The Plight of War: Exploring the Depths of Hemingway’s “On the Quai at Smyrna”

August 20, 2022 by Essay Writer

Ernest Hemingway’s legacy as one of America’s greatest writers reigns supreme, as his work provides profound insight and speaks to the lost generation. Literary criticism in the 21st century popularly analyzes Hemingway’s pieces to reveal the truths of his time and breed greater historical understanding through a fictional context. “On the Quai at Smyrna” is a short story by Hemingway that sheds light on genocide in modern warfare by going beyond political and military affairs to reveal a sensitive truth that exposes the emotional and ethical crisis of those facing the repercussions of old men’s wars. Through his style and method of writing, Hemingway introduces themes that are concluded through in-depth analysis. What I originally believed to be a narration lamenting the menial troubles of soldiers and their lack of humanity is a thoughtful depiction of truths beneath what society wrongly determines about the relationship between soldiers and civilians. Mathew Stewart of Boston University uncovers Hemingway’s intentions behind “On the Quai at Smyrna,” exploring the depths of Hemingway’s words in his scholarly article titled “It Was All a Pleasant Business: The Historical Context of “On the Quai at Smyrna.” Stewart introduces a larger context to Hemingway’s work through historical and literary analysis that hears Hemingway’s voice on social justice in war.

Hemingway’s style of writing in “On the Quai at Smyrna” is a larger production at work. What I originally deduced to being an unemotional and careless cast of characters is Hemingway’s ingenious use of irony. A fitting example is when the narrator states, “It was all a pleasant business. My word yes a most pleasant business” (Hemingway 67). Originally perceiving this quote literally, Hemingway triggers a shock factor. However, Stewart makes an undeniably insightful case that divulges the meaning of these words, explaining, “to elucidate the speaker’s frame of mind, his manner of speaking, and the story’s tone…the speaker’s stir-protective irony is generated by self-disgust resulting from … [the] powerlessness in the face of inhuman behavior” (Stewart 62). Essentially, Hemingway utilizes irony as his tool to criticize how soldiers are expected to be emotionless and dutiful when there is need for humanitarian forces. It is through this style that Hemingway’s purpose to evoke the audience’s attention on a tragic event is realized.

Hemingway further pushes his agenda by utilizing a Turkish Officer’s menial concerns with another soldier in the midst of a genocide to expose the normalization of war on soldiers. Unlike the narrator, the Turkish Officer has little regard to the suffering of women and their children, suggesting how war desensitizes soldiers when the environment becomes routine. The interaction between the narrator and the Turkish Officer further depicts the troubling expectation to continue protocol when all hell is breaking loose. The narrator ironically comments after settling a dispute, “Oh most rigorously. He felt topping about it. Great friends we were” (Hemingway 66). The repetition of irony and the tone of voice throughout the piece reflects Hemingway’s personal frustrations on military etiquette. Stewart acknowledges, “The speaker undoubtedly finds the incident insanely petty given the larger context of tragic events being played on the quai, but his orders are to keep peace with the Turks” (Stewart 61). To cope, the narrator has succumb to, what Stewart refers to as, “ironic rhetorical devices in an apparent effort to recount… the brutality he has witnessed” (Stewart 60). Hemingway’s mastery of voice brings to light ingenious commentary on events within the heart of war.

Hemingway is one of the few writers who has a method behind his madness, especially through symbolism. The narrator neatly describes the tragic events taking place: emotionless, as if relaying a monotonous list of chores. Hemingway writes, “We were clearing them off the pier, had to clear off the dead ones” (Hemingway 66). Hemingway purposely desensitizes a very disturbing event to present the mindset soldiers are expected to have, and often retain, in war. The soldiers are literally witnessing a genocide and have little resources to compensate for the trauma. Hemingway’s writing acts as a symbol to identify the raging waters beneath an ice-cold surface. Soldiers and civilians alike suffer cases of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder when exposed to war. Hemingway recognized these patterns ahead of his time, as he was in a society did not diagnose mental health. In that respect, Hemingway’s “On the Quai at Smyrna” is a break-through that was one of many developments to cultivate modern 21st century thoughts on warfare. Stewart addresses this issue by theorizing that “the speaker gives the impression of having seen too much, of having experienced more than he can handle… he will not allow himself … to confess the degree of horror he felt” (Stewart 65). My original interpretation of the narrator’s words classified him as an emotionless and shameless character. However, Stewart’s theory deepened my understanding by discovering the source of the narrator’s behavior. Hemingway’s mastery of depicting human nature without rose-colored lenses exhibits his capabilities as a writer.

In a greater degree, Hemingway treads the waters of morality in war, or what appears to be the lack thereof. He proposes that a soldier is also human, and beneath the calm and dutiful exterior, there is a moral crisis and a sense of powerlessness that the narrator, a soldier, represses. As a reader, Stewart responds to the “feeling of shame that I belonged to the human race” (Stewart 59). Hemingway wants his audience to experience the intense ethical struggle the narrator is subjected to. In fact, Hemingway’s character refers to the sequence events disturbed, “The strange thing was, he said, how they screamed every night at midnight. I do not know why they screamed at that time” (Hemingway 66). Stewart speculates the severe angst of the narrator, as he “feels extreme guilt born frustration and moral confusion… the speaker saves no one, helps no one, but must remain passively to witness everything” (Stewart 65). Clearly, the narrator’s powerlessness does little to soothe his guilt. Hemingway’s emotive concept rings true when uncovering the realities of war.

Hemingway’s world is stage for a larger picture that overwhelms what needs not to be ignored: the effects of war on civilians. People are largely concerned with how super powers and governments are effected in war. Hemingway purposely avoids discussing political issues in depth as a method of focusing the spotlight on Human Right’s violations in war. When first reading the piece of literature, it appears as though Hemingway is concealing information because he assumes that his audience should be informed and that his work is not for the unexperienced. I interpreted that “On the Quai at Smyrna” was exclusive to those exposed to war. However, Stewart suggests that Hemingway was creating a spotlight for what is not, and should be, center stage. Stewart advocates for Hemingway’s intentions, stating the “extreme situations forced upon people by war (here for example the need to give birth in the dark hold of a ship)… the Smyrna disaster was nonetheless shocking” (Stewart 66). In fact, it is clear when Hemingway refers to the crisis, confessing, “The worst, he said, were the women with dead babies” (Hemingway 66). This is a key quote from the story, as it is one of the few that blatantly acknowledges the gravity of the genocide. Hemingway exposes the reality of warfare on civilians that is often overlooked, intricately creating a spotlight that is often dimmed by alternative concerns.

“On the Quai at Smyrna” by Ernest Hemingway grounds the theme of people’s faith in humanity in times of war, especially when warfare depletes human rights. However, Hemingway extends an olive branch, predominantly because the narrator’s morality is heightened due to the tragic events. Stewart’s review of Hemingway’s “On the Quai at Smyrna” deepened not only the intention and understanding of the piece, but lifted Hemingway’s literary genius through a profound analytical process behind what appears only to be a recollection of disturbing events. It is Hemingway’s style and method of writing that illuminates the subject of social justice during war, and warns how accepting tragedy without acknowledging the defilement of morality will only destroy humanitarian prerogatives. “On the Quai at Smyrna” is a piece of literature that is, in its own right, a call for change that can be easily overlooked, but must be addressed in depth.

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