|Ernest Hemingway: The End of Something - study guide|
This guide is written for students and teachers who are preparing for GCSE exams in English literature. It contains a detailed study of Ernest Hemingway's The End of Something, one of the prose texts in the AQA Anthology, which is a set text for the AQA's GCSE syllabuses for English and English Literature Specification A, from the 2004 exam onwards.
On this page I use bold red type for emphasis. Brown type is used where italics would appear in print (in this screen font, italic looks like this, and is unkind on most readers). Headings have their own hierarchical logic, too:
About the author
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) was born in Illinois, in the USA. In the First World War, he joined a volunteer ambulance unit in the Italian army, winning a medal for bravery. After the war he worked as a reporter. He published his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, in 1926, followed by A Farewell to Arms (1929. His most ambitious novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls appeared in1940 while the short novel The Old Man and the Sea came out in 1952.
Hemingway was a keen sportsman. He wrote about straightforward people in conflict with the brutal power of the modern world. Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. In his last years, Hemingway suffered from depression. In July 1961 he took his own life with a shotgun. The End of Something comes from The First Forty Nine Stories, published in 1938.
What happens in The End of Something?
This is a simple story, or at first seems so, and is one that happens many times in the real world. If it happens to you, you may not be sure if it is a good or a bad thing. Years later you may find an answer, of course - or maybe not. A young man, Nick, goes out with a young woman, Marjorie, at night. They are in a boat on a lake, which Nick rows, setting lines to catch fish. They draw up the boat on a beach and begin to talk, while Marjorie brings out a basket of food for supper. Nick seems to be picking a quarrel with Marjorie, and eventually tells her that their relationship is not fun any more. Marjorie leaves, and after a while Nick's friend, Bill, arrives. He asks about Marjorie, and we see that Nick must have told Bill what he was going to do. Nick tells Bill to go away - but Bill does not go far, helping himself to a sandwich and going to look at Nick's fishing rods. Before we read this story, we read another one, which tells of a town, made rich by lumbering (cutting down trees, sawing them up and selling the wood), which goes into decline as the industry moves away.
The themes of this story
This story appears to be about relationships. There are at least two kinds of relationship here, each of which could be seen as a theme of the story - romantic love between the sexes, and friendship here (but not necessarily always) between members of the same sex.
A second theme may be the idea that (young) men and women have fundamentally different ways of seeing things - an idea echoed in the title of John Gray's best-selling book: Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.
A third, more general, theme is change - the change in the once-happy relationship of boy and girl, and the change in the fortunes of the once busy town.
The characters in the story
This is a very short story, with only three characters. So who are these characters?
In this story, for much of the time, it is Nick who seems to be making things happen. It is only when he makes it clear that he sees no future in the relationship that Marjorie leaves him. It is not clear whether she is being decisive, too, now or is simply angry or even distressed.
Nick clearly wants to end the relationship but cannot do so easily without trying to manufacture a sort of quarrel. Is he considerate? We could say either:
Do you agree with either of these answers - or have you a different view?
Nick seems easier in his relationship with Bill - and seems to have told him that he plans to break up with Marjorie. Although he appears to have a quarrel with Bill, and tells him to go away - this is not a break up in their friendship, since Bill merely goes to look at Nick's fishing rods while he calms down.
Nick does not manage to communicate clearly with Marjorie until he tells her "it isn't fun any more" - she is happy as she unpacks the basket to eat supper. Later he cannot look directly at her. He may be relieved that she has her back turned, so he does not need to face her.
Nick may also be confused about what he wants out of life. He seems to link this with his relationship to Marjorie - and since he feels that things have "gone to hell" inside himself, then he concludes that he must break off with Marjorie. But it is not clear that he is any happier at the end of the story - he may just be relieved to have got rid of a complication in his life.
The reader has no idea whether this is typical - whether Nick is leaving Marjorie because he expects and believes he will find a more fulfilling relationship or whether the result would be the same with any and every partner.
At the end of the story, while Nick lies face down, he seems to be aware of Marjorie's movements - "she was afloat in the boat…He could hear Marjorie rowing". What does this suggest about him?
Look at the following statements about Nick and see if you agree with any, and, if so, whether you can find support in the story for this view:
The story shows Marjorie to be more passive at first, but perhaps decisive in the end. That is, when she thinks that Nick is unhappy, but that they still have a future together, she tries to talk him round. When he makes it clear that the relationship is over, she goes away as if recognizing that this is right.
Is Marjorie a stronger or weaker character than Nick? It is easy to assume that she is weaker, because Nick is ending the relationship with her.
But this does not follow - maybe she is more ready to accept that life is not perfect, and to make the most of things.
It may often happen that a young person ends a relationship but later in life regrets it, while the other partner has moved on and made the most of a new opportunity.
It appears that earlier on, Nick taught Marjorie about fishing. Now she seems to know as much as him, and he is uneasy that she is his equal. In the end, Marjorie seems to force the decision, by asking whether love is not "any fun". Nick's "no" is the cue for her to leave.
At the end of the story, while Marjorie leaves, the narrative stays with Nick. What does this suggest about Marjorie? We know that Nick is confused and unhappy. We do not find out how Marjorie reacts after she takes the boat home.
Can we call Bill a character at all? Or is he in the story only as Nick's friend - to show us more about Nick? What do you think?
It is clear that Bill knows something about what is to happen - suggesting that Nick has told him. We see how he approaches the fire, but keeps his distance from Nick. He asks three questions. The first two are yes-and-no questions about what has happened, and Nick answers them. When Bill asks about feelings, then Nick is not ready to answer. But his reply probably does tell Bill how he is feeling.
