Nick, the protagonist of “Big Two-Hearted River,” has returned from World War I and intends to head to a familiar place he remembers—the wilderness outside the town of Seney, Michigan—so he can begin to collect himself. However, when he reaches Seney, he finds it has completely burned down, and is disconcerted by its unfamiliar, desolated landscape. As Nick makes his way down to the river, the rejuvenating power of nature soothes and revives him. In the story, when nature is predictable and pliable, it is a source of comfort and healing for Nick. However, Hemingway highlights that nature can also be untamed and uncontrollable—like the swamp by the river—and when faced with these aspects of nature, Nick comes close to losing the little control he has over his troubled emotions.
When nature is constant and familiar, Nick finds it rejuvenating. Fishing for trout in this region is something he did before the war, and his pleasant memories of fishing connect him to a simpler past. Nick is so familiar with this landscape that “he [does] not need to get a map out. He [knows] where he [is] from the position of the river.” He has returned from the war and is being assaulted by changes, so it is a comfort to him to return to a recognizable place where he “[knows] where he [is].” When he gets to the town of Seney and sees that it is “burned over and changed,” he thinks that “it [does] not matter. It could not all be burned. He [knows] that.” He is proven right when he walks on to the river and reaches the end of the fire line where he sees “sweet fern, growing ankle high […] and clumps of jack pines; a long undulating country […] alive again.” The constancy of nature gives him hope—it signifies the beginning of life in spite of the surrounding destruction.
Furthermore, Nick finds comfort in taming the landscape around him by turning it into a campsite. Though he is floundering emotionally after returning from the war, he feels an empowering sense of control as he goes about these tasks with precision and meticulousness. For instance, he takes a great amount of care just to lay his bed out when he is making camp: “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. […] 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.” Nick gets a deep sense of satisfaction from carving a spot out for himself in the wilderness, and he does this with great thoroughness. He is pleased when he accomplishes this: “Nick was happy as he crawled inside the tent. […] Now things were done. […] He had made his camp. He was settled. Nothing could touch him.” Nick feels powerful and capable after asserting control over the landscape, and this also gives him a sense of safety.
However, nature in this story does not always make Nick feel safe. When confronted with aspects of nature that are uncontrollable, Nick feels threatened and struggles to rein in his emotions. For instance, when Nick hooks a very large trout in the river, it breaks the line and escapes. Losing this big fish to the depths of the river fills Nick with a staggering sense of disappointment because he wasn’t able to assert his control over it. This causes him to come close to losing control over himself: “He felt, vaguely, a little sick, as though it would be better to sit down.”
In the story, the murky and uncontrollable aspects of nature are most powerfully represented by the swamp by the river that fills Nick with dread. He sees it as a dark place “where the sun [does] not come through,” which is also hard to enter because the cedar trees grow together so thick and low that the swamp “look[s] solid.” As he looks at it, he comes close to panicking at the thought of entering it: Nick “[does] not want to go in there now. […] He [does] not want it. He [does] not want to go any further down the stream today.” When he thinks of fishing in the swamp, “He [feels] 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 fishing was a tragic adventure. Nick did not want it.” He thinks that he will have no control when he fishes in the swamp, and this—combined with the low-growing trees, deep water, and darkness—fills him with fear. The swamp seems to symbolize the uncontrollable darkness and discomfort of Nick’s thoughts, which is why he feels such terror at the idea of entering it and perhaps losing control of his tenuous grasp over himself. At the end of the story, however, Nick optimistically thinks that there are “plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp,” implying that though he isn’t yet ready for this adventure, he might be emotionally stronger later and take it on after some recuperation by the river.
Nature and Control ThemeTracker
Nature and Control Quotes in Big Two-Hearted River
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.