The Killers by Ernest Hemingway

The Killers - Ernest HemingwayIn The Killers by Ernest Hemingway we have the theme of appearance, confusion, paralysis, courage, change, acceptance and coming of age. Taken from his The Complete Short Stories collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and very early on in the story Hemingway, through the setting of the story, appears to be exploring the theme of appearance and confusion. The clock in Henry’s lunch room is twenty minutes fast, though this may seem to be insignificant it is important as it serves to add an element of confusion to the story which in many ways mirrors how confused Nick feels when he discovers that Ole Andreson is to be killed by Al and Max. The clock is important for another reason. Just as the clock is telling the wrong time or isn’t as it should be (or should appear to be) likewise Nick discovers that the life he thinks he knows in reality is very different. Hemingway also seems to be using the menu in the diner to further highlight the confusion that exists within the story, which in turn like the clock, mirrors the confusion that Nick feels. The food that Al orders isn’t available till six despite the menu suggesting that it is available. This may be significant as Hemingway may be not only further exploring (or highlighting) the unreliability of the menu which again adds further confusion to the story but he may also be suggesting that just like the clock, not everything is as it seems (or again as it appears).

How confused Nick actually is, is noticeable when he goes to tell Ole about Al and Max and their plans to kill him. Nick expects Ole to do something or at least to fight back but Ole is resigned to the fact that he is going to be killed and rather than doing anything continues to stay in the same place, that being lying in bed. This may be important as by having Ole remain in bed Hemingway may be highlighting or at least suggesting not only is Ole accepting of his fate but that he is paralysed, unable to do anything about what is going to happen him. It may also be a case that by having Ole remain in the same place and accept his fate Hemingway is introducing irony into the story. Ole is a former prize-fighter but rather than showing any willingness to fight for his life he accepts defeat.

The idea or theme of acceptance is also noticeable on other occasions in the story. Just as Ole accepts that he is going to be killed likewise both George and Sam seem to accept Ole’s fate too. It may also be significant that they are older than Nick (who is probably 18 or 19) and as such would be more aware of how the world operates, particularly the criminal world. It is also interesting that neither George nor Sam wish to get personally involved in helping Ole, that task is left to Nick. Nick’s courage is admirable, at least to the reader, however it is viewed as foolishness by Sam. This may be important as Hemingway may be suggesting that Sam through previous experience, has learnt to not get involved in matters that do not directly concern him. Of all the characters in the story Sam appears to be the only one who doesn’t question anything. If anything he accepts the world as he sees it.

Hemingway further explores the theme of appearance as Nick is leaving Hirsch’s rooming-house. He assumes that the lady he is talking to (Mrs Bell) is Mrs Hirsch. Again this may seem insignificant but Hemingway may be further suggesting, at least symbolically, that not everything is as it seems (at least for Nick). Again the world that Nick thinks he knows in reality is very different. It may also be important that the only character who seems to show any movement in the story (though Al and Max do leave the diner) is Nick. He travels from the diner to Mrs Hirsch’s, then back to the diner and eventually decides to leave town. All the other characters in the story remain static (or paralysed). George and Sam remain in the diner and Ole remains in his room. This can suggest not only a paralysis for George, Sam and Ole but Hemingway may also be further suggesting, particularity as there is a lack of movement or change for George, Sam or Ole, that within each man there is an acceptance for the world they find themselves in. Unlike Nick, who believes he can change things every other character in the story appears to accept the status quo.

Hemingway may also be using symbolism at the end of the story. As Nick is talking to George in the diner, George wipes the counter clean. Symbolically Hemingway may be suggesting that just as the counter is being cleaned likewise George is also cleaning or clearing his mind of what is going to happen Ole. Like Sam, George wants no involvement in what may happen. However it is clear to the reader that the incident of Al and Max coming into the diner is enough for Nick to decide that he does not want to live in a town where people are killed. Though some critics may suggest that Nick’s decision to leave town is somewhat ironic as by leaving town Nick is also avoiding what may happen Ole.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "The Killers by Ernest Hemingway." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 25 Oct. 2015. Web.


  • This, like the story, did absolutely nothing for me. This is fucking stupid. I feel like the only way you can come to these conclusions is if you were raised like Nick was,in a black concrete shell apparently. Although I enjoyed this read more than the story itself they’re both a waste of fucking time they teach you nothing.

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