The rain ceases as Nick makes his way up a road that cuts through an orchard, which is barren now that it’s fall. He picks up a Wagner apple on the ground and pockets it in his Mackinaw coat. Following the road out through the orchard and up a hill, Nick finally arrives at a cottage with smoke pouring out of the chimney.
Hemingway’s opening offers descriptive details that situate the story in a specific place. The references to “Wagner” apples and Nick’s “Mackinaw” coat indicate that the setting of the story is the Northeastern United States. In addition, since many of Hemingway’s stories about Nick Adams are set specifically in Michigan, readers can reasonably assume that the same is true for this story. Situating the story in this place allows Hemingway to hint that the story is not just about Nick and Bill, but about American youths in general.
Outside the cottage, Nick can see the “second-growth timber” piled up against the trees that are swaying in the wind of the approaching storm. Bill exits the cottage, and he and Nick greet each other. Watching the waves on Ten Mile point, the boys talk about the storm, and Bill predicts that it will blow for three days. Nick asks if Bill’s father is around, but Bill says no—“He’s out with the gun.” He invites Nick inside, where the fireplace is crackling.
The “second-growth timber” that is piled up against the trees behind is a metaphor about the cyclical nature of existence. Second-growth timber is wood from trees that have grown after a forest has been cut down the first time. Thus, the logs represent the idea that no ending is final and new beginnings are always possible, a thought that Nick comes to later in the story.
Bill fetches some Irish whisky and water from the kitchen and the pair sit down by the fire, drinking and discussing the smoky taste of the whisky, which Nick describes as “swell.” Bill knowingly attributes the smoky taste to peat in the whisky, which Nick disputes, before both admit they’ve never “seen any peat” before.
Bill notices that Nick’s feet are wet when Nick’s shoes start steaming in front of the fire. Bill fetches some socks from the open loft upstairs, where cots for Nick, Bill, and Bill’s father have been pushed aside to avoid the rain. Bill makes Nick take his shoes off, telling him it’s too late in the year to go be walking around without socks on. Nick puts on the socks and props his feet up on the fire grate. Noticing this, Bill warns Nick not to dent the fire grate with his big feet, and Nick moves his feet to the side of the grate.
The cots in the roof indicate that Nick and Bill are good friends—it’s clear they’ve spent time at the cottage many times before. Bill’s bossy demeanor toward Nick, when he scolds Nick about the socks, shows that Bill is the dominant figure in the friendship. The description of Nick’s feet as “big” is a nod to Hemingway himself, who was known to have big feet.
The pair discuss baseball games and players, mentioning the trade of Heine Zim to the Giants, noting that McGraw can buy any player he wants. They wonder if McGraw made the right call to buy Zim for the Giants. Nick thinks it was a good idea, saying that Zim can hit and field well, but Bill is more skeptical, noting that he loses games.
Here, Hemingway draws on details from actual baseball games in history. The trade of Heine Zimmerman to the Giants (under then manager John McGraw) took place in 1916, resulting in a 26-game winning streak for the Giants. This historical detail allows Hemingway to establish that the story, though published in 1925, is set in approximately 1916, around the time when Hemingway himself would have been about 17 years old. Given that Bill and Nick both seem to be on the brink of manhood, it seems that they’re around this age, too. The story, thus, functions as a “Lost Generation” narrative, which deals with issues faced by young Americans who came into adulthood between World War I and World War II. As with their conversation about whisky, Nick and Bill are eager to prove their sports knowledge to each other in order to show off their masculinity, as they do throughout the story.
Bill reaches his hand around the whisky bottle and refills Nick’s glass. Nick muses that it’s a good time when the fall storms come around, and Bill agrees that it’s “swell.” They are happy they are at the cottage instead of in town.
Hemingway’s repeated references to drinking and whisky show that the boys are eager to continue drinking as a show of masculinity. The reference to the time of year when fall storms come around alludes to the cyclical nature of existence: like the fluctuating seasons, things come and go, but nothing ever ends.
Bill reaches for a book and leans back, book in one hand, whisky glass in the other. Nick asks Bill what he’s reading, and Bill says Richard Feverel. Nick says he “couldn’t get into [that book],” but Bill disagrees. They talk about Walpole’s books Fortitude and The Dark Forest, playfully bickering about the practicality of various plot points. Bill mentions that The Dark Forest is about Russia, and Nick is skeptical that Walpole knows about Russia. Bill disagrees, and suggests that maybe Walpole was there when he was a boy, since he seems to know quite a bit about it.
Hemingway references actual books that were published in the early 20th century. Hugh Walpole’s novels Fortitude and The Dark Forest were published in 1913 and 1916, respectively. Like the boys’ conversation about baseball, Hemingway uses these references to situate the story historically in approximately 1916, establishing it as a World War I narrative. And, like their discussions about drinking and baseball, the boys are keen to show off their knowledge of reading to each other in order to appear masculine.
