The war is happening nearby, but the (unnamed) narrator does “not go to it anymore.” The fall in Milan is cold. The dark comes early, but the streets are pleasant once the electric lights come on, with game hanging stiff and empty outside the stores, buffeted by the wind. Snow settles in the foxes’ fur and birds are blown about by the wind. The cold wind comes down from the mountains.
WWI is a constant, looming presence behind the events of this short story. Although the characters are no longer fighting on the front line, their struggle follows them back to their everyday lives. The narrator reflects their helplessness in the bodies of the meat hanging outside the shops, emptied out and beaten by powers larger than themselves.
The narrator makes his way to the hospital every afternoon. There are various ways to go, but each approach crosses the canals over bridges. On one of the bridges a woman sells roasted chestnuts that warm up his pockets. The hospital itself is old and beautiful, with courtyards from where funerals start. The narrator heads back to the new brick pavilions, where he meets others. They are all very polite to and interested in one another and sit in machines that are meant to make a big difference.
Now the reader understands why the narrator is no longer on the front lines of the war: he is receiving a somewhat mysterious treatment for an injury. Yet he is still independent, making his own way to the hospital as an out-patient. The group of soldiers seeking treatment at the hospital have begun to form a supportive community, although the ironic language used in reference to their manner, as well as the machines treating them, reveals the narrator’s skepticism they can really connect or be healed.
The doctor comes up to the narrator’s machine. He asks him what he did before the war, and what kind of sports he played. The narrator tells him he played football, to which the doctor responds he soon will be able to play again, “better than ever.” The narrator’s knee does not bend anymore, and there is no calf below it. The machine is meant to bend the narrator’s knee for him, moving it like on a tricycle, except it lurches when it gets to the actual bending. The doctor says, “That will all pass,” and that the narrator is fortunate, as he’ll play football again “like a champion.”
The cause of the narrator’s cynicism becomes clear: the machines has so far made no progress, despite the doctor’s suspiciously eager optimism. The Italian front was a brutal battlefield during WWI that saw little success but many casualties. and the doctor is a sort of stand-in for the hidden officials running the chaotic war—determined to save face despite the obvious lack of progress and responding with overdone positivity when no results have yet been seen. His encouragement to the narrator feels patronizing, indicating Hemingway’s view of how soldiers were treated during the war.
In the machine next to the narrator is the major, whose hand has shrunk to the size of a baby’s. The major asks, winking to the narrator, if he will play football again too. He had been Italy’s greatest fencer before the war. The doctor retrieves a photograph from his office. It shows a withered hand, like the major’s own, which after treatment was a little larger again. The doctor explains the hand in the image was injured by an industrial accident. The major is interested, but says he still has no confidence.
The major’s physical injury has changed his life for good—completely undermining his fencing career. His good humor in the face of such troubles reveals his strength of spirit. The doctor’s photographs, meanwhile, can be seen as a kind of propaganda. He seeks to reassure the major but also to bring him in line with the program. The major listens politely, demonstrating his still intact social awareness (unlike some other injured soldiers), but maintains a healthy sense of skepticism.
Three boys the same age as the narrator also go to the hospital every day to receive treatment. They are all from Milan, and want to be a lawyer, painter, and soldier, respectively. After they finish with the machines they walk together to the Café Cova next to the Scala. They can take the short cut through the communist quarter because there are four of them. The people in the quarter, meanwhile, hate them because there are officers, shouting at them in the street as they pass.
These four officers have bonded because of their shared experiences. First, they are all the same age, showing similarity is a key factor in building community. That Hemingway describes them as “boys” implies they are too young to be dealing with the suffering they have gone through. Facing hostility from anti-war communists, they stick together for safety, demonstrating another basic condition of belonging as the outsiders draw together naturally.
Sometimes a boy with no nose walks with them. He wears a handkerchief over his face because it hasn’t been reconstructed yet. He had been injured within an hour of joining the front line, having come straight from the military academy. They eventually do the reconstruction, the narrator, looking back years later, recalls, but it never looks quite right. Later the boy, who comes from an old family, moves to South America to work in a bank. The narrator points out that they don’t know any of this at the time; back then, in Milan, they don’t know how it will turn out later. All they know is the war is always there, but they’re “not going to it anymore.”
