Printer Friendly

Hemingway's "Now I Lay Me," Prayer, and The Fisher King.

"Now I Lay Me" has gotten a fair degree of attention from critics, particularly in light of Nick Adams's description of his parents and their relationship, and what it might reveal about Hemingway's own relationship to his parents and his own psyche. Critics thus engaged have been Paul Smith, Joe Flora, Richard Hovey, and Gerry Brenner, among others. That is to say, the criticism has been primarily psychological or even psychiatric, neglecting literary allusions. After Malcolm Cowley's 1943 revelation that Hemingway had used the same mythic materials that T.S. Eliot had in The Waste Land to create a Fisher King motif in the Sun Also Rises, (1) seconded by Carlos Baker in 1952 (90), critics have found referential details in "Big Two-Hearted River," opening on a burnt-over, war-like landscape, featuring a wounded fisherman, and, lest we miss the allusion, even a kingfisher (SS 210). We see it again in The Sun Also Rises with a genitally wounded fisherman, Jake, trying to set his lands in order. It's in "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen," with a genitally wounded young man and a Doc Fischer, as well as in "Out of Season." (2) But no one claims it for "Now I lay Me," where its presence seems equally valid.

The retrospective story opens in Italy in a resting area seven kilometers behind the lines of battle in the First World War. Lt. Nick Adams--in his first appearance as a first-person narrator--lies beside his orderly John, unable to sleep, hearing silk worms munching on mulberry leaves. As in "Big Two-Hearted River," the war, although unseen, provides a Waste Land background, one of destruction and absence of fertility. The near presence of death is doubled by the silkworms, an obvious momento mori. The title of the story, of course, comes from the child's prayer: "Now I lay me down to sleep/I pray the Lord my soul to keep/ If I should die before I wake/ I pray the Lord my soul to take." Afraid of going to sleep in the dark and having his soul leave his body in death, Nick distracts himself during the long night with a combination of memories and creations of rivers and streams to be fished. (3) Although Nick later says the Our Father and the Hail Mary prayers for those he knows, including his parents, implying a belief in prayer and a faith in God, by not saying "Now I Lay Me," by doing his best to stay awake and thereby keep God from taking his soul, Nick shows a distinct lack of faith that God will extend his life to the proper time; that is, he asserts his own will and judgment over the Lord's.

As the critics cited above have noted, Mrs. Adams emasculates her husband in successive episodes, and the memories Nick bears of their marriage are of her domineering, his fathers capitulations, the loss of his father's (phallic) specimens and Indian artifacts, and of a tin box containing a rotting wedding cake. Nick's memories are not that of a loving, mutually supportive marriage, and thus he resists John's suggestion that he get married (seven times on one page [SS 370]), that "A man ought to be married. You'll never regret it." The story's penultimate line, "[S]o far, I have never married" (371), suggests an ongoing removal from fertility, even a fear of marriage. (4) James Phelan goes so far as to repeatedly write that the story creates an "analogy between war and marriage, and, more particularly, between mortar shells and women" (49); that his "parents, especially his mother, who is the main actor in his psychic wounding, are analogous to the mortar shell that blew him up at night" (59; cf. 61,66).

Nick makes an interesting omission when he says, after the burning of the Indian artifacts, "In remembering that, there were only two people, so I would pray for them both" (366). But there were three people present: his parents, and himself, at least as observer. And as Paul Smith has noted, the manuscripts reveal that Mrs. Adams urged young Nick to help, making him an accessory to his father's emasculation. Further, the manuscript reads: "'I've been cleaning out the basement, dear,' my mother called from the porch, 'and Ernie's/ Nicky's helped me burn things'" (Folder 618, JFK; Smith 173). As Smith writes, "no other Hemingway manuscript . . . has Nick's mother call him Ernie" (173). Whatever Nick's psychological problems, by a Freudian slip, Hemingway acknowledges some ownership of his father's problems. Significantly, as Nick admits, sometimes he could only go as far in "The Lord's Prayer" as "On earth as it is in heaven." He stops before "give us this day our daily bread," and, more significantly, the following line, "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us"; that is, he cannot forgive his mother, for whom he is praying, or himself, for whom he is not. Which takes us back to his inability to trust that God will only take his soul when the time is right. Either he has no faith in God, making his prayers a mockery, or he does not believe himself worthy of God's love and forgiveness, greatly deepening our understanding of his mental problems, maybe even to the point of self-loathing. (5)

In the story, then, we have fisherman Nick, amid a wasteland of war, remembering the sterility of his parents' marriage and insisting, however long the gap between narrated events and composition, that that sterility continues, that he rejects intimacy with a woman. If John, despite his probable older age than Nick, is in the role of the young knight whose questions heals the Fisher King, then John's "Can't you sleep, Signor Tenente?" (367), "[W]hat did you get in this war for, anyway" (369), and "Why don't you pick out some nice Italian girl with plenty of money [to marry]?" (370) don't succeed. In fact, they point, beyond Nick's PTSD reaction to his wound, to his insouciance in joining the war, and to his continued avoidance of women and marriage. Nick is portrayed as aimless and drifting and sexually repressed, a suitable legacy for his upbringing.

