Nick at night: nocturnal metafictions in three Hemingway short stories

Citation metadata

Date: Fall 2002
From: The Hemingway Review(Vol. 22, Issue 1)
Publisher: Chestnut Hill College
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,908 words

Document controls

Main content

Article Preview :

IN HIS BIOGRAPHY OF ERNEST HEMINGWAY, Kenneth Lynn suggests that Malcolm Cowley, Philip Young, and others have misread the Nick Adams of "Big Two-Hearted River," that Nick's anxious and obsessive behavior in that tale does not arise explicitly from his wartime injuries, but rather, originates in an earlier family trauma (Lynn 105). Writing about the Nick of "Now I Lay Me" and "A Way You'll Never Be," Carl Eby considers that the author has "confused the symptoms of shell shock" with those caused by a trauma prior to the war (195) and James Phelan links Nick's war wounds with early "psychic trauma." (1) Agreeing with these readings, I will consider as a possible source of the young soldier/fisherman's anxiety two traumatic childhood incidents described by Nick in "Now I Lay Me," a rare first-person narrative in which the soldier Nick explains the motivation that drives his compulsive verbal habits of composition: "I had been living for a long time with the knowledge that if I ever shut my eyes in the dark and let myself go, my soul would go out of my body" (CSS 276). Using "Now I Lay Me" as a kind of subtext for two other related Nick Adams tales, both of which were begun in first person, then removed to third, we can better understand the nature and consequences of Nick's fear. (2) In addition, the three stories, "Big Two-Hearted River," "Now I Lay Me," and "A Way You'll Never Be," have much to tell us about parallel habits of composition in Nick Adams and Ernest Hemingway.

The stories are linked in the chronology of Hemingway's writing life as well as in Nick's young manhood. Published between 1924 and 1933, they look at Nick during and just after the war. Drafts of the tales reveal that Hemingway worked on all three stories during the 1920s, returning to "A Way You'll Never Be" several times until its publication in 1933 (Smith, Reader's Guide 268-270, Scafella 184-185). These were brother stories, carried in Hemingway's imagination together, and composed during less than a decade. In the chronology of Nick's life, the stories reverse the order in which they were published: "A Way You'll Never Be," published last, in 1933, looks at the youngest Nick, a soldier recovering from a head wound who returns too early to the Italian front, while "Big Two-Hearted River" (1924), gives us the soldier back home, fishing a Michigan river. In the middle story, "Now I Lay Me" (1927), a postwar Nick remembers a summer night behind the front lines when he held off sleep to keep his soul from leaving his body.

"Now I Lay Me" is central to our understanding of Nick; its narrative voice constitutes a consciousness that embraces and comments upon the three periods of Nick's life, illuminating the internal territory of disturbing, early memories. Its double time frame arguably includes the life events of the other two stories, because the "now" when the narrative is created represents a future reflective...

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A94775660