Pictures symbolize both the attempt and ultimate failure to represent or contain the past. At the beginning of the story, Hemingway mentions two important pictures of Krebs. The first shows him with his fraternity brothers, “all of them wearing the exact same height and style collar.” The second is described as being of Krebs “on the Rhine,” an important battle area of World War I, where he stands with another corporal and two German girls. Importantly, however, “the Rhine does not show” in the picture.
These two pictures appear at the beginning the story, as if to provide all the background necessary to understand Krebs, and yet they both fail in providing a full portrait of the soldier. After all, the picture of Krebs in the fraternity shows him looking like everybody else, making it difficult to distinguish any of his specific characteristics. Though the narrator specifically notes that the second picture was taken “on the Rhine,” it fails to show this seemingly defining characteristic at all. This is important, as the photograph is supposedly an empirical representation of experience—in other words, a photograph stands as proof that an experience happened. But this photograph, in its indistinctness, has as much a lost sense of location and place as Krebs himself does later in the story.
The pictures are items that supposedly neatly contain, within their four corners, discrete parts of Krebs’s past. Yet their failure to reflect meaningful or recognizable markers of the soldier’s experiences suggest that the past is far more slippery and uncontainable than the photographs imply it to be. Indeed, despite Krebs’s attempt to suppress it, the past seeps into his present life throughout the story.