In “Big Two-Hearted River,” Nick arrives in the burned-down town of Seney, Michigan, on a hot day, ready for a solo camping trip. He walks uphill to set up camp the river, carrying not only a very heavy pack but also unpleasant memories and emotions associated with World War I, from which he has just returned. While Nick faces both physical and mental suffering in the story, he seems to prefer physical discomfort and even courts it as a means to distract himself from his emotional wounds, which are harder for him to face. Thus, Hemingway suggests that while physical pain is uncomfortable, it is ultimately a person’s emotional wounds that cause the most suffering.
Nick displays a wariness with emotions, suggesting that his mental scars are so deep and unmanageable that he doesn’t intend to face them. For instance, he sees a kingfisher fly over the river, and a big trout leap out of the water right after. The trout manages to get safely back underwater without getting eaten by the bird, but when Nick sees this, his “heart tightened as the trout moved. He felt all the old feeling.” The “old feeling” could be apprehension at the danger the trout put itself in, or joy that it escaped—but whatever it might be, it seems like Nick is wary of any strong “feeling.” Also, it is an “old” feeling, implying that Nick hasn’t felt these emotions recently, most likely because he is trying not to. He immediately turns and looks away from the trout, and when his feelings are under control again, he walks away from the river.
Nick similarly avoids unpleasant emotions later in the story when he thinks about his friend Hopkins, who “went away when the telegram came” and whom he never saw again. Though not explicitly spelled out, Hopkins has most likely died in the war—World War I, the same war from which Nick has returned. At his camp by the river, Nick makes coffee like Hopkins used to, and laughs when the coffee turns out to be bitter because it matches the sad end to Hopkins’s story. Nick realizes then that his “mind [is] starting to work. He [knows] he [can] choke it down because he [is] tired enough.” His exhaustion comes as welcome relief to Nick because he doesn’t want to deal with these difficult memories.
Just like extreme fatigue helps Nick avoid his challenging emotions, so do physically challenging situations. For this reason, Nick seeks them out. The landscape of the story is harsh at the story’s opening, and Nick struggles with his heavy pack through the burned countryside, the heat, and the uphill climb. He tries to balance out its weight by putting a strap across his forehead, but “Still it [is] too heavy. It [is] much too heavy.” As he carries this pack uphill, “His muscles [ache] and the day [is] hot, but Nick [feels] happy. He [feels] he [has] left everything behind, the need for thinking […].” The discomfort of his physical struggle distracts Nick from the need to think, and this makes him happy. Though the environment softens as the story progresses, Nick seems to intentionally put himself in situations where he must encounter physical discomfort so it can distract him from his thoughts. Later, he is walking along the “shadeless pine plain” and he is “tired and very hot.” Though he can head left towards the river at any moment to set up camp and rest, he keeps walking to the north on the plain to see how far upstream he can go in a day. He delays getting to the river so that he is famished and exhausted when he does finally reach it, and has no energy left for thinking.
When Nick is focused on his bodily discomforts—exhaustion, hunger, aching muscles—he manages to successfully “choke” down his thoughts, which is why he pushes his body to endure physical suffering. He is pleased when he finally eats a big dinner after being hungry all day and thinks of it as “a very fine experience.” The solutions to physical discomfort are simple and often pleasurable, unlike the more complicated problems of the mind.
Physical vs. Emotional Suffering ThemeTracker
Physical vs. Emotional Suffering Quotes in Big Two-Hearted River
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 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.
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.
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.