By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Soldier’s Home’ is a 1925 short story by the American writer Ernest Hemingway, and one of his earliest and clearest examples of what would prove a prevalent and important theme for his work: alienation.
You can read ‘Soldier’s Home’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Hemingway’s story below.
‘Soldier’s Home’: plot summary
A young man named Harold Krebs has returned from fighting in the First World War and can no longer relate to the people in his hometown in Oklahoma. He didn’t return to the United States until 1919, a year after the war ended, and the initial enthusiasm with which the townspeople greeted Krebs’ fellow soldiers upon their return has passed.
Hemingway tells us that when he initially returned home, he didn’t want to talk about the war, but when he realised that he did, nobody wanted to hear about it. In order to get people’s attention, Krebs finds that he has to lie about his experiences and give himself the credit for things which happened to other people. In time, he loses sight of what actually happened to him during the war.
Krebs spends his days sleeping in late, walking to the library to get a book (he reads a history book about the recent war), and practising his clarinet. He doesn’t have a job and tends to watch other people going about their lives.
He doesn’t want to find a girlfriend, although it’s clear he is interested in the girls of his hometown, but he doesn’t want to have to talk to them in order to try to woo one of them. At home, Harold’s mother tells him that she and Harold’s father have agreed to let him borrow the family car, with a view to encouraging him to get back out into the world, start courting, find a job and make a success of his life.
However, Harold doesn’t want to do any of this, and when his mother asks him if he loves her and will do it for her, he answers that he doesn’t love her, making her cry. He lies to comfort her, telling her that he does love her, and when he is unable to pray with her, she prays for him instead.
When he leaves the house, he vows to leave home and go to Kansas to get a job. Before that, however, he goes to watch his sister, Helen, play indoor baseball.
‘Soldier’s Home’: analysis
This 1925 story is perhaps Hemingway’s best story about the lasting impact the First World War had on his generation, and all of the men who had served in the war. Yet the tone is not, as one might expect (and as one finds in many other stories and novels about the First World War), one of anger at the loss of life, but rather a more conflicted attitude combining alienation, self-loathing, and dissociation.
Alienation is a key theme in ‘Soldier’s Home’. Krebs feels alienated from everyone in his hometown, whether it’s fellow veterans of the war (when he talks to them, he is reminded of his own lies about what happened), his own parents, or the girls of the town. Repeatedly, the narrator uses the word ‘complicated’: Krebs wants a girl as long as he wouldn’t have to talk to her and form a romantic bond, but doesn’t want to have to ‘work’ at wooing someone.
This is partly because he doesn’t want to have to lie again, and he has grown used to lying about his wartime experiences. In one particularly surprising moment, especially when we consider that the story was written just seven years after the end of the First World War, we learn that Krebs preferred the women of Germany – America’s enemies – to those of France, their allies.
Critics often draw attention to what’s known as Hemingway’s ‘iceberg’ theory, whereby the feelings and motivations of the characters in his work are largely beneath the surface, much as only the tip of the iceberg is visible above the surface of the water. This story is a good example of that.
When the narrator homes in on Krebs’ attitude to the girls of the town, it becomes clear that he does want to be a part of their world, but he is having to convince himself that he doesn’t, that he can do without social or romantic relationships. The repetition of the same feelings and attitudes subtly and gradually reveals the extent of his alienation: he is having to talk himself into believing that he is better off without them, yet his thoughts are continually fixated on them.
One of the stranger aspects of ‘Soldier’s Home’, though, is the relationship between Krebs and his sister, Helen: described as his ‘best sister’. She is the one ‘girl’ in Krebs’ hometown he has any time for, and the two of them talk as if they are courting, despite being brother and sister, with Helen trying to persuade ‘Hare’ to be her ‘beau’. Is this an unhealthy dynamic for a sibling relationship, and a sign of Krebs’ arrested development – that he has been left behind while those around him continue to forge their way ahead in the world?
Perhaps. But Hemingway’s well-known sparse and simple writing style also makes Krebs himself difficult to ‘know’, and therefore to judge. In many ways, although we find this style in Hemingway’s other fiction, it is peculiarly well-suited to ‘Soldier’s Home’, with the detached and almost clinically terse mode of narration mirroring Krebs’ own sense of isolation from his fellow human beings.