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Modernism in Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River”


Big Two-Hearted River, a short story written by Ernest Hemingway and first published in 1925, tells the readers about the feelings, thoughts, and perceptions of Nick Adams, the story’s main character, that he had during his visit to the river. The text contains virtually no significant events and no plot; it only presents the description of how the protagonist fishes at the river, what he does, and what he experiences. The meaning of the story is not explicitly stated, and it is apparent that the reader is to interpret the text on their own.

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In this paper, I will argue that this literary piece possesses a number of traits that are characteristic of the modernist literature, namely, perspectivism, the art of omission, fragmentation, and the sense of personal loss. To demonstrate that, I will provide a number of quotations from the story and show that these quotations distinctly possess the named features.

The Modernist Traits in the Text


The first mentioned feature, perspectivism, can easily be seen in Hemingway’s story. For example, the place where the main character stays during the story is only described from his perspective. For instance, at the beginning of the story, the author describes what Nick sees as he looks around. It is stated: “There was nothing but the pine plain ahead of him, until the far blue hills that marked the Lake Superior height of land.

He could hardly see them, faint and far away in the heat-light over the plain. If he looked too steadily, they were gone” (Hemingway 179). It is easy to notice that the setting in this passage is described not from some “objective” point of view, but as it is seen by the main character, i.e., from his perspective. Therefore, perspectivism is one of the traits of the Modernist literature that can be observed in the story.

The art of omission

In Big Two-Hearted River, the author also employs another trait of the Modernist literature, which is known as the art of omission. One of the major omissions in the text is related to the fact that, despite the clear sense of some disaster preceding Nick’s stay at the river, it is not explicitly explained what it was. For example, the very first paragraph of the story describes a place that was formerly a town: “There was no town, nothing but the rails and the burned-over country.

The thirteen saloons that had lined the one street of Seney had not left a trace” (Hemingway 177). Thus, some catastrophic event is evident, but the explanation of what it was is omitted. It is stated that the disaster implied in the story is the Great War (O’Brien 68), but the war itself is never mentioned in the text. Therefore, the art of omission is practiced by the author in this short story.


The trait of fragmentation can also be perceived in the text. The fragmentation in Big Two-Hearted River is mainly thematic, that is, the topics the author is writing about vary often and suddenly. For instance, while describing how the main character was making coffee, the author unexpectedly mentions some Hopkins, the memory of whom emerged in the protagonist’s mind: “He could not remember which way he made coffee.

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He could remember an argument with Hopkins, but not which side he had taken… He had once argued about everything with Hopkins. While he waited for the coffee to boil, he opened a small can of apricots. He liked to open cans” (Hemingway 185-186). In this piece, the change of topics is evident: coffee, Hopkins, arguments with Hopkins, coffee, the pleasure from opening cans. Thus, fragmentation is also one of the features of the short story.

The sense of personal loss

Finally, the sense of personal loss can easily be found in the story as well. The reasons for the sense of personal loss that Nick experiences are omitted; it is apparent from the critical literature that the war played a significant role in that (O’Brien 68). However, the negative feelings about the past experiences and the relief caused by the fact that these experiences are over are evident both at the beginning of the story: “His muscles ached and the day was hot, but Nick felt happy. He felt that he had left everything behind…” (Hemingway 179) and at its end: “There were plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp” (Hemingway 199). Therefore, it can be seen that the sense of personal loss is also present in the story, even though it is mixed with the current relief.


Therefore, Hemingway’s Big Two-Hearted River distinctly has certain features that can often be found in modernist literature, such as perspectivism, the art of omission, fragmentation, and the sense of personal loss. In this paper, the presence of these traits in the story was demonstrated by offering a number of quotations from the text, each of which possesses at least one of the mentioned characteristics. The combination of these traits permits Hemingway to hint at some disastrous event in the past (namely, the World War II), even though the event itself is never mentioned in the text, and the reader has to search for the meaning of this literary piece on their own.

Works Cited

Hemingway, Ernest. Big Two-Hearted River. n.d. Web.

O’Brien, Sarah Mary. “‘I, Also, Am in Michigan’: Pastoralism of Mind in Hemingway’s ‘Big Two-Hearted River.’” The Hemingway Review 28.2 (2009): 66-86. ProQuest. Web.

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