Chapter VII, page 67
The narrator tells of a soldier who, during a bombardment, lies in the hot trenches praying to Jesus to let him survive. If he survives, he promises, he will tell “everyone in the world that you are the only one that matters.” The bombardment stops, and the narrator says that “we” shored up the trench. The next morning all was “muggy and cheerful.” The next night, the soldier goes to bed with a girl, but he does not preach to her about Jesus. In fact, he never told anyone about Jesus.
Once again, the point of view of this story makes it unclear whether the soldier praying in the trench is the narrator himself, or another soldier that he observed. The narrator could be talking about himself in third person, which allows him to relate how he professed his faith in God, then turned his back on God once he was safe. Because of its placement in the book, immediately after the story about Nick Adams coming home from the war, the vignette could be a memory narrated by Nick, either about himself or about someone he knew in the war. Whichever is the case, the vignette shows that men will do desperate things—will promise desperate things—when their lives are at stake. Faith in God is handy when one is about to die, but it is not necessary when one is safe and in control.
“Soldier’s Home,” pages 69-77
Harold Krebs, who enlisted in the Marines in 1917, returns to America with the second division in 1919. By the time he makes it back to his hometown in Oklahoma, so many other veterans have returned and told their stories that no one cares to hear about Kreb’s experiences. He needs to talk about them, however, and in order to get others to listen, he invents stories. He feels “nausea” though for lying, and when he meets a fellow soldier, he is able to tell the truth: “that he had been badly, sickeningly frightened all the time. In this way he lost everything.”
Krebs falls into a summer routine of sleeping late, getting books from the library, reading, playing pool. He notices the girls in the town, most of whom grew up and became pretty while he was away, but he does not have the energy to approach any of them, make conversation, commit to a relationship. It was much easier to be with the girls in Germany or France, for they did not speak English and ask for commitments. Krebs had not really wanted to come home from Germany.
After he has been home about a month, his mother comes into his room and wakes him to tell him that his father, who has been rather distant, will allow him to take the family car out in the evenings. She makes Harold breakfast, and as he eats he sits with his younger sister, Helen. Helen teases him for being lazy, then talks about how she is playing indoor baseball that afternoon. She would like him to come watch. She says she has told all her friends that her brother taught her to pitch and that he is her “beau.” Krebs agrees that she is his girl. Their mother shoos Helen away so she can talk to Harold. She asks him what he is going to “do” now. She says, “‘God has some work for every one to do,’” but Harold replies that he is not in God’s Kingdom. He is embarrassed for saying this. His mother worries that he will become weak after the “temptations” he was exposed to during the war. His father, she says, believes Harold has no ambition. They wish he would be like Charley Simmons, who returned from the war to get a good job and get married. His father is offering him the car to give him the means to meet some “nice” girls. They expect Harold to find a job, however. He wants Harold to meet him at his office once his talk with him mother is over.
When she asks Harold, who has been silent, if he loves her, he says, “‘No.’” When she cries, he of course says he did not mean that. She says that she held him to her heart when he was a tiny baby. He feels sick at the thought. She insists that Harold kneel and pray with her.
After he leaves, he feels sorry for her, for the way he had to lie to her. He will go to Kansas City to get a job, but for now he will not go to his father’s office. Instead, he will go to watch Helen play baseball. All he wants is for his life to go smoothly.
Fitting into civilian life after experiencing war is hard for Harold Krebs. War was bad enough, but he finds that he must lie and sensationalize even the terrible experiences in order to get others to “see” him, to acknowledge him. The guise he must wear—that he survived such horrors and is okay—grates on him and renders him helpless. To others, he is lazy and has no ambition. To himself, he has lost all faith and will to participate in a life that, now, seems unreal. The main street USA that he grew up in does not exist for him anymore.
Chapter VIII, page 79
Two Hungarian immigrants break into the cigar store on Fifteenth Street and Grand Avenue at 2 a.m. Two policemen, Drevitts and Boyle, come upon them backing their wagon out of an alley, and Boyle immediately shoots one off the wagon seat and the other out of the wagon box. Both men die. Drevitts grows alarmed and asks why his partner shot the men; they will both get into big trouble over the deaths. Boyle replies that the two men were crooks and “wops” and no one will care that they died. Drevitts asked how he knew they were “wops,” and Boyle replies that he could tell they were from a mile away.
Although the date in which this vignette is set is unclear, that it is set in America is clear. The vignette exposes the racial tensions existing among Americans of various racial backgrounds. Boyle refers to the men he shoots as “wops,” a racial slur used against people of Italian descent. With an Irish-sounding name like “Boyle,” he clearly has a bias against those who are not of Irish descent. Ironically, he has just shot and killed two men who are not wops, but Hungarians. His mistake points out the irrationality of racial hatred and tension.
“The Revolutionist,” pages 81-82
In 1919, a shy young Magyar man travels the Italian railroads bearing a “square of oilcloth” identifying him as a “comrade” who had suffered under the Whites in Budapest. He is allowed to ride without a ticket. He sees much of Italy and likes it very much, but he does not like Mantagna.
In Bologna, the narrator says he took the young man with him to Romagna. Despite what has happened to him in Budapest, the boy still believes in the revolution. He believes that in Italy it will be successful. The narrator, however, does not comment on this.
The boy says goodbye and crosses by foot into Switzerland. The narrator says that the last he heard of the boy, he was in a Swiss jail.
After World War I, Hungary was split into different parts, causing great instability in the area. A group of communists tried to take advantage of this instability and proclaimed a Hungarian Soviet Republic. The Communists used violence and terror to rule Hungary, and a counter revolution quickly mounted against them. Led by Admiral Horthy, the new National Army deployed units of soldiers called the “White Guard” to hunt down and persecute Communists. The Communists fell in 1919, but in the course of their defeat, the White Guard had persecuted others who were not Communists by definition, such as Jews.
The boy of the story was apparently hunted down and persecuted by the White Guard, but he has escaped, with the help of people like the narrator, who appears to be sympathetic to the Communist cause. He seems very young and naïve, willing to believe in a cause. The narrator seems unemotional about the fact that a comrade ends up in jail. His brief, blunt note of the fact suggests that perhaps the narrator is not as zealous as he could be.