Because the fifth young officer comes from a high-class family, losing his nose—an emblem of his noble roots and a literal loss of face—causes him so much shame that he later moves to another continent, the implication being that he feels he no longer belongs in the world he was a part of before the war. His experience illustrates the tension between society’s expectations of the glory of warfare and the realities on the battlefield. Young men do not come back from the front line whole; they lose a part of themselves and cannot be reconstructed. In the immediate aftermath of their wartime experiences however, the boys do not know they will never be whole again. In this moment, they are simply relieved only to not be in the crosshairs again, at least for a short while.
All of them have medals, except the boy with no nose because there was no time for him to earn any. The boy with three medals is tall with a very pale face. He wants to become a lawyer and served as a lieutenant in the Arditi. He was had been very familiar with death for a long time and comes across as “a little detached.” In fact, they are all a little detached. The only thing that keeps them together is that the go to the hospital every afternoon. When they all walk together to the café, avoiding the crowds that block the sidewalk in the tough part of town, they feel like they all belong together because they share something that those people who don’t like them don’t understand. The officers all understand the Cova though. It’s warm and comfortable, and the girls are patriotic. They are still patriotic, the narrator believes.
The medals represent society’s misguided view of bravery. They celebrate heroics that glorified sacrifice, rather than recognizing or alleviating the psychological trauma that comes with such acts. This scene also emphasizes that the officers are held together by their shared routine and perspective—that it is the support of this sympathetic community that keeps them going. The officers feel like they belong together because they understand one another, in direct contrast to the ignorance of those who hate them. Hemingway thus advocates empathy for veterans as the only way to help them rehabilitate and reenter society, from which they often become “detached” following the trauma of war. Ironically, then, the medals undermine this connection, creating rivalries and insecurity in its stead. The reference to the Arditi here also confirms the war as WWI, as the group was an elite force within the Italian army during the conflict.
At first the other boys are polite about the narrator’s medals and ask what he did to earn them. He shows them the papers, which, despite their fancy wording, essentially reveal that he was rewarded for being an American. After that the other men treat him differently, as they did very different things to earn their medals. The narrator is still a “friend against the outsiders,” but he is never really one of them again. After all, his wound was only an accident. Still, the narrator is not ashamed of his ribbons.
The narrator’s medal was awarded because he volunteered to join the war, while the other boys earned their medals through acts of valor. While Hemingway does not disparage their courage, he does challenge the rigid notion of bravery that the medals represent. The officers ostracize the narrator as they deem his sacrifice to be beneath theirs, thus creating division where previously there was supportive community. The narrator remains a friend “against the outsiders,” though, showing isolation and belonging as many-layered concepts.
Sometimes, after drinking cocktails at the café, the narrator imagines himself doing all the same things the other men did to earn their medals. But when he’s walking out in the cold alone, he realizes he could never have done those things. He is very afraid of dying, and often lies awake at night, fearful of death and of returning to the war. He sees the three men with the medals as “hunting-hawks.” He is not a hawk, although he might seem like one to outsiders. But the other three know better and as such the group drifts apart. The narrator stays good friends with the boy with no nose, however, because he thinks he is not a hawk either, and they’ll never know how he would have turned out in battle as he sustained his injury too soon.
The glory the medals bestow makes the narrator wish he had shown the same kind of bravery that earned the other officers their ribbons. While he is beside his comrades in the café he feels that he could achieve their daring feats, but when walking alone his courage fails him, and when alone in bed he fears death too much to sleep. Here Hemingway illustrates the necessity of a supportive community to help the soldiers to overcome their psychological trauma. Isolation makes recovery harder as one’s morale weakens. Picturing the other officers as hawks further suggests that the narrator sees them as innately, naturally braver than he is, an idea both created by and propelling his insecurity. This is why he remains comfortable with the boy who had no chance to prove himself—again demonstrating that understanding and shared experiences are key to belonging.
The major does not believe in bravery. He spends a lot of time teaching the narrator Italian grammar as they sit next to each other in their machines at the hospital. He compliments the narrator on his Italian. Though the narrator says he finds it easy, once he starts learning the proper grammar, it suddenly becomes very hard. The narrator is now worried about getting the grammar right in his head before he talks to the major.
The major does not buy into the black-and-white concept of bravery touted during the war and represented in the medals. Yet, his stoic determination to overcome his sufferings reveal a sense of courage that Hemingway shows is often overlooked. He also teaches the narrator Italian grammar to help him achieve a greater sense of connection in Italy. But the narrator still finds it hard to communicate because he feels his grammar is inadequate, demonstrating how strict social rules can be a barrier to belonging.
