Commentary by Karen Bernardo
As Hemingway’s “Soldier’s Home” opens, the protagonist, Harold Krebs, has just come back from World War I. All the other young men his age have settled back into small-town life and found a niche for themselves as contributing members of the community. But Harold, for some reason, cannot do this; instead, he plays pool, “practice[s] on his clarinet, stroll[s] downtown, read[s], and [goes] to bed.”
Harold’s experiences in Europe have changed him irrevocably, and this change is dramatically played out against the backdrop of a town where nothing has changed for years. His father parks his same car in the same place he did before the war; the girls walking down the street look like the same girls with whom Harold went to school. People want Harold to justify his existence by talking about the glories of the war, but the experience wasn’t glorious for him; he is acutely aware that he was “badly, sickeningly frightened all the time.”
It is not until his mother confronts him about his future that he realizes that he cannot continue to live this lie. Over breakfast, his mother pressures him to get a job by arguing that “There are no idle hands in [God’s] Kingdom.” Harold replies, “I’m not in His Kingdom”—and he’s not. The world he discovered during World War I had no hand of God in it. His mother, in despair, asks whether he loves her, and Harold responds quite truthfully that he doesn’t. We know that this is because his entire worldview has been turned upside down by his traumatic experiences in the war, and the ability to genuinely love requires an emotional balance he does not have right now. But his mother does not understand this, because she cannot identify with his experiences.
Harold veers onto the edge of self-revelation with his straight-forward answers about the Kingdom of God and his lack of ability to love, but when his mother begins to cry he waffles. So he backs down, telling her that of course he loves her and he wants her to pray for him. But he realizes in that moment that there is no source of strength except that which can be forged from within himself, and he will never be able to become assimilated back into the community in which he was born. Harold Krebs, only just returned, knows he has to go away.
As is typical of Hemingway’s fictional heroes, Harold has lost his belief in those systems— religion, tradition, “family values,” and the like—which protect most of us from the existential world. A person who believes in nothing requires tremendous courage just to keep on living, but for the Hemingway hero it is better than living a lie.
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