Hemingway's "Big Two-Hearted River": Nick's Psychology of Mental Control

By Cirino, Mark | Papers on Language & Literature, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Hemingway's "Big Two-Hearted River": Nick's Psychology of Mental Control


Cirino, Mark, Papers on Language & Literature


At this point in Hemingway studies, it is well understood that in "Big Two-Hearted River" Nick Adams seeks a return to simplicity after his harrowing experience in World War I and that Hemingway's prose replicates the veteran's internal quest for manageable simplicity. At story's end, Nick avoids the physical swamp at the edge of the stream, and by doing so keeps at bay the metaphorical swamp of his own psyche. But as we enter the eighty-fifth year of "Big Two-Hearted River" exegesis--a practice begun by Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Hemingway himself--a crucial question remains unasked: Is Nick's strategy--to return to the Michigan woods of his youth, by himself, systematically replacing the thoughts of the trauma of the war with immediate stimulation from nature and camping--benign and productive or self-defeating and doomed from the start?

Just as with former New York Giants football star Lawrence Taylor's notoriously dubious scheme of battling withdrawal from drug addiction by playing innumerable hours of golf, a program of self-treatment he asserts "literally saved his life" (Newport 3), Nick's strategy of rehabilitation depends upon focused self-distraction--to consider a more agreeable topic instead of confronting the source of his unpleasant memories. "Big Two-Hearted River" is a drama of metacognition; in his solitude, Nick's thoughts are occupied by his own thoughts. Therefore, the condition of Nick's consciousness becomes the narrative's primary concern. In ways unsurpassed in all of Hemingway, the text presents extended external metaphors to illuminate psychological corollaries.

Mental control, a slippery concept in the philosophy of mind, describes when people "suppress a thought, concentrate on a sensation, inhibit an emotion, maintain a mood, stir up a desire, squelch a craving, or otherwise exert influence on their own mental states" (Wegner and Pennebaker 1). Inherent in this definition is an implicit anxiety with the way a person feels, has felt, or soon might feel. If a person knew he would remain permanently and unalterably content, he would not exert energy trying to maintain positive feelings or alter negative ones. Likewise, in the unconscious thought avoidance that Freud analyzed, he found that "the motive and purpose of repression was nothing else than the avoidance of unpleasure" (153). Therefore, in their endeavors to control their mental states, Hemingway's heroes possess a level of introspection and self-awareness not always granted them. "Big Two-Hearted River" demonstrates the subtlety and complexity with which Hemingway understood mental control in that Nick wishes to adjust his cognitive activity as neatly as one might manipulate sound levels on the equalizer of a stereo. In his metacognitive drama, Nick is forced to ask: Am I satisfied with my thoughts? Are they pleasant? Are they productive? If so, how I can I sustain them? Or, are they painful and harmful? If so, how might I eliminate them?

Once Nick disembarks the train in Seney, he is not just able to access the actual stream that is full of trout, but he can also better monitor the internal stream of his thoughts. Beside the helpful baggage man, who is referred to but unseen, and his old friend Hopkins, who appears only in the story's single extended reminiscence, Nick is alone. The only other characters spring from nature, and Nick relates to each one differently: grasshoppers, trout, a mosquito, a mink, a kingfisher. These creatures elicit telling reactions from Nick, but he has made the crucial decision to fish and camp alone. In an early draft of the story, which more closely adheres to its autobiographical inspiration, Nick is accompanied by a group of friends. By changing the narrative to one man's solo journey, Hemingway allows Nick to focus more meticulously upon his stated objective: escaping "the need for thinking, the need to write, other needs" (Short Stories 210). Nick's quest to control his surroundings and his preference for solitude is clear: "Nick did not like to fish with other men on the river.

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