Big Two-Hearted River

Big Two-Hearted River Part I Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The train moves on after dropping Nick off at the town of Seney, which he finds has completely burned down. Nick sits down on his pack and looks around. There is nothing left of the 13 saloons that once lined Seney’s street. The foundation of the Mansion House hotel sticks out of the ground and the stones have been split by the fire. Even the “surface [has] been burned off the ground.”
The sight that greets Nick when he arrives in Seney, Michigan is an unpleasant shock to him. Clearly, Nick is very familiar with this town and its various landmarks, of which there is nothing left except the broken foundation of the hotel. Though never explicitly mentioned, it can be inferred based on Hemingway’s other stories about Nick’s character that Nick has recently returned from fighting in World War I. He comes to Seney expecting its familiarity comforts but is instead greeted by a scene that looks like a warzone. Through this image, Hemingway is implying that it is not easy to escape the war’s horrors and memories, though Nick has presumably come here to do just that. 
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Nick looks over at the hillside, where he’d expected to find Seney’s scattered houses, but finds no sign of them since they, like the town’s other buildings, have been burned to the ground. He then heads to the bridge over the river and notes that the river is there.
Once again, Seney’s complete destruction and desolation are in focus here. The town is very different from Nick’s memories of it, which he finds difficult to deal with. When Nick sees the river, he seems comforted by the fact that this landmark is still there, unlike everything else familiar in Seney.
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Nick watches the trout in the river for a long time, paying close attention to how they “hold steady in the fast water.” He thinks that it’s been a while since he’s watched trout, and that they are “very satisfactory.”
To Nick, the trout seem to symbolize steadfastness and calm in the midst of chaos, and his reflection that the fish are “very satisfactory” suggests that he wants to embody this quality as well, or at least to observe it in the world around him. Since he has been away at war, he hasn’t been able to appreciate simple pleasures like watching trout in a river in some time, but Nick is clearly glad to be back in a familiar place, doing something he enjoys.   
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Nick notices a kingfisher flying upstream. Just then, a big trout also swims upstream and leaps out of the water, into the sunlight, before it swims back to its place under the bridge. While watching the trout move, Nick’s “heart tighten[s]” and he feels “all the old feeling.” He turns and looks down the stream, which is “pebbly-bottomed with shallows and big boulders and a deep pool as it curved away[.]”
Nick feels some sort of powerful emotion at this sight of a trout leaping out of the water while a bird of pretty is lurking. Hemingway leaves this emotion unnamed—it might be anxiety for the trout, or perhaps excitement at its narrow escape. The reader can infer that, having certainly faced near-death experiences in World War I, Nick likely empathizes with the fish. To compose himself, Nick looks away, down the river. This strategy seems to help him get his high emotions under control.
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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 “much too heavy.” He walks away from the burned town of Seney and takes a road that heads into the country, feeling “the ache from the pull of the heavy pack.” The road he’s on is an uphill one, and it is a hot day, “but Nick [feels] happy. He [feels] he ha[s] left everything behind, the need for thinking, the need to write, other needs. It [is] all back of him.” Though “Seney [is] burned, the country [is] burned over and changed,” Nick thinks that it does not matter because he knows it could not all be burned.
After his short time looking at the river and the trout, Nick is reinvigorated. He sees nature as permanent and unchanging, and this gives him hope. He realizes that even though Seney might be “burned over and changed,” the destruction must end at some point, since nature perpetually grows and regenerates itself. The heavy pack Nick carries as he hikes is a symbol of the emotional weight he seems to be lugging around. He struggles uphill, in the heat, with the heavy pack—but he is happy because when he is exerting himself physically, he is too preoccupied to think. It seems like his memories from the war cause him great pain and that he is happy when he can avoid them. 
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Nick sweats in the heat as he climbs the hills that separate the train tracks from the “pine plains.” The burned land stops at the line of hills on his left. In front of him is a plain dotted with pine trees, and this plain goes right up to the far blue hills in the distance that look like they are the same height as Lake Superior. To his left, he catches glimpses of the river, its water glinting in the sunlight. Nick takes a break and smokes a cigarette. He does not need a map to know where he is. He can find his way by looking at the position of the river.
Nick can now see the end of the burned land, beyond which nature flourishes again. Michigan’s Lake Superior is mentioned for the first time in the story in this passage. It’s clear that Nick is familiar with this region, suggesting that he has memories of spending time here that he wants to relive, unlike his painful memories of World War I. He enjoys being by the familiar, comforting presence of the river where he does not even need a map.
