Nick Adams and Nick's father arrive at the lake shore with Nick's Uncle George. Two Indians are waiting there to pick them up. The Indians row the two men and one boy across the lake in two boats. Nick asks where they are going and his father replies that they are going to the Indian camp because an Indian woman is very sick. The boats arrive on shore and they all walk through a meadow to the woods. There, they follow a trail that leads to the logging road, which is much lighter. Around a bend, they come upon some shanties. Nick, his father, and his uncle enter the one nearest the road. Inside, they find an Indian woman who has been in labor for two days. She is lying on the bottom bunk of a bed. Her husband is on the top bunk with a cut foot. When she cries out in pain, Nicks father explains that she hurts because her muscles are trying to get the baby out of her body. Nick asks if he can give her anything to make the pain stop, but Nick's father answers that he does not have any anesthetic.
Nick's father boils some medical instruments and washes his hands carefully. He explains to Nick that babies are supposed to be born head first but sometimes become turned around. He says that he may have to operate on this woman. When he does operate, several men must hold the woman down. She bites Uncle George. A boy is born. Nick's father asks Nick if he likes being an intern. Nick lies and says he likes it fine. However, Nick refuses to watch his father sew up the woman. Afterward, Nicks father and Uncle George are elated from the excitement of such a haphazard delivery. Nick's father says that the father of the baby must be very excited. He goes over to the father and pulls back his blanket. The father's throat is slit and the razor lies next to him. Nick's father tells Uncle George to take Nick away, but he does not do so before Nick sees his father tip the Indian father's head back.
On the way home, Nicks father apologizes for bringing him, all his excitement gone. Nick asks if women always have a hard time having babies. The answer from his father is no. Nick then asks why the man killed himself, to which his father replies that he must not have been able to stand things. Nick asks if many men kill themselves. His father says no. Nick asks the same question about women. His father says no again. Nick asks where Uncle George went. His father says that he will show up later. Then, Nick asks if dying is hard. His father says that he thinks it is probably pretty easy. There is silence. The sun is coming up, a fish jumps, and Nick runs his fingers through the water. Nick thinks to himself that he is pretty sure that he will never die.
This story introduces the theme of masculinity in these stories. Hemingway turns a typically female act in a female space into a male-dominated situation. Although this story is about a childbirth, it focuses on the experience of the doctor rather than the woman. Plus, instead of a natural childbirth, the baby is brought into the world by a Caesarian section, which is a surgical procedure. The woman does not even have a role in such an operation. Instead, this squaw is held down by the men present as a man takes over the role of child-birthing. After the birth, Uncle George and Nicks father have a playful, exuberant camaraderie over the job well done.
In this masculine atmosphere, the suicide of the Indian father, then, seems to be an example of a man acting in a feminine manner. Nicks father says that he probably killed himself because he could not stand it. Nicks father could not think much of this mans courage because he brought his young son to see what the father could not stand. Nicks father and Uncle George exhibit more ideal male behavior. Nicks father does not hesitate to examine the state of the mans body. And, Uncle George, clearly disturbed by the scene, simply withdraws from company. This kind of stoicism is what Nick's father seems to want to teach Nick--he does not give Nick long answers to his questions, and he treats this incident with silence himself. This strong, silent masculinity reappears throughout these stories.
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).