As Sylvester well stated it, "[T]he modernist method of Eliot and Pound is not to construct the one-to-one equations of allegory but to assemble mosaics of allusion that in their cumulative effect make the reader feel a coherent parallel between narrative and myth . . . between the present work and the work alluded to" (90). If one wanted to press the story, the remembered fishing rods can be seen as lances, as can the red-tipped cigarettes glowing in the dark as the bleeding lance of the myth. The Nick of "Big Two-Hearted River," that obviously Waste Land influenced story, is a conflation of both the wounded Fisher King and the young questing knight who heals him and his lands, and becomes the next keeper of the Grail. Unlike those characters, Nick of that story is struggling to heal only himself; putting his lands in order is a task beyond him. The Nick of "Now I Lay Me" is in the same predicament, but with an added insecure family foundation. His mother has, in Nick's memory, twice emasculated her husband: first, by burning his collected biological specimens, specifically phallic snakes. And then, at least some years later, (6) she burns her husband's carefully collected Native American artifacts, again phallic arrowheads. The husband does not remonstrate; although inwardly seething, he quietly accepts his wife's behavior, rescuing what he can of the ruined artifacts and handing his shotgun and game bags to Nick, an obviously phallic inheritance. However, the totality of that inheritance, the knowledge of his parents' uneven marriage, has seriously damaged the adult Nick's relationships with women, even his fantasies of them. The father accepts his gelded state; the son, while not acknowledging it, lives it.

He entered the war for no compelling reason of patriotism or anti-imperialism. He has shown enough competence to be a lieutenant in a foreign country (we are not told if Nick is with the ambulance corps or a military unit) where he criticizes his own command of the language, yet his nightly reminiscences--and we assume he is a young man, with ample testosterone--do not involve the erotic; no memories of previous conquests or anticipations of future ones. Instead, he remembers trout streams, moldy wedding cake, burnt phallic objects, and his parents' irreconcilable differences.

All of which brings us back to the psychological readings of earlier critics, but this time reinforced with the added strain of Fisher King allusions. Nick is hurt by the war, but he is just as hurt by his parents' strained relationship and what it has implanted in his psyche. It has destroyed his ability to find love and a helpmeet; the title of the collection in which the story was first printed, Men Without Women, applies. He is obviously damaged goods, not just twice wounded," but severely mentally compromised. In the Fisher King stories, Perceval/Parzival is not unloved. In Chretien's tale, Blancheflor is Perceval's mistress and lover (Loomis 77). Perceval sees three drops of blood in the snow where a goose has been wounded, "The blood melting in the snow reminded him of the fresh hues of his lady's face.... For so did the red of her cheeks stand out against the white. . . . The sight pleased him so much that he seemed to behold the fresh color of his fair lady" (74). Parzival becomes the lover of Conwiramur (the German poem's version of Blancheflor): "they entwined arms and legs, if I may be allowed to tell you so, and he found the closeness sweet" (Mustard and Passage 110); later Parzival is described as her husband (113), she as his wife (115). In contrast, Nick cannot recall the features for long of any woman: "the girls, after I had thought about them a few times, blurred and I could not call them into mind" (371). Nick is definitely the sterility-infected Fisher King, but is ill-equipped and ill-prepared to heal himself if he cannot enter into an intimate relationship with a woman, (8) and with no real faith in God.

I do not wish to go as far as Sylvester in saying that, through the Fisher King motif, Hemingway is damning his entire world as a Waste Land, but I do think that the Nick Adams of "Now I Lay Me" is a failed questing knight who cannot heal the wounded Fisher King--himself--nor his lands, be they in Italy or America.


Baker, Carlos. Hemingway: The Writer as Artist. Princeton UP, 1972.

Brenner, Gerry. Concealments in Hemingway's Works. Ohio State UP, 1983.

Cowley, Malcolm. Hemingway. Viking, 1944.