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A black grasshopper climbs onto Nick’s sock. He remembers that he has seen many of these black grasshoppers on his walk up the hill and realizes that they must have turned black from living on the burned land. Though it has been a year since the fire, they are still black. He wonders how long they will stay that way. “Carefully,” Nick picks up the black grasshopper to look at its belly, which he sees is black, too, just like its head. Nick speaks “out loud for the first time,” telling the insect to “Fly away somewhere.”
The black grasshoppers demonstrate the long-lasting aftereffects of a catastrophic event. They have been completely transformed by the fire that burned down Seney, and still manifest these changes even though an entire year has passed since the fire. These creatures are living proof that healing after a traumatic event is a slow and difficult process. Just like these creatures, Nick, too, has been transformed by his experiences in the war. He recognizes this, which is why he speaks to the insect—one of the two times he speaks out loud in the story—and treats it with such care. 
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Nick puts his heavy pack back on and begins to make his way down the hill. This time he doesn’t take the road. The fire line stops a little way down the hillside, and he enjoys his walk among the ferns and pines in the “country [that is] alive again.” He uses the sun as his guide as he makes his way over to the river. He plucks some ferns and puts them under his pack straps, where they smell sweet when they are crushed by its weight.
While the fire has caused a lot of damage, nature flourishes again beyond the fire line. Nick finds this hopeful and comforting. He enjoys his sense of power and control over the landscape when it is familiar and yields to him easily, like when he plucks the ferns to smell them.
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Soon after, Nick gets tired walking across the hot, “shadeless” plain. He heads toward some pine trees, lays down under them, and takes a nap. When he wakes up, it is close to sunset. His body is stiff and cramped, and his pack feels too heavy as he continues to make his way to the river.
Again, nature comes across as a source of comfort for Nick. Until this point in the story, he has been hot and exhausted from hiking through the burned land, and the pine trees finally give him some reprieve and the opportunity to rest. 
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Nick reaches a meadow that borders the river, and he is “glad to get” there. He watches the “trout rising”—they are leaping out of the water in circles to catch insects. To Nick, it looks “as though it were starting to rain.”
When Nick finally reaches the point at the river where he decides to set up his camp, he is greeted by nature at its most benevolent. Rather than the scorched town of Seney, which connotes only loss and death, Nick instead reaches to a meadow which is abundant with greenery and life. The trout that are leaping out of the river to catch insects look like rain to Nick, and given that rain typically symbolizes cleansing and rejuvenation, suggesting that Nick feels revitalized by the life around him after being surrounded by destruction both in the war and upon arriving in Seney.  
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Nick sets up camp on some flat land between two pines. He gets his ax out of his pack and chops down two protruding roots to make enough room for him to stretch out and sleep. He uproots some ferns and smooths the earth down with his hands because he doesn’t want any lumps under the blankets. Finally, he spreads his three blankets down. He does a very thorough job setting up his tent, cutting pegs and a pole for it from the nearby pine trees. He puts some cheesecloth at the tent’s entrance to keep out mosquitoes. Now, his pack is emptier and looks smaller.
Clearly, Nick has packed very thoroughly for this trip—including an ax and three blankets to sleep on—and is very particular about how he wants his camp to be. He meticulously carves out a space for himself in the wilderness, cutting roots that are in his way and uprooting plants that might make his bed lumpy, suggesting that he wants to create a semblance of a home for himself in the wilderness. As he goes about taming the area around him with various implements he pulls out of his heavy pack, the pack (which also represents his emotional load) gets lighter. This suggests that Nick’s heart, too, gets lighter as he imposes control over the wilderness. Nick finds great satisfaction in establishing a sense of order, which is understandable given the chaos he’s surely witnessed. 
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The camp already feels “mysterious and homelike,” and Nick is happy as he crawls into the tent. “He had not been unhappy all day,” but it was still “a hard trip” to reach the river. Nick is tired after a long day of hiking, and now feels like “nothing can touch him,” and that he is “in the good place.” 
Nick feels a satisfying sense of accomplishment after he sets up his camp. He thinks of it as a place where “[n]othing could touch him,” indicating that he does otherwise feel threatened or somehow unsafe—most likely due to his psychological wounds. But by setting up his camp so meticulously, he feels he has defeated this threat since he is in perfect control of his environment. The quick repetitions of the word “good” in such close succession highlight that Nick is content and safe in the home he has made in nature, away from the stressors he is avoiding.
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Nick realizes that he is very hungry since he hasn’t eaten anything since that morning. He does not “believe he has ever been hungrier.” While emptying cans of pork and beans and spaghetti on the frying pan, he says out loud, “I’ve got a right to eat this kind of stuff, if I’m willing to carry it.” But his voice sounds strange to him in the dark woods, and he does not speak again.
