Using Temperament Theory to Understand Conflict in Hemingway's "Soldier's Home"

By McKenna, John J.; Raabe, David M. | Studies in Short Fiction, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Using Temperament Theory to Understand Conflict in Hemingway's "Soldier's Home"


McKenna, John J., Raabe, David M., Studies in Short Fiction


Deeply held values--core values--anchor every literary character's (and individual's) view of the world and the self. When core values come under attack, a character feels a compelling conflict and seeks to reduce the threat. To understand conflict effectively, therefore, the reader needs to be able to identify what is threatened--i.e., a character's core values. Understanding core values is the key to understanding character, which, in turn, leads to understanding conflict, plot, and the underlying design of a narrative--especially a subtle, conflict-driven narrative like Hemingway's "Soldier's Home."

Fortunately, temperament theory offers a powerful way to systematize the study of character and core values. Temperament theory has, throughout its long history, consistently divided temperament into four main categories. For example, "Hippocrates gave us the first fourfold analogy of human differences to call attention to four distinct patterns of habitual behavior" (Keirsey 6). In time, these four temperaments or "humours" came to be called the Sanguine, the Melancholic, the Choleric, and the Phlegmatic. Modern temperament theory, especially as David Keirsey refined it, identifies and describes the four primary types of character as follows: (1) the Artisan, (2) the Guardian, (3) the Idealist, and (4) the Rational (12). Each type of temperament has a core value associated with it: (1) the Artisan--needs to act on impulse and make an impact (Keirsey 33); (2) the Guardian--needs to belong and be secure (56); (3) the Idealist--needs to pursue "authentic" being (91); (4) the Rational--needs to know, achieve, and thereby control nature (79). These are not casually held needs.

In fact, core values are those that each type will sacrifice last and only with the greatest reluctance and conflict. Threaten a core value and the resulting conflict is atomic. Imperil an Artisan's freedom and you have major trouble. Put a Guardian's sense of security and belonging at risk and you can expect a vigorous resistance. Endanger an Idealist's sense of authentic self and the usually sweet-mannered Idealist surprisingly will burst into uncharacteristic anger and confrontation. Challenge a Rational's intelligence and expect to be skewered on his or her pointed and cutting rebuttals.

Hemingway's "Soldier's Home" is a remarkable illustration of the conflict and tension that result from the collision of different core values arising from contrasting temperaments. In 1924, Hemingway--who had returned from World War I to his Oak Park, Illinois home in 1919--felt the somewhat autobiographical story was the best he had ever written (C. Baker 138). The central character, Harold Krebs, musters out of the military and returns to his Oklahoma hometown long after the rest of the American Expeditionary Force has returned, been feted, and resumed their more conventional lives. Krebs seems unable to readjust to civilian life. His parents, for their part, are unable to understand why Krebs cannot resume a "normal" life, which for them means getting a job, finding a gift, and settling down into the customary rhythms of middle-class, middle-American life.

At first, the conflict in "Soldier's Home" may seem barely perceptible. Krebs returns home to a quiet life

   sleeping late in bed, getting up to walk down town to the library to get a
   book, eating lunch at home, reading on the front porch until he became
   bored and then walking down through town to spend the hottest hours of the
   day in the cool dark of the pool room. (112)

To some, Krebs's life might appear to be enviable in its departure from the typical routines of a young man's life.

But the serpents of discontent--of angst, even--are lurking beneath this apparently tranquil surface. Early in the narrative, Hemingway provides a clear presentiment of the conflicts to come. Even though the reading he does about the war is the "most interesting reading he had ever done" (113), this tranquil existence bores Krebs. …

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