What does it mean to be an outsider? Perhaps it is someone who simply does not or can not fit in with societal norms. This someone could be labeled as a social oddball or an alien coexisting in a world that they don’t call home. A being who journeys through life conquered by isolation and disconnection. Ernest Hemingway’s “Soldier’s Home” explores how traumatic experience, especially from wars, can shape a person’s emotional wellbeing. Hemingway successfully portrays the heavy emotional affects of post-traumatic stress disorder through the realistic character of Harold Krebs, a former World War I soldier who after returning to his home in Oklahoma begins to realize his alienation from society. Krebs demonstrates how trauma can lead to a lack of acceptance and emotion, along with a lost sense of identity.
Very little information is given to the reader about Krebs’s experiences during World War I. The only piece of information given during his time in the war are two photographs. One shows him alongside his fraternity bothers and the other a picture of him on the Rhine with a corporal and two German girls. The fact that Hemingway decides to reveal a scarce amount of information regarding Krebs military background may reflect Krebs’s own intentions to suppress his traumatic memories. The reader is also given a list of battles that Krebs has fought in. The battles he lists include “Belleau Wood, Soissons, the Champagne, St. Mihiel, and in the Argonne” (Hemingway, 1) but Krebs states that he “did not want to talk about the war at all” (Hemingway, 1). By mentioning these major battles Hemingway avoids giving details about the war. Rather he relies on the reader’s own knowledge about World War I. Moreover, Hemingway’s decision to provide little information is further elaborated in the lies Krebs tells to the townspeople.
To further emphasis his lack of acceptance among the townspeople he does not receive the same celebratory welcome as the other soldiers. Krebs does not return to his hometown until the summer of 1919, after most of the other soldiers have already come home. The townspeople do not seem to understand why he has come home so late and some “people seemed to think it was rather ridiculous” (Hemingway, 1). Hemingway does acknowledge that Krebs views his situation as unordinary while also hinting that the townspeople fail to appreciate the trauma each soldier has to experience during the war. In order for people to listen to him talk Krebs lies twice about his experiences abroad. Due to these lies he begins to develop a “distaste for everything that has happened to him in the war” (Hemingway, 1) and soon his memories begin to lose the “cool, valuable quality” (Hemingway, 1). Not only does Hemingway give no concrete details about the war he also describes Krebs’s lies. By doing so Hemingway has obscured reality with fantasy. This confusion with reality may represent how wars are such a traumatic experience to the point where language fails to truly capture its horrors. The reader can assume that the “cool and clear” memories may refer to when Krebs performs heroic and virtuous action in the line of battle, but by lying he has dirtied such memories. The lies also provide no further background which continues to create a sense of oppression in Krebs’s mental state. However, it is important to understand what compels Krebs to lie about his experiences. His desire to be accepted and heard by the town forces him to have “lost everything” (Hemingway, 1). In a way his memories are the only things he has when returning home and the moment he loses them to fantasy is when he is losing a part of himself.
Krebs’s lost sense of identity and isolation is further explored in his day to day routine. Since his return, Krebs spend his time “sleeping late in bed, getting up to walk down to the library to get a book, eating lunch at home, reading on the front porch until he became bored and then walking through the town to spend the hottest hours of the day in the cool dark of the pool room” (Hemingway, 2). It is clear that Krebs’s routine is depressing and almost numb-like. He seems to be going through the motions of life without a sense of purpose or direction.
His lack of interest in moving on is highlighted in his perspective of girls and romance. According to Krebs “nothing was changed in the town except that the young girls had grown up” (Hemingway, 2). Krebs lacks the energy and motivation to “break into” (Hemingway, 2) their world. He says that they are too complicated to know and that “he did not want to get into the intrigue and politics” (Hemingway, 2). He would prefer to look and appreciate the way the women look- short hair, round Dutch collars, sweaters and silk stockings. He likes the way they walk on the other side of the street and under the shade of trees. He would rather objectify girls rather than have relationship with one. Krebs feels he no longer has access to a relationship. Each woman represent an opportunity to reenter society but he avoids doing so by passively observing. However, it is revealed the Krebs would like a girl but believes that having one would recomplicate his life. He remembers the French and German girls who didn’t talk much and claims that a relationship with a European girl were simpler. As Krebs watches the girls, he thinks about the soldiers he knew from the war who talked about girls. One “fellow boasted how girls mean nothing to him” (Hemingway, 3) while another “fellow boasted that he could not get along without girls” (Hemingway, 3). The fact that Krebs believes “that as all a lie” (Hemingway, 3) shows his deep cynicism. Ultimately, Krebs believes that he and the girls live in two separate worlds which reflects his sense of alienation. He regards himself as an outsider looking into society and watching all of its complications.
His depressive behavior represents his disconnection from society but his isolation from his family is more prominent. “He was still a hero to his two young sisters” (Hemingway, 2) and mother. Krebs’s dialogue with his sister, Helen, may at come across as rather playful and innocent. Helen asks Krebs if he can be her “beau” (Hemingway, 4) and follows it with question of love. Krebs’s younger sister speaks with a tone of tenderness and naivety towards her older brother. The use of the nickname, Hare, is quite unharmonious in story with very little and unemotional dialogue. When Krebs responds with a “you bet” (Hemingway, 5), “sure” (Hemingway, 5) and “maybe” (Hemingway, 5), it comes across as passive along with a hint of disinterest.
In addition to Krebs’s disinterest in Helen’s indoor baseball game, his strained relationship with his mother indicates his alienations from his family. Krebs’s mother’s faith stands out in a story that is absent with emotion. When his mother says that “God has some work for every one to do” (Hemingway, 6) and that “there can be no idle hands in His kingdom” (Hemingway, 6), Krebs responds that he is “not in His Kingdom” (Hemingway, 6). Krebs is so isolated from the world to the point where he believes that he is not apart of society, nor a part of religion. Krebs’s mother continues to explain that she knows “the temptation [he] must have been exposed to” (Hemingway, 6) and how it affects young men, as her father and grandfather both fought in the Civil War. She also talks about Charley Simmons, a boy like Krebs who has found a job, a girl and has begun to settle down. By bringing up more of Krebs’s family, his mother urges him to reenter her world. She wants her son to be like everyone else- to find a job and a girl. However, she misunderstands Krebs’s source to his lack of motivation and sense of alienation, his inability to express the pain and trauma from the war. In contrast to Krebs’s inability to express, Krebs’s mother both physically and dramatically expresses her emotions in the form of crying and putting her head in her hands. Seeing such a display made Krebs feel “sick and vaguely nauseated” (Hemingway, 7). His refusal to pray with his desperate mother only further emphasizes that he feels alienated not simply from the world of man, but that of God.
Hemingway successfully portrays the subtle yet detrimental affects of war trauma. Krebs’s resentment towards the complications of society alienates him the world. He fears engaging with others because it forces him to lie which results in more distance between his sense of self and his memories. He entered the war as a follower of society but returns as a loner with twisted sense of reality.