Set on the side-lines of World War I, many of the characters in “In Another Country” are recovering from both physical and mental injuries sustained amid the horrors of the battlefield. But while undergoing a sort of physical therapy treatment in Milan, the narrator discovers that emotional trauma, too, persists long after the fighting has ended, and that loss is an inevitability not experienced solely within the arena of warfare. The sudden death of the Italian major’s wife, in particular, proves perhaps more psychologically unsettling than battle itself—a fact that imbues everyday life at once with a sense of dreadful unpredictability and immense value. The irony, of course, is that the soldiers have ostensibly fought to protect civilian life, yet it here proves something distinctly out of their control. By presenting the trauma of war alongside more mundane—yet acute—civilian pain, Hemingway underscores the universality of loss and the inherent, unavoidable fragility of life itself.
The officers in the hospital in Milan are treated on a daily basis for various physical injuries from the war, and their wounds are a visible reflection of the scars that battle has left on their lives. The narrator loses the use of his knee, the major’s hand has shrunken to the size of a baby’s, and there is a boy with no nose. They are each left with wounds that impair their physical abilities and leave them marked men, whose scars bear permanent witness to the horrors of war.
Each of the patients’ bodily losses further reflects their lost hopes, callings, and/or social status. The narrator, for example, is a former football player. The major had been “the greatest fencer in Italy” before the war but can no longer even wield a sword. The boy who lost his nose “came from a very old family,” and the fact that the doctors “never get [his reconstructed] nose exactly right” suggests an irreparable break in that esteemed lineage; the shame the boy feels at no longer fitting in among the higher classes, Hemingway implies, later drives him to live in South America. The war has thus taken away many identity-defining characteristics from the soldiers, leaving a lasting impact beyond mere physical inconveniences.
While visible injuries change the course of the officers’ lives, their emotional suffering causes them to lose sight of who they once were altogether. The narrator describes an elite officer who had been awarded three medals: “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.” After their time in battle, it seems, the officers find themselves unable to slip back into their previous lives; they have lost their sense of how to interact on a day-to-day level after the horrors they have witnessed have so thoroughly detached—or distanced—them from everyday life. Their new daily routine offers them a semblance of normality that keeps them going, but their treatment schedule does nothing for their psychological suffering and they remain disconnected from society.
Toward the end of the story, the Italian major’s young wife dies from pneumonia. Previously, the major had been shown to take his physical impairment with good grace, teaching the narrator Italian grammar during sessions and humoring the doctor’s optimism. However, dealing with the loss of a loved one leaves him changed in a way that losses experienced during the war apparently hadn’t. He warns the narrator angrily never to marry, as a man “should not place himself in a position to lose,” and he spends his subsequent treatment sessions staring out the window. With no resolution offered, Hemingway leaves the major alone in the (probably useless) machine, engaging with nothing at the end of the story.
The major’s impossible instruction to the narrator—to never to place himself in a position to lose anything—further presents loss inevitable both on the battlefield and in everyday life. The question is not whether something will be lost, then, but whether it is worth opening oneself to greater suffering by embracing temporary connection in the first place. The major asserts that if something can be lost, then it will be lost: “‘He’ll lose it,’ he almost shouted. ‘Don't argue with me!’” While portrayed as melodramatic and overly pessimistic because of his grief, the major’s words hold weight. War and the sheer unpredictability of life can bring all things to an end, and that is a risk that everyone—soldier or not—faces. It is impossible to insulate oneself from loss, however, which is something Hemingway ultimately presents as a universal fact of life. Yet read optimistically, the major’s powerful response to his wife’s death can be taken as an implicit admission of the incredible value of loving human relationships—which are, in many ways, what the soldiers sacrificed so much to protect in the first place.
Loss, War, and Trauma ThemeTracker
Loss, War, and Trauma Quotes in In Another Country
In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more.
Beyond the old hospital were the new brick pavilions, and there we met every afternoon and were all very polite and interested in what was the matter and sat in the machines that were to make so much difference.
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 major came very regularly to the hospital. I do not think he ever missed a day, although I am sure he did not believe in the machines. There was a time when none of us believed in the machines, and one day the major said it was all nonsense.
If he is to lose everything, he should not place himself in a position to lose that. He should not place himself in a position to lose. He should find things he cannot lose.
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.