1When I first read “Indian Camp,” I was but a child. A child who tried at each new paragraph not to see or hear what Ernest Hemingway’s words had to reveal. A child whose curiosity, as she advanced in the story, lessened little by little.
2While growing up, I read most of Hemingway’s prose, carefully avoiding rereading “Indian Camp.” However, if “Indian Camp” had been prudently hidden in my bookcase, this short story’s ghostly meaning kept on reappearing on the threshold of my mind, as if its significance were longing to be acknowledged.
* * *
3Writing but simple sentences, avoiding both an excessive use of adjectives and adverbs and subordinate clauses, Hemingway’s prose is “stripped to its firm young bones” (Parker 460). A style, many critics of his time described as the mere fruit of his journalistic pen. As Dorothy Parker explained in her review of Men without Women: “Most reviewers discussed the volume with a tolerant smile and the word ‘stark,’ ” and Mr. Mencken, she continued, “slapped it down” saying that the stories were “ ‘sketches in the bold, bad manner of the Café Dôme’ ” (Parker). Accustomed to classical plots, those critics expected, perhaps, in “The Killers” a gunfight or Ole Andreson to run away; in “The End of Something” Marjorie to at least cry, or in “Big Two-Hearted River” a bear if not a “big bad wolf” to appear.
4To make their stories attractive to readers, authors usually map out their writings with climactic events, organized in such a way as to create a reality effect for the readers to believe that their metaphorical representations of the world and the men who live in it are plausible and that the actions they describe follow one another in a chronological course of time.
5If Hemingway’s simple prose gives the impression that his short stories can be easily understood, his plots do not follow a classical pattern of events. His prose is not built on a framework punctuated by an ever-changing wheel of fortune. Hemingway’s short stories seem to describe life as it is, but they do not search to reconcile the discordant events of life. They simply present life: most of the time anti-climactic.
6However, if Hemingway were merely describing life’s meaningless events, he would not be the author he is known to be. As Dorothy Parker said: “The simple thing he does looks so easy to do. But look at the boys who try to do it” (Parker 461). The apparent simplicity of Hemingway’s prose and the anti-climactic stories he tells, veil symbolical and “fundamentally poetical narratives” (Abouddahab) in which the questions he asks are those which have been tormenting men ever since Eve took a bite of the tree of knowledge’s forbidden fruit.
7Assuredly, Ernest Hemingway’s short stories encompass many levels of understanding. A variety of meanings the reader might miss if she or he only analyzes their first diegetic layer. For, as Hemingway’s short stories are often told through an external third person narrative voice which, being cut off from involvement in the story, seems solely to be serving as dispensing information, one could decide to apprehend this author’s narratives as neutral descriptions of the outer world. In other words, as Hemingway’s writing contains no evaluative terms to indicate his own personal judgment, one could mistakenly decide to rely only on the reality effect produced by this author’s short stories to understand their meaning.
- 1 As the definition of the Dictionary of Critical Theory explains, according to Jacques Lacan, “the(...)
8However, even if it seems that Hemingway’s neutral descriptions only serve to describe the outer world, seemingly with no structural role in the unfolding of the narrative’s truth, one will come to realize, on the contrary, that they are elements essential to the creation of the poetical dimension of this author’s short stories, a poetical structure through which one is to discover Hemingway’s desire to reveal the individual’s odyssey through life, or, in the case of “Indian Camp,” the beginning of a young boy’s symbolical journey through existence. Hence, as one will see through the study of “Indian Camp,” the discordant events of life Hemingway seems to describe stand as the different metaphors constituting the writer’s organized poetical narrative, revealing the whole, or what Lacanian psychoanalysis defined as the real,1 from which man is born but has to exit if he wants to ex-sist.
