This story was published in Hemingway’s second book of short stories: Men Without Women. It’s a first-person narrative about an American soldier in Italy who is undergoing out-patient treatment at a hospital for war injuries. He feels alone and an outsider in the country, like he doesn’t really belong there and he is not wanted either.
The protagonist had received medals as a result of his injuries. I confess, having never served in the military, I felt that earning a medal as a result of combat injury was a sign of valor. The narrator points out, though, that this is not really the case at all.
I was a friend, but I was never really one of them after they had read the citations, because it had been different with them and they had done very different things to get their medals. I had been wounded, it was true; but we all know that being wounded, after all, was really an accident. I was never ashamed of the ribbons, though, and sometimes, after cocktail hour, I would imagine myself having done all the things they had done to get their medals; but walking home at night through the empty streets with the cold wind and the shops closed, trying to keep near the street lights, I knew I would never have done such things, and I was very much afraid to die, and often lay in bed at night by myself, afraid to die and wondering how I would be when I went back to the front again.
He then has a discussion with a major who is also receiving treatment. It is a short dialog regarding marriage where the major stresses that a man should never marry.
“Why must not a man marry?”
“He cannot marry. He cannot marry,” he said angrily. “If he is to lose everything, he should not place himself in a position to lose that. He should not place himself in a position to lose. He should find things he cannot lose.”
As I read this, I considered what it is that a man may lose by getting married. Some of the possibilities I came up with were a man’s freedom, his vitality, and his sense of adventure; basically, what Hemingway would consider manliness. But it is then revealed that the major had a young wife who had recently died suddenly.
The doctor told me that the major’s wife, who was very young, and whom he had not married until he was definitely invalided out of the war, had died of pneumonia. She had been sick only a few days. No one expected her to die.
Essentially, it seems that the major had lost everything, except his will to continue living, because his wife has kindled that desire in him. But then upon her death, it appears that he had also lost that. Had he never married, he would have maintained the hope that one day he might fall in love, but having had his love torn from him, he now has nothing left. He has truly lost everything.
Hemingway was incredibly skilled at creating a powerful and moving story using very few words. This certainly falls into that category. It’s definitely worth reading.