This miniature story is a description of a march to the Champagne region of France. It is told as a memory. Everyone was drunk. The narrator was a kitchen corporal and was told to put out his light because it might have been seen.
This story emphasizes the surreal nature of World War I. Nothing seems real to this narrator; everything simply seems funny. He and all of the other men are drunk, as if to celebrate. In fact, they are even going to Champagne, which is also the name of an alcoholic beverage often consumed at celebrations. But, amid this good feeling, the narrator must be fearful and aware: He must put out his light. After all, enemies might see it. The combination of the revelry and chaos of drunkenness with the fear and anxiety of a march during wartime creates a surreal environment that the narrator cannot explain, only describe.
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).
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