Perhaps one of the most enigmatic of Ernest Hemingway’s stories, “The End of Something” was first published in the 1925 collection In Our Time, Hemingway’s first major literary effort and, as some would argue, his best individual collection of short fiction.
One of the famous “Nick Adams stories,” “The End of Something” has a plot that focuses on the breakup of Marjorie and Nick. The story begins with the two trolling for trout in the deep water off Horton’s Bay and then making a camp for night fishing on the shore. Nick is detached and verbally short with Marjorie, and when she asks what is wrong for the second time, Nick tells her, “It isn’t fun any more” (81). Marjorie, upset but not making the scene that Nick expected, takes the boat and leaves Nick to walk home around the point. After she has gone, Nick buries his head in the blanket and is approached by his friend Bill, obviously waiting in the wings for the breakup to take place. Bill asks how things went, and Nick tells him to leave for a while.
Hemingway establishes the setting and mood for the story, as he usually does, in the first paragraph. In fact, the story could be called “The End of Two Things,” as Hemingway begins by describing the short boomtown history of Horton’s Bay. The town had once been the site of a major logging operation, but once the logs were gone, the company packed up the mill and moved on, leaving behind the relics of their buildings, what Marjorie calls “our old ruin” (79).
The setting is certainly symbolic of the breakup that takes place in the story, but the symbol is heavier than the breakup itself. When the lumber mill closed, a town (and thus a society) died. However, when the relationship between Nick and Marjorie ends, readers may feel a certain sense of apathy. In the Hemingway canon, readers encounter many strong male characters, some often strong and masculine to a fault, and Nick Adams, the protagonist of several Hemingway short stories, is in many cases one of these strong characters. However, in “The End of Something” Nick comes across to readers as childish and immature. It is true that we are not told Nick’s age in the story, but he is old enough to night fish unchaperoned with a girl and he is old enough to be involved in a relationship with Marjorie. But instead of discussing the end of the relationship with Marjorie in a direct and mature fashion, Nick is passive-aggressive. His responses to her questions and comments are short (“There it is”; “I can just remember”; “I don’t feel like eating”). In fact, most of Nick’s lines of dialogue are from three-to-five words in length. His longest, 23 words in two sentences, occurs when he is teaching Marjorie how to cut a bait fish properly. The pending breakup is palpable, considering the title and the symbolic beginning, but Nick’s dialogue suggests what is coming perhaps more than anything else.
It is worth noting that feminist critics panned the work of Hemingway for decades, primarily because of his characters’ machismo as well as his own projected manly image. However, Nick Adams, at least in this story, is presented in a manner that may lead readers to side with Marjorie. Nick is a fine example of the typical Hemingway male, who hunts, fishes, fights wars, writes prose, drinks hard, and has many relationships with women. But there is little redeeming about Nick in this story. Marjorie, who is trying hard to please him and take part in activities that he likes, draws the sympathy of readers. Nick is overbearing and knows it all, except how to have a mature relationship. Nick says the fish are not biting, and Marjorie says, “They’re feeding” (80). Nick reiterates his point immediately: “But they won’t strike.” It is also only natural that Nick’s longest line of dialogue involves his teaching Marjorie something, how to cut a bait fish properly.
Marjorie, knowing something is wrong and perhaps knowing “the end” is near, uses Nick’s know-it-all personality combined with flattery to lighten Nick’s mood. Nick has noticed that the hills “were beginning to sharpen against the sky” (81), which tells him that the moon is rising. Apparently, at some point Nick took the opportunity to explain (perhaps condescendingly) to Marjorie how to recognize this herself, and she uses this knowledge, but to no avail: “ ‘Oh, shut up,’ Marjorie says. ‘There comes the moon’ ” (81). Within a few lines of dialogue, the relationship has ended.
Hemingway claimed more than once that there was little symbolism in his work, but almost any reader could have a field day with the symbols in this rather short and simple story. And it should be no surprise that Nick, throughout the entire Nick Adams stories, has problems with personal relationships. This story may indeed be the beginning rather than the end of this issue for Nick.
Benson, Jackson J., ed. New Critical Approaches to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991. Bloom, Harold, ed. Ernest Hemingway: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1985. Hemingway, Ernest. “The End of Something.” In The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigía Edition. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1987. Oliver, Charles M. Critical Companion to Ernest Hemingway. New York: Facts On File, 2007. Tyler, Lisa. Student Companion to Ernest Hemingway. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001. Wagner-Martin, Linda, ed. Ernest Hemingway: Six Decades of Criticism. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1988.