Hemingway Guide Questions
Big Two-Hearted River
1. Does “Big Two-Hearted River” give the impression of having in it a preponderance of submerged feeling, or meaning, or both? If so, how does Hemingway create that impression?
2. Discuss the apparent simplicity of Hemingway’s style. Is it as simple as it at first appears? How does Hemingway convey subtle and complex feelings? What role does imagery play in multiplying implications?
3. The story seems to center on Nick, the only human character who appears (except for the memories of Harry Hopkins). Does this technique result in a story in which nothing happens, or are there ways in which Nick’s behaviors and responses do create a “plot line”?
4. Does the use of “the” and “that” in “Big Two-Hearted River” support critic Walter Ong’s argument (quoted above) that these are crucial elements in Hemingway’s writing? Is a similar effect created by the use of “you” in such passages as “Ahead the river narrowed.... Nick thought”?
5. How useful is critic Philip Young’s interpretation of Nick as a “sick man”? Does it help to explain Nick’s thoughts and actions?
6. Is the judgment that “Big Two-Hearted River” is a story in which nothing happens justified?
7. Discuss Hemingway’s use of the landscape in “Big Two-Hearted River.”
8. The first two paragraphs of “Big Two-Hearted River” contrast the burned-over ground and the river. What is the effect of the first two paragraphs?
9. What is suggested by the fact that Nick watches “the trout keeping themselves steady in the current” for “a long time”? Does he identify them with his own efforts to keep himself steady?
10. When the landscape is described as “alive again” at the end of the story, what does this change imply about Nick’s recent experiences and his present state of mind?
11. Nick carefully observes rituals (such as the proper way to make camp, prepare food, catch bait, or fish). What purposes are served by these rituals? Is it Nick’s attempt to establish a stability, a comforting regularity and pattern that relieve him from the need to think or contemplate, relieve him from the workings of his mind? Does it help him to “choke it” when his mind is “starting to work”?
12. Is there anything in the story itself to support the conclusion that it’s about “coming back from the war”?
13. In the final seven paragraphs of “Big Two-Hearted River” Nick decides not to fish in the swamp, where “the river became smooth and deep” and the trees grew so close together that “You could not crash through the branches.” Why does Nick think that fishing in the swamp would be “tragic”? Why does he stop fishing, return to camp, and justify his actions with the thought (the last sentence of the story) that “There were plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp”?
1. From the information in the story, what can you determine about the setting of Krebs’ home?
2. What does the photograph of Krebs, the corporal, and the German girls reveal? What significance can be found in the contrast between this photograph and the one of Krebs and his fraternity brothers?
3. Belleau Wood, Soissons, the Champagne, St. Mihiel, and the Argonne were the sites of fierce and bloody fighting during World War I. What effects have these battles had on Krebs? Why do you think he won’t talk about them to then people at home?
4. Why does Krebs avoid complications and consequences? How has the war changed his attitudes toward work and women? How is his home town different from Germany and France? What is the conflict in the story?
5. Why do you think Hemingway refers to the protagonist as Krebs rather than Harold? What is the significance of his sister calling him “Hare”?
6. How does Krebs’ mother embody the community’s values? What does Krebs think of those values?
7. Why can’t Krebs pray with his mother?
8. What is the resolution to Krebs’ conflict?
9. Comment on the appropriateness of the story’s title.
10. Explain how Krebs’ war experiences are present throughout the story even though we gert no details about them.
11. What connections can you find between both of these stories and the events of Hemingway’s life?