Big Two-Hearted River

Nick, the protagonist of “Big Two Hearted River,” is a recurring character in several Hemingway stories, many of which are set before, during, and after World War I. Though never explicitly mentioned in this story, readers can reasonably assume that Nick has just returned from the war and wants to put his traumatic memories behind him—he wants to leave behind his “need for thinking.” When nick arrives in Seney, Michigan, where he has been before, he is unsettled to find that the entire town has been burned to the ground. He decides to embark on a solo fishing trip in the wilderness outside town. Nick he doesn’t meet or speak with other people while he’s hiking and fishing, which serves to highlight his sense of alienation. He does, however, encounter other living creatures as he walks through the woods and is always kind to them, suggesting that Nick’s compassion likely makes him especially vulnerable to emotional suffering. He is careful when he picks up a black grasshoppers to examine it, and speaks to it before letting it go, telling it to “fly away somewhere.” Later on, he ensures that the brown grasshoppers he plans to use as bait can breathe in the jar he puts them in, and while fishing, he wets his hand before touching a trout so it won’t get a fungal attack. He has seen other fishermen who don’t take the trouble to do this, and he finds their carelessness irritating. Although the grasshoppers and fish will die, it seems that Nick’s time as a soldier has made him particularly sensitive to the pain of other creatures, and he wants to prevent suffering to the best of his ability. All of Nick’s actions in this story are marked by careful planning and meticulousness, again hearkening to his implied time as a soldier. He has packed extensively for this camping trip (struggling, as a result, with a very heavy pack that mirrors his emotional burdens). He feels a sense of safety and satisfaction after he methodically completes a task, like setting up camp or accoutering himself to go fishing. His attention to detail gives him a sense of control that he enjoys, especially because he knows he lacks control with regard to his emotions. For instance, he struggles to rein in his disappointment when a big trout escapes while he’s fishing, and he is overwhelmed by dread when he looks at the dark swamp by the river. However, by the end, he is optimistic that “there are plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp,” suggesting that Nick believes his healing is imminent.

Nick Quotes in Big Two-Hearted River

The Big Two-Hearted River quotes below are all either spoken by Nick or refer to Nick. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Inevitability of Change  Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Simon & Schuster edition of Big Two-Hearted River published in 1987.
Part I Quotes

The train went on up the track out of sight, around one of the hills of burnt timber. Nick sat down on the bundle of canvas and bedding the baggage man had pitched out of the door of the baggage car. There was no town, nothing but the rails and the burned-over country. The thirteen saloons that had lined the one street of Seney had not left a trace. The foundations of the Mansion House hotel stuck up above the ground. The stone was chipped and split by the fire. It was all that was left of the town of Seney.

Related Characters: Nick
Related Symbols: Seney
Page Number: 163
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation long mobile

Unlock explanations and citation info for this and every other Big Two-Hearted River quote.

Plus so much more...

Get LitCharts A+
Already a LitCharts A+ member? Sign in!

The river was there. […] Nick looked down into the clear, brown water, colored from the pebbly bottom, and watched the trout keeping themselves steady in the current with wavering fins. As he watched them they changed their positions by quick angles, only to hold steady in the fast water again. Nick watched them a long time.

Related Characters: Nick
Related Symbols: The River
Page Number: 163
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile

A kingfisher flew up the stream. It was a long time since Nick had looked into a stream and seen trout. They were very satisfactory. As the shadow of the kingfisher moved up the stream, a big trout shot upstream in a long angle, only his shadow marking the angle, then lost his shadow as he came through the surface of the water, caught the sun, and then, as he went back into the stream under the surface, his shadow seemed to float down the stream with the current, unresisting, to his post under the bridge where he tightened facing up into the current.

Nick’s heart tightened as the trout moved. He felt all the old feeling.

Related Characters: Nick
Page Number: 163-164
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile

He walked along the road feeling the ache from the pull of the heavy pack. The road climbed steadily. It was hard work walking up-hill. His muscles ached and the day was hot, but Nick felt happy. He felt he had left everything behind, the need for thinking, the need to write, other needs. It was all back of him.

[…] Seney was burned, the country was burned over and changed, but it did not matter. It could not all be burned.

Related Characters: Nick
Related Symbols: Seney
Page Number: 164
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile

As he had walked along the road, climbing, he had started many grasshoppers from the dust. They were all black. They were not the big grasshoppers with yellow and black or red and black wings […]. These were just ordinary hoppers, but all a sooty black in color. […] Now, as he watched the black hopper that was nibbling at the wool of his sock with its fourway lip, he realized that they had all turned black from living in the in burned-over land. He realized that the fire must have come the year before, but the grasshoppers were all black now. He wondered how long they would stay that way.

Carefully he reached his hand down and took hold of the hopper by the wings. He turned him up, all his legs walking in the air, and looked at his jointed belly. Yes, it was black too, iridescent where the back and head were dusty.

“Go on, hopper,” Nick said, speaking out loud for the first time. “Fly away somewhere.”

