“In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it anymore.” So begins Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “In Another Country.” The war he refers to is World War I; the setting is Milan, away from the scene of the fighting. The narrator describes the city he passes on his way to the hospital to receive physical rehabilitation for the leg wounds he received while at the front. Though the narrator remains unnamed, scholars generally agree the young man is Hemingway’s alter ego, Nick Adams.
At the hospital, the narrator, a young man, sits at a machine designed to aid his damaged knee. Next to him is an Italian major, a champion fencer before the war, whose hand has been wounded. The doctor shows the major a photograph of a hand that has been restored by the machine the major is using. The photo, however, does not increase the major’s confidence in the machine.
Three Milanese soldiers, the same age as the narrator, are then introduced. The four boys hang out together at a place called Cafe Cova following their therapy. As they walk through the city’s Communist quarter, they are criticized for being officers with medals. A fifth boy, who lost his nose an hour after his first battle, sometimes joins them. He wears a black handkerchief strategically placed across his face and has no medals.
One of the boys who has three medals has
“lived a very long time with death and was a little detached. We were all a little detached, and there was nothing that held us together except that we met every afternoon at the hospital. Although, we walked to the Cova through the tough part of town, walking in the dark, with the light singing coming out of wineshops, and sometimes having to walk into the street where the men and women would crowd together on the sidewalk so that we would have to jostle them to get by, we felt held together by there being something that had happened that they, the people who disliked us, did not understand. (Excerpt from “In Another Country”)”
Having all faced death and survived, the boys are linked in a way that the outsiders cannot understand. This special bond exists between them even though the narrator as an American, is otherwise more of an outsider to the soldiers than the unwounded Italians on the street who despise them. They feel particularly connected at the Cova, where they drink and carouse with local girls.
The Italian soldiers change their manner toward the narrator when they realize he received some of his medals for being an American, and not for bravery, as they had. Though the narrator likes to imagine he would have been as brave as they had, he knows this is not true because he is indeed afraid to die. Despite their initial common bond, the Italian soldiers drift from the narrator due to this difference. Only the undecorated boy, without the nose, remains his close friend. This boy will not return to the war, so will never get the chance to find out if he also is afraid of death.
The major, the great fencer, is cynical about bravery, and so the narrator then feels a bond with him. As they sit at their respective physical therapy machines, the major helps the narrator improve his Italian.
One day when the narrator feels as hopeless about his machine as the major does about his, the major, usually poised and soldier-like, suddenly calls the narrator “a stupid impossible disgrace,” who he had been “a fool to have bothered with.” Standing upright to calm himself, the major asks the narrator if he is married. He answers, “No, but I hope to be.” The major bitterly tells him, “A man must not marry,” explaining that a man “should not place himself in a position to lose [everything] … He should find things he cannot lose.” When the narrator counters this statement, the major angrily exclaims, “He’ll lose it. Don’t argue with me!,” then demands his machine be turned off.
The major goes into another room for a massage, then asks for a phone, shutting the door for privacy. A short time later the major returns, composed. He apologizes to the narrator, then announces his wife has just died. The narrator feels sick for him, but the major remains controlled, saying, “It is difficult. I cannot resign myself.” He then begins to cry. Quickly, however, the major stands erect, like a soldier, and fighting back his tears, exits.
The doctor says that the major’s wife, a young, healthy woman, had died unexpectedly of pneumonia. The major returns three days later, wearing a black band on his sleeve to signify mourning, a symbol which further separates him from the narrator. Large framed photographs of healed hands have been hung to offer the major hope. However, the major ignores them; instead, he just stares out the window, knowing the machines cannot cure him of this different kind of injury.
Ira Mark Milne (Editor), Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 8, Ernest Hemingway, Published by Thomson Gale, 2000.