Nick says he’d like to meet Walpole, and Bill counters that he’d like to meet Chesterton. Nick fantasizes about taking Chesterton fishing, and Bill wonders if Chesterton would like enjoy fishing. Nick is confident that he would, mentioning the Flying Inn. Without missing a beat, Bill quotes a passage about drinking. They quibble about which of the two writers is a better writer, and which is a “better guy.” Nick concludes that he wishes they were both here, so that they could take them both fishing.
Nick and Bill’s admiration for Hugh Walpole and G. K. Chesterton, both as writers and as all-around good “guy[s],” shows that they consider writing as the kind of thing that “real,” respected men do. Besides drinking, writing, and baseball, the boys also position fishing as a distinctively masculine pastime.
Bill abruptly says, “let’s get drunk,” and Nick cautiously agrees, wondering if Bill’s father will mind. Bill reassures him that “my old man won’t care.” Nick is already feeling intoxicated, but Bill denies this and empties the rest of the whisky bottle into both of their glasses. Nick asks if Bill has any more whisky, and Bill says, “plenty,” but notes that his father only lets him drink from bottles that are already open, so that he doesn’t become a “drunkard.” Nick is surprised, as he had assumed “solitary drinking that [makes] drunkards,” not opening new bottles, but he keeps the thought to himself.
Despite feeling intoxicated, Nick still asks Bill if he has any more whisky, which suggests that Nick is eager to show he can drink a lot. Bill, too, wants to show off his capacity for alcohol and tries to seem grown up and nonchalant by shrugging off the possibility that his father would be mind. The reader learns that Bill’s father is perhaps a heavy drinker from Bill’s odd comment about people becoming “drunkards” by opening bottles to drink from, suggesting that Bill’s father doesn’t want his son to follow in his footsteps.
Bill mentions that his father “gets a little wild sometimes,” and Nick remarks that Bill’s father is a “swell guy.” As Nick pours some water into his glass and watches it mix with the whisky, he muses about his own father, who doesn’t drink. Bill is unsurprised, noting that Nick’s father is a doctor, while his own father is a painter, saying “that’s different.” Nick still thinks that his father has “missed a lot” in life. Bill agrees, but he also adds that his own dad has “had a tough time,” as the two stare contemplatively into the fire.
Bill’s father is the epitome of all that the boys deem as masculine—he’s a creative type, he drinks heavily, and he partakes in outdoorsy, and stereotypically manly, activities like shooting. Bill’s comment that his dad has “had a tough time,” though, suggests that the boys should perhaps not romanticize Bill’s father or his life quite so much. Nick’s father, on the other hand, is a doctor who doesn’t drink—he has a conventional profession and seems puritanical and straitlaced compared to Bill’s rough-and-tumble father. Nick’s father represents the kind of conventional, boring life that both young boys are disillusioned with, made clear by Nick’s comment that his father has “missed a lot” in life.
Nick gets up to fetch a log for the fire, eager to prove that he can handle his liquor by performing “practical” tasks while drunk. Bill, who is “also being consciously practical,” weighs in on which log Nick should bring. On his way back to the fire, Nick accidentally knocks a bowl of dried apricots onto the floor with the log in his hands. As he picks them up, he is proud of himself for how “practical” he is being. Walking into the living room, Nick boasts about how “swell” the log he has picked out is. Bill swiftly quips that he had been saving it for a night like this.
Nick and Bill’s attempts to show off how “practical” they are show that they consider their ability to hold their liquor—that is, to drink a lot but not act drunk—a sign of masculine accomplishment. Hemingway’s use of irony in describing how proud the boys are of themselves for performing simple tasks (like picking up spilled apricots and stoking a fire with logs) shows that the boys are playing at being manly, but they are still just boys.
Nick suggests drinking more, and Bill fishes out another open bottle. This time it’s Scotch. Nick gets up to fetch more water. On his way, he passes a mirror and he is amused that he can’t recognize his own reflection, which is grinning back at him.
Nick’s failure to recognize his own face in the mirror shows that their bravado about drinking and holding their liquor is for show, since he is clearly very drunk and detached from reality. This is the first hint that a lot of what the boys verbalize to each other is not quite aligned with how they are feeling inside.
The boys decide that they will toast to fishing—making the sweeping pronouncement that they are toasting to “All fishing, […] everywhere”—and decide that fishing is far better than baseball. They decide that it “was a mistake” that they ever talked about baseball, which is a sport “for louts.” They then drink deeply from their glasses until they’re empty and decide to now drink to Chesterton and Walpole. As they refill their glasses, Nick and Bill “[feel] very fine.”