* * *
9The first part of “Indian Camp” describes Nick Adams, his father, Uncle George, and two Indians crossing a lake to reach an Indian camp where Nick’s father, Dr. Adams, is to help an Indian woman to have her baby. Reading the first paragraphs of this short story, one could easily say that they are but a description helping to create a plausible context for the understanding of the story. However, more than a simple description, Hemingway invites the reader to see the opening part of “Indian Camp” as the dramatization of a rupture suggestive of the passage from the physical world to a symbolical one. By depicting Nick Adams, his father, and Uncle George crossing a lake, then a beach, a meadow, a wood… to reach the Indian camp, the narrator underlines that those characters have been symbolically separated from the world they know, though, by describing this scene through Nick Adams’s eyes only, the narrator insists on the fact that it is mainly through the vision of a child that he is to depict this moment of rupture.
10To signify the rupture Nick is to experience, or the beginning of the poetical journey the latter is to accomplish, the narrator creates what one could call a mirror structure between the world of Nick, his father and uncle, and the Indian camp, a mirror structure the reflective aspect of the lake establishes. In the same way as Alice passes through the mirror in Through the Looking Glass, Hemingway brings Nick to enter a world which resembles his, stripped of its disguise of modernity: the Indian camp’s aspect, as one may imagine, being devoid of the modern world’s attributes. Indeed, from the moment Nick, his father, and Uncle George arrive at the Indian camp (after having crossed the lake in rowboats), the narrator insists on the primitive aspect of the place, pointing out, for example, that the Indians are living in shanties which have no electricity, as implied, for instance, by the description of “an old woman standing in the doorway [of the shanty] holding a lamp” (84). The narrator also emphasizes this rudimentary appearance by suggesting the shanty’s lack of hygiene, underlining its terrible odor : “the room smelled very bad” (ibid.). However, more than understanding the contrast between the world of the Adamses and the Indian camp as a way to describe “the origins of a bitter racial conflict between Native and white American” (Strychacz 61), or to announce the representation of “a male to male rivalry, white male against Indian male” (Lovell Strong 30), this opposition is to be regarded in terms of its symbolic significance.
11By representing these white people in the Indian Camp, Hemingway is confronting them with a world different from theirs, a world bereft of its modern disguise, revealing hence the nakedness of human truth. Thus, more than the description of this place’s primitive aspect, the Indian camp’s appearance reminds one of the representation one conjures up of the world of man’s origins in which the absence of what is known as modernity and its counterparts - knowledge and science - permits, as will be seen, Nick’s as well as his father’s state of ignorance to be revealed.
12If Hemingway highlights the separation from the world that Nick, his father and uncle know by means of his words, the structure of his narrative also helps to signify it. By breaking up his sentences, only dispensing neutral pieces of information which are not coordinated with each other, this author emphasizes the rupture Nick is to undergo. In other words, the silences in between the sentences shed light on Nick’s ignorance as to where he is going and for what purpose. He is described as capable only of stating the little he can see or hear.
13The use of repetitive sounds and structures is also revealing of Nick’s break with his world or the state of ignorance in which this separation leaves him. For example, by saying: “Nick and his father got in the stern of the boat and the Indians shoved it off and one of them got in to row” (83), and then: “Uncle George sat in the stern of the camp rowboat. The young Indian shoved the camp boat off and got in to row Uncle George” (ibid.), the narrator highlights the limit Nick Adams is confronted with when trying to say what is happening: the parallel the narrator draws between the structures of those sentences showing that Nick, unable to see beyond what is taking place, can merely describe the repetitive actions the other characters are depicted carrying out.
