Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Being Operated On: Hemingway's "The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio"

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Being Operated On: Hemingway's "The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio"

Article excerpt

During the party at the end of "The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio," an accordion "inhal[es]" and "exhal[es]" (366). However one might feel about the supposed musicality of human lungs, in a story concerned with inmates in a hospital, with casual injury and inexorable death, the detail seems generally relevant. In fact, the appearance of corporality here--where it shouldn't be--is a pointed reminder, the deflected center of a larger design Hemingway refocuses with, what was for him, an almost unconscionable use of figurative language. Hemingway would be as quick as his character Cayetano Ruiz to disclaim "philosopher" status (366)--as both writer and media celebrity he was a salient figure in a long tradition of American common sense. It is therefore not surprising that when he does touch upon metaphysical speculation the contact is phenomenological. Another metaphor--this one Frazer's self-conscious allusion to people being "operated on" (367)--allows Hemingway entrance into the epiphenomenalism of mind.

Immediately following the accordion (steadily breathing like a patient on the operating table) and those other sounds of the bells, the traps and a (telltale) drum, Hemingway supplies a list of the ward's inmates. The accompanying biographic information ensures their anonymity: "there was a rodeo rider ...," "There was a carpenter ..." and so forth. Oddly, Cayetano appears in this list. A figure who was allowed to speak, to live in dialogue, to assume character status, is reduced to the autopsy of third-person narration. The inmates' biographies are foremost histories of particular--sometimes serious--but generally unremarkable afflictions. There are broken ankles and wrists, a "broken leg" and a "broken back," as if the human body were made of something cheaper than porcelain but no more durable, and "There was Cayetano Ruiz, a small-town gambler with a paralyzed leg" (366). We could easily add other characters to this list--all of them, in fact. The entire story, as far as it is Frazer's story (and it is no more his than anyone else's), moves toward the economy of an epitaph. That central character appears to us without a personal history. He is a writer (we conclude from two references to writing) who has sustained an injury falling off a horse (or so he says), an injury that is not new to him and seems to amount to more than a riding accident, for "Mr. Frazer had been through this all before" (363).

Halfway through the story Frazer's nerves go "bad," a state he views with clinical detachment, for "while he was pleased they lasted that long ... he resented being forced to make the same experiment when he already knew the answer" (363). The chronic sufferer is appropriately a writer, hence a recording consciousness. (Hemingway's aesthetic of literary veracity, telling it "The way it was," is broadly informative here).(1) As if in an out-of-body experience, the mind confronts the stranger of the body, seeming to hover some place above it--watching, making notes--and, in doing so, assumes a marginality belied by its apparent authority. Despite third-person narration, details of Hemingway's story move almost exclusively through the perceptions of Frazer and that character's powers are--in a limiting sense--spectatorial. "It's coming along good now since he spliced the bone," Frazer reports to the detective sergeant who replies with odd sobriety, "Yes, but it's a long time. A long, long time" (357). Behind this comment lurks an implicit and disturbing pun: a patient is one who is patient. If the story reads as if it were about the injury rather than Frazer it is because the life of an affliction is life per se. There is no real past or future for Frazer, just a protracted present, in that existing is itself a continual but futile experiment, a process of being operated on. The identities of patients can be subsumed by the accounts of their injuries, the abstraction of mind left hovering on the periphery like an awkwardly assembled subplot. …

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