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Lies and Cover-up in “Soldier’s Home”

Untruths abound in Ernest Hemingway’s “Soldier’s Home,” a short story that glimpses into a soldier’s re-acclimation to American life following World War I.  At center is an individual, profoundly changed by experience, and his struggle to reintegrate into a seemingly unaffected society. Lies, at once both corrosive and comforting (for the individual and community respectively) serve to bridge the disconnect between the two. Published in 1925, six years later than its setting, “Soldier’s Home” is both a sobering reflection on the war’s effects and an indictment of the nation’s collective response in the years that followed.

Written at the height of the Roaring Twenties, a time by which those privileged enough were able to replace thoughts of war with whiskey (of the bootlegged variety), Hemingway’s narrative is aimed squarely at his contemporary reader. This was a reader who, in Hemingway’s estimates, could not have sooner opted for the escapes of a “mass-produced and consumed” culture over a serious contemplation of the century’s most cataclysmic event.[1] The disinterested small town populace in “Soldier’s Home” acts as Hemingway’s stand-in for the American public at large: easily bored, hungry for something “new,” with an “attention [that] always wandered.”[2]

While such charges are levied against a 1919 crowd in the story, they are more typical of the “Lost Generation’s” criticisms of the “shallow, anti-intellectual, and materialistic” tendencies they saw arise during the twenties.[3] Those tendencies, aided in large part by the increased prevalence of radio and film, resulted in a progressively homogenous and commercial American culture. This culture, much to the ire of the generation’s writers, Hemingway included, seemed to preach to the indulging of one’s “pleasure principle” (to borrow from Sigmund Freud, another of the era’s contemporaries), perhaps to excess.

Apart from the means by which this shift came about, most significant is the reason for its occurrence: the war’s end. At best, the decade’s indulgent streak exhibited a nation’s buoyant recovery. At worst, it marked a repression of the highest order. For those like Hemingway, the war provided a view of a world laid bare, the effects of which he contended with in near all of his subsequent work. For others however, the realities presented on the battlefield were truths to best avoid and forget. For those who recognized and favored a world “stripped of illusions,” the subsequent period in American life was one built on a distorted worldview fueled by a false sense of comfort.[4] Rather than confront their past, Americans chose to conceal it with the “lies” so often referenced in “Soldier’s Home.”

None of this suggests malice on the part of the average person, as the desire to quickly move on from the horrors of war is an understandable one. However the ramifications of doing so without serious reflection were not insignificant and provide the basis for which Hemingway frames his story.

At its heart, “Soldier’s Home” tells the tale of a changed soldier’s return to a familiar environment in which “nothing was changed…except that the young girls had grown up.”[5] The juxtaposition between a radically changed internal life and a completely unaltered external one serves as the backbone to the story. The scenario reflects the United States’ status as one of the war’s few major participants so far removed from the war’s actual destructive effects. Absent the bombed out towns, trenches and makeshift cemeteries, the most profound reminders of the war remained largely internal.

The immediate consequence of this “degree of removal” from the war’s physical effects was the ease with which the public was able to divert their attention elsewhere only a short period after the war’s end. Krebs’ return and his stories elicit muted responses from his townsfolk because the novelty of a soldier’s return had been exhausted in the prior year. (As earlier mentioned, this sort of critique is not lost on Hemingway’s reader, one far more accustomed to new and regular stimulation.)

However, the story does not suggest its characters simply ignore the events of the preceding years. Such would have been impossible as the war required the collective efforts of an entire nation, and the armistice marked a sharp and sudden comedown for combatant and civilian alike. Rather in need to reconcile their prior experiences with an abrupt return to utter normalcy, the characters of the story all resort to the same thing: lies.

For the community, the lies provide a form of comfort. They assure them that since things look the same, they must be. They are the assurances of love that Krebs grants to his sister and mother after their own insistences, not his. They are the sensational stories that Krebs’ acquaintances from the pool room choose to listen to instead of his actual experiences. But most of all they are the means by which everyone is able to tell themselves nothing had changed when in fact everything had.

