Will McDavid ruminates on one of Ernest Hemingway’s most compelling short stories, “Big Two-Hearted River,” which he describes as “a story about war, woundedness, and living with memories and ghosts”:
The story’s central symbol, of course, is the river. Nick can tell his position from the river; the river allows him to engage his emotions for the first time all trip; the river exerts pressure upon him and is dangerous. The river here is a symbol for Nick’s own emotional life, the two-heartedness he feels in the need for mundane stability (the shallows) and the need for emotional excitement (the deeper, faster water). As Nick tries to reel in the large trout, Hemingway notes that he’s leaning backward into the river, and it’s mounting against his thighs. He’s bracing himself against the river’s pressure, but his emotions are mounting, and they almost overwhelm him. At the same time the nicotine is giving him some emotional distance from the fight with the trout, he’s stepped out of the river, too. The emotional avoidance is far from ideal, but Nick is wise about knowing himself and processing only as much as he is capable of handling at a given time. Temptation tells him to immerse himself in the river and process everything at once; the voice of grace gives him room to take it in as he must – it gives him time, space, and permission to engage his emotional life gradually, without too much excitement all at once. The voice of grace frees him to listen to the voice of simple prudence.
(Photo: Hemingway fishing in Michigan in 1916, via Wikimedia Commons)