In “Hunters in the Snow,” Tub tells Frank that he doesn’t “pay attention very much,” and this description could be applied to almost all the other characters—including Tub, whom Frank scolds for thinking he is “the only person with problems.” Throughout the story, Wolff highlights the ways in which friends and family members fail to fulfill their duties to each other, and people who seem to love each other actually neglect each other, generally by doing nothing at all when some kind of response is called for. Ultimately, Wolff suggests that the neglect that punctuates the story is rooted in self-absorption and it has dangerous and even deadly consequences.
In the story, indifference to other people’s needs comes from self-absorption, or being overly preoccupied with one’s own problems. When Tub shoots Kenny in an act of self-defense, for example, the three men rush to the hospital. However, on the way to the hospital, Tub and Frank stop twice—first for coffee, then for an indulgent stack of pancakes—leaving the Kenny to bleed and freeze in the back of the truck. In prioritizing their own comfort, Tub and Frank seriously and dangerously neglect Kenny. There are also other smaller, less obvious, instances of inattention peppered throughout the story. The woman with the child in the farmhouse sits by a stove that is “smoking badly”—yet the woman does nothing. The smoking stove—especially in proximity of the child—could be dangerous. However, the woman seems lost in her own world and fails to take action.
In this story, people do not just fail to notice what is going on around them—they also fail to react to what they do notice. The most profound cruelties in “Hunters in the Snow” do not derive from blindness, but rather from passively looking on and failing to intervene. For example, when Kenny maliciously makes fun of Tub, Frank “smile[s] and looks off,” laughs along, or accuses Tub of being sensitive. Later in the story, when Tub shoots Kenny as an act of self-defense, Tub and Frank respond inadequately to the fact that Kenny is severely wounded. Even the farmer lacks a sense of urgency, as he calmly (and almost without interest) observes Kenny’s gunshot wound and states, “I suppose you want to use the phone.” Furthermore, the men find out that the nearest hospital is fifty miles away, and there are no ambulances available to come and retrieve Kenny, suggesting that even the local institutions are indifferent to the community’s needs. Later, having carelessly forgotten the directions to the hospital at a tavern, Tub and Frank end up taking a wrong turn on the way to the hospital. The story ends without Kenny getting to a hospital—and with little assurance that he ever will, considering Tub and Frank’s blissful unconcern for Kenny’s rapidly declining health.
Neglect and derelictions of duty are particularly harmful when they proceed from love. For example, the farmer’s deep affection for his dog means that he can’t put the dog out of its misery, even though it is “old and sick” and can’t “chew his food anymore.” The farmer seems to use his love for the dog, then, as a justification for neglecting it. In addition, later in the story, Frank tells Tub that he is in love with fifteen-year-old Roxanne Brewer and is considering leaving his wife for the underage girl. Love is thus invoked as both the cause and the justification for Frank abandoning his duties to his family. Wolff focuses on these kinds of cruelty—neglect, inattention, and passivity—in order to show that they are no less cruel for being less obvious or direct.
Narcissism, Neglect, and the Dereliction of Duty ThemeTracker
Narcissism, Neglect, and the Dereliction of Duty Quotes in Hunters in the Snow
He looked like a cartoon of a person laughing, except that his eyes watched the man on the seat beside him. “You ought to see yourself,” the driver said. “He looks just like a beach ball with a hat on, doesn’t he? Doesn’t he, Frank?” The man beside him smiled and looked off.
They started off across the field. Tub had trouble getting through the fences. Frank and Kenny could have helped him; they could have lifted up on the top wire and stepped on the bottom wire, but they didn’t. They stood and watched him. There were a lot of fences and Tub was puffing when they reached the woods.
The snow was light but the drifts were deep and hard to move through. Wherever Tub looked the surface was smooth, undisturbed, and after a time he lost interest. He stopped looking for tracks and just tried to keep up with Frank and Kenny on the other side.
The snow was shaded and had a glaze on it. It held up Kenny and Frank but Tub kept falling through. As he kicked forward, the edge of the crust bruised his shins.
“You get anything?” he asked.
“No,” Frank said.
“I knew you wouldn’t. That’s what I told the other fellow.”
“We’ve had an accident.”
[…] “Shot your friend, did you?”
“I did,” Tub said.
“I suppose you want to use the phone.”
“If it’s okay.”
“You asked him to?” Tub said. “You asked him to shoot your dog?”
“He was old and sick. Couldn’t chew his food anymore. I would have done it myself but I don’t have a gun.”
“Tub, don’t you see how you’re dividing people up into categories? He’s an executive, she’s a secretary, he’s a truck driver, she’s fifteen years old. Tub, this so-called babysitter, this so-called fifteen-year-old has more in her little finger than most of us have in our entire bodies. I can tell you this little lady is something special.”
Right overhead was the Big Dipper, and behind, hanging between Kenny’s toes in the direction of the hospital, was the North Star, Pole Star, Help to Sailors. As the truck twisted through the gentle hills the star went back and forth between Kenny’s boots, staying always in his sight. “I’m going to the hospital,” Kenny said. But he was wrong. They had taken a different turn a long way back.