Related Characters: Nick (speaker)
Related Symbols: Black Grasshoppers
Page Number: 165
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile

He came down a hillside covered with stumps into a meadow. At the edge of the meadow flowed the river. Nick was glad to get to the river. He walked upstream through the meadow. His trousers were soaked with the dew as he walked. After the hot day, the dew had come quickly and heavily. […] Nick looked down the river at the trout rising. They were rising to insects come from the swamp on the other side of the stream when the sun went down. The trout jumped out of water to take them. […] As far down the long stretch as he could see, the trout were rising, making circles all down the surface of the water, as though it were starting to rain.

Related Characters: Nick
Related Symbols: The River
Page Number: 166
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile

Between two jack pines, the ground was quite level. He took the ax out of the pack and chopped out two projecting roots. That leveled a piece of ground large enough to sleep on. He smoothed out the sandy soil with his hand and pulled all the sweet fern bushes by their roots. His hands smelled good from the sweet fern. He smoothed the uprooted earth. He did not want anything making lumps under the blankets. When he had the ground smooth, he spread his three blankets. One he folded double, next to the ground. The other two he spread on top.

Related Characters: Nick
Page Number: 166-167
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile

Inside the tent the light came through the brown canvas. It smelled pleasantly of canvas. Already there was something mysterious and homelike. Nick was happy as he crawled inside the tent. He had not been unhappy all day. This was different though. Now things were done. There had been this to do. Now it was done. It had been a hard trip. He was very tired. That was done. He had made his camp. He was settled. Nothing could touch him. It was a good place to camp. He was there, in the good place. He was in his home where he had made it.

Related Characters: Nick
Page Number: 167
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile

He could not remember which way he made coffee. He could remember an argument about it with Hopkins, but not which side he had taken. He decided to bring it to a boil. He remembered now that was Hopkins’s way. He had once argued about everything with Hopkins. […]

That was a long time ago. Hopkins […] had played polo. He made millions of dollars in Texas. […] They called Hop’s girl the Blonde Venus. […] Hopkins went away when the telegram came. That was on the Black River. […] They were all going fishing again next summer. The Hop Head was rich. He would get a yacht and they would all cruise along the north shore of Lake Superior. […] They said good-bye and all felt bad. It broke up the trip. They never saw Hopkins again. That was a long time ago on the Black River.

Nick drank the coffee, the coffee according to Hopkins. The coffee was bitter. Nick laughed. It made a good ending to the story. His mind was starting to work. He knew he could choke it because he was tired enough.

Related Characters: Nick, Hopkins
Page Number: 168-169
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile
Part II Quotes

The rod under his right arm, Nick stooped, dipping his right hand into the current. He held the trout, never still, with his moist right hand, while he unhooked the barb from his mouth, then dropped him back into the stream.

He hung unsteadily in the current, then settled to the bottom beside a stone. Nick reached down his hand to touch him, his arm to the elbow under water. […] As Nick’s fingers touched him, […] he was gone, gone in a shadow across the bottom of the stream.

He’s all right, Nick thought. He was only tired.

He had wet his hand before he touched the trout, so he would not disturb the delicate mucus that covered him. If a trout was touched with a dry hand, a white fungus attacked the unprotected spot. Years before when he had fished crowded streams, with fly fishermen ahead of him and behind him, Nick had again and again come on dead trout furry with white fungus, drilled against a rock, or floating belly up in some pool. Nick did not like to fish with other men on the river. Unless they were of your party, they spoiled it.

Related Characters: Nick
Page Number: 175-176
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile

His mouth dry, his heart down, Nick reeled in. He had never seen so big a trout. There was a heaviness, a power not to be held, and then the bulk of him, as he jumped. […]

Nick’s hand was shaky. He reeled in slowly. The thrill had been too much. He felt, vaguely, a little sick, as though it would be better to sit down.

The leader had broken where the hook was tied to it. Nick […] thought of the trout somewhere on the bottom, holding himself steady over the gravel, far down below the light, under the logs, with the hook in his jaw. […] The hook would imbed itself in his jaw. He’d bet the trout was angry. Anything that size would be angry. […] By God, he was a big one. By God, he was the biggest one I ever heard of.

Related Characters: Nick
Related Symbols: The River
Page Number: 177
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile

Ahead the river narrowed and went into a swamp. The river became smooth and deep and the swamp looked solid with cedar trees, their trunks close together, their branches solid. It would not be possible to walk through a swamp like that. The branches grew so low. You would have to keep almost level with the ground to move at all. You could not crash through the branches. […]

He wished he had brought something to read. He felt like reading. He did not feel like going on into the swamp. […]

Nick did not want to go in there now. He felt a reaction against deep wading with the water deepening up under his armpits, to hook big trout in places impossible to land them. In the swamp the banks were bare, the big cedars came together overhead, the sun did not come through, except in patches; in the fast deep water, in the half light, the fishing would be tragic. In the swamp fishing was a tragic adventure. Nick did not want it.

