Krebs enlists in World War I after attending a Methodist college in Kansas. There are two photographs of Krebs; one shows him alongside his fraternity brothers, and the other shows him on the Rhine with a corporal and two German girls, though the Rhine itself doesn’t appear in the photo. Krebs does not come home from the war until the summer of 1919, after most of the other soldiers have already returned.
The only information that the reader gets regarding Krebs’s background is quite sparse. Right away, the story suppresses the details of the war, reflecting Krebs’s own impulse towards suppressing his traumatic memories. The fact that Krebs comes home after the other soldiers will only serve to exacerbate his feelings of alienation.
When Krebs comes home, he does not receive the same elaborate, celebratory welcome as the other soldiers. People don’t seem to understand why Krebs has come back so late, in fact finding it “ridiculous.”
Krebs had been in battles at Belleau Wood, Soissons, the Champagne, St. Mihiel, and Argonne. At first, he does not want to talk about the war, and then when he does, no one wants to listen; they have heard their fill of atrocities and are bored by “actualities.”
By mentioning these major battles, Hemingway avoids giving details about the war and instead relies on the reader’s outside knowledge to fill in the gaps. The fact that no one is interested in Krebs’s stories suggests a certain shallowness on the part of the townspeople and will further heighten Krebs’s sense of alienation.
In order to get people to listen to him talk about the war, Krebs lies twice about his experiences. Because Krebs lies, he develops a “distaste for everything that had happened to him in the war.” Such distaste extends to the times when Krebs felt “cool and clear inside himself […] the times so long back when had done the one thing, the only thing for a man to do.” Because of the lying, Krebs’s memories of these times lose that very “cool, valuable quality.”
Not only does the story given no real details about the war, but it also elides details about Krebs’s lies. In this way, lies and truth equally obscured, as if the war is such a watershed event that language itself fails to capture it. The reader can assume that “cool and clear” times refers to moments when Krebs performed particular acts of duty or violence; by lying, Krebs sullies such memories. Of course, the text provides no further details, again creating a sense of linguistic oppression.
The lies Krebs tells are “quite unimportant,” and therefore unimpressive. The effect of the lying makes Krebs feel nauseous. Even in the pool room, the other men are not interested in his stories, having already heard thrilling tales, such as ones about German women being chained to machine guns. Because of his lies, Krebs feels as though he has “lost everything.”
Hemingway again suggests the townspeople’s distinct lack of appreciation of the horrors of war, which contributes to Krebs’s isolation. For Krebs to have “lost everything” means that, in lying, he has compromised the clear grasp he had on his memories and experience; in many ways, these are all he has upon returning home, and by losing them, he is losing a part of himself.
Since his return, Krebs spends his time sleeping late, going to the library, eating, reading, and playing in the pool room. He also practices clarinet and wanders around down town. His sisters still look up to him, and his mother tries to listen to his stories but doesn’t have the attention span. His father is “non-committal.”
Krebs’s routine has a depressed and numb quality to it. He seems to be going through the motions of his life, without a sense or purpose or direction. Even his family fails to appreciate what he’s been through, exacerbating his sense of alienation.
Krebs’s father, who works in real estate, has a motor car that Krebs was not allowed to drive before the war. His father uses the car to chauffer important clients, and it stays always parked outside his father’s office building. The car is still the same car, and, in fact, after the war most things in the town are the same.
The car would be a symbol of wealth and status at the time of the story, and thus underscores Krebs’s father’s success as a businessman. Later, Krebs’s mother will say he is now allowed to drive the car—an effort to get him out of the house. The idea that the car, like most things in the town, has not changed suggests that Krebs’s perception of his life and town has changed the most.
The only thing that has changed in town is that the girls have grown up. Krebs lacks the energy to “break into” their world, but appreciates the way they look—their short hair, round Dutch collars, sweaters, and silk stockings. He likes to watch the way they walk, though he says that they are too complicated to actually get to know. He does not want to talk to them or spend time with them as he fears the “consequences” that come along with building relationships. Thus, he prefers watching them from a distance.
The girls become a central symbol in the story of the world to which Krebs feels he no longer has access. The girls present an opportunity to form relationships, and that Krebs wants to avoid such “consequences” reveals his aversion to reentering society. Krebs would rather be on the sidelines, passively observing, than exert the effort to reintegrate and, by his view, re-complicate his life.
As Krebs watches the girls, he thinks about the soldiers he knew in the war who talked about girls. One said that girls meant nothing to him and another said that he couldn’t live without them. Now Krebs sees both claims as lies. He thinks that if you do not think about a girl, you do not need one.
The fact that Krebs disregards both ideas about women shows his deep cynicism. Krebs also demonstrates suppressive instincts, a stereotypically masculine trait: he does not want to admit vulnerability, and thinks that if one suppresses desire, the desire goes away. Of course, the result of this suppression seems to be a lack of feeling, and meaning, altogether.
Though Krebs would like a girl, he thinks that the prospect of having a relationship with one is too complicated. He remembers the French and German girls who didn’t talk as much—relationships with them were simpler than he imagines they would be with the girls back home. He then thinks about how he liked Germany better than France, and that he didn’t want to come home from Germany but did anyway.
Krebs admits that what really keeps him from wanting a girl is the idea of talking to her. Krebs fears the complications that come from sharing one’s life and one’s self in a relationship. By being with girls who don’t speak his language, he does not need to express himself with words. Krebs’s resistance to going home further illustrates his anxiety about readjusting.
