Hemingway’s short story “The Killers” deals with the common for the writer themes of courage, death, disillusionment, and masculinity. The semi-autobiographical narrator of the author, Nick Adams, intends to show his heroism but is disillusioned by the outcome of it. Throughout the story’s development, it becomes clear that Nick is an adolescent, a “bright boy” who has not yet crossed into manhood (Hemingway 243). His coming of age takes place in the context of two killers invading the small town of Summit during the 1920s and holding the boy hostage while waiting to assassinate Ole Anderson, a former Chicago boxer with a criminal past.
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The story progresses to illustrate the heroism of Nick who risks his own life to warn Anderson of the danger. As the boy succeeds in reaching the boxer, the latter is unsurprised and resigned to his inevitable end, which installs a sense of disappointment for Nick. Thus, it is not the risk of being apprehended or murdered himself that is devastating to the main character. Instead, it is the act of selfless heroism and the desire to make a difference that produced a tangible result.
This theme is familiar to many young people who wanted to go against the injustice of the world but instead discovered that life cannot always be fair to everyone. Although, Hemingway makes an insightful discovery that despite the disillusionment, the main character puts himself in danger, not in the search for the greater good but rather in vain. As Nick discovers that the world is unjust, the fact depresses him deeply, which is what happens to multiple protagonists that Hemingway created.
It is essential to mention that Nick Adams is not the only courageous character in “The Killers.” Ole Anderson is a more obvious hero in the story as he is able to face his death stoically and with minimum panic. Such an attitude, which is inherent to other characters developed by Hemingway, is referred to as heroic fatalism of fatalistic heroism, which is a testament to the skill of the author to manipulate the emotions of his audience.
However, what one may fail to notice is that Anderson, despite his heroism when facing the ultimate demise, maybe a killer himself or have committed other despicable crimes in the past. Through portraying the killers who came for Ole as evil, the image of the boxer comes across as heroic rather than weak and passive.
To analyze this issue closer, it is important to look at the quotes from the story: “No, Ole Anderson said. I’m through with all that running around.” He looked at the wall. […] “There ain’t anything to do. After a while, I’ll make my mind to go out” (Hemingway 247). The reaction of Anderson to the news of him being the target of killers who are “killing him for a friend” is devastating to the young boy with an optimistic view of the world (Hemingway 243).
Not having been affected by the injustices that can happen to people in real life, Nick is psychologically affected by the reactions of the killers in Henry’s lunchroom. The experience of evil that some people commit causes Nick to lose his innocence and to move out of Summit. Furthermore, for the boy, the response of Ole to the threat is uncanny to an ex-heavyweight prizefighter who should be strong. In Nick’s mind, a man as powerful as Ole should have never given up and should have kept on fighting because that’s what he used to do in the ring.
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Finally, it is important to discuss the way in which the author portrays crime in Chicago in the 1920s. The characters of the two killers, Al and Max, represent the lack of social stability during those times when it was easy to carry out murders and even be transparent about one’s criminal intentions. The fact that the killers can reveal to Nick Adams that they are planning to kill Ole Anderson shows limited accountability of criminals for their actions during the 1920s, as evidenced in the following quotes. “Talk to the bright boy, Max said. What do young think’s going to happen? […] I’ll tell you, max said. We’re going to kill a Swede. Do you know a big Swede named Ole Anderson?” (Hemingway 243).
The killer does not hesitate to tell a young boy about the mission that he and his partner have. He is very comfortable with what he is saying and is sure that he cannot get arrested because Nick has no power in the situation. For the killer, it seems fine to reveal that he is going to kill Ole Andreson.
Nor is Max worried about the fact that George, the manager of Henry’s lunchroom, can identify the partners in crime and report them to the police. Furthermore, the criminal knows everything about the ex-boxer, which proves that Max and Al investigated Andreson coming to look for him at the restaurant: “He comes here to eat every night, don’t he? He comes here at six o’clock, don’t he?” (Hemingway 243).
As it is revealed that Ole Anderson is targeted for murder because someone else paid Al and Max to commit a crime, readers can see how easy it was to get rid of a person in the 1920s. “He never had a chance to do anything to us. He never even seen us. And he’s only going to see us once. […] We’re killing him for a friend. Just to oblige a friend, bright boy” (Hemingway 243). Such an attitude on the part of the killers shows that they were paid to do a dirty job as well as they felt no remorse for committing a crime.
Back in the 1920s in Chicago, mafia groups were highly prevalent and thus contributed to the destabilization of social peace and the well-being of the population. For the protagonist of the story, the casual conversations of the killers about their intentions of killing Ole Anderson shed light on the unfairness of the world and the absence of accountability.
The juxtaposition in the masculine qualities can be traced when examining the characters of Nick, Ole, and the two killers. The actions of the characters define masculinity throughout the storyline and Hemingway’s portrayal of their emotional states. On the one hand, the killer’s Al and Max are decisive, are sure of themselves, and never feel sorry for their plans or activities. On the other hand, the attitude of Anderson, as an ex-heavyweight prizefighter who is expected to be strong, makes him seem weak in the eyes of Nick Adams who expects Ole to stand against the criminals.
Nick’s masculinity has not been developed yet; however, the boy sees himself as a grown man when he decides to inform Ole of the killers’ plans: “I’ll go see him,” Nick said to George. “Where does he live?” (Hemingway 245). In spite of what Nick heard about Andreson and the killers, he still pursued to find the ex-boxer. He was brave enough to volunteer to warn Andreson, thus developing the sense of masculinity and heroism within himself. He did not even think that the killers could still be hanging around the lunchroom to see if anyone would warn Ole.
To summarize, despite the simplicity of “The Killers” storyline, the themes that Hemingway raises in the story are highly complex. There is a play on emotions that is reflected in the character of Nick Adams, who faces the injustice of the world for the first time in his life. The experience of being confronted by two criminals and the ultimate decision to warn a potential victim of a murder transforms Nick into an adult.
The boy’s way of thinking changes because he has always seen the world to be black in white. However, when Ole Anderson, the potential victim, refused to take action against perpetrators, Nick realized that human interactions go far beyond right and wrong. The events surrounding Nick, the two killers, and Ole Anderson occur in the historical context of 1920s Chicago when gangs and mafia posed a significant threat to the well-being of society. “The Killers” reflects how easy it was to make a hit on a person back then and how flawed was the justice system.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Killers: And Other Short Stories. Le Livre de Poche, 1993.