In “Indian Camp,” Nick’s father tries to demonstrate to Nick the characteristics of adult men. Above all, his words and actions communicate his belief that men ought to face adversity with stoic grit, responding to life’s difficulties with stoicism and emotional distance. While this disposition allows Nick’s father to handle intense emotional experiences (such as performing a difficult surgery), the story also shows that the pressure to live up to masculine ideals can limit a man’s perspective, leading him to callousness and moral weakness.
Hemingway portrays Nick’s father as a masculine archetype, embodying many of the defining qualities of a traditional man: the ability to impose his will on the world and command respect in others. When the Adamses enter the shanty, for instance, the narrator describes its unhygienic conditions, but Nick’s father immediately imposes order, asking for water to be boiled to sterilize his equipment and wash his hands, and refusing to touch a blanket once his hands have been cleaned. Beyond cleanliness, he combats the shanty’s chaos by commanding others to carry out an identifiable procedure. He recruits a handful of the villagers as his aides and asserts himself as the person in charge, which results in a successful surgery and birth. From these actions, he earns the respect of others; Uncle George remarks that Nick’s father is a “great man.”
Nick’s father’s unemotional responses are just as important to his masculinity as his commanding behavior, suggesting that men should be reserved and stoic. For example, Nick’s father describes the birthing in a conspicuously clinical manner. While many people ascribe great emotional significance to the phenomenon of birth, he portrays it flatly as a physiological event, explaining that the birth is merely the process of the Indian woman’s muscles “trying to get the baby born.” Nick’s father’s responses to Nick’s questions at the end of the story also suggest that he reacts unemotionally to some of the world’s harsher realities. For example, he tells Nick that dying must be “pretty easy,” and he suggests that the woman’s husband killed himself because he “couldn’t stand things.” This cryptic comment implicitly places blame on the man’s weakness for his suicide. While what specifically he couldn’t stand is never specified, it was presumably witnessing the mother of his child in excruciating pain. Therefore, Nick’s father associates the baby’s father’s extreme empathy and emotion with weakness and a lack of masculinity.
Perhaps unintentionally, Hemingway’s depiction of what masculinity should be also reveals some drawbacks of this perspective. For instance, Nick’s father’s masculine perspective blinds him to the pain the mother is enduring during childbirth. When Nick asks his father to give the woman something to ease her pain, he refuses, saying that he doesn’t even hear her screams, since they are “not important.” While Nick’s father clearly believes that his stoic calm is admirable and important, his dismissal of the woman’s pain comes off as callous and cruel. Furthermore, after performing a surgery on an unanaesthetized woman, Nick’s father still makes the observation that fathers are “usually the worst sufferers in these little affairs.” In this case, Nick’s father’s recognition of the husband’s suffering makes his failure to recognize the woman’s suffering naïve to the point of absurdity, since the obvious reality of the situation is that the woman enduring the surgery must be the worst sufferer, and her grotesque, complicated birth could hardly be called a “little affair.”
In fact, the contrast between the men’s behavior and the women’s undermines the traditional association of masculinity with strength and femininity with weakness, since the men seem unable to acknowledge the woman’s pain, while she herself is perhaps the story’s strongest character. For example, when Nick and his father arrive in the camp, they find many Indian men smoking out of earshot of the mother’s screams, presumably because merely hearing her cries of pain is too much for them to bear. Meanwhile, many of the women from the camp are in the shanty, helping the mother birth her child. Furthermore, when the mother bites Uncle George during the operation, he immediately lashes out, unable to handle this comparatively minor pain, while the mother is wordlessly withstanding an incredibly painful surgery. Finally, just being near the mother’s operation is such an intense experience for the baby’s father that he’s led to kill himself, while the mother survives an emergency caesarian delivery, performed with a jackknife.
Regardless of whether Hemingway meant for his depiction of masculinity to expose the absurdity and naivety of such rigid conceptions of masculinity, the story makes it clear that these conceptions can be limiting: masculinity leads Nick’s father into cruel dismissal of female pain, and it blinds him to the fact that the story’s women are ultimately its strongest, most stoic characters.
Masculinity 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.”
Later when he started to operate Uncle George and three Indian men held the woman still. She bit Uncle George on the arm and Uncle George said, “Damn squaw bitch!” and the young Indian who had rowed Uncle George over laughed at him.
“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.
He was feeling exalted and talkative as football players are in the dressing room after a game.
“That’s one for the medical journal, George,” he said. “Doing a Caesarian with a jack-knife and sewing it up with nine-foot, tapered gut leaders.”
Uncle George was standing against the wall, looking at his arm.
“Oh, you’re a great man, all right,” he said.
“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.