Compiled by Michael J. Cummings.©
Killers" is a short story that first appeared in Scribner's Magazine
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
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
Al: Hired killer,
apparently from Chicago. He wears a black overcoat, derby, and gloves.
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.
(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.
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.
do they do here nights?” Al asks.
George can answer, Max says sarcastically, “They all come here and eat
the big dinner.”
right,” George says, trying to be agreeable.
a pretty bright boy, aren't you?” Al says.
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
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.
it all about?” George says.
replies that they are going to kill a Swede named Ole Andreson.
comes here every night to eat, don't he?”
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
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.
was nice bright boy,” Max tells him. Al shouts out, “He knew I'd blow his
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.
about the two bright boys and the nigger?” Al says.
all right,” Max says.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
wonder what he did?” Nick says. George says he probably “double-crossed
says he now plans to leave town. George says that sounds like a good idea.
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.”
George says, “you better not think about it.”
Theme and Interpretation of the Story
theme of “The Killers” is the effect of corruption on 1920s America in
general and Nick Adams in particular.
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.
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.
“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
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.
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:
there something I could do?"
you get out of town?"
you fix it up some way?
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
Nick returns to the restaurant and informs George of Andreson's decision
not to resist, George says, “They'll kill him.”
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?
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
“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,
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.
to Escape Death
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.”
the Status Quo
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.
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.”
attitude of Sam and George reflects the attitude of many 1920s Chicagoans
who ignored the criminal activity plaguing their city—out of fear or indifference.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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"
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.
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
Questions and Essay Topics
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?
Nick's decision to leave town wise?
do the killers dress alike?
the story provide any information that hints at how the killers learned
the whereabouts of Ole Andreson?
Sam, and Nick can all identify Al and Max as hired killers. Why don't Al
and Max kill them?
accounts for Ole Andreson's passivity?
a short essay that analyzes the psyches of Al and Max.
a short essay that explains the change (or changes) that Nick Adams undergoes.
a short story that imitates Hemingway's writing style. The subject is open.