--. "Hemingway at Midnight," The New Republic, vol. 111, 14 Aug. 1943, pp. 190-95.

Flora, Joseph M. Reading Hemingway's Men Without Women. Kent State UP, 2008.

Hays, Peter L. "Hemingway and the Fisher King," The University review, vol. 32, Spring 1966, pp. 225-28.

--. "Hemingway's Puzzles." Fifty Years of Hemingway Criticism. Scarecrow, 2014.

Hemingway, Ernest. The Nick Adams Stories, Edited by Philip Young. Scribners,1972

--. The Short Stories. 1938. Scribner's, 1995.

--. "Now I Lay Me Manuscript." Item 618. The Ernest Hemingway Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, Boston, MA.

Hovey, Richard. "Hemingway's 'Now I Lay Me:' A Psychological Interpretation." Literature and Psychology, vol.15, 1965, pp. 70-78.

Loomis, Roger Sherman, translator. "Perceval, or the Story of the Grail." By Chretien de Troyes, Medieval Romances. Edited by Roger Sherman Loomis and Laura Hibbard Loomis, Modern Library, 1957, pp. 3-87.

Mustard, Helen M. and Charles E. Passage, translators. Parzival. By Wolfram von Eschenbach, Vintage, 1961.

Phelan, James. '"Now I Lay Me:' Nick's Strange Monologue, Hemingway's Powerful Lyric, and the Reader's Disconcerting Experience." New Essays in Short Fiction, edited by Paul Smith, Cambridge UP, 1998, pp. 47-72.

Sylvester, Bickford. "Hemingway's Italian Waste Land: The Complex Unity of 'Out of Season.'" Hemingway's Neglected Short Fiction, edited by Susan F. Beegel, UMI Press, 1989, pp. 75-98.


(1.) Malcolm Cowley, "Hemingway at Midnight," 194; reprinted as Cowley's introduction to the Viking Portable Hemingway, xxi.

(2.) For "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen," see Hays, "Hemingway and the Fisher King"; for "Out of Season," see Sylvester.

(3.) Nick's statement that "Some nights too I made up streams .... Some of those streams I still remember and think that I have fished in them, and they are confused with streams I really know" (SS 364) takes us into metafiction and Nick's account of fishing Big-Two-Hearted River, which does not flow next to the town of Seney, but considerably north of it. Is "Big Two-Hearted River" a remembered account by Nick Adams, or a wholly fictional account made up by the same Nick Adams as he avoided sleep in wartime?

(4.) Of course, one need not be married to have children. But Nick's inability to separate the girls he knows, American or Italian, into strong individual portraits, suggests a lack of attraction and continued repression, an avoidance of any sort of intimacy.

In addition we know that an earlier Nick, in In Our Time's "Cross-Country Snow," is married (implied, SS 187), as is the Nick of "Big Two-Hearted River's" manuscript, the fragment published as "On Writing" (NAS 214). See Hays's "Hemingway's Puzzles" for a discussion of this problem. This Nick Adams, in his retrospective tale, insists that "so far, I have never married" (SS 371). The insistence of "never," beyond a simple

"I haven't married yet," suggests determination not to be involved with a woman, not to have a deep relationship, and thus very much a commitment to self-isolation and concomitant sterility. Like Krebs in "Soldier's Home," Nick does not want any consequences that involve women (SS 147).

(5.) Both prayers, of course, show up blasphemously modified in "A Clean Well-Lighted Place" as the so-called nada prayers, again showing a distinct lack of faith in God.

(6.) Paul Smith establishes a timeline, between the family's being in the home ot a grandfather, to one designed and built by Nick's mother, a period, he writes of "three or four years" (175).

(7.) When John visits Nick in the hospital at Milan at story's end, during the Austrian offensive in the fall of 1918, we do not know in Hemingway's typical involvement-inducing vagueness if Nick has been wounded a third time, or if his mental condition has worsened, anticipating his state in "A Way You'll Never Be."

(8.) There is no evidence in the story whatsoever that Nick might be gay--unlike "A Simple Enquiry"--and that his lack of desire for women stems from an unacknowledged or unrecognized desire for men.

Peter L. Hays

University of California, Davis
COPYRIGHT 2017 Ernest Hemingway Foundation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2017 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Note; Ernest Hemingway
Author:Hays, Peter L.
Publication:The Hemingway Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Sep 22, 2017
Previous Article:"Dear Mr. Hemingway": Modernism, the Market, and the Fan Mail Reception of A Farewell to Arms.
Next Article:Ernest Hemingway: A Biography.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters