Edith V. Sullivan, editor for Neuropsychology Review explained that, “The ‘shell shock’ of WWI became ‘battle fatigue’ in WWII, and in the Korean Conflict it evolved to ‘operational exhaustion.’ By the Vietnam War, the term traumatic stress disorder was introduced and later evolved to PTSD.” No matter what it is called, the effects of war are incredibly powerful and debilitating for the soldiers and civilians that are forced to live through it. These aftereffects are clearly outlined in the two short stories, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” by Ernest Hemingway and “The Red Convertible” by Louise Erdrich. While both short stories highlight the struggles of individuals reacclimating into society after war, each has unique biographical and historical influences that greatly affect the perspective of the story.
“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” uses the interactions between three individuals: an old waiter, a young waiter, and an old man sitting in a cafe, to illustrate the effects that war and loneliness have on people. While talking with the younger waiter and exchanging opinions, the older waiter seems to sympathize with the old man because he understands his loneliness and alienation. Both men are from a generation that has all but passed. To the young waiter, however, he only sees the old man as a drunk and a nuisance who is keeping him from being with his wife. What the young waiter doesn’t understand is that it is quite possible that the old man and the older waiter share an even deeper connection through military service. Though it is not explicitly stated that either of the two men served in the military, the likely setting in 1920s or 1930s Spain would suggest that the men were at least directly exposed to war and it’s strife. As a result, each man experiences distressing symptoms. The old man attempted to commit suicide and, by the end of the story, the old waiter’s struggles with depression and nihilistic thoughts are revealed. For both men, the cafe is a place of safety. The old waiter compares the cafe to a bar saying, “It is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant…you [cannot] stand before a bar with dignity” (Hemingway 203). Primarily, both men value the cafe because it provides a release from the detachment and loneliness that they experience.
Similar to the old man and the old waiter, Henry’s reactions in “The Red Convertible” demonstrate that the fight is not over when the war ends. From the time Henry returns from Vietnam, Lyman explains, “Henry was very different, and I’ll say this: the change was no good” (Erdrich 289). Clearly, Henry struggled to assimilate into the normal world. He could not sit still and had no desire to do anything except stay home and watch TV. Henry’s loneliness, much like that of the old waiter, is further implied when Lyman, his brother, is unable to persuade him to go for a drive in their coveted red Oldsmobile convertible. Interestingly, however, though Henry is eventually given an opportunity to restore himself to a previous condition, something that the old man and the old waiter long for, he emotionally cannot get past the horrific events that are impeding him. For Lyman, Henry’s distress is clearly frustrating as evident by his desperate decision to take a sledge hammer to the car. This event shows how the car represents a metaphorical bond, which breaks, between the two brothers. Lyman’s actions helped Henry find a temporary purpose in his life but, as Lyman said, it clearly was not enough: “He was better than he had been before, but that’s still not saying much” (Erdrich 291). In the end, Henry ultimately loses his personal battle when he commits suicide.
Although the two short stories have similar themes, the biographical and historical perspectives are quite different. Ernest Hemingway’s personal experiences during World War I had an important impact on “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” During the war, Hemingway was exposed to many traumatic experiences while serving in the Red Cross as an ambulance driver. According to an article by Dr. Henry M. Seiden, “After brief service [Hemingway] was wounded in a shelling on the battlefield. The soldier nearest him was killed instantly; another had his legs blown off. Hemingway carried still another wounded man to the safety of the medical tent before collapsing of serious wounds himself” (92). This horrific story shows just what soldiers and civilians were exposed to in the time of war. Because of the mass carnage and death, veterans and individuals coming of age during World War I, like Hemingway, became known as the “Lost Generation.” The majority of this generation was killed, leaving the survivors to find a purpose in society. Hemingway and the old waiter are clear members of this era. Even though the old man was born before this time period, he does have similar characteristics in the sense that his generation is forgotten in the current society. For example, the young waiter simply does not understand the old man and is only concerned with going home to be with his wife. The old waiter takes a different approach saying, “Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be some one who needs the cafe” (Hemingway 203). Overall, the old waiter has great sympathy for the old man and uses the cafe as a means to help him. By and large, the loneliness and generational struggles of both characters were directly influenced by Hemingway’s personal experiences.
In contrast to Hemingway, Louise Erdrich has a very different perspective of postwar struggles. Much like the character Lyman, Louise Erdrich is only able to see the aftereffects from an outsider’s perspective. While she did not serve in the military, Erdrich most likely had many interactions with Vietnam veterans. Erdrich was born to a family with Native American heritage and grew up near the Turtle Mountain Reservation (Desmet, Hart, Miller 286). As discussed in class, during the Vietnam War in particular, a large number of Native Americans served in the military. Known for their history of being warriors and expert trackers, Native Americans were highly regarded by their fellow military personnel. Erdrich likely encountered many of these veterans when they returned with both physical and mental problems. The editors of Prentice Hall Literature Portfolio explain, “Erdrich explores the ways in which the violence of war is internalized by the participants” (287). In addition to the participants struggles, Erdrich highlights the bystanders frustrations of dealing with the broken individuals. Though different from Hemingway’s firsthand experience of war, Erdrich provides an interesting and unique perspective on the effects of war in “The Red Convertible.”
Each of these short stories focuses on the physical and emotional distress associated with war, loneliness, and returning to normal life. Hemingway’s personal experience on the battlefield and Erdrich’s unique perspective had a definite impact on the stories they wrote. Although the times and names have changed since World War I and Vietnam, struggles with postwar life have continued to be a major problem for thousands of veterans and civilians in the United States and abroad.
Desmet, Christy, D. Alexis Hart, and Deborah Church Miller, eds. Prentice Hall Literature Portfolio. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2014. Print.
Erdrich, Louise. “The Red Convertible.” Desmet, Hart, and Miller 287-294.
Hemingway, Ernest. “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” Desmet, Hart and Miller 201-205.
Seiden, Henry M. “Ernest Hemingway’s World War I short stories: PTSD, the writer as witness, and the creation of intersubjective community.” Psychoanalytic Psychology. 30.1 (2013): 92-101. ProQuest. Web. 4 Mar. 2015.
Sullivan, Edith V. “War-Related PTSD, Blast Injury, and Anosognosia.” Neuropsychology Review 22.1 (2012): 1-2. ProQuest. Web. 8 Mar. 2015.