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The Need For Mental Control: Nick's Search For Peace In Hemingway's "Big Two Hearted River"

1531 words - 7 pages

In his short story, “Big Two-Hearted River”, Ernest Hemingway focuses on the mental and emotional state of Nick, the protagonist, who “le[aves] everything behind” during a wilderness fishing trip. Traumatic thoughts and memories haunt Nick, but the cause of his inner turmoil is not disclosed in the story. Other short stories by Hemingway, however, reveal that Nick Adams is a wounded veteran who served in the First World War. To distract himself from these painful memories, Nick concentrates on the physical details of his journey such as making camp and preparing food. In addition to self-distraction, he attempts to inhibit his ability to think through hunger and physical exhaustion. By examining how Nick uses these techniques of mental control in “Big Two-Hearted River”, one can gain a deeper understanding into his behaviour and fragile psyche. Thus, through analysis of his methods of rehabilitation, this examination will illustrate the central conflict between Nick’s subconscious thoughts and his conscious effort to repress them.
Nick attempts to avoid his traumatic memories through intentional self-distraction while he meticulously controls his external environment. Furthermore, by carefully constructing his surroundings, he is able to offer some stability to his traumatized mind. In particular, his fastidious assembly of the camp provides him with a great sense of satisfaction, for he feels that “he was there, in the good place” and “nothing could touch him.” By performing simple tasks in a methodical and systematic manner, he demands his own full attention and therefore prevents his mind from drifting. With his complete focus directed on levelling and smoothing out his campsite, his subconscious is unable to return to his chaotic thoughts. Ultimately, Nick finds his wilderness camp reminiscent of home, thereby experiencing a sense of comfort and stability. One critic, Matthew Stewart, considers Nick’s approach to such tasks as “routine verg[ing] on ritual” due to the excessive care he takes in doing everything properly. This ritualistic behaviour is well illustrated by the preparation and later consumption of his meal on the first night. Once again, Nick follows a prescribed order and focuses entirely on the task ahead of him, diverting his attention away from his thoughts. At times he even becomes so distracted that he forgets small aspects such as gathering water for coffee or eating the bread with his beans and spaghetti. Particularly indicative of Nick’s focused distraction is his technique of eating the canned apricots: “he drank the juice syrup carefully at first to keep from spilling, then meditatively, sucking the apricots down.” Despite wanting to avoid the reflection and thinking that is typically associated with meditation, Nick allows for what Mark Cirino describes as a careful moment of meditative focus while he eats the apricots. Aware of his innate, subconscious need to think, he distracts himself by concentrating on...

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