1. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Short Story Club (1): The Killers by Ernest Hemingway

    Discussion in 'Book Discussion' started by thirdwind, Feb 7, 2013.

    For the next two weeks, we'll be reading and discussing "The Killers" by Ernest Hemingway. You can find a copy of the story here. It can be found at several other sources as well.

    Let me start this discussion by saying that I think Hemingway's style of writing is better suited to writing stories than novels. The way he handles dialogue is as good as any writer out there, and this particular story is full of dialogue. I first read "The Killers" a long time ago along with some of his other famous stories. I don't remember much about the story, so I'm looking forward to revisiting it.
     
  2. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    This is a story I find a little difficult to get a handle on, at least in the first part, because we are now so far removed from the era in which it was published that it’s hard to know what Hemingway intended as humorous and what he intended as serious. It’s hard not to laugh at the dialogue of the killers, Max and Al, in the first part of the story because it reads like a parody of tough-guy talk. I suppose Hemingway meant this to be funny, because these two hitmen are clearly rather stupid. What professional hit man goes into a diner and announces they’re going to kill somebody?

    The tone takes a dark turn in the second part, when Nick goes to see Ole. Now we see the Hemingway I’m more familiar with. Everything here is the aftermath of an unseen drama. We don’t know why the killers are after Ole, but he does, and he’s resigned to his fate. He’s a beaten man already, just waiting for the time he’ll have to go out and die. Something important happened in the past – Ole must have crossed the wrong people – and we can imagine him running, hiding, and those he crossed planning his demise and relentlessly pursuing him. At last we’re here, and Ole is out of gas, tired of running, unable to escape his fate, trying to make his peace with himself.

    Nick only sees the very end of this process, and he doesn’t like what he sees in Ole. He returns to the diner and tells George he’s leaving town – this is more than he can handle, especially since he’s young. George simply tells him not to think about it. That’s about as Hemingway as it gets.

    I know this is one of Hemingway’s most famous stories, but I don’t think it’s anywhere near his best. The structure seems too clumsy – the first part, with its funny, dumb hitmen, followed by the second part in which we glimpse the death of a man’s spirit before the death of his body. Hemingway usually maintained a more consistent tone.
     
  3. tionA
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    tionA Active Member

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    I thought the story was fantastic, just fantastic!
     
  4. Sved
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    Sved Senior Member

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    I'm impressed by the opening scene. In very few words, and relative crude writing, Hemingway captures the scene instantly. Without almost any narration or description he paints the whole scene.

    The second thing I noticed so far is the usage of dialogue to keep the story going, again almost with no narration.

    I liked the story even if I would have liked a different ending
     
  5. JJ_Maxx
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    JJ_Maxx Banned

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    This is one of those works that requires research, in my opinion. It is a period piece, set in Chicago at the height of organized crime and prohibition. The 1920's was a time when two comical hitmen could walk into a diner and say they were there to kill someone. The mob was above the law and for a brief period in history, were untouchable.

    I'm not a big fan of minimalism. There's not really a plot, very little character development and simple narrative and dialogue. I just have a hard time connecting with any of the characters. Two mobsters go to a diner to kill a man, but he doesn't show up, so they decide to go home. Besides the brief mention of the boxer and Nick being shaken up by the ordeal, it doesn't seem to fit well.

    But apparently the whole story is about Nick Adams, who is a recurrent character in Hemingways stories. You couldn't really pick this up if you read this story by itsself.
     
  6. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    As Sved points out, Hemingway sets the scene with very few words. This was one of Hemingway's major strengths as a writer: he was very economical. He could nail a character in a couple of lines better than most writers could in a whole page.

    While Hemingway was known for minimalism in his short stories, and minimalism was fashionable at the time, some of his best stories didn't really fit that mold. For example, "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" is a fully fleshed out narrative story. Sure, there's a lot of background stuff left unsaid, but there is an actual narrative, and crucial events actually happen on-screen, so to speak.
     
  7. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    The Nick Adams story are not really a strongly connected, long running story. Though saying this, parts of In Our Time (the collection with most, all but one I think, of the stories stories about Nick Adams) do try to make it seem that way with 'chapters' outside of the stories. It's more of a series of Hemingway's observations about his contemporaries, and especially contemporary America, and the fact that Nick is a recurring character doesn't really have an affect either.

    As for the story itself. It's certainly an example of the 'Iceburg Theory' Hemingway had, but I am not entirely sure Hemingway was completely successful with this story. He got much better, obviously, as he went on, but this story was written at the time Hemingway was just beginning to properly master what he tried to do with his short stories. However, it is a great example of his on-the-surface writing style, and the 'hardness' that Hemingway enjoyed blithering on about later in life works here because it's not in any way a pretty story. The minimal style works because it's just showing a rough, 'hard' time and place with no opinion expressed by the narrator. It's thankfully unlike something like 'Young Goodman Brown' in that respect.

    This does, however, seem to be one of those stories where you could over think it. There are some serious issues brought up in the story, such as accepting death, living with crime, and such-like, but in all honesty I do not get the impression that the 'depth' in this story is really here, instead coming almost entirely from subjective tangents the reader goes on rather than actual interpretation.
     
  8. JJ_Maxx
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    JJ_Maxx Banned

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    I've never been much of fan of symbolism or over-arching themes.

    It's almost like we're all supposed to have our own interpretation of what it is really about.
     
  9. BritInFrance
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    BritInFrance Active Member

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    It took me a couple of reads to appreciate it. I had difficulty identifying who was who, at first. I think it is because I am so used to reading stories with a strong POV and this didn't seem to have one. I did like the way the story was told through the dialogue. I do like stories that leave you thinking about characters and their lives before and after the story, although I agree with JJ there was almost too much here. The use of the N word shocked me. Not in the dialogue, but when it was casually used in the narrative (instead of the cook, or Sam). But I guess this was either a sign of the times, or very deliberate. Perhaps people who are more familiar with Hemingway can help shed some light.
     
