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Study Guide Compiled by Michael J. Cummings.© 2009
Type of Work
......."The Killers" is a short story that first appeared in Scribner's Magazine in 1927.
.......The time is late autumn in the mid-1920s. The place is Summit, Ill., a real town on the western outskirts of Chicago. Incorporated in 1890, its population reached 4,000 in 1920 and 6,500 by 1930. The town's name derives from the fact that it is located on high ground between the Des Plaines and Chicago
Rivers. In the 1920s, streetcars ran back and forth between Summit and Chicago. The scenes in Hemingway's story take place in a restaurant, on a street parallel to streetcar tracks, on a side street, and in a rooming house.
Nick Adams: The protagonist, a teenager of about eighteen or nineteen. In an age of gangsterism and loosened morals, he appears to have an upright character. Adams is a character in twenty-four Hemingway short stories that trace his development from childhood to adulthood. Hemingway loosely based Adams's experiences on his
own. Plot Summary
Al: Hired killer, apparently from Chicago. He wears a black overcoat, derby, and gloves.
Max: Al's partner. He also wears a black overcoat, derby, and gloves.
George: Counter man in Henry's lunchroom.
Sam: Black cook at Henry's lunchroom. Other characters refer to him as "the nigger," a highly offensive term that whites did not hesitate
to use in the 1920s.
Ole Andreson: Former heavyweight boxer whom Al and Max mark for murder.
Motorman (Streetcar Conductor): Customer who enters Henry's lunchroom but
leaves when George tells him that Sam, who is bound and gagged in the kitchen, is not on duty.
Irate Customer: Man who enters the restaurant and becomes angry when told Sam is unavailable to prepare a meal for him.
Other Customers: (1) Man for whom George makes a takeout ham-and-egg sandwich while Sam remains gagged in the kitchen; (2) another customer who enters and leaves the restaurant while the hired killers are inside.
Mrs. Bell: Person who manages Hirsch's rooming house, where Ole Andreson rents a room.
By Michael J. Cummings.© 2009
.......It is getting dark in Summit, a suburban Chicago town, on a day in late autumn. Inside Henry's lunchroom, George is manning the counter when two strangers wearing overcoats,
derbies, and gloves walk in and sit before him. Although the clock on the wall behind the counter reads 5:20, it's only 5 p.m. No one in the restaurant ever bothered to reset it. The strangers address each other as Al and Max. When they order dinners, George tells them dinners aren't served until 6 p.m. Al then orders ham and eggs, and Max orders bacon and eggs.
.......“What do they do here nights?” Al asks.
.......Before George can answer, Max says sarcastically, “They all come here and
eat the big dinner.”
.......“That's right,” George says, trying to be agreeable.
.......“You're a pretty bright
boy, aren't you?” Al says.
.......“Sure,” says George.
.......Al and Max then say he is “dumb.” They
turn to Nick Adams, a teenager seated at the other end of the counter. Al asks him his name. When Adams tells them, Al replies, “Another bright boy.” Max says, “The town's full of bright boys.”
.......After their food arrives, Max mistakenly takes Al's
order, and Al takes Max's order. They are unaware of the mix-up. They eat wearing their gloves while George observes them. Al berates George for staring. Max then tells Nick to go around to the other side of the counter. When Nick asks why, Al tells him to just do as he is told. Nick complies. Al then asks who's in the kitchen. When told it is “the nigger,” a cook named Sam, Al tells George to
call Sam in. When Sam appears, Al orders him and Nick to go back to the kitchen with him. He has a sawed-off shotgun, a weapon that is easy to conceal and wield.
.......“What's it all about?” George says.
.......Max replies that they are going to kill a Swede named Ole Andreson.
.......“He comes here every night to eat, don't
.......George says he doesn't always come. But when he does come, it is at six o'clock. George asks, “What did he ever do to you?” Max says he never did anything to him or Al: “We're killing him for a friend. Just to oblige a friend.” Al, who has
gagged Nick and Sam, shouts out to Max that he is talking too much.
