When Nick’s father brings Nick along on a trip to deliver a baby, he intends to initiate his son into adult life by teaching him explicit lessons about life and the value of work. However, the trip takes an unexpectedly traumatic turn when the baby’s mother requires an emergency surgery and her husband kills himself. In their debriefing afterwards, Nick’s father tries to tell his son how to interpret what he saw, but his simplistic answers to Nick’s complex questions undermine the lessons that Nick’s father initially intended to impart. In this way, Hemingway suggests the complexity of growing up. The experiences that propel Nick towards maturity seem to overwhelm and even traumatize him. Meanwhile, the comforting words of his father, instead of making him more capable of facing the world, leave him less prepared for the difficult realities of life.
Initially, Nick’s father teaches Nick as though he were a student, carefully explaining the decisions he makes and the ways in which an adult goes about his work. For instance, Nick’s father starts his procedure by telling Nick that the mother is going to have a baby. When Nick replies that he knows, his father insists that he doesn’t know, and goes on to give a more specific definition of the birthing process, explaining that “all of her muscles are trying to get to baby born.” He seems to be attempting to re-educate Nick, imposing his personal and highly clinical vision of what birth is. When Nick’s father observes that the mother is going to need surgery, however, his teaching becomes more implicit, as he no longer has time for verbal explanations. As Nick’s father sterilizes his equipment and his hands, for instance, he leads by example, with Nick watching and taking note of his father’s care and thoroughness. In doing so, Nick’s father communicates implicitly that calm attention to detail can help adults take on tough situations.
As the birth becomes increasingly complicated, Nick’s father’s plan to initiate his son into maturity and teach him adult values goes awry. Although Nick’s father encouraged his son to watch the surgery, the experience overwhelms Nick and he quickly stops watching, losing all his curiosity about what is happening. This severely limits what he can learn from the situation. Furthermore, after the operation, Nick’s father seems to acknowledge that the experience may have traumatized his son rather than educated him, as he apologizes for the “awful mess” that came of the situation. Nonetheless, Nick’s uncle George remarks that Nick’s father is a “great man” for successfully performing the operation, which shows Nick that other adults ascribe value and respect to the way his father conducts himself, signaling to Nick that he should take his father’s advice seriously.
However, when Nick does take his father’s words seriously in the final scene, it backfires. As Nick and his father prepare to leave the camp, Nick begins to ask questions about what happened in the shanty, but his father undermines any complex adult lessons Nick might have learned by giving his son simplistic answers. When Nick asks his father about why the man killed himself, for example, Nick’s father replies that, “He couldn’t stand things, I guess.” This response betrays a lack of empathy for the father’s plight, and it also implies that suicide is a result of weakness. Nick also asks his father if dying is hard, to which Nick’s father responds, “No, I think it’s pretty easy, Nick. It all depends.” Again, this observation seems to contrast with the bloody, self-inflicted death that Nick witnessed, and it’s a simplistic response to a particularly complex human phenomenon. At the end of the story, the narrator remarks, “with his father rowing, [Nick] felt quite sure that he would never die.” It seems, then, that Nick’s father’s dismissive and simplistic attitude towards death has led Nick to a false understanding of death. Perhaps this confidence comes from his increased trust and admiration for his father (“with his father rowing,” Nick feels immune from death), or perhaps it’s because Nick’s father has unintentionally implied that death comes as a result of weakness, and Nick does not, in this moment, feel weak. Regardless, instead of helping Nick become a mature adult (as the trip was meant to do), Nick’s father’s pat answers about dying make Nick seem naïve and unprepared to face reality. In this way, Hemingway suggests that such shocking experiences don’t necessarily help young people like Nick mature—especially when the understanding that results from such experiences is so shallow.
Growing Up ThemeTracker
Growing Up Quotes in Indian Camp
“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.”
“Those must boil,” he said, and began to scrub his hands in the basin of hot water with a cake of soap he had brought from the camp. Nick watched his father’s hand scrubbing each other with the soap. While his father washed his hands very carefully and thoroughly, he talked.
“Now,” his father said, “there’s some stitches to put in. You can watch this or not, Nick, just as you like. I’m going to sew the incision I made.”
Nick did not watch. His curiosity had been gone for a long time.
“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.