GARNERING AN OPINION: A DOUBLE LOOK AT NICK'S SURROGATE MOTHER AND HER RELATIONSHIP TO DR. ADAMS IN HEMINGWAY'S "TEN LITTLE INDIANS" (1).
ERNEST HEMINGWAY'S SHORT STORY "TEN INDIANS" involves a cast of predominantly male characters, for the Garner and Adams families include five men and only one woman. Many readers have interpreted this woman, Mrs. Garner, as sympathetic and nurturing. Joseph Flora, for example, praises her for being "relaxed (but not lax) in her roles as mother and wife," a decided contrast to Nick's absent mother (46). Paul Smith finds the Garners in general, and Mrs. Garner in particular, to be "a standard for ... what is diminished or missing from the scene at Nick's home" ("Tenth Indian" 54). Paul Wadden praises "the communal glow of the Garners' kitchen" (5), certainly attributable to Mrs. Garner, as it's she who starts a fire in the stove.
While much of "Ten Indians" supports these benevolent views of Mrs. Garner, however, her behavior is at times puzzling and inconsistent. Some passages offer a decidedly different picture than that of the nurturing mother and hint that Mrs. Garner can occasionally be spiteful. She also focuses on separating the children from the adults--sometimes simply to protect the boys, but in other cases, it seems, to put them in their place, or to quash their fledgling attempts at glowing up. Her territoriality and her spite are important because Mrs. Garner, although a minor character, in many ways shadows the complexities in Dr. Adams. In doing so, she suggests an alternative way of looking at the story. If Dr. Adams is indeed cruel toward his son, as some critics suggest, no longer can his behavior be ascribed simply to his missing wife or to a Freudian father-son competitiveness. Instead, the presence of Mrs. Garner suggests that many parents, regardless of their sex and marital situation, at times wound their children and exacerbate the already-difficult transition to adulthood.
Initially, Mrs. Garner simply seems to represent maternal protection, a logical role since she is both the Garner family matriarch and the lone woman in the story. The text shows Mrs. Garner doting on her husband and sons on the ride home from the celebration, using a combination of discipline and affection. She reproaches Carl for his snide remarks to Nick, admonishes her husband for laughing inappropriately, and generally keeps track of everyone; when Nick leaves, for example, she asks him to send Carl back to the house. She also offers physical comfort. Early in the narrative, Mr. and Mrs. Garner sit "close together" and she later moves still closer to her husband to whisper in his ear.
Because Mrs. Garner tends to those around her so diligently, she offers an interesting contrast to the only other female character in the story, Prudie Mitchell. While Prudie never figures directly in the text, she has allegedly betrayed Nick by cavorting with Frank Washburn.(1) Mr. Garner's comment on the ride home epitomizes the contrast between his wife's loyalty and Prudie's soon-to-be-revealed treachery: "Nickie can have Prudence. I got a good girl" (SS 333). Thus Mrs. Garner's value as a wife and mother seems affirmed both by her actions and by the other characters within the text.
This nurturing role, moreover, extends beyond the narrow parameters of her own family. In some ways, Mrs. Garner acts as Nick's surrogate mother, since he is apparently motherless in the story. She lavishes attention on him by inviting him to stay for dinner and emphasizing how much they enjoyed having him on the trip. She fusses over him, calling him "Nickie" and seeming pleased and embarrassed when he thanks her for taking him along: "`Oh, shucks,'" she responds (SS 333). Her actions seem doubly important because Nick clearly does not receive this kind of treatment at home. Dr. Adams calls his son simply "Nick," and the conversations between the two are limited to Dr. Adams's factual answers to Nick's questions. Even after Nick has been crying, Dr. Adams offers him no consolation save another slice of huckleberry pie. If Dr. Adams is indeed "babying" his son with the pie, it is certainly a different type of comfort than Mrs. Garner provides, offered as it is as a palliative to the devastating news that the doctor has just delivered to his son. While some critics find Dr. Adams heartless and vengeful, others view him as a diligent father who is merely protecting his son.(2) But in any case, his stoic parenting seems to be the exact reverse of Mrs. Garner's easy affections.