.......At 6:15, a streetcar motorman comes in. (The narrator does not say whether it is actually 6:15 or 6:15 according to the fast clock.) George tells him Sam is out but will return
in a half-hour. The motorman leaves.
.......“That was nice bright boy,” Max tells him. Al shouts out, “He knew I'd blow his head off.”
.......Two other customers come in and George takes care of them. For one man, he cooks a takeout ham-and-egg sandwich and bags it. The man pays and leaves. Later another man comes in and George tells him the cook is sick. The man says, “Why the hell don't you get another cook?” He leaves in a huff. Shortly afterward, Max suggests to Al that they leave.
.......“What about the two bright boys and the nigger?” Al says.
.......“They're all right,” Max says.
.......Al comes out of the kitchen with the shotgun bulging under his overcoat. He and Max leave. George goes back to the kitchen, unties Nick and Sam, and fills them in on what Max said about killing Ole Andreson. When he tells Nick to go out to warn Andreson, Sam tells
Nick he shouldn't become involved. George then says Nick doesn't have to go if he doesn't want to. But Nick says he'll go. George tells him Andreson stays at Hirsch's rooming house.
.......Nick walks a short distance up the street, then turns into a side
street and knocks on the door of the third house, Hirsch's. A woman answers and leads Nick to Andreson's room. She knocks and tells Andreson that Nick Adams wants to see him. Andreson invites him in. When Nick enters, Andreson—a former heavyweight boxer—is lying on the bed with his clothes on. Nick tells him that he is marked for murder.
.......“There isn't anything I can do about it,” says Andreson, who has been in his room all day trying to decide whether to go out.
.......Nick offers to go to the police, but Andreson says it would be useless. When Nicks asks Andreson whether there is anything he can do to help him, Andreson says, “No, I got in wrong. There ain't anything to do. After a while I'll make up my mind to go out.”
.......Nick leaves. On his way out, the woman comments on what a nice man Andreson is. Because he has not left his room, she says she thinks he is sick. She notes that except for his face, no one would ever suspect that he had been boxer. When Nick says goodbye, he addresses the woman as Mrs. Hirsch. She corrects him, saying that her name is Mrs. Bell and
that she looks after the place for Mrs. Hirsch.
.......Nick returns to the restaurant and tells George what happened. Sam opens the kitchen door after hearing the voices, then closes it again. He doesn't want to get involved. George comments to Nick
that Andreson must have gotten into some sort of trouble in Chicago. George begins wiping the counter with a towel.
.......“I wonder what he did?” Nick says. George says he probably “double-crossed somebody.”
.......Nick says he now plans to leave town. George says that sounds like a good idea.
.......“I can’t stand to think about
him waiting in the room and knowing he’s going to get it," Nick says. "It’s too damned awful.”
.......“Well,” George says, “you better not think about it.”
Main Theme and Interpretation of the Story
.......The theme of “The Killers” is the effect of corruption on 1920s America in general and Nick Adams in particular.
.......The narrator does not reveal the age of
Nick, but Al refers to him as a “kid.” Apparently Adams is in his late teens, having been born around 1907. In his childhood, traditional moral values generally held sway in America. But in the Roaring Twenties, organized crime and a loosening of morals challenged the old order. In cities like Chicago, mobsters bribed public officials, extorted money from businessmen, operated brothels, and made
vast sums from bootleg liquor after enactment of a constitutional amendment that banned alcoholic beverages. Ordinary citizens also thumbed their noses at the law by patronizing speakeasies operated by organized crime. Many of these citizens looked the other way when they saw or heard about heinous crimes committed by the mobsters.
.......Meanwhile, government corruption—highlighted by the Teapot Dome Scandal—shook the country. At the same time, young adults—fed by money from postwar economic prosperity—held wild parties, drove fast cars, and engaged in sexual promiscuity. Thus, on many fronts, the
old moral values were under attack.
