As Hemingway’s first story collection, published in 1925, In Our Time revolves around the character Nick where each story reveals more about him before, during and after World War I. In this post, I will try to explore the political unconscious in this short story cycle, around the quotation below from the story “Big Two-Hearted River”.
“Ahead the river narrowed and went into a swamp. The river became smooth and deep and the swamp looked solid with cedar trees, their trunks close together, their branches solid. It would not be possible to walk through a swamp like that. The branches grew so low. You would have to keep almost level with the ground to move at all. […] Nick stood up on the log, holding his rod, the landing net hanging heavy, then stepped into the water and splashed ashore. He climbed the bank and cut up into the woods, toward the high ground. He was going back to camp. He looked back. The river just showed through the trees. There were plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp.“
This quotation from the short story titled “Big Two-Hearted River”, starts with a detailed depiction of a swamp. What strikes me here is how the description is so similar to a description of a battlefield: Trees as soldiers, branches as rifles with bayonets, perhaps. When it says, “You would have to keep almost level with the ground to move at all”, I directly imagine a crawling soldier. He is standing in a swarm that is described as a battlefield, and unable to catch a fish. At this point, we do not exactly know what being unable to fish symbolizes. Since Hemingway goes with the theory of omission, what he does not say means a lot.
Here, I think direct. Feeling unable to fish directly means not being able to provide for one’s most essential needs, not being able to eat, work -survive. Then, when I compare this idea of being able to “keep living”, I can reach the third variable in this match-making of symbols. The swamp as the battlefield, Nick is unable to catch a fish, unable to continue living, has perhaps given up. This is something like a traumatic effect of a war. His landing net hangs heavy, useless, he returns to the camp. Then the narrator says, “there were plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp,” and giving us hope.
The idea of the political unconscious was coined by American philosopher Fredric Jameson, and in his book, Jameson utilizes Freudian psychoanalytical theory for political analysis. The reason he relies on psychoanalysis is that he believes all the ideologies of the author are buried deep in the text. And as suggested earlier by other critics as well, what is left unsaid is at least as important as what is said. Jameson, by the psychoanalysis of a text, we can get a look into the political views of the author.
Hemingway’s book In Our Time, the things left unsaid are usually traumas of war, like in this scene from the story “Big Two-Hearted River”. Nick is so overwhelmed by his traumas, he is not even able to provide for his basic needs. And the capitalist idea that “one needs to suppress his traumas to make it in life”, shows itself here. Nick is on a contradiction between choosing to face his trauma and get over it and suppressing it more to become operational.
When discussing the operation of ideologies Jameson also states that ideology is designed to repress social contradictions. According to psychoanalytic theory, a person’s mental defense mechanism may make them repress certain feelings, memories, or desires, creating the unconscious.
In fact, Hemingway used so many signs like this, which makes us see why this book has been such a success. The form of the book also supports this notion of the political unconscious. Using a short story cycle, Hemingway created a general story that has leaks in it. Nothing is complete, we only see sections. This compromised formation puts more emphasis on the left-out sections and allows the readers to see contradictions, which also resembles a trauma.
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