In “Big Two-Hearted River,” Nick, the protagonist, is constantly confronted by change. He arrives at the town of Seney, Michigan, on a solitary fishing trip and finds that the town has burned to the ground since he was last there. Seney is deserted, its saloons and houses are completely destroyed, and the fire has affected the landscape and wildlife. These specific changes are bleak and depressing, but Nick also appears to view change in general as unpleasant. Readers may already be familiar with Nick Adams, who is a recurring character in two dozen Hemingway stories. Many of these stories center around World War I and even feature Nick as a soldier. Given this context, readers can reasonably assume that in “Big Two-Hearted River,” Nick has recently returned from the war. However, he returns to an unfamiliar home, which is deeply disorienting for him. By taking a nostalgia-fueled fishing trip in the wilderness outside of Seney, Nick attempts to return to a pre-war past, but the story emphasizes the impossibility of this since change is everywhere around him.
Nick takes great pleasure in markers of constancy. He seeks out the things he remembers from his past to orient him when the changes around him prove to be too overwhelming. Yet Hemingway suggests that these things, too, are in flux, and that Nick is mistaken when he thinks of them as permanent or unchanging. When he gets to Seney, Nick “expect[s] to find the scattered houses of the town” dotting the hillside, and other landmarks like the Mansion House hotel. Instead, he finds the town to be burned to the ground and completely different from his memories of it: “The thirteen saloons that had lined the one street of Seney ha[ve] left not a trace” and the “stretch of hillside” that was once peppered with houses is now desolate and charred. Seeing this, he walks away from the destruction before him and heads towards the river. Compared to the devastating changes of the town, “The river [is] there.” Its very presence is a comfort to Nick because it is unchanged from how he remembers it. Yet, since a river is constantly in motion, it is, in a sense, always changing too.
When he gets to the river, Nick watches the trout swimming at the bottom with admiration because they keep themselves “steady in the current.” They do not seem to move as the water rushes around them, so, to Nick, they appear to resist change. He “watche[s] them a long time,” fascinated by their ability “to hold steady in the fast water,” suggesting Nick’s own desire to remain still while changes rush past him. However, their “wavering fins” do a lot of work to maintain the illusion of stillness, and the fish “change their positions in quick angles” before they settle into seeming tranquility. So, once again, Nick is mistaken when he thinks of them as static.
In searching for some semblance of constancy, Nick is trying to return to his pre-war past. However, reminders of the war crop up all around him, suggesting that the war has profoundly changed the world and that Nick cannot escape this fact. For instance, Seney is completely scorched and obliterated, and even though this vast destruction of the landscape is attributed to a fire, it does look like a warzone. The description of the town makes it seem as if it were bombed out, and there is nothing left of it but the crumbling stone foundations of a hotel and the metal railroad tracks—everything else has vanished in the fire. This dramatic change in the physical landscape of Seney mirrors how the world has been forever changed by World War I.
These wartime changes are also reflected in the strange phenomenon of the grasshoppers of Seney that have “turned black by living in the burned-over land.” Nick initially assumes that they are a different kind of grasshopper, but on closer inspection he discovers that they are just “ordinary hoppers” that have been transformed by the destruction around them. Though it has been a year since Seney’s fire, they are still black, suggesting that destructive events have the capacity to affect lives for a long time. Nick, too, has been changed by the war, and empathizes with these black grasshoppers. He wonders “how long they [will] stay that way,” suggesting that he would like them to revert to their previous colorful selves. Perhaps he sees himself in them, and wonders how long it will take for his own marks from the war—his traumatic memories and unmanageable emotions—to heal over and disappear so he can return to his pre-war self. So, while Nick seeks markers of constancy amidst the clear signs of change that surround him, what he really seems to be searching for is his old self that he lost in the war.
The Inevitability of Change ThemeTracker
The Inevitability of Change Quotes in Big Two-Hearted River
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.
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 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.