.......In “The Killers,” Adams represents the old values with which he was probably reared. Not until the two thugs walk into Henry's lunchroom does he directly encounter the kind of corruption rampant in Chicago.
Or so it seems. The behavior and conversation of the men reveal that they act without fear of legal reprisal. Obviously, their bosses have suborned the cops and the courts. Max is so confident of his ability to violate the law without risking police interference, arrest, or punishment that he tells George of his plans to murder Ole Andreson, a former boxer, when he comes to the restaurant for
.......After Andreson fails to appear, the mobsters leave. George, however, does not call the police, either because he fears reprisal from the mobsters or because he knows the police won't respond. Instead, he asks Nick to go out to warn
Andreson. Sam, on the other hand, tells Nick not to become involved. George then says, “Don't go if you don't want to.” But Nick does what is right: He goes to Andreson's rooming house and warns him.
.......But Andreson reacts fatalistically, saying,
“There isn't anything I can do about it.” When Nick offers to go to the police, Andreson says, “That wouldn't do any good.” Nick then asks questions that reveal his concern and his willingness to risk his own safety to help Andreson:
something I could do?"
......."Couldn't you get out of town?"
......."Couldn't you fix it up some
.......But Andreson says he is tired of running. He merely stares at the wall and says, “After a while I'll make up my mind to go out.” Going out means he will die.
.......After Nick returns to the restaurant and informs George of Andreson's decision not to resist, George says, “They'll kill him.”
.......Nick then decides to leave town. The
question then becomes this: Will Nick, like so many others in America, begin looking the other way when he sees crime around him? Will he, in short, forget about the old values and accept the status quo?
.......The killers taunt George, Sam, and Nick with wisecracks that attack their masculinity. Here are examples:
“Hey, bright boy,” Max said to Nick. “You go around on the other side of the counter with your boy friend.” But Al and Max virtually emasculate Ole Andreson even before they see him. Andreson is a big, strong, ex-heavyweight boxer—so big that the narrator says he is “too long for the bed” at his rooming house. One would expect such a man to fight back, perhaps by waylaying the killers in the dark or by confronting them with a gun of his own. But, no, he
accepts his death sentence, saying there is nothing he can do to thwart it.
“I got them tied up like a couple of girl friends in the convent.”
“Bright boy can do everything,” Max said. “He can cook and everything. You’d make some girl a nice wife, bright boy.”
.......In the 1920s, many men in Chicago and other crime-ridden big cities endured similar challenges to their masculinity, often without resisting. They just picked up the
towel, wiped the counter, and went on with their lives as best they could.
Inability to Escape Death
.......If a reader interprets the story without considering it in the context of the 1920s, he may validly conclude that the main theme is the inability to escape death. Ole Andreson apparently believes that it is impossible to thwart the two men who, in their black overcoats, represent death. Consequently, he
accepts his fate. Sam and George avoid antagonizing or becoming involved with the thugs. They are like people who avoid making wills, visiting the terminally ill, or even talking or thinking about death. For his part, Nick Adams is like the person who, after visiting a dying person, becomes unnerved. At the end of the story, he says, “I can't stand thinking about him [Andreson] waiting in the
room and knowing he's going to get it.” George replies, “Well, you better not think about it.”
Accepting the Status Quo
.......George and Sam accept the reality around them with little or no desire to change it. The first sign of their attitude in this regard is the clock. It is twenty minutes fast, but neither of them has taken the time to reset it. The malfunction of the clock is a trivial matter, of course, compared to the the
predicament of Ole Andreson.
.......George and Sam know that Al and Max plan to kill Andreson, but they avoid interceding to save his life. Instead, George tells Nick Adams to warn Ole. But when Sam urges Nick not to become involved, George says,
“Don't go if you don't want to.” After Nick visits Andreson, he returns to the restaurant and reports that Ole has stoically accepted his doom. Sam goes into the kitchen, saying he wishes to hear no more. George speculates on what Andreson might have done to mark him for murder, then wipes the counter with a towel. In effect, he is wiping away the whole Andreson matter. After Nick tells him how
awful it is to consider what will happen to poor Ole, George says, “Well, you better not think about it.”
