As is characteristic of Hemingway, the language of “Soldier’s Home” is unadorned and minimalist, filled with simple, declarative sentences that emulate Krebs’ state of mind. Instead of using expressive language to reveal the painful experience of war, Hemingway’s style suppresses that pain under the surface of the story; his prose implies the immense trauma of the past by reflecting Krebs’ inability to describe it. In fact, one could argue that Hemingway uses language not only to mimic his character’s experience of suppression, but also to demonstrate how language shapes that suppression itself. The story’s prose both reflects Krebs’ arid inner world and constrains it; it ultimately reveals how lacking the language to articulate trauma means that Krebs has no option but to suppress his pain, as he has no words to express his feelings or experiences—even to himself.
One way in which Hemingway’s language reflects a suppressed state of mind is through its repetitions. Repetition can also generate a sense of dullness, which, in this case, relates to Krebs’ feelings of apathy and emptiness after the war. For instance, the phrase “He liked” repeats several times as Krebs thinks about the girls he sees in town: “He liked the round Dutch collars […] He liked their silk stockings […] He liked their bobbed hair.” The word “like” is, in itself, rather bland, offering little specific insight into how Krebs actually feels about the girls. Nevertheless, the simplicity of such linguistic repetition helps illustrate a key aspect of Krebs’s self-suppression. Repetition is a pattern, and patterns are simple, stable, and easy to interpret. Patterns prevent the threat of complexity. For someone like Krebs, finding patterns would be a comfort following the chaos of war. Hemingway’s stylistic repetition, then, reflects Krebs’ desire for patterns and simplicity, to stay away from anything that might lie deeper in his subconscious or past.
The story’s prose further reflects the notion of suppression through its vague wording. Hemingway often includes sentences that rely on unspecific pronouns like “it” and “that.” He appears to deliberately use such ambiguous language to mimic Krebs’ desire to suppress the specifics of the war. For example, Krebs does not want to get a girl because he “did not want to tell any more lies. It wasn’t worth it.” Although the reader can understand some of what “It wasn’t worth it” may be referring to, the short sentence is so vague as to make it difficult to fully grasp what “it” means. At the same time, the line gives the reader the sense that Krebs is hiding from the immensity of whatever “it” is. In the final passage of the story, the language grows even more ambiguous with sentences like, “Still, none of it had touched him,” and, later, “It had just gotten going that way. Well, that was all over now, anyway.” Although the reader can surmise what some of these words may be referring to from context, Hemingway still refuses to grant specifics. His language both reflects and contributes to Krebs’ strained and hollowed state, in which the soldier seems at once empty of and incapable of expressing emotion.
The reader is similarly never provided specifics about Krebs’ experiences during the war—one can understand vaguely what has happened to Krebs by leaning on general knowledge about the context of World War I, but the story itself does not fill in any of these details. This seems the most obvious indicator of language being an act of suppression itself. Of course, the war happened, and Krebs was, indeed, there. But the language of the story does not permit the details of the war to surface, just as Krebs himself seems to have locked the war away behind a protective layer of apathy and emptiness.
The short and declarative sentences of the novel further embody and shape Krebs’ mental state. Think of the periods as stoppers of emotion; before a sentence in the story can get too long and rambling—before it can wander off to places that might be painful to visit—it is pinned down by a period. Hemingway keeps his prose unemotional by making his sentences tight and straightforward. In fact, Krebs’ mother’s dialogue in the final scene makes up the only passages that ramble. She speaks to Krebs in a burst of emotion and desperation, expressing her wish that he get started with his life. This moment starkly contrasts in style to the story’s overall constrained prose, as Krebs’ mother’s character in general contrasts with Krebs’. She is open with her wishes, whereas Krebs is tightlipped and short with her in his responses. She represents a desperate expression of feelings, assigning words to her emotions, whereas Krebs represents either a pained suppression of feeling, or a lack of feeling altogether.
Throughout the story, the reader may wonder whether war has indeed rendered Krebs unable to communicate, or truly numb. Because Hemingway’s sentences mimic the act of suppression itself, Hemingway invites the reader to consider whether the language represents the way the war has hollowed Krebs’ emotional state, or whether the locked-down language is a barrier against a stream of emotions in Krebs that are simply, purposefully unexpressed.
Language of Suppression ThemeTracker
Language of Suppression Quotes in Soldier’s Home
“At first Krebs, who had been at Belleau Wood, Soissons, the Champagne, St. Mihiel and in the Argonne did not want to talk about the war at all. Later he felt the need to talk but no one wanted to hear about it. His town had heard too many atrocity stories to be thrilled by actualities.”
“All of the times that had been able to make him feel cool and clear inside himself when he thought of them; the times so long back when he had done the one thing, the only thing for a man to do, easily and naturally, when he might have done something else, now lost their cool, valuable quality and then were lost themselves.”
“He did not want to do any courting. He did not want to tell any more lies. It wasn’t worth it. He did not want any consequences. He did not want any consequences ever again. He wanted to live without consequences.”
“He sat on the porch reading a book about the war…He wished there were more maps. He looked forward with a good feeling to reading all the really good histories when they would come out with good detail maps. Now he was really learning about the war. He had been a good soldier. That made a difference.”