Throughout the short stories of Ernest Hemingway, alcohol inevitably lends its company to situations in which desperation already resides. In an examination of his earlier works, such as In Our Time, a comparison to later collections reveals the constant presence of alcohol where hopelessness prevails. The nature of the hopelessness, the desperation, changes from his earlier works to his later pieces, but its source remains the same: potential, or promise of the future causes a great deal of trepidation and lament throughout Hemingway’s pieces. Whether the desperation comes from trepidation or lament depends on the view point from which it is observed, or rather, experienced.
In many of the works written early in his career, Hemingway’s characters experience a fear of the future. The fear does not necessarily stem from commonly expected sources, such as “the unknown,” but rather, it seems to grow from a fear of failure, a fear of being unable to fulfill potential. A number of stories and vignettes from In Our Time reflect these trepidations, and throughout, the presence of alcohol surfaces as a reminder of the desperation felt by the characters as they confront or avoid the circumstances surrounding their fears. It should be clarified, however, that “desperation” here does not insinuate the many nuances that the term conjures, but rather, it describes its simplest meaning of a loss or a lack of hope. For the characters of the early stories, the lack of hope motivates trepidation, while in the later works, the loss of hope creates lament.
The lament experienced by Hemingway’s characters in his later works corresponds to an older perspective by both author and characters. In most cases of desperation, the later characters retrospectively examine their lives and realize that they have not fulfilled their potential. The manner in which they choose to live out their lives becomes paramount in the stories, and alcohol often remains integral to the characters’ lives. In moving from the earlier stories of In Our Time to stories published in later collections, the shift in the attitude of the characters toward potential and promise becomes clear.
“Indian Camp” in In Our Time, depicts Nick Adams a small boy, exposed to death for the first time. This story does not describe desperation nor does it include alcohol; rather, it demonstrates the promise held in the possibilities of life in Nick’s final thoughts: “In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die” (Hemingway 95). Despite the events he witnesses in the camp, Nick’s future seems boundless, as well as endless. Potential has no limits, and the pressures of fulfilling potential are, as yet, unknown to him. This first story in Hemingway’s first published collection serves as a fitting point of departure for the descriptions of desperation that follow; Nick is free from the weight of potential, and judging by his enjoyment of the idyllic setting that surrounds him, it seems that he looks forward to the promise of life.
“The Three-Day Blow” offers the reader one of the first opportunities to observe the trepidation and fear of future potential. The story happens to feature Nick Adams, but as other stories are examined, different characters will also exhibit the same desperation. “The Three-Day Blow” directly follows “The End of Something,” save a vignette, and it seems to allude to the break up described therein. As Nick and Bill begin drinking, their talk includes baseball, fishing, the nature of drunks, and eventually Marge. The discussion of girls and relationships...