“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 is a young American man who is in the hospital to receive physical rehabilitation for the leg wounds he received while at the front. Sitting next to him is an Italian major, a champion fencer before the war, whose hand has been wounded and with whom the narrator speaks about life. At the story’s end, having learned of his wife’s death of pneumonia, the major must face the future knowing the machines cannot cure him of this different kind of injury.
Dignity and the Human Condition
In the story, the young narrator has faced death and survived. This is also true of the Italian officers who, like the narrator, come to the hospital each day to receive therapy for the wounds they have received while at the front. The narrator learns about dignity and the human condition primarily through his interaction with an Italian major. While the young narrator is fearful of dying on the battlefield, the major seems to have made peace with this possibility. He knows he must do his duty in the dignified manner consistent with being a professional soldier and, more specifically, an officer. He is uninterested in the bravado expressed by the young decorated officers. Bravery requires acting on impulse, making snap decisions based on one’s emotions. The major instead depends on control and precision. One day, however, the major breaks his composure; while sitting at the machine intended to heal his injured hand, he becomes angry with the narrator’s hope to marry in the future, irately adding that the young American “should not place himself in a position to lose [everything]…. He should find things he cannot lose.” The major then does the previously unthinkable; he breaks into tears. The narrator soon learns from a doctor that the major’s young and, presumably, healthy wife has suddenly died from pneumonia. When the major returns to the hospital, three days later—his first break in his regime of daily visits—he is a more openly vulnerable man. He sits dutifully at his machine, stands in an erect, soldierly manner, but now his dignified stance is more hard won. He has learned that life cannot be controlled, that it is filled with arbitrary tragedies, even off the battlefield, for which one may be unprepared. The major may have been prepared for his own death, like any good soldier, but his wife’s sudden passing leads him to confront life’s meaninglessness, an aspect of the human condition he, who has survived, must now struggle to face with dignity.
Courage and Cowardice
Not unconnected is the theme of courage and cowardice. While many heroes, particularly in American fiction, especially American films, are portrayed as stoic and unafraid, “In Another Country” depicts a more complex and humanistic type of courage. Following the unexpected loss of his wife, the major’s return to the hospital signifies his willingness to survive, even with his new awareness of chaos in the world and his inability to prevent being touched by it. His willingness to face life with this new and painful understanding can be seen as a definition of genuine courage, the kind of courage befitting a real hero. This truer, more human heroism even requires the initial shedding of tears, an act that is seen in some circumstances as a sign of cowardice.
This definition of heroism contrasts with the more traditional kind of heroics, the kind that wins medals, displayed by the brash young Italian officers. These men are seemingly proud of their naive bravado; however, because they have not dealt with the emotional consequences of the violence they have faced, they have become “a little detached” and withdrawn.
Alienation and Loneliness
This theme is expressed initially in the story’s title, “In Another Country,” which refers to being or feeling alienated from the comfort of the familiar, a circumstance which often leads to loneliness. In this story, the narrator is literally in another country, Italy, an ocean apart from his home, the United States; however, he is also apart in other ways. When he walks in the streets of Milan alongside the young Italian officers he is first accepted by, he knows the civilians who verbally abuse them do not understand what they, the officers, have faced. Though the officers and these native Milanese share the same streets, they are in “another country” from each other, separated by their differing life experiences. Once inside the warmth of the cafe, the narrator feels the loneliness this alienation causes disappear. Later, these same officers drift from him because they discover that some of his medals are for being an American, while theirs are for feats of bravery, acts the narrator knows his own fear of death would probably not permit him to perform. This leads to his being separate, in “another country,” from his former friends. Out of loneliness, the narrator maintains a friendship with the only member of the group who has not received a medal and, since he is too injured to return to battle, never will. The narrator likes to pretend this friend would be like him in battle, cautious and a little afraid. The narrator insists on imagining he and this young man are connected in this way to alleviate the loneliness he feels now that he has become alienated from the others. At the end of the story, the narrator becomes alienated from his new friend, the major, after the major experiences a loss that the narrator has not, the death of a wife to pneumonia. The major’s resulting understanding of life’s cruel lack of meaning puts him in “another country” from the younger, still somewhat idealistic narrator. The mind set of the major is both alien to him and lonely, yet it is inevitable to all human beings. After all, the story suggests, attempts to avoid loss are only temporary.
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.