As Krebs continues to sit on the porch, he thinks how he would like the girls who are walking by more if they were French or German. He thinks about how the world they are in is not his world. Again, he prefers looking at them to talking with them.
That Krebs believes that he and the girls occupy different worlds reflects his sense of alienation. He regards himself as outside of society and all its complications. He would rather observe society than be a part of it, as he feels he cannot relate to the world since the war.
Still sitting on the porch, Krebs reads a book about the war, learning about the battles he was in. He likes the maps in the book. As he learns about the war from the book, he determines that he really was a “good soldier.”
Krebs struggles to assign logic to his experiences of the war and must use a book—an outside source—to understand what he did and why. In this way, Krebs exposes his sense of disorientation.
One morning at home, Krebs’s mother comes into his bedroom and tells him that she talked with his father. They’ve decided to let Krebs take the family car out in the evenings. Krebs tells his mother that he bets she made his father decide this.
Krebs’s mother reveals her desperation to motivate her son to work and meet people. By thinking his father is behind the attempt, Krebs exposes a resentment towards his father, who represents an expectation of masculinity that is associated with a society of which Krebs feels no longer a part.
Krebs goes downstairs for breakfast and his sister Helen teases him about sleeping a lot. She uses a nickname “Hare.” She hands him the paper, The Kansas City Star, and he opens it. His mother tells him not to “muss it” because his father likes reading it.
Krebs’s younger sister speaks with a tenderness and naiveté towards her older brother. The use of the nickname is jarring in a story that has had little dialogue and no emotionality. Again, the shadow of Krebs’s father appears as his mother tells him not to ruin the paper—though the father is not physically present in the story, he still hovers over the family.
Helen tells Krebs that she is playing indoor baseball that afternoon, and she brags about being a better pitcher than the boys. She says that she’s good because Krebs taught her. Helen says that she tells the other children that Krebs is her “beau,” and then she asks Krebs if he really is her beau. Krebs responds, “you bet.” Then Helen asks Krebs if he loves her, to which Krebs responds, “Sure.” When Helen asks if he will come over and watch her play, Krebs says, “Maybe.” Helen says then he must not really love her.
The dialogue between Krebs and his sister is rather playful, as Helen calls him “beau” and tries to get him to watch her play baseball. The fact that Helen equates love with the small effort of coming to watch her play is naïve and youthful, and Krebs responds to it, however monosyllabically, with some positivity.
Krebs’s mother ushers Helen out of the kitchen, as she wants to speak with Krebs alone. She sits down at the table and asks Krebs about what he is going to do next, urging that it’s time to find a job and a direction. She says that God has work for everyone to do. Krebs responds that he is not in God’s kingdom.
Krebs’ mother’s faith stands out in a story that is stripped of emotions. Krebs believes himself neither a part of society nor a part of religion. However, his mother, by urging him to get a job and by invoking God, is pushing him towards reentering the world that she occupies.
Krebs’s mother continues, explaining that she knows how war must affect young men, as her father and grandfather both fought in the the Civil War. Then she talks about Charley Simmons, a boy like Krebs who has now found a job and a girl and is finally settling down. She wants Krebs to drive his father’s car, take girls out in the evenings, and find a job. She then says that Krebs should stop by his father’s office later to see him.
By bringing up her father and grandfather, Krebs’s mother suggests that she can understand the effects of war peripherally—that the way war affects one soldier is the way it affects everyone. Indeed, she wants Krebs to be like everyone else—to find a job and settle down. However, she demonstrates a misunderstanding of the situation, as Krebs’s lack of motivation and sense of alienation arises out of an inability to express his individual experiences of pain and trauma.
Krebs’s mother asks Krebs if he loves her. He responds no, and she starts crying, putting her head in her hands. He then tries to comfort her by saying he doesn’t love anyone, and then that he didn’t mean it, but seeing his mother’s display of emotion makes Krebs feel sick. Krebs’s mother asks him to pray with her, but Krebs says he cannot pray; she then prays for him.
That Krebs’s mother expresses her emotions physically and dramatically serves to highlight Krebs’s own extreme lack of emotion, or at least his utter inability to express emotion. Such a display embarrasses Krebs, whose stoic masculinity suppresses any feeling and tenderness. Krebs’s refusal to pray further underscores that he feels alienated not simply from the world of man, but that of God.
Krebs then kisses his mother and leaves the house, reflecting that his mother made him lie and that his efforts to keep his life from becoming complicated have failed. Even so, he thinks, “none of it had touched him.” He will find a job in Kansas City to appease his mother, as he feels sorry for her. He will not go to his father’s office, however, because he wants his life “to go smoothly.” He “would” go over to the schoolyard to watch Helen play baseball.
This final passage further reveals Krebs’s resentment of the complications inherent to being part of society; already alienated from the world, he believes that engaging with others only forces him to lie, which, in turn, further distances Krebs from his memories and experiences—that is, from his sense of self. By not going to his father’s office, Krebs again demonstrates an aversion to the stereotypically masculine lifestyle that is expected of him. Krebs final decision to watch his sister play baseball in some ways ends the story on a hopeful, tender note—as doing this is what Helen said would mean he loves her. However, this is offset by the use of a conditional tense—he “would go over to the schoolyard”—as opposed to saying that he does indeed go. Thus, the story lingers in an unresolved space, where the fulfillment of these thoughts is still left in the open.