The Common Hemingway Protagonist: Soldier’s Home Essay, Research Paper
The Common Hemingway Protagonist: Soldier’s Home
Various authors, through years of discipline, develop their own style in creating characters. Ernest Hemingway varied his style
by establishing an indestructible template for pressing characters into molded protagonists. This “template” protagonist follows a
unique set of standards unlike any other character, produced by any other author. In his literary work “Soldier’s Home”,
Hemingway creates the character Krebs to abide by this set of standards. By working within the circumstances presented to
him, Krebs fits the mold of a typical Hemingway protagonist by overcoming his disillusions through heroic actions.
To begin with, Krebs returns home from World War I to a society that he no longer feels attached to. It can be assumed that
before the war Krebs worked within society since he is depicted in a college photo along with his similarly-dressed fraternity
brothers. When he enlists into the Marines though, life becomes simplistic; you eat, sleep, and fight. The problem arises when
Krebs tries to return from a simplistic lifestyle of war, to a much more complicated domestic lifestyle. “Ironically, Krebs is
disillusioned less by the war than by the normal peacetime world which the war had made him to see too clearly to accept”
(Burhans 190). Krebs seeks refuge from this disillusion by withdrawing from society and engaging himself in individual activities.
A typical day for Krebs consists of going to the library for a book, which he would read until bored, practicing his clarinet, and
shooting pool in the middle of the day; this is common for a Hemingway protagonist. Hemingway realizes “that with the
disappearance of the transcendent and the absolute from man’s consciousness, the universe becomes empty of meaning and
purpose…” (Burhans 284); a good basis for testing a protagonist to see whether or not he’s heroic .
A more specific way that Krebs withdraws from society is his view of women and love. In a society full of talk, Krebs would
have to engage in conversation and interaction in order to win a woman’s heart. Krebs did not want to go through all of that
again. He found it much easier during the war to become intimate with a French or German girl, especially considering that there
wasn’t as much “red tape” in European relationships. It was just too complicated to adjust himself back to an American
relationship which he deemed full of consequences. In other works by Hemingway, protagonists are “haunted by a sense of
how simple it all was once, when he could take his Indian girl into the clean-smelling woods, stretch out beside her on the
pine-needles (her brother standing guard), and rise to no obligations at all” (Fiedler 143). Krebs is much the same way. He
experienced this obligation-free relationship in Europe and was disgusted by the thought of returning to an obligated relationship
in America. Hemingway himself learned of obligations from four separate marriages; why should any of his fictional characters
escape this dreaded wrath.
Another way that Krebs withdraws from society is the loss of his faith. Before the war Krebs attended a Methodist college,
which reinforces the idea that he was a man of faith. During the war though, Krebs experiences a change in his beliefs. It can
only be imagined what unholy things he had seen and done in the midst of battle. Once home, he denounces existing in God’s
Kingdom to his mother and refuses to pray. Hemingway felt that it is this “determination to be faithful to one’s own experience,
not to fake emotions or pretend to sentiments that are not there” is brought out in Krebs’ character (Howe 233). It is this tone,
the importance of one’s inner beliefs over anyone else’s, which pushes Hemingway’s protagonist away from society.
So how does one become heroic after denouncing so much of society? If alive today, Hemingway’s answer may very well be
“grace under pressure.” Customary in Hemingway’s literary works, such as Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea, the
protagonist is always fighting a losing battle. Philip Young, a well-known critic of Hemingway, says it best when he states that in
life “you lose, of course; what counts is how you conduct yourself while you are being destroyed” (Young 274). A Hemingway
hero would take notice of his ill fate and make the best of it.
The motive behind Hemingway’s heroic figures is not glory, or fortune, or the righting of injustice, or the thirst for
experience. They are inspired neither by vanity nor ambition nor a desire to better the world. They have no
thoughts of reaching a state of higher grace or virtue. Instead, their behavior is a reaction to the moral emptiness of
the universe, an emptiness that they feel compelled to fill by their own special efforts. (Gurko 229)
In “Soldier’s Home”, Krebs realizes the problems that he faces; he no longer believes in society, particularly love and faith.
Krebs heroic deed is displayed when he moves on with his life, rather than bringing it to a screeching halt. At one point, he
denounces loving his own mother. In order to satisfy his mother and avoid friction, Krebs holds back the nausea and lies, saying
that he does love her. Krebs also announces his plans to move out of town for a job; to get on with his life. No doubt, Krebs
displays “grace under pressure.”
In the end, the protagonist from “Soldier’s Home”, Krebs, proves himself to be a typical product of Hemingway. Hemingway’s
mold often required a character to be socially withdrawn, from women and faith, and to overcome these disillusions by
becoming heroic. Krebs succeeded in this mold by engaging in non-sociable activities, ridiculing the complexity of relationships
with women, and denouncing his Methodist faith. To top it all off, Krebs can truly be seen as a Hemingway hero by
demonstrating grace under pressure.
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173-191. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol 8. Eds. Dedria Bryfonski, Phyllis Carmel Mendelson. Detroit: Gale
Research Company. 1978. 284-285.
Burhans, Clinton S. Jr. “The Complex Unity of ‘In Our Time’.” Modern Fiction Studies. 14 (1968). 313-328. Rpt. in
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Fiedler, Leslie. “Men without Women.” Love and Death in the American Novel (1959). Rpt. in Hemingway: A Collection of
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Carolyn Riley, Phyllis Carmel Mendelson. Detroit: Gale Research Company. 1976. 229.
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Literary Criticism Vol 3. Ed. Carolyn Riley. Detroit: Gale Research Company. 1975. 232-233.
Young, Philip. “Ernest Hemingway.” American Writers Pamphlet No. 1 (1959). Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol
13. Ed. Dedric Bryfonski. Detroit: Gale Research Company. 1980. 273-276.