One of the tragic consequences of any war is that it demolishes the traditional values and drastically changes the perceptions of the world by those who have gone through its horrors. Coming back to normal life appears a torture to such people since their vision of future existence runs counter to the standards of the peace time.
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While civilian population seeks shelter from the harshness of the angry world in the safe harbor of family life, soldiers who come back from the war find themselves incompatible with the traditional pattern of life. Such dramatic situation is described in Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Soldier’s Home”, where the character of Harold Krebs reveals itself as a tragic hero who is opposed to the traditional world represented in the characters of the average citizens.
To unfold the characterization of Harold Krebs in “Soldier’s Home”, Hemingway employs a whole range of means. For one thing, Krebs’ character opens up through his actions, thoughts and reactions to the surrounding world. From the very beginning of the story the reader faces a series of monotonous repetitions that reflect an objective, dull, almost mechanical state of Harold’s mind: multiple reiterations of phrases like “There is a picture…”, “He liked…”, “He did not want…”, “It was simply not worth it” reflect Harold’s emotional deadness and indifference caused by the terrors of the war (Hemingway 165–167).
War was not the only cause for Harold’s apathy: he was met with estrangement by his own community who wanted not the truth but the embellished tales that were far from the war reality. Revolted by the necessity to tell those lies, Harold rejects the reality which is false for him and creates his own existence opposite to the conventional routine: instead of finding a job and settling down with a girl, he sleeps, reads books, plays pool and the clarinet. Thus he explicitly opposes himself to the society by means of his words and deeds.
For another thing, Harold’s surname is significant: Hemingway borrowed it from his friend married to a woman old enough to be his mother (Lynn 258). This fact signifies the importance placed on the dramatic conflict between Harold’s world-view and that of his mother’s. Hemingway launches this conflict to provide a deeper understanding of Harold’s incompatibility with his environment.
Setting off Harold’s lack of determination and definite life objectives, the foil character of his mother embodies all the traditional values: in trying to convince her son of the necessity for settling down and finding a job, Harold’s mother acts as a herald of conventional lifestyle that rather repulses than inspires Harold. Harold’s relaxed existence appears meaningless to his mother, who represents the traditional Protestant values of work and family, of everyone’s life subordinated to the eternal laws of the Kingdom of God.
The more painful and uncomfortable for Harold is his mother’s attempt to place him into that Kingdom, where he has actually never belonged (Hemingway 168). His repulsive reaction to his mother’s reproach, his disinterest and blunt confession of no love for anybody discloses the abyss between him and the conventional society. To survive in it, Harold unwillingly gives up to its demands and says farewell to his dream of a smooth life uncomplicated by social conventions.
The tragedy of Harold’s character is that once he loses everything in the frightful experience of war, coming back home becomes senseless to him. He does not feel the wish to do it; yet, due to the apathy and weakness of his nature, he returns one year later — too late to be accepted as a hero. Wrong time, wrong place — those are the adverse circumstances that ruin Harold’s vision of uncomplicated life. He becomes a piece of driftwood that floats according to the ways imposed by the traditional society which is too blind to see and accept his uniqueness.
Hemingway, Ernest. “Soldier’s Home.” Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature: Reading, Thinking, Writing (8th ed.). Ed. Michael Meyer. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 165–170. Print.
Lynn, Kenneth Schuyler. Hemingway. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995. Print.