14Hence, more than just expressing a notion of rupture, by suggesting Nick Adams’s state of ignorance, Hemingway brings the reader to imagine the symbolical limit this child character will have to go beyond in order to advance in his discovery of the Indian world, which is the mirror of his own. As Rédouane Abouddahab has explained in his study of “in-betweenness” in the story, where he considers diegesis and discourse as two closely interconnected planes:
“Indian Camp” immediately places us on a limit (“shore”) and makes us perceive through the use of repetition, the urgency of a punctuation, a scansion. From the outset, indeed, begins a play on assonance and on repetition whose very persistence is the sign of the anguish [Nick] is to soothe [...]. (Abouddahab 91)
15The atmosphere of mystery Hemingway creates around Nick’s trip to the Indian camp also participates in highlighting the latter’s state of ignorance as to the knowledge his odyssey is to unfold. Indeed, starting from the first line of this short story, Hemingway describes Nick and his father and uncle getting into two boats, rowed by Indians, with no indication as to where they are going. It is not until the fourth paragraph, when Nick is described asking his father where they are heading, that we learn they are going to an Indian Camp. The description of the prevailing darkness also helps to feed this mysterious atmosphere. By setting the beginning of this story at night, Hemingway underlines Nick’s, his father’s and uncle’s incapacity to find their way to the Indian camp without the Indians’ help. The narrator also emphasizes this incapacity by adding a mist to the obscurity, making it quite impossible for them to know where they are. Thus, Nick can only hear “the oarlocks of the other boat quite ahead of them in the mist” (83). Furthermore, by multiplying the number of places through which his characters pass: “the lake shore,” “the river,” “the beach,” “the meadow,” “the woods,” “the logging road,” and by enumerating the various directions they take through the use of prepositions such as: “up,” “from,” “to,” “into,” “on,” “along,” “around,” “out,” Hemingway gives the impression that the path leading to the Indian camp is a labyrinth through which only the Indian characters can find their way. This difficult access to the Indian camp suggests that it is a protected, secret place and the dogs which come running to bark at the characters, like Cerberus guarding the entrance to Hades, add to the secrecy of the place.
16By signifying Nick’s state of ignorance both through the structure of the narrative as well as through the description of the pervading mysterious atmosphere, Hemingway evokes the limits man encounters when apprehending the world of his origins, or the world of the Other, a world which holds “the order of a knowledge that the subject conveys but is unaware of” (Nasio 28). The image of the lake is again extremely significant of that powerlessness man is a victim of. Indeed, by representing the two rowboats crossing from one shore to another, Hemingway symbolizes man’s incapacity to embrace the wholeness of his condition on earth. Imprisoned in the chronological course of time, he can only navigate the stream of his life, from birth to death, not knowing what hides on the banks of his existence. Hence, one could say that the lake stands as the poetical symbolization of the unconscious: a structure, as will now be seen, whose contradictory co-existing drives Hemingway reveals.
17As Rédouane Abouddahab has noted, crossing the lake corresponds to crossing the symbolical limit between the conscious and the unconscious, gaining access to the Other Scene, where the subject’s truths, dramatized through metonymic displacements and metaphoric substitutions, are linked to the radical and fundamental reality of sexuality and death (Abouddahab 91). Through the description of Nick Adams’s symbolical journey, the narrator stages the moment when a man first experiences the sign of his human condition, a moment when confronted with the swan-song of his mortal destiny, he will have to make a choice: he can either let himself be attracted to the perspective of going back to when he was not, or when he had not yet undergone the separation from the world of his origins, or he can decide to live, i.e. to symbolically go through that rupture over and over again in order to exit the real from which he was born, i.e. to ex-sist.
18As soon as Nick, his father, and Uncle George are represented in the Indian shanty, the narrative focuses solely on the Indian woman’s body and her screaming, and on the way the other characters react to this “audible sight.” If Nick’s father and the different Indian male characters are, each in their own way, trying to deny the terror this scene evokes, the narrator shows that Nick cannot but see and hear the Indian woman and the fundamental “knowledge” her body and her screaming are symbolical of.
19As with the crossing of the lake, the trip to the Indian camp, and the camp itself, through the image of the Indian woman’s body, the text signifies, once again, the dimension of the real. Or, through the description of this female body in labor, Hemingway symbolizes the place where the mysteries of man’s existence are kept, a place from which man is separated once he is born, obliged to live with this primeval loss. The different occurrences of the verbs indicating the woman’s screaming, i.e. the inarticulate sounds she produces: “She screamed just as Nick and the two Indians followed his father and Uncle George into the shanty,” “Just then the woman cried out”(84), remind one both of this painful primeval separation and of the limit before which man stands when he tries to decipher the significance of that split. The characters, however, are described trying hard to ignore that significance. Hence, the men are sitting in the dark and smoking “out of range” of the screams, while Nick’s father is described as shielded by his scientific knowledge.
