (115).13 Mother Krebs tries to persuade Harold of the need to find a job, and informs him that his father wants Harold to come and see him in his office (the office which must be even less “homey” than the home this ex-soldier finds himself in).
“Is that all?” Krebs said.”Yes. Don’t you love your mother, dear boy?””No,” Krebs said.(115-116)
When his mother starts crying after this brisk denial of affection, Krebs finds that his rather vague afterthought–“I don’t love anybody”–is of very little consolation to her. What follows is a humiliating mother-and-son scene harking back to childhood:
Krebs felt sick and vaguely nauseated.”I know, Mummy,” he said. “I’ll try and be a good boy for you.”(116)
It may seem odd that Krebs, an adult man who has seen some of the bloodiest battles the world has ever witnessed, can be induced to promise his Mummy (with capital M) that he’ll be a good boy for her. It may seem even odder that, after stooping to such overtly childish rhetoric, he is still not found willing to pray with his mother. On the other hand, the scene also displays the wholly perfunctory nature of Krebs’s consoling his mother: “Still, none of it had touched him” (116).
The story’s final paragraph is dense and difficult. Krebs realizes that his attempts “to keep his life from being complicated” have failed, and he resolves to “go to Kansas City and get a job and [his mother] would feel all right about it” (CSS 116). His one and final act of resistance, however, is not to go and see his father in the office, but to go instead to watch his sister play indoor baseball. Lewis claims:
Once more in a moment of crisis Krebs escapes from social patterns and finds haven among the patterns of sport, and here there might seem to be some hope that it is a prelude to a more thorough and general escape, an escape to freedom outside the context of games.(26)
This interpretation is particularly valid in the context of Lewis’s focusing on the meaning of sports in this short story. From a more gendered point of view, however, I believe the ending is richer and more problematic. We have seen that Krebs steps outside of social structures in order to study them, and this is precisely the gesture he forcefully repeats at the story’s conclusion. Again he trespasses against the “rules” or structure of the family by not heeding his mother’s words and by refusing to turn to his father for guidance. He trespasses even further by returning to the link with his sister–a link that was, as we have seen, decisively interrupted by his mother and that we might describe as “non-non-incestuous.”14
Ultimately, Krebs’s refusal to go and talk to his father, and his decision to go and watch his sister, is a double sin against the pattern of the family. Krebs again steps out of normal life (in the sense of a life lived according to the norms) and enters a world that can only be described as a negative, as an outside. Seeing that Krebs remains in an uncommitted position–he decides to go and “watch Helen play indoor baseball”–it may be too optimistic to claim, as Lewis does, that Krebs “finds haven among the patterns of sport” (26). All four italicized words fall into the patterns that have been identified in this text. Krebs observes a girl who is his sister during a patterned activity in an enclosed space. This story’s final sentence becomes the climax of all Krebs’s emotional problems.
A Game of Negatives
In my reading of “Soldier’s Home,” I have tried to stress how identity, and particularly gendered identity, emerges within the context of a particular social setting. Harold Krebs gets into (gender) trouble because decisive moments in his life take place in two very different settings illustrated not only by the two photographs, but also by the English name Harold and the German-sounding Krebs. One setting (the home mentioned in the title) will not accommodate a genuine narrative about the other. The political criticism inherent in Hemingway’s text, and the aspect that I want to emphasize, is not only about the way war veterans are treated back home (although Steven Trout has shown that this is one of the story’s themes), but also about the impossibility of accurately representing the experience of war. Krebs’s time in Europe shaped his identity, but the closure Oklahoma tries to impose alienates Krebs from his own life-story. He remains on the outside of society and becomes an “abject body.” In a final act of defiance, he trespasses against ordinary rules of family life, and even against the very incest taboo that structures American as well as European communities. The imposition of closure on Krebs’s war narrative backfires, and Krebs turns against the one who most severely tries to impose it–his mother.
Because of the way he tries to come to terms with past and future (by studying the social context as a pattern), Krebs finds that “It was all a lie both ways” (CSS 113). It becomes clear to him that experience cannot simply be converted into a narrative. That narrative, oddly, becomes a less than perfect substitute for lived experience–something is lost in translation. However, reading “Soldier’s Home” through the lens of Butler allows us to see that this loss is a necessary condition for a narrative to emerge. Even if Krebs unsuccessfully grapples with the society he finds himself in, we do read about this struggle in the short story called “Soldier’s Home.” The story we read is thus, paradoxically, a narrative about the impossibility of narrating the truth about the war. It is a lie both ways.
Kennedy and Curnutt (6) claim that the line “It was all a lie both ways” (CSS 113) was inspired by Sherwood Anderson’s “The Untold Lie.” The line in Anderson reads: “Whatever I told him would have been a lie” (253). “The Untold Lie” and “Soldier’s Home” are indeed similar in the sense that they are stories about the impossibility of language–the only way to avoid lying is not to speak at all. “Soldier’s Home” is more subtle in its treatment of this theme, however, in that it acknowledges not only the impossibility, but also the necessity of narrative; Krebs finds himself compelled to lie in order to be listened to, even to the extent that his lies taint his memories of the war because he cannot translate his European war experiences into the pattern of Oklahoma. At the same time, however, the patterns of the story do come together neatly in the final sentence, so that the formal unity of the story is tightly maintained and brilliantly balanced. Even though Krebs’s identity relies on the experiences he does not (and cannot) relate, because of the incommensurability of the different settings, it is apparently possible to construct a story about his life that is formally patterned and seemingly “closed” while at the same time open-ended and uncertain.
The reading of this story is a game, in which the reader is pushed into a position similar to that of Krebs’s–facing a beautiful and exciting pattern, but unable to quite make sense of it. The reader is pushed to the outside of the story in the same way that Krebs is pushed to the outside of a society that cannot accommodate him or his story.