The major goes to the hospital very regularly—in fact, he never misses a day even though he doesn’t believe in the machines. At one point none of the men believe in the machines, and the major even calls them nonsense. The machines are new, and the men are meant to be the ones to prove that they work. The major says the machines are an idiotic idea like any theory, then turns on the narrator, calling him a “stupid impossible disgrace” because he cannot learn his grammar. He then calls himself a “fool” for bothering to try to teach the narrator, while staring straight ahead as the machine slaps his hand around.
The soldiers’ skepticism about the machines’ ability to heal them reflects their lack of faith in the system. The wider implications refer not only to the doctors’ inability to treat their physical wounds, but also to the psychological scars left behind from warfare. Nevertheless, the major, the most vocal disbeliever, still dutifully attends his therapy sessions. This is not simply out of obedience, but is an exercise in hope, as he takes every opportunity available to recover even if it seems beyond his grasp. This is a kind of bravery all the officers show—continuing in the face of doubtful success. But the major’s good humor seems to have finally run out as he turns on the narrator, and the reader questions what could have happened to change him so drastically.
The major asks the narrator what he plans to do when he returns home after the war, if it finishes. He demands the narrator speaks grammatically. The narrator informs him he’ll return to the States, and on the major’s further questioning, adds that he hopes to be married. The major calls him a fool, asserting that a man must not marry, because he must not place himself in a position where he has something to lose. Instead, he should find things that cannot be lost. The major doesn’t look at the narrator throughout the exchange, staring straight at the wall as he speaks “angrily and bitterly.” The narrator isn’t sure if the major is right, but the man shouts this point again and tells the narrator not to argue.
The fact the major does not look at the narrator throughout this exchange shows that something is wrong, as in previous exchanges he had winked and joked. As the major isolates himself from direct interaction by avoiding eye contact, the reader notes he must be facing some new trauma, highlighting the correlation between human connection and recovery.The major’s subsequent assertion is an impossible task, as evidenced within the story itself by all the characters’ deep sense of loss. Instead, his point underlines the inevitability of loss. Everything is only temporary, so the question arises how much one is willing to embrace in the knowledge it will all one day be gone.
The major calls for an attendant to turn off the machine, which is still bashing his hand around, and he storms out of the room into the massage treatment room. The narrator hears him ask the doctor if he can use the telephone. Later, the major returns to the narrator, who is now in another machine. Wearing his cape and cap, the major apologizes to the narrator for being rude, and explains that his wife has just died. The narrator feels sick with sympathy, and says he is “so sorry.” The major says it is “very difficult” and he cannot “resign” himself. He chokes. Crying, biting his lips, the major walks “straight and soldierly” out of the room, not looking at anyone or anything.
For the first time, the major cuts his therapy session short. When he returns later, he is still unable to look the narrator in the eye, his grief continuing to isolate him. But as the nature of his loss becomes apparent, understanding draws the two men together and the narrator’s sympathy allowing him to forgive instantly. Meanwhile, the major’s determination to remain dignified despite his distress is the greatest act of courage in the story. Biting his lips to hide they are trembling, he walks out with his head held high, believing he can overcome his grief, which is a key step to accepting his loss. Hemingway shows the major’s tears do not detract from his bravery, as his spirit remains strong and stoic amid his suffering.
The doctor explains to the narrator that the major’s wife was very young, and he had delayed marrying her until his injury took him away from the battlefield. She had only been sick for a few days and no one had expected her to die. The major returns to the hospital after three days, wearing a black armband over his uniform. The doctor has placed framed photographs of wounds the machines have successfully healed on the walls of the treatment room. The narrator cannot think where the doctor got them, as they were meant to be the first to use the machines. The major does not notice them at all, as he just stares straight out the window.
That the major’s greatest blow takes place away from the scene of battle reinforces the universality of loss, especially given the irony that his wife and their loving relationship are most likely what he was fighting for in the war. The doctor again misunderstands the major’s greatest needs, as his wounded hand is now the least of his concerns. The major stares past the deceitful propaganda, out into the wide, cold world, unable to engage with anyone as his scars are too painful. Hemingway ends on a sorrowful note. Loss leaves the major a changed man, and the story leaves the reader wondering whether the major can heal from his heartache when all society presents him are ineffective machines to treat his bodily wounds.