Even though the boys clearly know a lot about baseball and are passionate about it, they suddenly—and drunkenly—decide that it’s “for louts,” meaning clumsy, stupid people. The boys are clearly invested in defining and proving their masculinity, and their sudden decision to abandon baseball (at this point, a still relatively new but wildly popular sport) for fishing and literature shows that they are trying to look cool and cultured in front of one another. The mention of Chesterton and Walpole—writers who were publishing in the 1910s—reminds the reader that this story is set during World War I.
Bill switches topics abruptly, saying that Nick was “wise” to break off his relationship, dismissively calling it “that Marge business.” Nick tepidly agrees, responding “I guess so,” but he goes quiet and says nothing more, as Bill goes on to explain that had Nick stayed in the relationship, he’d be stuck “working trying to get enough money to get married.” Bill passionately continues, claiming that marriage ruins men’s lives, leaving them “absolutely bitched,” and causes them to have a “fat married look.” Nick remains quiet, but eventually replies with a halfhearted “sure.”
Bill’s cynical description of marriage as something that ruins men captures the disillusionment that many young people in the Lost Generation felt with domestic conventions like marriage or working for money. Growing up in a war-torn, changing society, many young adults felt that these conventions felt stale and meaningless, leaving them feeling “lost.” Bill’s use of profanity, and his caricature of married men as “fat” also shows that he thinks marriage is an unmanly pursuit that compromises independence and autonomy. Nick’s halfhearted replies show that he might have different feelings about his breakup, but is not fully comfortable expressing them to the opinionated Bill.
Bill sympathizes that it must have been tough to break off the relationship, but reminds Nick that he’ll probably fall for someone else soon enough, though he warns Nick not to let all this love business “ruin” him. Eager to prove his point, Bill reminds Nick that if he’d married Marjorie, the whole family would be around all the time, interfering with their lives, especially Marjorie’s mother. Nick nods in agreement, though he is still quiet. Bill thinks it was a lucky break for Nick, saying that Marjorie will be happier “marrying somebody of her own sort.” Bill compares the two to oil and water, saying they don’t mix, just like how he and “Ida that works for the Strattons” don’t mix either.
Bill’s description of relationships again denigrates love as something that “ruin[s]” men. Bill’s comments about Marjorie’s mother coming around all the time shows that he thinks the social responsibilities of married life undermine masculine independence and autonomy. Bill’s mention of “Ida that works for the Strattons” hints that he got out of a similar situation himself. This reinforces the idea that Bill sees domestic responsibilities as fundamentally problematic for all men.
Nick is still quiet. He suddenly feels distanced from the environment he’s in. He no longer feels drunk and is instead overcome with a palpable sense of loss. He is heartbroken that he broke up with Marjorie, and that he might never see her again. He repeatedly thinks to himself with despair, “it was all gone.” He says nothing about this to Bill, suggesting instead that they have another drink.
The shift to Nick’s internal monologue shows that he is distraught about ending his relationship. His failure to voice this to Bill reveals that he is uncomfortable expressing his emotions to his friend, perhaps concerned about appearing weak and unmanly in the face of Bill’s fervent disapproval of relationships. The repetition of the phrase “it was all gone” shows that Nick is experiencing shock at the finality of the breakup.
Bill remarks that if Nick had stayed with Marjorie, they wouldn’t be hanging out right now. Nick agrees, thinking to himself that he would be in Charlevoix, where Marjorie lives. Now, though, he has no idea what to do. Nick admits to Bill that he feels shocked by the breakup, even though he initiated it, as he reflects “All of a sudden everything was over.” He compares this feeling to the way the storm outside, saying that it’s “just like when the three-day blows come now and rip all the leaves off the trees.” Bill, attempting to comfort Nick, says that it doesn’t matter who’s fault it was, as long as it’s over.
Bill’s remark that the boys wouldn’t be spending this time together if Nick hadn’t broken up with Marjorie implies that Bill values brotherly friendship over relationships, another thing he associates with masculinity. Nick’s reflection that “all of a sudden everything was over” again emphasizes that he is feeling shocked by the finality of the relationship. Hemingway uses the storm as a metaphor for the brutality and intensity of this sudden loss. Given that Bill and Nick serve as stand-ins for the American youth of this time more generally, Nick’s struggles to share what he’s truly feeling may suggest that young men growing up in this time have difficulty being vulnerable and expressing their emotions.
Nick’s thoughts despondently dwell on all the things he had planned to do with Marjorie, like travel to Italy, and internally he is riddled with grief. Bill admits that he was worried Nick would get sucked in, and he’s glad that Nick “played it right,” even though Marjorie’s mother was already telling people that Nick and Marjorie were engaged. Nick is adamant that they weren’t engaged, even though they were planning on getting married. Suddenly, Nick exclaims, “Let’s get drunk,” and the pair agree to get “really drunk” and go swimming.
