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INDIAN CAMP: ERNEST HEMINGWAY

background            study guide            additional questions          sample questions

Resemblance Between Hemingway's Life and Works

                It is no secret that writers commonly pull from their personal thoughts and experiences to produce a work of literature.  By far, these personal works are superior in quality simply because the author has a vast understanding of what he or she is trying to convey to the reader.  Ernest Hemingway tapped into this mainstream in a very obvious manner.  Hemingway pulled from his past and present experiences to develop his own thoughts concerning death, relationships, and lies.  He then mixed these ideas along with a familiar setting in order to create his masterpieces.

                One such masterpiece written early in Hemingway’s career is the short story “Indian Camp,” originally published in the collection of In Our Time in 1925.  A brief synopsis reveals that the main character, an adolescent by the name of Nick, travels with his father across a lake to an Indian village.  While at the village, Nick observes his father, who is a doctor, deliver a baby to an Indian by Caesarian section.  As the story progresses, Nick’s father discovers that the newborn’s father has committed suicide while his wife gives birth.  Soon afterwards, Nick and his father engage in a short conversation concerning death, which brings about the end of the story.  At face value, the story is merely five pages long and covers a time frame of only one night.  But, with some investigation, the reader can depict parts of the story, which are influenced by Hemingway’s life.

                A prime example of how Hemingway brought out his past in “Indian Camp” is the description of Nick and his father and their relationship.  Hemingway grew up in Oak Park, a middle class neighborhood, under the watchful eye of his parents, Ed and Grace Hemingway.  Ed Hemingway was a doctor who “occasionally took his son along on professional visits across Walloon Lake to the Ojibway Indians” during summer vacations (Waldhorn 7).  These medical trips taken by Ernest and Ed would provide the background information needed to introduce Nick and his father while on their medical trip in “Indian Camp.”  These trips were not the center point of affection between Ed and Ernest, but were part of the whole.  The two always shared a close father-son bond that Hemingway often portrayed in his works:

                Nick’s close attachment to his father parallels Hemingway’s relationship with Ed.  The growing boy finds in the father, in both fiction and life, not only a teacher-guide but a fixed refuge against the terrors of the emotional and spiritual unknown as they are encountered.  In his father Ernest had someone to lean on. (Shaw 14) In “Indian Camp,” Nick lays back into his father’s arms for a sense of security and, thus, reinforces their close father-son relationship.  When Nick encounters the terror of death, in the form of suicide, his father is right there to comfort him.  From this the reader can see how Nick has his father to, physically and mentally, “lean” on much like Ernest did. 

                Hemingway’s love for his own father is not always so positive though, and he often sought for an outlet through his literature.  When Hemingway was young, Ed persuaded him to have his tonsils removed by a friend, Dr. Wesley Peck.  Even though it was Dr. Peck who performed the painful operation, Hemingway “always held it against his father for taking out his tonsils without an anesthetic” (Meyers 48).  Hemingway saw the opportunity to portray his father in “Indian Camp” as the cold-hearted man who had his tonsils yanked out without anesthetics.  In a reply to Nick’s question about giving the Indian woman something to stop screaming, his father states, “No. I haven’t any anesthetic . . . But her screams are not important.  I don’t hear them because they are not important.” (Hemingway 16) 

                Hemingway would lash out at his father one more time before the story ends.  In “Indian Camp,” Hemingway uses the conversation between Nick and his father, concerning the suicide of the Indian, to show his distaste for his own father’s suicide:

                ‘Why did he kill himself, Daddy?’ 

                ‘I don’t know Nick.’ 

                ‘He couldn’t stand things, I guess.’ 

                ‘Do many men kill themselves, Daddy?’ 

                ‘Not very many, Nick.’ . . .

                ‘Is dying hard, Daddy?’ 

                ‘No, I think it’s pretty easy, Nick.  It all depends.’ 

                (Hemingway 19)

Hemingway saw his father as a weak man who served his wife, Grace, unconditionally.  Ed worked a full day only to come home to clean house, prepare food, and tend to the children; he had promised Grace that if she would marry him, she would not have to do housework for as long as he lived.  Ill and depressed, Ed committed suicide in 1928.  Hemingway later referred to the situation by stating:

                “I hated my mother as soon as I knew the score and loved my father until he embarrassed me with his cowardice . . . My mother is an all time all american bitch and she would    make a pack mule shoot himself, let alone poor bloody father.” (Meyers 212)

Hemingway uses “Indian Camp” to express his feelings that his father was a coward.  He did this by having Nick’s father refer to suicide as being “pretty easy,” which is comparable to a coward’s way out of life. Therefore, Hemingway uses the story to portray his father’s death as cowardly.

