Reading Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “Soldier’s Home” is a humbling experience. And not just because it describes Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and hints at the toll war takes on a human being’s psyche, but because it shows the limits of what can be described. This is a story about not being able to connect. This is a story about how far away people can be even when they’re right beside you.
Personally, I think the way reading humbles us is part of the fun. Fiction and nonfiction alike inform us about facts we’d never know otherwise, let us come as close as possible to experiencing the feelings and thoughts of another person, and challenge us to think. It’s an enriching experience that makes us more than we were before.
But not in this case. “Soldier’s Home” is a powerful story precisely because it reminds us that knowledge is not experience, and the only way to reach someone like the traumatized protagonist, Krebbs is to listen.
Krebbs has returned home to Kansas after surviving some of the most ferocious battles of World War I. Hemingway hints at the horrors he has seen, but just barely. And we never hear details from Krebbs himself because no one is interested in hearing about them. Stories about what actually happened aren’t sensational enough for people in his hometown, and even when he tries to embellish his stories – presumably in the hopes that he can get some of the truth out – the lies aren’t enough. To be blunt, his pain, while acute, is boring to people, so they ignore him and expect him to readjust to society with no help, or compassion, at all.
Unsurprisingly, Krebbs has trouble re-assimilating. He passes his days in a kind of haze, more existing than living. Aside from his family, the closest contact he has with others is when he observes passersby. But even this only heightens his sense of isolation. He observes others as if there was a glass divide between them, like he were a caged animal or invisible prisoner. As for Krebbs’ family, the only way they know how to help is to push him to “do something,” to settle down like the other boys in town, have 2.5 kids, etc. etc. etc. In a word, be normal.
The climax occurs when, after giving a (supposedly) motivational speech, Krebbs’ mother asks if he loves her. His reply – “No. I don’t love anybody.”
She responds with tears and, in the end, Krebbs comforts her, while thinking how pointless it was to try and make her understand. Maybe she could have helped her son if she had realized that the issue was he couldn’t love anybody, not just her specifically, or maybe if she recognized how absurd life must seem to Krebbs, where he must get his father’s permission to drive his car after the unimaginable nightmare of WWI he’s managed to endure, or maybe if…
But she doesn’t. She has good intentions, but neither she nor anyone else knows how to help. This wouldn’t be a problem if they were smart enough to just listen to Krebbs. But instead of doing that, they do their best to foist their solutions onto him because they lack the humility to realize they can’t know the problems Krebbs faced and clearly continues to face every single moment of every single day.
I still have hope, though, if not for Krebbs than at least for other people who silently suffer every day.
Because if there’s one thing that reading teaches people to do more than anything else, it’s to listen.
So go read it. Now.