Related Characters: Nick
Related Symbols: The Swamp
Page Number: 179 - 180
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile
Get the entire Big Two-Hearted River LitChart as a printable PDF.
Big two hearted river.pdf.medium

Nick Character Timeline in Big Two-Hearted River

The timeline below shows where the character Nick appears in Big Two-Hearted River. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part I
The Inevitability of Change  Theme Icon
The train moves on after dropping Nick off at the town of Seney, which he finds has completely burned down. Nick sits... (full context)
The Inevitability of Change  Theme Icon
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Nick looks over at the hillside, where he’d expected to find Seney’s scattered houses, but finds... (full context)
The Inevitability of Change  Theme Icon
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Nick watches the trout in the river for a long time, paying close attention to how... (full context)
Physical vs. Emotional Suffering Theme Icon
Nick notices a kingfisher flying upstream. Just then, a big trout also swims upstream and leaps... (full context)
The Inevitability of Change  Theme Icon
Physical vs. Emotional Suffering Theme Icon
While walking back to pick up his pack, Nick is happy. He tries to adjust the pack’s weight on his back, but it is... (full context)
The Inevitability of Change  Theme Icon
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Nick sweats in the heat as he climbs the hills that separate the train tracks from... (full context)
The Inevitability of Change  Theme Icon
A black grasshopper climbs onto Nick’s sock. He remembers that he has seen many of these black grasshoppers on his walk... (full context)
The Inevitability of Change  Theme Icon
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Nick puts his heavy pack back on and begins to make his way down the hill.... (full context)
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Physical vs. Emotional Suffering Theme Icon
Soon after, Nick gets tired walking across the hot, “shadeless” plain. He heads toward some pine trees, lays... (full context)
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Nick reaches a meadow that borders the river, and he is “glad to get” there. He... (full context)
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Nick sets up camp on some flat land between two pines. He gets his ax out... (full context)
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Physical vs. Emotional Suffering Theme Icon
The camp already feels “mysterious and homelike,” and Nick is happy as he crawls into the tent. “He had not been unhappy all day,”... (full context)
Physical vs. Emotional Suffering Theme Icon
Nick realizes that he is very hungry since he hasn’t eaten anything since that morning. He... (full context)
Physical vs. Emotional Suffering Theme Icon
Nick makes a fire and warms his dinner on it, watching with pleasure as it bubbles... (full context)
The Inevitability of Change  Theme Icon
Physical vs. Emotional Suffering Theme Icon
After dinner, Nick “[can] not remember how he made coffee,” though he does remember that he’d argued about... (full context)
The Inevitability of Change  Theme Icon
Physical vs. Emotional Suffering Theme Icon
Nick watches the coffee pot boil over and thinks that it is “a triumph for Hopkins.”... (full context)
The Inevitability of Change  Theme Icon
Physical vs. Emotional Suffering Theme Icon
...River, the telegram came for Hop and he “went away.” He gave his pistol to Nick and his camera to Bill, and the three of them made plans to go fishing... (full context)
The Inevitability of Change  Theme Icon
Physical vs. Emotional Suffering Theme Icon
Nick drinks the coffee he’d made in the same way that Hopkins used to. It is... (full context)
Nature and Control Theme Icon
The night is peaceful, and the swamp, too, is “perfectly quiet.” Nick is comfortable on the blanket when a mosquito buzzes in his ear. He strikes a... (full context)
Part II
Nature and Control Theme Icon
The next morning, the sun warms up the tent. Nick crawls out and looks around him at the meadow, the river, and the green swamp... (full context)
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Nick is very excited about heading over to the river to fish. He feels almost too... (full context)
The Inevitability of Change  Theme Icon
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Nick goes to the river to wash his hands and is “excited to be near it.”... (full context)
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Nick makes buckwheat pancakes for breakfast and eats them with apple butter. He packs an extra... (full context)
The Inevitability of Change  Theme Icon
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Nick heads to the river, holding his fly rod, with the bottle full of crickets dangling... (full context)
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Nick tries to get a grasshopper out of the bottle, but the first one escapes and... (full context)
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Nick drops the hook into the water and releases the line until it goes out of... (full context)
Nature and Control Theme Icon
The reason Nick wet his hand before touching the fish is because he knows that if trout are... (full context)
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Nick wades across the shallow stream to the deeper side, crossing over the logs that have... (full context)
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Physical vs. Emotional Suffering Theme Icon
Nick puts another grasshopper on the hook, spits on him “for good luck,” and releases the... (full context)
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Physical vs. Emotional Suffering Theme Icon
The leader has broken where the hook was tied to it, so Nick knows the hook is stuck in the trout’s jaw. He thinks of “the trout somewhere... (full context)
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Physical vs. Emotional Suffering Theme Icon
Nick climbs out of the water, into the meadow, and sits on the logs. He does... (full context)
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Nick enters the water by the logs, where it is not too deep. The river cuts... (full context)
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Nick now has “one good trout” and doesn’t care about catching many more. The stream is... (full context)
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Nick wades over to sit on a hollow log, making sure to hang the sack in... (full context)
The Inevitability of Change  Theme Icon
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Physical vs. Emotional Suffering Theme Icon
Nick wishes he had brought something to read. He does not want to go into the... (full context)
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Nick pulls out one of the trout from the sack and whacks it against a log... (full context)
The Inevitability of Change  Theme Icon
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Nick washes the trout in the stream. They still have their color, and when he holds... (full context)