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Study Guide:

Use the questions below to guide you in analyzing the text. Some questions are rather obvious and simple while others require some thought. The questions are arranged in order of the story.

*  How old do you think Nick could be? What is the evidence for your decision?

*  Does Nick show interest in the adventure?

*  What do you think would be Nick’s first impression of the Indian Camp? (it would be your interpretation)

*  What is the attitude of the Indian men outside the shanty in comparison to the Indian women inside?

*  What is the situation in the shanty? Identify the conflict?

*  What are your initial impression of the woman in labor and her husband on the upper bunk? Can you make any predictions to the conclusion of the story?

*  When Nick says he knows what is going on, why does his father say, “You don’t know” and “Listen to me”? Does Nick really need to know what is happening to the women? Do you think Nick understands childbirth? Why do you think Nick responded with such an answer? What role is the doctor playing here and how does he react to his son’s indifference to the problem? Does the doctor understand his son’s conflict? (Thematic question)

*  How does Nick react to the women’s scream?  How does his father react to his son’s request?

*  Does Nick show interest to his father’s explanation? What is the doctor trying to teach Nick? Why do you think that the father is teaching him about doctoring/surgery? Do you think Nick wants to learn? Do you think his father should be teaching him? Does Nick cares how a baby should be born? (Thematic question)

*  What is your impression of Uncle George? What role does he play in the story?

*  After having read the story so far, why do you think Nick agrees to be an intern? He obviously is uncomfortable with the situation but does not refuse his father’s request? Do you think he is still curious?

*  The doctor gives Nick a choice of watching the stitches being put, why? Is this process more frightening to Nick then the watching the surgery itself? If not why does he give Nick the choice?

*  “That’s one for the medical journals. George,” he said. “Doing a Caesarian with a jack-knife and sewing it up with nine-foot, tapered gut leaders.”    Is the doctor good at his profession? What can you say about his character? Use evidence from text.

* Why do you think that the Indian committed suicide? Give reasons (thematic- father son relationship)

* Why does Nick’s father ask George to remove Nick from the shanty? Was he unable to control the situation or was he afraid of his son’s reaction? (think! he is a doctor who was willing to introduce his son to surgery)

* How useful do you think was the doctor’s explanation to Nick?  (read the conversation between Nick and his father carefully before answering this question)

* Why does Nick say he will never die? What is your explanation?

Additional Questions:

1.        Have your parents ever put you in some situation that turned out to be very memorable? If so, was the situation positive or negative?

2.        Explain Hemingway’s use of images of sight, sound, and smell to convey the nature of the hut and experiences therein to the reader.

3.        Suggest and explain two possible themes of this story.

4.        Why do you think Uncle George gives the Indians cigars?

5.        What do you think George's relationship with the Indians is?

6.        Should Nick's father have brought Nick with him to the Camp? Why or why not?

7.        What single word describes the Doctor best? Use evidence from the text to support your choice.

8.        When Nick asks his father if he has something he can give the woman for the pain he replies "Her screams are not important. I do not hear them because they are not important." How do you interpret this reply? What kind of man does it indicate the doctor is?

9.        Why do you think the woman's husband commits suicide? Are there clues in the text?

10.     Explain how Hemingway prepares the reader for the husband’s suicide.

11.     In the end the Doctor apologizes to Nick for bringing him. Do you think he really regrets bringing him? If so, what has caused his regret?

12.     Which experience do you believe would be most traumatic for a young boy, witnessing birth or witnessing death? Explain your answer. Which experience (if either) do you think was most traumatic for Nick?

13.     Why is Nick "quite certain he will never die"?

14.     None of the Indians in the story have names. Why might Hemingway not have given them any? What does he suggest by not giving them names? 

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 Sample Question:

What are the advantages or disadvantages of introducing a child to the realities of life at an early stage? Discuss this question by using the text “Indian Camp”.

 

Advantages

Disadvantages

*   Father is a doctor so Nick will be exposed to the realities sooner or later.

*   He lives near the camp

*   He sees birth first hand and will know where babies come from (not the stock story)

*   Surgery ® problems can be solved if one does not panic.

*   Learning under the guidance of his father

*   Learn to appreciate his fortunate life

*   Values life and sees it as precious

*   Learns to be proud of his father

*   Build a bond with his father

*   creates fear – blood, suicide, birth process, screams

*   poor condition of the camp

*   new culture and new people

*   young child to learn about doctoring

*   dangerous and wild environment

*   pain

*   youth in danger (innocence)

 

 

  1. Role-models are important for the growth of a child
  2. A good father –son relationship is required for the growth of a child.