Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers” (1927)

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Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers” (1927)

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


"The Killers," Ernest Hemingway's story about two hit men who come to a small town to kill a former prizefighter, was first published in the March 1927 issue of Scribner's Magazine. Hemingway was paid two hundred dollars for the story, which was the first of his mature stories to appear in an American periodical. His original title for the story was "The Matadors." Hemingway included the story in his 1927 collection Men Without Women, and it also appears in The Nick Adams Stories (1972). "The Killers" remains one of Hemingway's most anthologized stories because it is representative of Hemingway's style and the subjects that would occupy his work throughout his career. These subjects include the meaninglessness of human life, male camaraderie, and the inevitability of death, and Hemingway explores them using his signature short sentences, slang, and understatement.

Hemingway claims to have written the story in a frenzy of inspiration on May 16, 1926, before lunch. Like many of his short stories, "The Killers" features Nick Adams, a typical Hemingway hero, one in a long line of Hemingway's fictional selves. Hemingway introduced Nick Adams in his first collection of stories, In Our Time (1925). Nick is an adolescent in "The Killers," and critics have argued that Nick's experience with the hit men marks his initiation into adulthood and his introduction to evil and violence.

Author Biography

Ernest Hemingway is one of the most influential American writers of the twentieth century. His influence extends not only to novelists and short story writers but also to journalists, playwrights, critics, and filmmakers. Four decades after his death, biographies about him continue to appear. Born July 21, 1899, in Oak Park, Illinois, Ernest Miller Hemingway was the second child of Clarence Hemingway, a doctor, and Grace (Hall) Hemingway. Hemingway's middle-class upbringing was conventional, and after graduating in 1917 from Oak Park High School, he joined the Kansas City Star as a reporter. In 1918, Hemingway joined the Red Cross, driving an ambulance in Italy during the waning months of World War I. He was struck with shell fragments from an exploding mortar in July and had more than two hundred pieces of mortar removed from his leg. Over the next four years, Hemingway honed his writing skills as European correspondent for the Toronto Star and contributed "color pieces" (feature articles also known as "slice of life" pieces) to other publications. During this period, he also met American expatriate Gertrude Stein, a writer and wealthy art collector who held gatherings in her Paris apartment, during which artists and writers could mingle and "talk shop." Stein, along with American writers Ezra Pound and Sherwood Anderson, were indispensable to Hemingway's early career, providing him with contacts and recommending his work to various editors.

In 1925, Liveright released Hemingway's first widely distributed book, In Our Time, a collection of short stories featuring Nick Adams, an autobiographical character who would also appear in future Hemingway stories. His second collection, Men Without Women (1927), contained many of what would become Hemingway's most popular and anthologized stories, including "The Killers" and "Hills Like White Elephants." In these stories, Hemingway perfected his spare, elliptical style, using dialogue almost exclusively to develop characters and drive his plot. His early novels, however, cemented his popularity and established Hemingway as the leading voice of his generation. The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929) both address the emotionally debilitating effects of World War I on characters that were fictional projections of Hemingway.

The quality of Hemingway's work diminished after he had established an international reputation, though he did produce two critical and popular successes with his novels For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) and The Old Man and the Sea (1952), the latter of which helped Hemingway win the Nobel Prize in literature in 1954. While alive, Hemingway was a popular and much-admired celebrity, a man's man, who cultivated a brawling, hard-drinking, hard-loving image. In 1961, his emotional and physical health deteriorating, "Papa" Hemingway, as he had become known, committed suicide by shooting himself at his home in Ketchum, Idaho. Hemingway's father had also committed suicide. Posthumous works include A Moveable Feast (1964), which recounts Hemingway's years in Paris in the 1920s and a number of reissued story collections and novels pieced together by editors, including Islands in the Stream (1970), The Nick Adams Stories (1972), and The Garden of Eden (1986).

Plot Summary

Section 1

"The Killers" begins with two men walking into Henry's lunchroom and discussing what they want to eat. Max and Al bicker over what menu items are available with George, the counterman who had been talking with Nick Adams, the only other customer. Some confusion occurs over the correct time. The clock says 5:20, but George tells the men it is twenty minutes fast. The men finally order eggs with ham and bacon and then taunt Nick and George, sarcastically calling them "bright boys" and making fun of their small town, Summit. Al and Max order George to tell the cook, Sam, to come out of the kitchen, and then Al takes Nick and Sam back into the kitchen. They call Sam "nigger," a much-used epithet for African Americans in 1920s' America.

Max announces that they are at the lunchroom to kill Ole Andreson, a Swede who usually eats dinner there at six o'clock. It is obvious the men have been hired, as Max says they have never seen Ole before. "We're killing him for a friend. Just to oblige a friend," Max says. Al and Max continue with their banter, taunting Nick and Sam. At one point, Al says, "The nigger [Sam] and my bright boy [Nick] are amused by themselves. I got them tied up like a couple of girl friends in the convent." Referring to the two as "girl friends" is tough talk and meant to belittle the men's masculinity.

A customer comes in at a quarter past six, but George tells him that the cook is not there, and the man leaves. A few other customers come in. George makes one of them a sandwich and tells the other one that the cook is sick. At five minutes past seven, the two men leave, shotguns bulging from their overcoats.

Section 2

George watches the men leave. Nick and Sam come out from the kitchen, and Nick removes the towel that had been stuffed in his mouth. George tells Nick that he better go tell Ole Andreson that the two men are looking for him, but Sam warns him to "stay out of it." After Nick says he is going to tell Ole, Sam remarks, "Little boys always know what they want to do." This remark underscores Nick's youth and his innocence. In this section, it becomes clear that Nick has become the protagonist of the story.

Section 3

In this section, Nick visits Hirsch's rooming house, where Ole lives. Mrs. Bell, the rooming house manager, lets Nick in. Ole is lying on the bed, dressed, staring at the wall. Nick tells Ole about the two men, but Ole says, "There isn't anything I can do about it." He refuses Nick's offer to tell the police, remarking, "I'm through with all that running around." Ole speaks with a "flat" voice, meaning that he shows no emotion. Ole thanks Nick for coming.

Section 4

In this last section, Nick walks back to Henry's and tells George about Ole: "He's in his room and he won't go out." Sam opens the kitchen door, says, "I don't even listen to it," and shuts it again. Henry says that Ole "must have got mixed up in something in Chicago." Chicago was a hotbed of crime and gangster activity in the 1920s, so it is conceivable that, as George tells Nick, Ole "double-crossed somebody. That's what they kill them for." Nick is shocked at what happens and says he can't bear to think of Ole waiting in his room to get killed. He vows to "get out of this town." George's response to Nick is not to think about it, underscoring George's own ambivalent attitude towards the situation.

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