Hemingway’s “Soldier’s Home” tells the story of a young soldier named Krebs returning home after World War I. Though Hemingway does not explicitly narrate Krebs’ emotions, the story’s hard-boiled prose style represents Krebs’ suppressed psyche: after the war, Krebs sleeps late, can hardly muster the energy to talk to anyone, and wanders aimlessly around his home town. This disconnect between Krebs and the people around him—his family, other soldiers, and the girls he watches from his porch—offers a critical lens into how soldiers adjust, or fail to adjust, to life after the traumatic experiences of war. In describing Krebs and his difficulties, the story further suggests that those struggles are themselves a source of trauma as deep as any caused by the war. In so doing, Hemingway paints a grim picture of how war continues to effect young soldiers even after the battles have ceased.
After the war, Krebs’ life in his home town is characterized by lethargy, apathy, and alienation. He enjoys watching local girls, for instance, but has little interest in courtship and does not want to work to “get a girl.” Rather, the story describes him as liking the “patterns” that the girls make. In other words, he sees the girls as pleasant art or decoration, but is unable to see them as people.
This lack of desire for connection extends to all other aspects of his life as well. When Krebs’ mother asks him if he loves her, he responds, “I don’t love anybody.” Just a few moments later, he tells his mother that he cannot pray—he has also lost the ability to connect with God. Though he apologizes shortly after, in the final passage of the story he admits that he had lied, that “none of it had touched him.” Krebs’ total inability to connect with others—man or God—shows just how completely he is crippled by apathy and emptiness.
The story also makes clear that Krebs was not always this way. For instance, the narrator notes that before Krebs went to war, “he had never been allowed to drive the family motor car.” The clear implication is that, before the war, Krebs wanted to drive the car, and that this desire was connected to the social life that having access to a car would provide. But when, after the war, his mother comes into his bedroom one morning to tell Krebs that his father has decided to allow him to drive the car—even suggesting that Krebs take “some of the nice girls out”—Krebs responds only with cynicism, shooting back “I’ll bet you made him.” Krebs understands that his mother is trying to coax him out of his apathetic inner world, but he wants no part of what de describes as those “complications.”
Notably, Hemingway rarely uses the verb “feel” to describe Krebs in the story. When “feel” is invoked, it’s in reference to negative emotions: Krebs feels “embarrassed and resentful” of his mother’s praying, he feels “sick and vaguely nauseated” after his mother reminds him of how she held him as a baby, and, finally, he admits that he feels “sorry for his mother.” Krebs’ embarrassment and nausea seem to be byproducts of an aversion to feeling, rather than true feelings themselves. Krebs seems severed not only from his town and his family, then, but also from his own self; his feelings are merely sour shadows of the feelings of others.
The most obvious cause of Krebs’ trauma is, of course, the war. Though it never depicts scenes from the war, the story hints at the way that it has altered Krebs—how the army taught him that one does not actually “need a girl,” for instance, and how Krebs now wants to live without “any consequences ever again.” There is a sense that Krebs has been more emotionally traumatized by the war than perhaps even he understands. Yet, at the same time, the story also suggests that there were moments in the war of true nobility and bravery, when Krebs “had done the one thing, the only thing for a man to do” and that memories of these actions could make him feel “cool and clear inside himself.” The war was traumatic, but even as it devastated Krebs, his actions during it also gave him a sense of himself.
The story locates a second source of Krebs’ trauma as arising not from the war itself, but from the actual experience of going home. Because he was part of the second division in the army, Krebs returns home after the first group of soldiers. As a result, he finds himself in a town that both can’t comprehend what he’s been through and is not much interested in talking about the war anyway; they’ve already heard enough exciting and gruesome stories from the other soldiers. Even Krebs’ mother’s attention wanders when he tries to tell her about his experiences. Krebs ends up appropriating stories of other soldiers to hold the interest of his audience, but by exaggerating in this way, the narrator says, Krebs “lost everything.” By telling lies, however unimportant, about the war, he loses access to those things that could “make him feel cool and clear inside himself.”
Krebs’ happiest moment in the story comes as he reads a book of history about the war and the battles in which he took part. The book reconnects him to his past—and the self—he has lost. That he wishes the books had more maps, however, suggests that the book can never give him the direction or sense of self that, through the double trauma of being in the war and then returning from it, now evades him.
The story ends with Krebs agreeing to follow up with his mother’s wish that he get a job. It’s clear that his mother hopes this will be the first step in Krebs’ re-entrance into society. But the last paragraph of the story notes, “He had felt sorry for his mother and she had made him lie. He would go to Kansas City and get a job and she would feel all right about it.” Once again, the love and emotions of others feel to Krebs like complications that just force him to lie; going to Kansas City is not a way for him to rejoin society, but rather a way to try to continue to escape. The story then ends with Krebs wandering off to watch his sister play baseball, and it’s unclear if he even will gather the energy to go to Kansas City at all. The only thing that is clear is that Krebs, in the aftermath of the war and his return from it, has been utterly cut off from the world around him.
War and Trauma ThemeTracker
War and Trauma 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.”
“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.”