20Indeed, from the moment they are in the shanty, the narrator presents Nick’s father concentrating solely on the preparation of the room for the Indian woman’s operation. Through this presentation, the narrator suggests not only the doctor’s professionalism, but also, on a symbolic level, the imprisonment his science as a doctor constitutes. Dr. Adams does not waste a second. When he is described explaining to his son what he is doing, it is while waiting for the water to heat, or while washing his hands: “While [the water] was heating he spoke to Nick” (84), “While his father washed his hands very carefully and thoroughly, he talked” (85). Nick’s father is depicted as an automaton carrying out the surgical procedure to the letter, not worrying about anything else: neither the screaming of the Indian woman nor the reactions of his son. For Nick’s father, the screams of the Indian woman “are not important” (84). They only indicate that the woman is in labor and that she needs care. Paradoxically, his science as a surgeon seems here to be but the trompe l’œil of his fundamental ignorance. Although he knows what to do to deliver this woman’s baby, he seems incapable of understanding the symbolical meaning this scene carries. In other words, his scientific knowledge appears to be a phantasmic phallus significant of a power he is devoid of.
21In parallel with the presentation of Dr. Adams’s scientific knowledge preventing him from hearing the Indian woman’s screams or the understanding they are significant of, the narrator specifies, as we have just seen, that the men of the village have “moved off up the road to sit in the dark and smoke out of range of the noise [the Indian woman] made” (84). This relevant remark not only reveals that they are trying to avoid the sound of the woman’s screaming, but that they are trying to repress the significance it is symbolic of by trying to hide in the darkness, sucking at their pipes as an infant would at his mother’s breast. This image, if not announcing the ineluctable separation of a mother and her child at the moment of birth, reveals the passage from man’s alleged innocence to the knowledge the screams of the Indian woman signify.
22Contrary to the men fleeing from the noise, or his father whose science prevents him from hearing it, Nick cannot but hear and watch the Indian woman, his father having wanted him to attend the operation. As Nick’s father is represented unaware of the woman’s screaming, the narrator describes him thinking he can make his son watch this birth through the prism of his medical eyes. Hence, from the moment they enter the shanty, Dr. Adams explains to his son what this woman is going through and, while operating on her, describes to him the different stages of the surgical procedure. Paradoxically, by describing Nick’s father doing so, the narrator highlights the protective attitude the latter has towards his son, a protective attitude he also points out right from the beginning of the short story by describing Nick's father putting his arm around his son while in the boat. Hence, as the recurrent expression “Nick’s father” implies, more than a doctor, this character has to be seen above all as a father. However, the narrator, by depicting Nick’s father bringing his son to witness the Indian woman’s operation, suggests that this father is perfectly incapable of preventing his child from seeing and hearing what he has learnt, through his medical science, to repress: the “dying mementos” of man’s mortal destiny.
23Indeed, the narrator shows that, far from watching this delivery through the eyes of a surgeon, Nick is incapable of ignoring the brutality of the scene, even though he is described trying hard to repress it. Even if, when entering the shanty, he pretends to understand what is going on, soon afterwards, the narrator represents him asking his father to give the Indian woman something in order to “ ‘make her stop screaming.’ ” In the same way, while referring to the operation, the narrator repeats Nick’s incapacity to watch: “He was looking away so as not to see what his father was doing,” “Nick didn’t look at it,” “Nick did not watch” (85). Nick tries not to see or hear the Indian woman’s screaming body, yet Hemingway shows that this child character cannot but witness the meaning this scene is symbolical of. Through the screaming of the Indian woman, Hemingway symbolizes what the Greeks defined as the Phthoggos, i.e., the siren’s song,
[...] a chant sounding like a scream […] at the heart [of which] there [is] the extreme of jouissance and of death. The scream […] seems to bring us back to the real dimension of the voice. This passage to the inarticulate that reduces the whole significance to a scream, coagulates a jouissance that confounds life with death. It can be seen both as the death rattle in its raucousness as well as that of the orgasm. (Bentata 2)
24Hence, by confronting this child character to the screaming of the Indian woman, Hemingway signifies the moment before the voice of the subject has evolved into language, or before one part of the self has become unconscious, and the unconscious is, as Lacan says, “structured like a language”, a language which allows both the subject to construct himself and his drives to be put into place.