Nick’s insistence than he was not engaged to Marjorie even though they were planning to get married show that he is wrestling with wanting to appear stoic and masculine, despite his evident grief at the relationship ending. Nick’s sudden (and ill-conceived) decision to “get drunk” and go swimming also shows that he is attempting to repress his emotions in order to appear masculine.
Nick bursts out that he’s “sorry as hell about [Marjorie]” but that he had no choice, adding with frustration, “you know what her mother was like!” Bill agrees that her mother was “terrible.” Nick is still shocked about how suddenly it ended, but Bill interrupts, saying they’ve said what they needed to say, and suggests it’s best not to speak about it again, noting that if Nick dwells on it too much he might slip back into the relationship again.
Nick’s outburst shows that he is wrestling between acknowledging his emotions and wanting to appear manly. The denigrating way that both boys talk about Marjorie’s mother shows that they are unwilling to embrace the social realities of married life. Young men of the Lost Generation, of which Hemingway himself was a part, often felt that domestic life was meaningless, despite searching for emotional depth in their lives. Bill’s worry that Nick might slip back into the relationship again implies that he sees marriage as a dangerous trap that ensnares men and robs them of their independence.
Nick is taken by surprise: the thought had never occurred to him before, because the breakup had seemed so “absolute.” Suddenly, he starts to feel a bit better. He is more vocal now, and responds “there’s always that danger.” Internally he feels happy, having realized that nothing is “irrevocable.”
Nick’s sudden realization that he might be able to slip back into the relationship again changes his mood dramatically, as he shifts from dwelling on the heartbreaking loss he feels to feeling hope that a new beginning might be on the horizon. Nick’s palpable relief that nothing is “irrevocable” captures his realization that life is cyclical; like seasons or storms, relationships may come and go, but there is always hope for a new beginning.
Nick starts thinking about when he might go into town in the next few days, but he says nothing of this to Bill. Out loud, he says “there’s always a chance.” Bill warns Nick to watch himself, and Nick agrees that he will, but internally he feels “lighter,” reflecting to himself that “nothing was ever lost.” He decides he will go into town on Saturday, but keeps this to himself.
Nick’s thoughts about going into town again indicate that he likely wants to reconnect with Marjorie. The ironic phrase “there’s always a chance” indicates that Nick is internally happy that there’s a chance for a new beginning with Marjorie, but externally, he wants to agree with Bill that relationships should be avoided at all costs.
Nick suggests they take the guns outside for some shooting and to find Bill’s father. As he puts his shoes and Mackinaw coat back on, Nick notices that he still feels drunk, but now clearheaded. Bill notes that he feels “swell” and has a “good edge on,” but they agree that “it’s no use getting drunk” and they should go outdoors.
Nick’s shift in mood from despair about the relationship ending to hope for his future is captured by his “clearheaded” feeling. The reference to shooting exposes another facet of behavior that the boys consider as masculine. The boys once again try to prove their capacity for alcohol by claiming “it’s no use getting drunk,” as if the alcohol has had no effect, even though they’ve clearly been drunk this whole time.
The wind is blowing fiercely as the boys step outside and head towards the orchard, noting that the birds will be sheltering from the wind, which is blowing too strongly for them to shoot. The wind and fresh air help Nick clear his head. Now that he is outside, the “Marge business” feels a lot less “tragic” to him. In fact, it doesn’t even feel that “important” any more. He reflects that the storm blew it out of his head.
Nick’s comment that the storm blew his worries about the “Marge business” out of his head implies that he feels relieved that he has been able to stifle his feelings of loss. This new metaphor for the storm reflects the pressure on young men growing up in the World War I era to repress their emotions in order to appear manly.
The boys hear a shotgun go off in the wind, and Bill says that must be his dad. It sounds like it’s coming from the swamp, so the boys decide to cut across the meadow and head that way, seeing if they can shoot anything on the way. As they head off into the storm, Nick is relieved that he has stopped dwelling on his feelings about Marge, thinking, “None of it was important now. The wind blew it out of his head.” But in the back of his mind he feels reassured that “he [can] always go into town Saturday,” feeling comforted that “it’s a good thing to have in reserve.”
The metaphor of the storm blowing Nick’s feelings “out of his head”—as he now chooses to go shooting instead of think about Marge—represents the pressure on young men of the Lost Generation to hide their vulnerabilities and repress their emotions in order to feel masculine. Nick’s secret reassurance that he might go into town—presumably to reconnect with Marjorie—shows that under the surface, his feelings are still there, and he is hopeful for the possibility of a new beginning with her, regardless of what Bill thinks about relationships.