  10. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    It is largely because of the times. In the 1920s the use of the 'N word' was very common, and socially acceptable. That didn't change until the late 70s and early 80s, really. Hemingway was going for a rather 'tough' and 'hard' voice. One of the main themes of Hemingway is his cult of 'manliness' and so it was also to inject some dirt and grit into the story too. Besides, the 'N word' is one that shows up in a lot of Hemingway's fiction but I never got any malice from it. I never got the impression Hemingway was a racist he was just very much a product of the almost existentialist despair of the so-called 'Lost Generation'. 'Hard but fair' would be a good way to put it.
     
  11. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I agree with Lemex. The N-word, in Hemingway's day, wasn't intended as racist, and it certainly wasn't as politically charged as it is today. If Hemingway were writing this story today, there's no way he'd use the word - it carries too much baggage he doesn't intend to deal with. If anybody wrote a story today using the N-word as Hemingway used it here, that story would automatically become about the N-word, whether the author wanted that or not.
     
  12. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I think it's fair to ask why he would use this particular word, especially in the narrative. Was it to better relate to his audience? Was that the way he (or the people close to him) talked? Given his legacy, I think a lot of people just assume that he uses the N-word to mimic the way a white man would talk back then, and I'm not sure many of his readers would classify him as racist. However, I've read a few articles branding Hemingway an anti-Semite, so I wouldn't be surprised if he did hold feelings of resentment towards African Americans (especially given the time period in which he lived).
     
  13. BritInFrance
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    BritInFrance Active Member

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    For me it was the way he used it. Like I said I am used to people using it in conversation (in films and books), and I get that people talked like that (and still do in some circles). But to write "The door opened and the n- came in." Surprised me. Because later he is referred to as Sam, and the cook. So was the choice of word deliberate? It would have fitted if Hemingway was writing from someones POV (someone who thought in those terms), but I didn't pick up on that, if he was. I haven't read much Hemingway, but have from others in the same era and before, and I have never seen that word written in descriptive form before.
     
  14. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    I actually think Hemingway might have been a closet bisexual, and ashamed of the fact. I never got the impression he had a hate-filled bone in his body. Racism and anti-semitism was common at the time, but sexuality is something that Hemingway mentioned over and over.
     
  15. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    It's possible Hemingway simply used the n-word in narrative because the character used it first, and he wanted to use the same word so the reader wouldn't be confused, and also for the emphasis it gives. I don't have the story in front of me, so this isn't a quote, but it's like this:

    "Who's back there?"
    "The n-."
    "Call him out here."
    "Sam, get out here!"
    The n- came out.

    That way, you know Sam is the n-, whereas if Hemingway had written "The cook came out", there might be a moment of confusion in the reader: "Is the cook the n-? Or is the cook coming out to ask why they're asking for the n-?"

    Hemingway's sexuality has been the subject of a lot of speculation. In The Sun Also Rises, he describes a young matador getting dressed for a bullfight, and he's clearly full of admiration for the matador's beautiful physique. Also, he wrote more than once about beautiful young women having their hair cut short so they resembled boys. This happened in For Whom the Bell Tolls and the posthumously-published The Garden of Eden. In the latter book, Hemingway even has the husband dye his hair the same color as his wife's so that they would be "twins."
     
  16. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    I had a hard time reading this as I went in having already seen the movie with Burt Lancaster -
    so it feels open ended to me.
     
  17. JJ_Maxx
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    JJ_Maxx Banned

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    At the time this story was written, the term 'nigger' had not yet become pejorative. (I refuse to use euphemisms when having adult etymological and historical discussion.)

    It didn't really put me off because, as I said, it is a period piece and was widely accepted at the time it was published.
     
  18. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I hope you're not suggesting that African-Americans are insects! :D

    We'll just assume you mean "etymological."
     
  19. JJ_Maxx
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    JJ_Maxx Banned

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    That's what I get for trying to post using my phone. lol
     
  20. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Agreed. Hemingway wasn't the only writer to use it, and there are actually several examples of non-American writers who have used it (Dostoevsky, Celine, Joyce, Golding). There are writers today who use the word, though in my experience they have all been African American writers.

    As for the story, I have mixed feelings about it. It's certainly not Hemingway's most engaging story, and it felt like a lot of things were left out. On the other hand, I like how he showed the personality of each character through dialogue. Also, I think Nick Adams is the focus of this story, and I'm not sure if this story can be fully appreciated without reading the other stories that have him as a character. For me, this story is sort of the midpoint between "Indian Camp" (when Nick is a child) and stories like "Big Two-Hearted River" and "Fathers and Sons" (when he's an adult and even has a son). This story is perhaps more of a Bildungsroman than anything else.
     
  21. Sved
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    Sved Senior Member

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    I'm wondering what it look like if someone added more narrative and more character development. Wouldn't be Hemingway but would it be better?
     
  22. JJ_Maxx
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    JJ_Maxx Banned

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    I thought about rewriting this. ;-) it would be fun!
     
  23. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I assume that's what they had to do for the Burt Lancaster movie. There certainly isn't enough material in the story for a film, so they must have added quite a bit. I haven't seen it, but I'll keep my eye out for it.
     
  24. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    Same here. I've not even heard of it until now. Hope I can get it here in the UK.
     
  25. BritInFrance
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    Just read the wiki entry for the film (it contains big time spoilers, so don't read it if you want to see the film first!), They certainly did fill in the back story. Lemex: it's available on Amazon for five of your English pounds!
     
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