Nick seems to enjoy the pleasure of delayed gratification. He is completely famished, but he knows this will make his meal that much more enjoyable when he finally gets to it. In this passage, he speaks out loud for the second time in the story, asserting to the world that he can choose what to carry and eat what he pleases. Given that this is only one of two times Nick feels the need to verbalize his thoughts, his assertion here is clearly important to him—perhaps he did not have the choice to eat the quantity or type of food he wanted while he was at war. 
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Nick makes a fire and warms his dinner on it, watching with pleasure as it bubbles up. He is getting hungrier. He pours out the food on a tin plate and knows it is too hot to eat right away. He doesn’t want to spoil it by burning his tongue. He looks away from the food as he waits for it to cool down. When he finally takes a bite, he says “Geezuz Chrise” in pleasure.
Nick feels immense pleasure when he finally eats his food, exclaiming “Geezuz Chrise” aloud, suggesting a moment of almost religious ecstasy. The solution to Nick’s physical suffering seems easy when compared to his mental anguish—there doesn’t seem to be an easy fix for this.
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He eats a whole plateful before he remembers that he has bread, and then eats a second plateful with the bread. He enjoys the experience of eating when he is very hungry: “He had been that hungry before, but had not been able to satisfy it.” He could have set up his camp earlier and eaten earlier if he’d wanted to, but “[t]his was good.” 
Nick had probably been similarly hungry when he was at the war but had been unable to sit down to a satisfying meal. Now, he enjoys his freedom to decide when and what to eat. Once again, the reader’s attention is drawn to Nick’s decision to postpone eating and setting up camp—he decides not to and enjoys that freedom to choose. Also, Nick uses his hunger and exhaustion to stop his mind from recalling thoughts and memories that upset him. 
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After dinner, Nick “[can] not remember how he made coffee,” though he does remember that he’d argued about it with Hopkins. He decides to bring the coffee to a boil and then remembers that this was the way Hopkins made coffee. He remembers that “[h]e had once argued about everything with Hopkins.”
Hopkins is the only other character (other than Nick) who gets more than a passing mention in this story, suggesting that he is important to Nick. Nick had “once argued” with Hopkins about everything, but he seems to no longer do this. The reader does not yet know why the arguments (or the friendship) ended. 
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Nick watches the coffee pot boil over and thinks that it is “a triumph for Hopkins.” Instead of letting the coffee steep in the pot, Nick uses his hat to hold the hot coffee pot and pours out the first cup right away, just the way that Hopkins used to, because “Hop deserved that.” He had been “a very serious coffee drinker” and “the most serious man Nick had ever known.” But all that “was a long time ago.”
Once again, the reader’s attention is drawn to the fact that Nick and Hopkins used to be friends “a long time ago,” yet it’s not clear when or why their friendship ended. Since Nick is consciously making his coffee using Hopkins’s method, as if in his honor, it is clear that Nick still regards Hopkins positively.
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Hopkins played polo and made a lot of money on an oil well in Texas. They called his girlfriend the Blond Venus, but Hop didn’t mind because he was sure they wouldn’t call his “real” girlfriend names like that and he was right—they wouldn’t. When they were fishing on the Black 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 together the following summer on the north shores of Lake Superior. They never saw Hopkins again.
Hopkins seems to have been a lucky young man, blessed with money, a beautiful girlfriend, and friends who cared about him. However, he “went away” when a telegram came for him, implying that he was likely drafted to fight in World War I. Though Nick and his friends had plans to go fishing together the next year, they “never saw Hopkins again,” which suggests that he died in the war. Hopkins’s story illustrates that money and good fortune didn’t protect anyone from the horrors of war. 
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Nick drinks the coffee he’d made in the same way that Hopkins used to. It is bitter, which makes Nick laugh because it seems like a fitting end to the story. His mind is starting to work, but he knows that he can “choke it because he [is] tired enough.” He empties the coffee pot, lights a cigarette, and goes inside the tent.
The coffee that Nick makes using Hopkins’s method is bitter, just like Hopkins’s story which ends in death. Nick is starting to think about the war, and he doesn’t want to, but he knows he is tired enough to “choke” his mind. This strikingly violent word, “choke,” draws attention to itself and highlights the sheer effort Nick puts into avoiding and repressing things that upset him.
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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 match to find the insect and burns it. Then he settles down again and falls asleep.
Later in the story, the swamp will emerge as a challenge to Nick’s peace of mind. But for now, Nick is too exhausted to be troubled by it and it is “perfectly quiet.” However, a mosquito has snuck into Nick’s tent, which violates his quest for perfect order. It is only by killing it that Nick is able to “settle down” to a good night’s sleep, again showcasing his extreme disturbance when his environment is not to his liking. 
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