25The image of the Indian woman’s body is also significant of that symbolical stage. Or to be more accurate, through the images of this body, as well as those of the lake, the trip to the Indian camp, the Indian camp itself, and the screaming of the Indian woman, the text reveals the different metaphors which, through their metonymic linking, constitute the structure of the unconscious. Hence, through the linking of those different images, Hemingway signifies the structural functioning of the unconscious, or he shows that “the unconscious is a knowledge which, stirred by the force of jouissance, works as a metonymic chain in order to produce a fruit: the metaphorical signifier; and an effect: the subject of the unconscious” (Nasio 78). Moreover, by renewing those different images, symbols of the “metaphorical signifier,” Hemingway highlights the repetition to which man is subjected to permit the structure of the unconscious to function and suggests the tragic consequences (Liny) this repetition can engender; this repetition being the sign of man’s incapacity to grasp the wholeness of which he is a part.
26By placing Nick Adams in the immediate presence of a body “ ‘in labor,’ ” the narrator signifies the moment when the child, whose personality is not yet constructed, is confronted with the wholeness of the real from which he comes, or with the necessary understanding of his condition: this child, a writer to be, is to see the physical if not the symbolical whole/hole from which flow the mysteries of existence. After the image of the body of the Indian woman, the synecdoche that constitutes this woman’s hole, in other words her vagina, symbolizes the wholeness of the real but also the hole that the signifier has left empty, significant of the primeval separation the subject is to undergo when he or she starts ex-sisting. And even if Nick is, after a while, unable to look at the Indian woman’s body, the basin he holds for his father is but the metonymical reminder of this primeval separation. As Rédouane Abouddahab has noted, “the basin Nick holds for his father, receptacle into which are thrown the undesirable signifiers of jouissance, can then be apprehended as the signifier of the fathers’ gaping fault : BAY/SIN” (Abouddahab 94). Indeed, as this critic has brought to light, in Hemingway’s narratives, the real fathers are guilty of not being the adequate avatar of the symbolical father, who is universal and unique, efficiently structuring the real and naming the holes of existence.
27 “Indian Camp” reveals the contradictory reactions man may have when confronted with the knowledge of his fallible condition. On the one hand, the text sketches the men hiding in the dark and Nick’s father performing his task, denying the screams of the Indian woman with his medical jargon, on the other hand, it describes Nick, especially in the beginning, unable to repress the naked truth he is witnessing. However, if Nick seems to be the only character incapable of blocking out the Indian woman’s screams, the silence of the Indian husband lying wounded on the upper bunk of the shanty, seems also to be revealing of man’s incapacity to ignore or to transcend what those screams are significant of. Not only by representing the Indian husband keeping silent, but by emphasizing this palpable silence, opposing it to the screams of his wife, Hemingway suggests that this man is unable to pierce the real in order to ex-sist. Or, to be more precise, because the Indian husband is hurt and has to lie on the upper bunk, he cannot but witness the scene which is taking place in the lower bunk. A scene, as one may imagine, which is all the more significant for the Indian husband as he is, at least theoretically, the father of the baby to be born. As such, he is a powerless, tragic witness of a global truth whose meaning he cannot grasp and it is his powerlessness which leads him to commit suicide by cutting his throat. Through this tragic act, the story highlights the tragic consequences man’s drives may have. Because the Indian husband could not go beyond the real as dramatized in this scene, he remained the toy of his own drives or death instincts that convey one’s desire to return to an inorganic state.
28By confronting Nick with the problematic birth of a boy and then with the suicide of the Indian husband, one could say that Hemingway signifies the symbolical stage when the child realizes the presence of the other who lives in him, an other whose recognition signifies the child’s definitive loss of “innocence.” Indeed, as the narrator reveals through his representation of the father discovering the body of the dead husband before the eyes of his child, this state of innocence is gone forever until one is to lie down in death’s bed. By underlining that Nick “had a good view” (86) of the dead Indian’s open throat – a view that is improved not only by the lamp Nick’s father is holding over the Indian man, but because he can see his father “tipp[ing] the Indian’s head back” (ibid.) –, the narrator reveals that Nick can never be the same again. Once one has gained that fundamental knowledge, one can never recover one’s lost innocence. The story symbolizes this truth by representing Nick’s father stripped of his own medical disguise after having seen the body of the dead Indian.
