As a wounded American officer receiving medical treatment in Italy during World War I, the unnamed narrator of "In Another Country” is an outsider in terms of his nationality, class, and wartime experience. Despite developing a certain kinship with other wounded Italian soldiers receiving treatment in the same hospital, the narrator—widely accepted to be Hemingway’s autobiographical alter ego Nick Adams—remains deeply isolated from the people and world surrounding him. Hemingway explores the nature of belonging throughout the story, ultimately suggesting that people shun that which they do not understand, and that meaningful connection requires, above all, empathy.
Various details indicate and reinforce the narrator’s status as an outsider in a foreign land. Most obviously, as the story’s title declares, the narrator is an American in another country. Though the narrator bonds with some Italian officers at the hospital over their shared wartime experiences, his nationality remains a barrier to more genuine friendship. The other men specifically believe that he has received special treatment and commendations solely by virtue of being from the U.S.: after learning of his foreign origins the other soldiers’ “manner changed” toward him, the narrator notes, adding, “I was never really one of them.” What’s more, the narrator struggles to master Italian grammar, making communication—and, it follows, connection—in this environment all the more difficult. When referring to an Italian major recuperating in the same hospital, for instance, the narrator notes, “I was afraid to talk to him until I had the grammar straight in my mind.” He worries about meeting the major on his level and cannot be comfortable until he can perform adequately.
Although, perhaps irredeemably, a foreigner in others’ eyes, the narrator still finds some semblance of connection with the other officers on the basis of their similar social status and experiences during the war. The other patients the narrator befriends are also officers, and they are drawn together by this distinction as a defensive reflex: the narrator notes, “We walked the short way through the communist quarter because we were four together. The people hated us because we were officers.” Italian communists—who in these streets would be largely working class—were anti-war during WWI, marking the passing military officers as enemies because of their different social status and values. The four officers, although different themselves in terms of nationality and military distinction (one has three medals, for example), thus find themselves belonging together as friends “against the outsiders.”
The officers “were all a little detached” from everyday life following their encounters with death, the narrator further explains. Their friendship centers on their daily visits to the hospital, where the officers’ experiences have isolated them from the majority of society that has not seen such suffering. They thus seek comfort in the company of those who know their struggle first-hand. Again, despite their efforts to return to normal daily life, those who cannot share or understand their viewpoint ostracize them.
Through the officers’ shared isolation from civilian society, Hemingway shows it is really understanding that determines belonging. Indeed, the men feel “held together by there being something that had happened that they, the people who disliked [the officers], did not understand.” The public’s lack of understanding drives animosity and division, furthering the officers’ detachment from the rest of society. Hemingway suggests, by highlighting its absence, that empathy could help heal the officers’ emotional suffering. Instead they are isolated due to others’ ignorance, as the author condemns humanity’s propensity to shun, rather than embrace, the unknown.
Of course, this pattern also manifests among the officers themselves. The narrator prefers to spend his time with the boy with no nose, who was injured an hour after joining the war, because neither of them have proven their courage in battle as the other officers have: “But I stayed good friends with the boy,” the narrator says, because he “could never be accepted either.” The officers themselves drift apart, with those who earned medals for acts of bravery on one side, and those who didn’t on the other. Even among those who draw together in defense against the public’s lack of empathy, then, find themselves divided, underlining how instinctively people separate themselves from the unfamiliar.
In exploring and contrasting the characters’ interwoven layers of belonging and isolation, Hemingway ultimately highlights that understanding allows people to bond, while ignorance divides. In exposing this tendency to shun the unknown, Hemingway further advocates greater empathy for veterans’ suffering and detachment from society. They have become outsiders on their own streets, and that is a hurt the hospital’s machines working to treat their physical injuries cannot heal.
Isolation Quotes in In Another Country
We walked the short way through the communist quarter because we were four together. The people hated us because we were officers, and from a wineshop some one would call out, “A basso gli ufficiali!” as we passed.
He had lived a very long time with death and was a little detached. We were all a little detached, and there was nothing that held us together except that we met every afternoon at the hospital.
[…] we felt held together by there being something that had happened that they, the people who disliked us, did not understand.
I was a friend, but I was never really one of them after they had read the citations, because it had been different with them and they had done very different things to get their medals.
The three with the medals were like hunting-hawks; and I was not a hawk, although I might seem a hawk to those who had never hunted; they, the three, knew better and so we drifted apart.
He looked straight past me and out through the window. Then he began to cry. "I am utterly unable to resign myself,” he said and choked. And then crying, his head up looking at nothing, carrying himself straight and soldierly, with tears on both his cheeks and biting his lips, he walked past the machines and out the door.
When he came back, there were large framed photographs around the wall, of all sorts of wounds before and after they had been cured by the machines. In front of the machine the major used were three photographs of hands like his that were completely restored. I do not know where the doctor got them. I always understood we were the first to use the machines. The photographs did not make much difference to the major because he only looked out of the window.