The narrator begins by saying that the strangest thing is that "they" screamed every night at midnight when they were on the pier. Then, he says that "we," in the harbor would shine a light on them and they would stop. Once, as a senior officer, a Turkish official told the narrator that his sailor had offended him. The narrator did not believe the official, but he sent the sailor back to the ship, telling the Turk that he would be dealt with severely. The narrator speaks of the Turk sarcastically. The narrator reports that "he" said that the worst were the women with dead babies. These women would not let go of them, up to six days at a time. There was one woman who the narrator had to clear off the pier with others. She was lying on several children and some people asked the narrator to take a look at her. When he did, she died just then and became very stiff immediately. A doctor told the narrator that such a thing would be impossible.
The narrator says that everyone being on the pier was not like an earthquake because they never knew what the Turk would do. He addresses the reader then, asking whether you remember when they told everyone not to take off anymore. They were going to fly in and bomb the Turkish section of the town. He thinks they would have demolished that section. Instead, Kemal came down to reprimand the Turkish commander. In the harbor, the narrator recalls, nice things floated around. It was the only time in his life that he dreamed about things. He didn't mind the women having babies, just the ones with dead babies. The ones having babies would just go somewhere dark and deliver them. The Greeks were nice, too. When they evacuated, they could not take their animals, so they broke their front legs and dumped them into shallow water to drown. The narrator sarcastically calls this a "pleasant business."
This story begins the collection by disorienting the reader. Ernest Hemingway makes this story confusing by never establishing the setting or the characters. All he gives is a series of impressions and memories. This disorientation actually serves to orient the reader to the tone and flow of the stories to come. Hemingway wrote a purposely confusing group of stories in order to show how disturbing and confusing the first World War was on its soldiers. Hemingway tries to show how soldiers entered a confusing situation, rarely knowing what was going on or why they were doing the jobs they were. Plus, he tries to show how the war disturbed even the soldiers's peaceful memories of home. Therefore, this first story attempts to give the reader glimpses of World War I and to confuse the reader as much as the characters are confused.
We can gather from this story, though, that the narrator was probably involved in the evacuation of the Greeks from Eastern Thrace, which occurred during World War I. The Turks were allies of the United States, so the American soldiers had to work with Turkish officers. But, of course, these alliances switched back and forth, which meant that soldiers would be bombing a Turkish quarter one day and taking commands from a Turkish official the next. More confusion. As the narrator watches people be evacuated, some women are giving birth on the pier and some women are protecting dead babies. These perceptions begin a small series of stories about childbirth and death. The narrator is pleased to see the women giving birth, probably because he sees so much death that he is thrilled to see babies, who represent hope for the future.
Sparknotes' commentary for On the Quai at Smyrna seems to have quite a few historical errors. The commentary states that the narrator is likely talking about the Greek evacuation of Thrace, but the title is On the Quai at Smyrna. Smyrna is a city in modern-day Turkey (now called Izmir). The Christian (mainly Greek and Armenian) part of Smyrna was burned in 1922 after the Turks recaptured the city from the Greeks. Hemingway was actually in Turkey just after the Great Fire to cover the Greco-Turkish War as a correspondent for the Toronto Star.... Read more→
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I think it is difficult to talk about this short story without acknowledging the use of literary minimalism. Several pieces of information are left out of the text but most readers come to the conclusion that Mrs. Elliot is a lesbian. Her marriage to Hubert is one of convenience, and her desire to have a baby is, arguably, to prove that she is not Lesbian (or just so that she can live in the current society without being judged).