29Indeed, if Nick’s father says boastfully to his brother after the success of the operation: “ ‘That’s one for the medical journal [...]. Doing a Caesarian with a jack-knife and sewing it up with nine-foot, tapered gut leaders’ ” (ibid.), excited by what he has accomplished, he is described in a radically different manner after discovering the body of the dead Indian, as “all his post-operative exhilaration” is now “gone” (ibid.). It is only when he finds out that the Indian husband killed himself while he was operating on his wife that Nick’s father seems to understand the significance of the scene he has, until then, been witnessing with a surgeon’s eyes. In other words, after the discovery of the dead body, he behaves like a father, trying to prevent his son from seeing the dead Indian. Though he wished his son to witness a birth, i.e. the beginning of one’s existence, he certainly did not want him to be the witness of death, and what is more, a suicide, i.e. the violently tragic signification of one’s mortality. However, as the description of Nick seeing the dead body indicates, it is useless: not even a father can prevent his child from having the sign of his mortal condition signified to him.
30Through the last part of this short story when Nick and his father are crossing the lake again, the narrator reveals that both characters have reached the threshold of an understanding: Nick hearing for the first time the swan-song of his mortal destiny, his father comprehending he is incapable of preventing his son from hearing that terrible sound. Hence, when on the boat going back Nick asks his father questions about the meaning of what he has just witnessed, the father cannot truly answer them. The reader is presented with Nick’s passing questions while his father’s answers become shorter and shorter throughout their brief dialogue. Furthermore, if Nick and his father are depicted sitting together in the boat taking them to the Indian camp, the father’s arm around his son, in the final scene, on their way back, they are significantly separated as Nick is sitting “in the stern,” while “his father [is] rowing” (87). This scene, taking place at dawn, clearly shows Nick’s passage from innocence to the awareness and recognition of his original selfhood. Nick has indeed found his own response: “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” (ibid.).
31This short story as well as all his others are but the different metaphors created by Hemingway to make do with the real. If man cannot grasp the wholeness to which he belongs, artistic creation permits the writer to metaphorically expose the hole at the core of existence and at the same time cover it with original words and images. Through the image of the bass “jump[ing], making a circle in the water” (ibid.), Hemingway symbolizes his power as an artist to signify the real on a poetical level. Even if man is the prisoner of Chronos, he can, through the art of fiction, act upon the temporal dimension of which he is a captive. Hence, contrary to some authors for whom writing is the representation of reality, Hemingway’s narratives are organized poetical wholes in which the fundamental drives are transformed into words, keeping him safe from being sucked in by the real.
* * *
32Reading Hemingway’s “Indian Camp,” the child that I was felt betrayed. Relying on this author’s simple way of writing, I lowered my guard trusting this short narrative not to go beyond the simple words that were used. And I got hurt. Badly hurt by the truth it unfolded.
33No, Hemingway’s short stories do not follow the pattern of events of classical plots. No happy or sad endings are to allow the reader a cathartic reading. No reversals to make the latter believe in his power to change what cannot be changed: one's mortality. Hemingway’s simple prose reveals life as it is, “a dream and folly of expectation,” and it forbids the reader to ignore this “folly” by constantly reminding him, through the nakedness of its words, of his condition. Hence, if Nick is described “feeling quite sure that he [will] never die,” the reader is left with “dying mementos.” In other words, he is left with simple if not inoffensive words Hemingway stripped of their imaginary disguise to reveal the real they are the vehicles of.
34Because they have been hurt by Hemingway’s fiction, some readers may decide not to reopen this author’s books ever again. However, this decision is again but the symptom of one’s desire not to admit the simple, though violent truth Hemingway’s words carry and which exhorted this author to write other stories. If he could not fight against what could not be fought, his writing, however, had the power to sublimate man’s “folly of expectation” by changing it into the enduring reality of art.