But is Mrs. Garner only a model of parental kindness, a sympathetic nurturer? I believe she can also be interpreted in a different light. She at times exhibits unexpected malice, most strikingly when Nick denies that Prudie is his "girl," and Carl insists that she is. Here Mrs. Garner silences her son by announcing, "`Carl can't get a girl ... not even a squaw'" (SS 332).
Perhaps she intends only to support Nick here, either by undermining Carl's authority on girls, or by reaffirming Prudie's albeit questionable desirability. While this seems unlikely--the compliment is too backhanded to be reassuring--some critics take this view. Paul Smith, for example, finds that Mrs. Garner's remark is intended simply "to protect Nick as she would her own son" ("Tenth Indian" 56). Yet how admirable, really, is her treatment of her own son? Her remark cuts Carl quite viciously, and his injury is pointedly remarked: "Carl was quiet" (SS 332).
Admittedly, the bantering atmosphere in the wagon, as well as Carl's slurs about Indian girls, may have provoked his mother to silence him with a snappy retort. Moreover, her husband quickly repairs some of the damage by telling his son that he's "`all right'" (333), at which point the conversation moves away from Carl's romantic problems and back to a more light-hearted discussion.
Yet Mrs. Garner's comment still seems unduly harsh, for it has the testing, biting quality that one would expect from a sibling, not a nurturing parent. Carl's responses underscore the severity of this parental betrayal. Although he does not respond to his mother, when his brother Frank makes a similar remark--"`Carl ain't no good with girls'"--Carl replies immediately with "`You shut up'" (SS 332-33).
In this scene, Mrs. Garner's actions toward Carl resemble the symbolic castration that Nick will soon suffer, according to some critics, at the hands of his own parent. In many ways, however, Mrs. Garner's attack on Carl is worse: she wields her knife in public, in front of his peers, and she has no adequate or easily apparent reason for hurting her son. In contrast, Dr. Adams, according to many critics, only wants to spare his son from later, more acute pain.(3)
Moreover, Mrs. Garner's comment, by mocking and denying her son's sexual appeal, also firmly relegates him to the world of the child. This distinction between adults and children is one that Mrs. Garner draws repeatedly in the story, and by doing so she sets up a sort of "us-them" dichotomy that often reinforces the boys' marginal position. While the children are clearly interested in the adult world--they want to talk about sex and to hear the adults conversations--Mrs. Garner frequently denies them access to this realm. She does this in both physical and psychological ways. When she moves closer to her husband in the wagon, she makes an effort to be near her mate, a gesture of conjugal affection. But it's also an attempt to segregate herself and her husband from Carl, Frank, and Nick. Mr. and Mrs. Garner are already separated from the children, because the adults are sitting in front of the wagon, the boys in the back. Indeed, at times the boys must even get cut of the wagon and walk. Yet this is evidently insufficient for Mrs. Garner, who moves closer still to her husband. This intimacy allows them a private conversation, one Mrs. Garner forbids the boys to participate in:
"Don't you think it," Joe said. "You better watch out to keep Prudie, Nick." His wife whispered to him and Joe laughed. "What are you laughing at?" asked Frank. "Don't you say it, Garner," his wife warned. Joe laughed again. (SS 333)
In part, of course, Mrs. Garner's secretiveness here may be driven by a desire to protect Nick. The conversation might very well be about Prudie's promiscuity, hence Mr. Garner's advice that Nick "watch out to keep Prudie." If this is the case, perhaps Mrs. Garner, unlike Dr. Adams, simply wants to spare Nick the pain of discovering his girlfriend's betrayal. Moreover, it is conceivable that the adult Garners have heard rumors about a relationship between Dr. Adams and Prudie, or between Prudie and other white men, or between some of their neighbors and Indian women, and that one or more of these relationships is what Mrs. Garner is whispering about.(4)
If this is true, then her decision not to include the boys in her remark and her insistence that Joe not repeat it is certainly commendable. Yet the very act of her whispering hints at hypocrisy. While it is uncertain that she is talking specifically about Prudie or Dr. Adams, the context of the dialogue and the hushed nature of her comment imply that she is talking about interracial sexual relationships, a topic that she has explicitly forbidden the boys to discuss. Moreover, her remark is most likely derogatory, an innuendo or dirty joke, as suggested both by Joe's response (repeated laughter) and by Mrs. Garner's own reaction (warning her husband not to repeat what she has said). In a word, she is behaving exactly like Carl when she ordered him to "stop talking that way." Mrs. Garner is allowed to discuss white sexual relations with Indians, but the boys are not, despite their obvious curiosity ("`What are you laughing at?'"). Thus, the boys are forbidden a range of adult privileges, from riding up high in the wagon to talking frankly about issues involving race and sex.
