In “Indian Camp,” a young boy named Nick watches his father, a doctor, surgically deliver a baby without anesthetic. The baby’s mother, an “Indian lady,” is clearly in excruciating pain, but she and the baby live. Meanwhile, in the course of her labor, the Indian woman’s husband dies quietly, slitting his own throat as he lies above his wife in the top bunk. The bloody and painful birth occurs simultaneously with the violent suicide—and both are accomplished with knives—thereby explicitly associating these two experiences and making Nick understand that birth and death are somehow interlinked. However, while Nick has a difficult time watching the birth (a situation his father handles with performative nonchalance), he seems unfazed by the death, and comes away from the experience feeling that he will never die. Through Nick and his father’s opposite reactions to birth and death, Hemingway suggests that these two fundamental aspects of human life cannot be fully understood—and that to acknowledge their gravity requires a sense of awe, and even the impulse to look away.
The story establishes the similarity between birth and death by depicting both as painful, bloody, and violent. The woman’s birth is complicated because her baby is born in breech position (i.e., bottom-first instead of head-first), and for days she has been in terrible pain. While her screams are excruciating, Nick’s father suggests that this pain is a natural part of the birthing process: “All her muscles are trying to get the baby born,” he tells Nick. “That is what is happening when she screams.” Furthermore, since she can’t deliver the baby naturally, Nick’s father operates on her with his buck knife, and without anesthetic. This leaves her in such pain that three men must hold her down, and she bites Uncle George. By the time the woman is stitched up, she is “pale” and “quiet”—it seems that her pain was so extreme that it left her unconscious, not even aware that her baby has finally been born. Similarly, when the birth is over and Nick’s father checks on the woman’s husband in the top bunk, he finds a grisly scene: “His throat had been cut from ear to ear. The blood had flowed down into a pool where his body sagged the bunk.” Although the reasons for the man’s suicide will never be known, it seems plausible that the pain he felt watching his wife give birth overwhelmed him and led him to suicide, explicitly linking the violence and pain of birth to the violence and pain of death.
While Hemingway depicts birth and death as similar experiences, Nick and his father react to them differently. Nick’s father treats the birth with nonchalance; he encourages Nick to watch each step and he dismisses the woman’s screams as “not important.” However, the woman’s painful birth clearly scares Nick. He asks his father to “give her something” to stop her screaming, and even as he helps his father prepare for surgery, he can barely look at what he’s doing. Of the actual surgery, Hemingway writes, “Nick did not watch. His curiosity had been gone for a long time.” While Nick’s father clearly thinks it’s appropriate—and even important—for Nick to watch this difficult birth, he tells Uncle George to take Nick outside when he finds the dead man in the top bunk. However, Nick has already seen it—he had a “good view” of the top bunk when his father “tipped the Indian’s head back.” These details (compared to the lack of detail in Hemingway’s description of the surgery) suggest that Nick looked unflinchingly at death, while he shied away from watching birth.
Perhaps Nick’s father treats birth with nonchalance and Nick treats death with nonchalance because neither fully understands the gravity of each situation. When Nick’s father tells Nick that the woman is having a baby and Nick says that he knows, his father corrects him: “You don’t know,” he says. But his follow-up explanation is clinical, as though what Nick doesn’t understand is simply the mechanics of labor. It seems that his father has missed the point that this woman is bringing a human life into the world. Meanwhile, Nick seems to understand the gravity of the situation. Unlike his father, he understands that the woman is in great pain and he seems to share her fear of such a gruesome and dangerous surgery. As a child, Nick has no way of properly understanding the gravity of birth, but he knows enough to look away from it—perhaps because he realizes, to some extent, that he cannot understand. Conversely, Nick’s father seems far more aware of the gravity of death than Nick. In the scene after they find the dead man in the top bunk, Nick seems unfazed—and even emboldened—by what he has just seen. He asks questions about birth and death (particularly about death), whereas during the birth the narrator notes that his “curiosity had been gone for a long time.” That Nick doesn’t understand death, despite his ability to look at it and inquire about it, is clear at the story’s end when he notes that he felt “quite sure that he would never die.” Of course, Nick will die, so his experience with death has not led him to understand it. Instead, he is left with a false confidence and a superficial understanding of death, similar to his father’s superficial and clinical explanation of birth. In this way, Hemingway suggests that birth and death share a fundamental similarity: both are difficult and painful experiences, and both are not easily understood. To Hemingway, it seems, the appropriate response to such painful and incomprehensible situations is to look away.
Birth and Death ThemeTracker
Birth and Death Quotes in Indian Camp
Inside on a wooden bunk lay a young Indian woman. She had been trying to have her baby for two days. All the old women in the camp had been helping her. The men had moved off up the road to sit in the dark and smoke out of range of the noise she made. She screamed just as Nick and the two Indians followed his father and Uncle George into the shanty.
“Listen to me. What she is going through is called being in labor. The baby wants to be born and she wants it to be born. All her muscles are trying to get the baby born. That is what happening when she screams.”
“Oh, Daddy, can’t you give her something to make her stop screaming?” asked Nick.
“No. I haven’t any anesthetic,” his father said. “But her screams are not important. I don’t hear them because they are not important.”
“Ought to have a look at the proud father. They’re usually the worst suffers in these little affairs,” the doctor said. “I must say he took it all pretty quietly.”[…]
The Indian lay with his face toward the wall. His throat had been cut from ear to ear.
“Why did he kill himself, Daddy?”
“I don’t know, Nick. He couldn’t stand things, I guess.”
“Is dying hard, Daddy?”
“No, I think it’s pretty easy Nick. It all depends.”
They were seated in the boat, Nick in the stern, his father rowing. The sun was coming up over the hills […] In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die.