"The Bill Always Came": Hemingway's Use of the Epiphany in "Cross-Country Snow."(analysis of Ernest Hemingway's Short Story)

Article excerpt

HEMINGWAY'S "CROSS-COUNTRY SNOW," from his first major collection of short fiction, In Our Time (1925), has not, for the most part, been favorably received by literary critics. In A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, Paul Smith summarizes the story's critical reception as follows:

[I]t is difficult to argue against those critics who find the story

trivial, for it does seem manifestly offhand. At times it reads like an

unfinished exercise--the mimetic sentences on the downhill run, the

dialogue that equates "the boys" when Hemingway was clearly about to

differentiate between their different experiences, and the introduction of

the Swiss woodcutters with an unrealized literary purpose--all these

features suggest a hastily written story, sent off to a fiction contest

and belatedly returned, quickly submitted to the Transatlantic Review where

it could not be turned down, and then ignored in later publications by

Hemingway, his editors, and--with some reason--his critics. (84)

At least one of the objections raised against the story's artistic merits leaves room for dissent. Close textual analysis reveals that Hemingway's introduction of the Swiss woodcutters, dysfunctional as it may seem, does in fact serve a major literary purpose. Within the thematic framework of "Cross-Country Snow"--Nick's unwanted fatherhood and the ensuing loss of carefree skiing with his friend George--the native woodcutters serve as a compositional element adding more to the story than a touch of local color. We contend that Hemingway's depiction of the woodcutters is instrumental in calling forth the epiphany at the end of the narrative.

The theory and technique of the literary epiphany, usually associated with the works of James Joyce, refers to the intuitive grasp of reality in a quick flash of recognition produced by apparently trivial or arbitrary causes. Joyce's definition of the epiphany in Stephen Hero reflects the contrast between the apparent triviality of outward events and the importance of inner meaning: the epiphany is "a sudden spiritual manifestation" which derives from a "vulgarity of speech or of gesture" or from a "phase of the mind itself" (188). Some of the epiphanies in Joyce's Dubliners, for example, are experienced by the reader alone, whereas others are apprehended both by the reader and the protagonist of heightened sensibility. In all cases, epiphanies are moments when the thematic implications of the narrative find their exact focus.

In "Cross-Country Snow" the privilege of sudden illumination is granted solely to the reader. The epiphanic moment is set in the inn Nick and George enter after skiing. They are served by a young waitress whose apron covers an obvious pregnancy. The commonplace gesture of the Swiss woodcutters, who "got up and paid and went out" (SS 188, our emphasis) initiates the epiphany and thus discloses a deeper layer of meaning. In contrast to the native woodcutters, Nick and George leave the inn without paying. Hemingway's method of concealment hides from ready view what the alert reader is nevertheless able to discern. On a surface level, the apparently trivial gesture of the woodcutters contrasts with the negligence of the skiers; on a symbolic level, it provides an oblique commentary on Nick's predicament. Within the narrative context, the covert motif of " (non)payment" evokes those inescapable obligations arising from Helen's pregnancy. Metaphorically, Nick Adams certainly has to "pay" for his alliance with the feminine world and its irreversible consequences. The carefree period of male fellowship in the "presocial" realm of Alpine heights will yield to Nick's painful adjustment to social and domestic pressures back in America.

The idea of "payment" integral to "Cross-Country Snow" figures both overtly and covertly in other works as well; in fact, it is an enduring constant in the Hemingway canon. …