Naturally, some topics are unfit for discussion with children, and Mrs. Garner may simply be trying to protect Nick, as mentioned above. However, her behavior--"Do what I say, not what I do"--is problematic, especially when taken in conjunction with her rebuke to Carl. To be forbidden to discuss sex is one thing; to be teased with innuendo and have your own sexuality summarily dismissed seems quite another.
Because of her occasional malice and her territoriality regarding the subject of sexuality, Mrs. Garner predicts the very qualities that Dr. Adams later reveals, and the doctor's similarly problematic behavior that lies at the heart of "Ten Indians." To some extent, the story invokes an analogy drawn from photography: it's as if "Ten Indians" is a double exposure, with Dr. Adams the strong, primary image and Mrs. Garner the fainter copy that the reader at first fails to see.(5) And while the photograph shows a certain set of colors, revealing one plausible interpretation, the picture's negative inverts these colors, offering a different, darker portrayal of events.
Previous critics have focused more on the differences between Mrs. Garner and Dr. Adams than on their similarities, apparently convinced that Mrs. Garner's primary function in the story is to contrast with Dr. Adams.(6) Indeed, her effusiveness and jocularity diametrically oppose the doctor's taciturnity, as I mentioned earlier. However, Mrs. Garner also has much in common with Dr. Adams. I have already mentioned the parallel between the two characters as parents who symbolically castrate their respective sons. Dr. Adams's motivation for doing this is extremely ambiguous. As mentioned above, he may only be trying to help his son, by alerting him to his girlfriend's treachery. If this is the case, then Dr. Adams does differ substantially from Mrs. Garner--while she tries to protect Nick from the grown-up world of sexual betrayal, the doctor is more honest with his son, although he knows the truth will hurt. Yet if one views Dr. Adams's motivation as less benign(7)--a need to ruin his son's romantic happiness, for instance--then the parallels between the surrogate and real parents are once again underscored.
In this case Dr. Adams, like Mrs. Garner, may be intent on excluding his son from the adult world of sexuality--he not only breaks up Nick's liaison with Prudie but also fails to acknowledge the union in the first place, referring to Prudie as Nick's "friend" (SS 335). Granted, his word choice may simply be due to a predilection for euphemism, or to a desire to spare Nick's feelings. An alternative interpretation, however, is that the doctor--possibly jealous of his son's relationship--simply wants to remind Nick that he's only a child, a boy who can be "friends" with a girl but nothing more. If the latter explanation is true, the parallels between Mrs. Garner and the doctor are once again reinforced, as she also excludes the boys from the adult realm of sexuality. Regardless, because Dr. Adams at times seems nurturing and at other times malicious, he does exactly the kind of double parenting that Mrs. Garner is guilty of, only to a more striking degree.
The similarities between the two characters go beyond their child-rearing practices, however. Other parallels between Mrs. Garner and Dr. Adams include their complex racial attitudes. Initially Mrs. Garner seems to be a stalwart opponent of racism, chiding her son for his slur against the Indians and rebuking her husband for laughing at it (SS 332). However, other passages hint at her bigotry. Her opening remark, "`Them Indians,'" which she says twice, sets up an "us-them" dichotomy similar to the one she employs toward the children. Given the context in which her remarks about the Indians are offered--right after her husband has commented on their drunkenness and predilection for killing snakes (a euphemism for the delirum tremens that follows alcoholic binging)--the dichotomy Mrs. Garner constructs certainly comes at the Indians' expense ("them" = drunks and savages, "us" = not).
