Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers” (1927)




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Themes

Masculinity


Hemingway, known for his representations of manly men who live by a code of honor, parodies his own image of masculinity by making the hit men, Al and Max, clownish figures. The men look the part of stereotypical gangsters, wearing derby hats and tight overcoats and keeping their gloves on when they eat. They also talk tough, announcing their plans to kill Ole, using slang, answering questions with questions, and mocking the masculinity of George, Sam, and Nick. For example, Max comments about George: "Bright boy can do anything… He can cook and everything. You'd make some girl a nice wife, bright boy." Al describes Sam and Nick, gagged and bound in the kitchen, as "a couple of girl friends in the convent." Al and Max are counterpoints to Nick Adams, an innocent, who believes he can do something to change the situation by telling Ole about the men. This story marks Nick's initiation into the world of men and its attendant violence, chaos, and strategies for survival.

Crime


Societies have laws to ensure a safe environment for their citizens, to maintain order, and to instill a sense of justice in the populace. The blatant flouting of laws, as in Hemingway's story, suggests not only that society has deteriorated but also that there is nothing to be done about it. Al and Max do not fear being caught and, indeed, claim to have no stake in killing Andreson, saying they are doing it "to oblige a friend." Sam's response to the events, to have nothing to do with any of it, underscores the sense of resignation informing the story. George's response is that addressing crime is someone else's responsibility and tells Nick to visit Ole. Nick's response is one of disillusionment and shock and a desire to run away from the town rather than accept its random dangers. These reactions represent a range of responses that Chicagoans had towards criminal activities in the 1920s. The sense of resignation, in large part, stems not only from Hemingway's own dark view of human nature but from the knowledge that many of the Chicago crime bosses had bought off the police, ensuring that law and order became a privilege for the few rather than a right of the many.

Chaos


Hemingway's plot is laden with irony and with characters misreading one another, suggesting that the world is not as it seems. For example, although Max and Al come to town to kill Ole Andreson and know that he eats at Henry's at six o'clock, they ask George the name of the town, and then when George tells them, Max says he never heard of it. Henry's, though referred to as a "lunchroom," is actually a made-over saloon. A similar confusion of identity occurs when Nick addresses Mrs. Bell as Mrs. Hirsch because he assumes that she is the owner of the rooming house. The men come to a town called "Summit" to kill on a "nice fall day," compounding the irony. These glaring differences between the world as it is and the world as it seems affect Nick the most, whose own world up until that point more or less conformed to his expectations as an orderly place.

Style

Dialogue


Dialogue, the conversation between two or more characters, is a primary tool of characterization. Writers create characters through shaping their speech in ways that reflect their desires and motivations. In addition to physically describing Max and Al as stereotypical gangsters, Hemingway has them talk like gangsters as well. Their speech is peppered with insults, wisecracks, and slang, and they never answer a question directly. They speak like characters out of a Dashiell Hammett novel, in terse bursts. Hammett was popular for his detective stories and his character, Sam Spade, a wisecracking antihero. Dialogue also characterizes the other players in the story as well. For example, when Sam speaks, he makes it clear that he does not want to be involved in any way, and when Nick speaks, he expresses his youth and innocence through his incredulity.

Topics for Further Study


  • In groups, research the history of crime in Chicago in the 1920s, paying particular attention to Al Capone and Dutch Schultz. Report your findings to your class, and then discuss any contemporary parallels. For example, is there a city like Chicago today with individuals like Capone or Schultz controlling illegal industries?

  • At the end of "The Killers," Nick says he is going to leave town. In two pages, write where he goes and what he does next. Try to use Hemingway's own spare style.

  • Read other stories about Nick Adams in Hemingway's collection The Nick Adams Stories, and then discuss how his character in "The Killers" is similar to and different from his portrayal in other stories.

  • Film historians claim that film noir emerged from the gangster films of the 1920s and 1930s. In class, view the 1931 gangster film, Public Enemy, starring James Cagney, and then view the 1946 adaptation of "The Killers," starring Burt Lancaster. After researching film noir, discuss how Hemingway's film illustrates or departs from elements of the gangster movie or film noir.

  • Hemingway's story is constructed like a play. Divide the class into four groups, assigning each group one "scene" of the play, using the divisions in the plot summary. Have each group perform one of the scenes for the class. Afterwards, discuss choices each group made in staging and performing.

  • In pairs, write a short dialogue in which a student tries to convince her teacher she deserves a better grade. Use the short, conversational style that Hemingway uses in "The Killers," and then perform the dialogue for your class.

Plot


Plot refers to the arrangement of events in a story. Hemingway tells the story largely through dialogue, as if it were a play. He uses description sparsely, to create atmosphere or to signal a change in scenes. When he describes Max, for example, he writes: "His face was small and white and he had tight lips." When the scene shifts, Hemingway describes the action, using it as a transition: "The two of them went out the door. George watched them, through the window, pass under the arc light and cross the street."

The triviality of the subjects the characters talk about undercuts the insidious nature of the act the killers are about to commit. Hemingway sums up his spare style in his book on bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon:

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.

Many twentieth-century writers adopted Hemingway's spare elliptical style as their own, including Raymond Carver and Pam Houston.


Narrator


The narrator refers to the speaker through whom the author tells the story. Sometimes it is a character in the story and sometimes it is not. The kind of narrator the author uses is intimately related to the story's point of view. Hemingway uses an "effaced" narrator in "The Killers." This means that the narrator is practically invisible. An effaced narrator does not have access to characters' thinking, which is revealed solely through their dialogue. However, in his essay "Point of View in the Nick Adams Stories," Carl Ficken points out:

Hemingway is … able to place Nick sufficiently forward in the account so that the meaning of the story has to do with Nick's discovery of what life is like through those killers and Ole Andreson's reaction to them.

Hemingway popularized this method of narration for short story writers and novelists in the twentieth century.

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