In much of his work, Hemingway’s characterization of men and women tends to conform to what a modern reader might describe as rigid, sexist gender expectations. “Soldier’s Home” is no exception. While Krebs’ inability to express his feelings can be chalked up to the trauma of war, it also represents a traditionally stoic masculinity that holds emotional vulnerability to be a weakness. In contrast, the women in the story conform to traditional ideas of feminine emotionality. They also lack a sense of fleshed out humanity—the town girls are, to Krebs, nothing more than a “pattern,” and the dialogue of Krebs’ sister and mother do little to distinguish them as individuals. It is important to understand the stereotypical ways that Krebs perceives of women, as well as to recognize the extent to which the story does not question and, in fact, seems to agree with Krebs’ views.
After returning from the war, Krebs spends a lot of time watching the young women of his town, whom he refers to as “girls.” Though “he would have liked to have a girl,” the narrator notes, “he did not want to have to spend a long time getting her.” He imagines looking at the girls in the same way he might enjoy looking at a nice decoration. In fact, he thinks of the girls as eye-pleasing “patterns”—he sees them as being, almost literally, two-dimensional. The story treats Krebs’ hesitance about engaging with the girls as a window into his loss of feeling as a result of the war, and his resulting desire to live without consequences—that is, to live without getting stuck in the complexities of a society of which he no longer feels a part. To get to know a girl, as Krebs sees it, would force him to live a social life full of unbearable “complications.”
Krebs’s ideas about women notably fall into traditional notions of male and female roles: women may talk and express themselves, while men either do not know how, or do not allow themselves, to do so for fear of seeming weak; women also “trap” men into a complex life of family and emotions to which men are unsuited. Krebs’ preference to just simply “have” a girl also aligns with his presumptions of masculinity; he is more interested in possessing the girl as an object than in getting to know her as an individual who has independent thoughts and experiences.
It is possible to argue that there is an implicit recognition in the story that the girls are, in fact, more three-dimensional than they appear, and that part of Krebs’s tragedy is his failure to see this. However, such an argument ignores the fact that Hemingway never offers any of the “girls” a moment to prove that she is more than how Krebs views her—Hemingway gives the girls no dialogue and never distinguishes one individual girl from another. Instead, the story presents them in the plural— “girls”—the entire time. As a result, the story aligns itself with Krebs’ perception of the girls and does nothing to undercut their sexist representation.
Krebs even sees his own mother as entrapping and manipulating him with her emotions. Near the end of the story, when Krebs’ mother asks if he loves her, Krebs responds that he doesn’t love anybody. When she is hurt and begins to cry, he deduces that she can’t possibly understand what he is trying to say and comforts her by claiming that he didn’t actually mean it. All the while, the love his mother expresses makes him feel “sick and vaguely nauseated,” and he resentfully thinks to himself that “he had felt sorry for his mother and she had made him lie.” He sees the lie as her fault rather than his own, a product of her inability to understand him and her overwrought emotions. Krebs’ mother not only cries dramatically when he says he doesn’t love her, but also seems to vocalize every worry to him, talking more than anyone else in the story. Her talking physically pains the quiet Krebs, and she is depicted as overly-sensitive and desperate. The story never questions Krebs’ sense that his mother’s feelings and lack of understanding—that is, in the view of the story, her femininity—only serve to exacerbate his struggles.
The only woman whom Krebs actually seems to like is his younger sister. When she asks if he loves her, he says, “sure.” It is notable, however, that his sister is young and innocent, asking him “Couldn’t your brother really be your beau just because he’s your brother?” This naiveté seems to appeal to Krebs because there is no actual threat of complication with his sister—it’s just banter. At the same time, despite Krebs’ more positive response to his sister, she too conforms to traditional notions of femininity. She is flirtatious, talkative, and wears her heart on her sleeve, a marked contrast to Krebs’ tightlipped, stoic composure throughout the story.
Even as Krebs thinks of the world in traditional gender norms—largely at the expense of the women in his life—he is subject to such terms himself. Krebs’ father never appears in the story because he works at an office and is therefore not in the home, where the story primarily takes place. The dynamic of women in the home and men at work is, once again, a traditional representation of gender roles. Of course, this means that Krebs spends his time in a stereotypically feminine space. When she implores Krebs to find a job, then, Krebs’ mother is also imploring him to join the male working world. The very title of the story—“Soldier’s Home”—functions as a kind of ironic oxymoron. Though Krebs is returning to his home, as a man he isn’t meant to stay there. Rather, the expectations of masculinity specifically require him to be out of the home. Hemingway thus further illustrates the restrictive nature of masculinity, which compounds Krebs’ sense of societal alienation.
Even as it fails to interrogate their merit, the story ultimately portrays gender roles as creating a state of estrangement and isolation in men; men’s inability to be emotive and domestic keeps them always at a distance from their families and homes. Furthermore, the story shows how, for soldiers, masculine expectations require a certain grit against adversity, which prevents them from admitting to—let alone working through—trauma and grief. Nevertheless, the story takes for granted that its conventional conception of masculinity and femininity is simply the way the world works. The tale’s pessimistic ending can thus be read as a tragedy not only in the sense that Krebs is stuck in an impossible, bleak situation, but also in the sense that the story itself fails to conceive even of the possibility of questioning the gender norms that cause Krebs such grief in the first place.
Men and Women ThemeTracker
Men and Women Quotes in Soldier’s Home
“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.”
“Aw, Hare, you don’t love me. If you loved me, you’d want to come over and watch me play indoor.”
“Your father does not want to hamper your freedom. He thinks you should be allowed to drive the car. If you want to take some of the nice girls out riding with you, we are only too pleased.”
“His mother looked at him across the table. Her eyes were shiny. She started crying.”
“So his mother prayed for him and then they stood up and Krebs kissed his mother and went out of the house. He had tried so to keep his life from being complicated. Still, none of it had touched him…He wanted his life to go smoothly. It had just gotten going that way. Well, that was over now, anyway. He would go to the schoolyard and watch Helen play indoor baseball.”