The whispered comment she makes to her husband later also hints at racism. If she is making a dirty joke involving either Prudie's licentiousness or that of Indian girls in general, then Mrs. Garner is underscoring the us- them dualism she has set up early on. Once again, the Indians--this time the women--are the losers in the equation, associated with wild, lewd, behavior. Of course, Mrs. Garner's racism does not preclude a salacious or prurient interest in the Indians, as her early comments and whispered joke suggest.
Dr. Adams reveals a similarly problematic attitude. When Nick comes home, the doctor tells his son that the Indians were "all in town getting drunk" (SS 335), a remark that seems to condemn them as worthless alcoholics. But his behavior belies his apparent derogation of the Indians. If he is really contemptuous of them, why does he choose their camp for a visit during his walk? He undoubtedly knows he'll run into Indians there. Even young Nick realizes that some of the Indians must have been at camp. After Dr. Adams tacitly denies seeing anyone, explaining that everyone was in town, a disbelieving Nick responds, "`Didn't you see anybody at all?'" (335). Gerry Brenner notes that the doctor's behavior hints at more than idle curiosity and begs several ominous questions. Brenner asks, "Why had Dr. Adams chosen not to spend the holiday with his son? Had he dishonorable reasons? Had he gone off to the Indian camp to find Nick's girl for himself rather than to find her as he says he did?" (18). The fact that Nick and Prudie have a designated meeting spot, not actually in the Indian camp but "up back" of it (336),(8) seems to support Brenner's view. It's unlikely that Dr. Adams would have happened upon this exact spot, in the middle of the woods, by pure coincidence.
If Dr. Adams hoped to see Prudie himself, this would also explain his behavior during the conversation in which he tells Nick about his discovery. In this passage, a cagey Dr. Adams equivocates about what he has seen. First he says that he has only heard Prudie and Frank Washburn, while seconds later he admits he's seen them, and seems to recollect the moment with relish: "`Oh, yes, I saw them'" (SS 335).
The entire conversation between Nick and his father is bumbling and redundant, and while some critics ascribe this confusion to Nick's bewilderment, a close examination of the dialogue reveals that Dr. Adams is indeed being shifty.(9) Not only does he hedge about whether he really witnessed Prudie and Frank, but he also can't seem to decide how blameworthy their actions were. In one statement, he describes them as "`having quite a time,'" which seems highly incriminating. Yet elsewhere he's more cavalier, saying only that he "`guessed'" they were happy.
Admittedly, Dr. Adams's caginess in this conversation allows other possible interpretations--if he does want to spare his son's feelings, he may simply be weighing what he should divulge as the conversation progresses, which in turn leads him to contradict himself. Yet his fortuitous appearance at the camp, combined with his seeming contempt for the Indians, certainly raises questions. Thus his equivocation with Nick may stem from his interest in the Indians, an interest that he himself regards as shameful. Such an attitude would also explain his apparent determination to break up his son's romance with a "squaw."
The probability that both Dr. Adams and Mrs. Garner are secretly intrigued by the Indians accounts for the large number of innuendoes in their respective scenes. As Gerry Brenner notes, "Hemingway laces the story's first scene with innuendoes between the Garners ... Those innuendoes carry over into the second scene, in which Dr. Adams tells Nick [about] Prudie "`threshing around'" (18). The fact that these undertones are omnipresent--but destined to remain "innuendoes," never openly acknowledged--is significant, and reminiscent of Michel Foucault's idea that discourse on sexuality sometimes replaces sexuality itself as the primary erotic stimulant.(10) The adults recognize that sex, in particular interracial sex, is an explosive subject that should be approached indirectly. But they also realize that it can afford considerable vicarious pleasure as a topic of discussion--hence Mrs. Garner's whispering, Joe's laughter, and Dr. Adams's graphic rendition of Prudie and Frank "threshing" around.