The society itself then becomes one founded upon falsehoods in which reality dare not be approached let alone confronted.  This reaction flies in the face of Hemingway’s personal ethos and the story serves as his rebuke of American society’s increasingly elaborate “attempts to cover up” the hard to swallow facts of life.[6]

Within the story, we see a contrast between American and European girls (specifically French and German) that further supports this larger rejection of the American way.  In brief, the American girls are described as pretty and talkative, and the European ones unattractive and quiet. And though Krebs far preferred the look of the Americans, it is written that “the world they were in was not the world he was in.”[7] Such a cryptic description refers not to geography but mental state. To engage with an American girl meant submitting to their pesky practice of talking, something Krebs finds himself unable to do without lying. Instead, he prefers the company of Europeans largely for their lack of complications.

Setting aside the language barriers that might keep such conversations to a minimum, Krebs’ preference for the European girls should also be read as a preference for Europe in whole (he does in fact state his partiality for Germany). The continent, in many parts visibly ravaged by the war (particularly in France), could not brush aside its memory as easily as Americans could. Instead, their inability to hide from the truths of war (and life) was viewed as a freedom for Krebs (and Hemingway too): a freedom from having to continually lie and cover up his personal experiences. To pursue the American girl conversely would mean to participate in a system and way of life that sought to avoid serious reflection on what Krebs gave so much for.

Thus far this paper has concentrated on the larger elements of “Soldier’s Home” that perhaps best relate to Hemingway’s assessment of the American public as a whole. It would be impossible to close without considering its main character, Harold Krebs. Though you will find that even the protagonist is a reflection on the general public.

In many respects, the perpetually “embarrassed and resentful” Krebs portrayed in the story functions less like an individual human being and more as pliable model for those around him.[8] This passivity accompanies a general sense of numbness that pervades the story and is undoubtedly the result of Krebs’ shellshock. While he is perhaps guilty of the most lies told over the course of the story, they are all told at the behest of those that surround him and come at the cost of corroding his inner sense of self. Krebs even goes so far as to dissociate from his own personal experience, instead “attributing to himself things other men had seen” in effort to connect in a meaningful way with other people.[9]

The result is a young man who tells others what they want to hear, but in doing so denies to himself what he knows to be the truth. Unsurprisingly, Hemingway lays the blame for Krebs’ doing so at feet of those who surround him. The townspeople’s picking and choosing of which elements of Harold to believe and listen to and which ones to ignore and overlook mirrors for Hemingway the American public’s casual selectivity in approaching the war after its conclusion. Furthermore, by situating Harold Krebs’ struggle in an unidentified “Anytown, USA,” the story is designed not to represent an isolated incident but a common one with blame enough to go around to the story’s readers and their contemporaries across the whole of the nation.

Like his fellow writers of the “Lost Generation,” Hemingway viewed the progression of the 1920s as one moving in the wrong direction. While the end of World War I offered the opportunity to confront the harsh realities presented amid the mass destruction and death, Americans instead opted to cover up their problems with the frivolities of mass entertainment and all that it entailed. The decade became a material solution to an immaterial and existential problem.

In “Soldier’s Home,” Hemingway ultimately expresses his disappointment at this worrying fact. In challenging the indulgences and comforts of the 1920s, he undercuts the convivial atmosphere with a sharply critical perspective that calls to question the cost of the decade’s extravagance. Not until the market crash in 1929 would the public be forced to reflect meaningfully on the years now referred to as the “Jazz Age.” In the meanwhile, “Soldier’s Home” served as a mid-decade censure for those willing to listen and take its message to heart. However, judging from the decade’s continued slide towards its various diversions, it seems not many had.

[1] James Roark et al., The American Promise: A History of the United States, 3rd ed. (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005), 846.

[2] Ernest Hemingway, “Soldier’s Home,” in The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway (New York: Modern Library, 1938), 70.

[3] Roark, 849.

[4] Roark, 849.

[5] Hemingway, 71.

[6] Roark, 849.

[7] Hemingway, 72.

[8] Hemingway, 75.

[9] Hemingway, 70.

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