What does Bill's last action in the story suggest? Do you think any of these answers makes sense?
Do you think that the way Bill supports Nick is typical of men? Would one of Marjorie's (girl) friends comfort her in the same way, do you think?
The setting - time and place
The story has a setting that seems to be on one of the Great Lakes where Hemingway grew up. The time seems to be that of the story's publication, but there are few very specific details. In some ways it could happen at any time in the 20th century. The narrative of Hortons Bay suggests an older time, perhaps early in the century, since the lumbering equipment goes away in a schooner (a sailing ship). We read that the events in the story happen ten years after this - the only precise clue to the date.
Ernest Hemingway's technique
One way to form a sense of the structure is to try and answer these questions:
We can also see the story in terms of a sequence of episodes - if we made a film of it, these would be scenes.
In terms of the classic description of a story as having a beginning, middle and end, then this example fits the pattern perfectly - though we might be unsure what the real beginning is. Is it either of these?
What do you think?
In terms of what happens, the story would make sense without the opening passage - or would it?
Do you think that the story would work as well, if it began with Nick and Marjorie and ended with Nick and Bill, and omitted the stuff about the old lumbering town?
What is the relationship, in your view, between the story of Hortons Bay and the story of the young couple? Why does Ernest Hemingway arrange the two parts like this?
The story makes a lot of use of conversation, set out as dialogue. (You can imagine that it would be easy to make this into a feature film or TV drama, perhaps.) How does the use of direct speech help the reader? What does it reveal of Nick's and Marjorie's situation? How do Bill's comments make things more or less clear?
Writers can set out conversation as direct speech (the exact words spoken, in speech marks: "Come and eat, Nick") or reported speech (which gives the information indirectly: Marjorie told Nick to come and eat). In this story, we find mostly direct speech.
Look at the story from the point where Marjorie unpacks the basket for supper and the end of the narrative. How much speech is there, compared to narration (telling what happens) and description? If you like, you may look at how much (or little) of the story is not in the form of direct speech. What is the effect on you as the reader here?
We can also look at the characters' body language - the way they stand or move, and the gestures that reveal their thoughts or feelings. Here are some examples:
Can you find any other examples? What do these details tell you?
Hemingway is a very physical and visual writer. He tells the reader what happens - things that you would see and hear if you were there. Think of things like the moonlight or the sound of Marjorie's rowing. He also describes things that are in people's thoughts: "She was afloat in the boat on the water with the moonlight on it…" (This seems to be what Nick is thinking.) The sentences are short and use simple or compound forms - a single statement or two statements joined by a conjunction like "and".
Hemingway is particularly concerned to describe physical processes, like the removal of the lumbering equipment from Hortons Bay or the way Nick prepares perch as bait to catch the bigger fish (trout).
The title of the story makes it clear that there is a parallel or analogy between the history of Hortons Bay and the story or personal history of Nick and Marjorie. This is a simple comparison - of something that was good and productive, but that comes to an end because circumstances change. At the same time, the people in the story are aware of what happened to the town and feel some nostalgia - but their shared affection for the "old ruin" is not enough to keep their love alive.
Attitudes in the text
Can you find any evidence of attitudes in the text? Does Hemingway lead the reader to see things in a particular way or not?
This is really very hard, as Hemingway seems to tell us what happens, without any comment. For example, he records how the logging mill and equipment are taken away. He does not say this is a good or a bad thing. Do you think, in spite of this, that we are meant to see it in any particular way? Does Hemingway hint that the end of the industry is a very good thing, a very bad thing, something rather sad but inevitable - or something else?
Attitudes behind the text
How far does the story show (or suggest) assumptions about the world that the author makes?
For example, look at the way he shows us Nick and Marjorie as they go fishing. Maybe he suggests that Nick is the expert and Marjorie is more passive. We read that: "She loved to fish. She loved to fish with Nick." (Line 30). But later he says that he has taught Marjorie everything - as if she now knows as much as he does (Line 87)
At a first reading we might think that Hemingway shows men as having more power in a relationship, since Nick decides to break up with Marjorie. But this is also not clear. By the end of the story Nick may seem confused. He has apparently made a choice but seems not at all happy with it.
Attitudes in the reader
Can you find any evidence of what Ernest Hemingway assumes about his readers? One way to check this is to make a list of things you did not at first understand, or which you had to ask about.
Do you have to take an interest in fishing to enjoy the story? If you think that fishing is cruel, does this distract you while you read it?
If you write (or talk) about this story, try to be aware that it has an author. Suppose that the events in it had really happened. Why would the author choose to relate the things he does, while missing out others?
It is easy to make comparisons in the story. Where the writer shows how different things are by comparing them (writing of them together), there is a contrast. We are led to make comparisons between these things, among others:
Can you think of any others? You can also, of course, compare this story with others that have a similar theme - stories about growing up, gaining independence and leaving home.
Are there any things in the story that are not what they at first seem? Are there situations that are gradually revealed to be other than what first appears?
Readers and reading
Reading the text
Say what you think the story means in a literal sense and in terms of theme, character and setting. Look at details of imagery, language and symbolism.
Reading the author
Try to explain what, in your view, Hemingway wants us to think at various points. In doing this you should refer to his narrative methods.
Reading the reading
Be prepared briefly to explain your own understanding of the story, and how this changes while you are reading it for the first time, and also on subsequent readings, where you notice more details.
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