The boys, in contrast, handle the subject in a more innocent, straightforward way. While it's true that Nick denies his association with Prudie, he does so without conviction, given his "hollow and happy" feeling; certainly Nick is blissfully ignorant of the problematics of interracial romance in a way that Dr. Adams and Mr. and Mrs. Garner are not. Nick's interrogation of his reluctant father is for the most part straightforward ("`Where was she?'" "`What were they doing?'" "`Who was with her?'"), and it is only in his last question--"`Were they happy?'"--that Nick verges away from the literal into the nebulous realm of euphemism (SS 335). His father's responses, in contrast, are consistently cryptic and suggestive--"`I saw your friend, Prudie,'" "`They were having quite a time,'" and "`Oh yes, I saw them'" (SS 335).
The boys' unsophisticated handling of sex prohibits their entry into the adult world. Because Carl dares to talk publicly about interracial relationships, and because Nick dares to have one fairly openly, they are punished by their respective parents. Mrs. Garner and Dr. Adams know the ways of the world, and until their sons learn to be duly secretive and deceptive about such volatile matters, they cannot be allowed access to them.
Given the strong parallels between Dr. Adams and Mrs. Garner, her character in "Ten Indians" seems more important; than critics yet have have recognized. If the similarities are present to the extent I believe them to be, then Mrs. Garner's function in the story as a whole deserves consideration. Is she simply an aesthetic construct, an intentional double exposure that gives the story a unique structure? Or does the text make a statement akin to the current postfeminist argument that women are as capable of criminal behavior as men?(11) Mothers, this story asserts, can be just as dangerous as fathers, and just as obstructive to their sons' transitions to manhood. While the circumstances at the Adams household are certainly unusual, Nick is not the only one suffering some of the trials of adolescence at the hands of his parent. The Garner boys are subjected to similar treatment--barred from the adult world of sexuality, their requests for inclusion ignored, their relations with the opposite sex publicly ridiculed.
The problematic behavior of Mrs. Garner and Dr. Adams does not necessarily mean that they do not love their children, although their actions are at times disturbing. What it does mean is that for the boys, trying to grow up around their parents is a tricky and dangerous experience. This, perhaps, is why Nick seems most liberated at the point in the story when he is walking through the woods, on his way back from the Garners'. For a few minutes he is an orphan, free of both Mrs. Garner, his surrogate mother, and of his own father, who will soon wound him deeply. As he walks barefoot through the countryside, he encounters tremendous natural beauty--a smooth path cutting through a meadow, cool dew on his feet, a forest of dry beech. As Paul Wadden notes, it is an Edenic moment (15). But it is a moment that will not last long.
The author wishes to thank Gerry Brenner for his editorial advice.
(1.) Prudie's character is based on a real person, Prudence Boulton, an Indian girl who helped out in the Hemingway household and committed suicide at age sixteen (Smith, "Tenth Indian" 67). She appears not only in "Ten Indians" but also as "Trudy" in "Fathers and Sons" and in early versions of "The Last Good Country" (Smith, "Tenth Indian" 67).
In his discussion of Prudence Boulton, Paul Smith questions whether Hemingway heard of her death, and, if so, how it may have affected his fiction. Smith comments, "Whether Hemingway ever knew [of the suicide], and so could deliberately omit it, is a matter of conjecture. He never indicated any awareness of her death, even in `Fathers and Sons' where the memory might have been appropriate, if somewhat melodramatic. Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine he did not hear of her death, given his lasting memory of her part in his life" ("Tenth Indian" 68). I believe, however, that the title of "Ten Indians" may in fact be a reference to young Prudence's suicide. For Prudie, surely, is the tenth Indian--and while the version of the rhyme that Smith quotes ("One little Injun livin' all alone/He got married and then there were none" ["Tenth Indian" 69]) resonates in some respects with the story, another version resonates much more startlingly with the real Prudence's fate: "One little Indian boy left all alone/He went and hanged himself and then there were none" (quoted in Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians, 30).
(2.) For a review of different interpretations of Dr. Adams, see Fleming 101-3.
(3.) Fleming cites Jarvis Thurston and Joseph Flora as examples of critics who view Dr. Adams as a benevolent parent. Thurston interprets the doctor as trying to protect his son and full of regret about having to disillusion him (175-76). Similarly, Flora believes that Dr. Adams dislikes telling Nick about Prudie; he finds the doctor "prudish" about such matters (49).
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|Author:||TILTON, MARGARET A.|
|Publication:||The Hemingway Review|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2000|
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