.......The attitude of Sam and George reflects the attitude of many 1920s Chicagoans who ignored the criminal activity plaguing their city—out of fear
.......The climax occurs when Nick Adams decides to leave town. This decision could be a turning point in his life. What his future holds for him is open to question. (See the last paragraph under Main Theme and Interpretation of the Story.)
.......Hemingway wrote “The Killers” in third-person point of view but limited the narration to what the characters say and do; it does not reveal their thoughts. Hemingway's style—developed in part when he worked as a newspaper reporter and correspondent early in his career—is simple and compact, with short
sentences and paragraphs devoid of verbosity.
.......However, this straightforward style, which he used in all his major novels and short stories, often conveys complex themes and suggests–but does not explicitly state–motives, mind-sets, attitudes,
and so on. In this respect, Hemingway is imitating life, for seldom do two interacting human beings—for example, you and your teacher, you and your spouse, or you and your boss—know each other’s intimate thoughts.
.......The following can be interpreted as symbols in "The Killers":
black attire of the killers: Death; corruption; evil.
clock: (1) Indifference, apathy. (For further information, see Other Themes, Accepting the Status Quo.)
counter towel: George's wish to forget about the Andreson matter. When he wipes the counter, he wipes clear the Andreson episode and moves on with his life.
restaurant: The changing
times. The restaurant had been a tavern but was remodeled into a restaurant after the government outlawed the sale of liquor. Like the restaurant, society as a whole also changed.
streetcar tracks: Inability to escape death. The tracks connect to Chicago and the outside world.
Ole Andreson has been running from the killers and takes refuge in a rooming house in Summit. But, as the streetcar tracks suggest, it is impossible for Andreson to isolate himself completely from the men "tracking" him down."
tree branches: Imminence of death. As Nick leaves the
restaurant to go to the rooming house, the narrator says, "Outside the arc-light shone through the bare branches of a tree." Obviously, it is late fall, not long before winter—a traditional symbol of death.
wicket: Racial barrier. Sam, a black man, is the cook. Working in the kitchen,
he is separated from the whites by the wicket (a tiny door) through which he passes food.
.......Ernest Miller Hemingway (1899-1961) was an American writer of novels and short stories. Before turning to fiction, he worked as a reporter for the Kansas City Star and served as a First World War ambulance driver before enlisting with the Italian infantry and suffering a wound. After the war, he worked for
the Toronto Star and lived for a time in Paris and Key West, Fla. During the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, he served as a newspaper correspondent, then lived in Cuba until 1958 and Idaho until 1961, the year of his death by suicide. His narratives frequently contain masculine motifs, such as bull-fighting (Death in the Afternoon), hunting (The Green Hills of
Africa), war (A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls), and fishing (The Old Man and the Sea). All of these motifs derive from Hemingway’s own experiences as a traveler and an adventurer. Arguably, he was a
better short-story writer than a novelist, although it was his longer works that built his reputation. For a detailed biography of Hemingway, click here.Study Questions and Essay Topics
1...When Nick offers to go to the police, Andreson says, “That wouldn't do any good.” Is Andreson implying that organized crime controls the Summit police? .
2...Is Nick's decision to leave
3...Why do the killers dress alike?
4...Does the story provide any information that hints at how the killers learned
the whereabouts of Ole Andreson?
5...George, Sam, and Nick can all identify Al and Max as hired killers. Why don't Al and Max kill them?
6...What accounts for Ole Andreson's passivity?
7...Write a short essay that analyzes the psyches of Al and Max.
8...Write a short essay that explains the change (or changes) that Nick Adams undergoes.
9...Write a short story that imitates Hemingway's writing style. The subject is open.