Good Country People" by Flannery O'Connor and "Indian Camp" by Ernest Hemingway
When Coming of Age is Too Much
The coming-of-age story is a classic of literature, from The Adventures of Huck Finn to Catcher in the Rye and The Outsiders, and learning the lessons of being an adult is never easy. The journey from childhood to adulthood requires a loss of innocence and idealism, which sometimes come at a very steep price. In an ideal world, one not often found in fictional initiation stories, the steps into adulthood are trying but not overwhelming, effective but not devastating. For lead characters Nick Adams in Ernest Hemingway's "Indian Camp," and Hulga Hopewell in Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People," the price is ultimately too steep and their initiation into adulthood is a failure. For Nick and Hulga, the revelations about the realities of adulthood are too scary and too much to deal with, so they attempt to retreat back into their original places of safety. For Hulga, the results are eventually disastrous; for Nick, the end remains to be written.
Ernest Hemingway's "Indian Camp" begins with a middle of the night journey by Nick Adams and his father. Along with Nick's Uncle George and two Indians, they row across the lake in two boats, the Indians doing the work of the rowing. Nick wonders where they are going and his father answers that they are going to the Indian camp because an Indian woman is very sick. It's not clear why Nic's father is bringing him on this mission. Though Nick's age isn't revealed explicity by Hemingway, he is young enough to "lay back with his father's arm around him," during their dark, nighttime journey. It is strange, then, that he is there at all. Hemingway offers no background -- where is Nick's mother? Does Nick even have a mother? But it is not women who are at the center of this story. Nick's coming of age is strictly about interacting in the world of men. When the men arrive at the Indian Camp, Nick, his father, and his uncle are beckoned to a particular shanty by a woman with a lamp. Inside they find an Indian woman who has been in labor for two days. The old women of the camp have been tending to the woman in her labor; the men had all fled to the road to smoke, "out of range of the noise she made," all except for the woman's husband, who is stuck in the home on the top bunk with a severely injured. He is unable to escape with the other men.
Nick's ignorance is revealed when they enter the shanty for the first time. He appears unable to discern exactly why the woman is screaming and begs his father to ease her pain, but his father has inexplicably come to this emergency without any anesthetic. Hemingway reveals Nick's innocence simply by placing the authority of the moment in his father. "The lady is going to have a baby, Nick,'" his father says. "I know,'" Nick replies. "You don't know,'" says the father. "Listen to me.'" 'The dynamic has been set. His father is the adult and the authority figure and Nick is the child and has not yet attained a position of knowledge. Hemingway further portrays Nick as a child by having him switch to addressing his father as "Daddy" when the woman screams and he is desperate to have her stop. He is still a young boy and has found himself in a very adult situation. His youth is revealed simply -- he doesn't ask his father to help the woman and relieve her pain; he merely asks his father to make the screaming stop.
Nick's father must operate o the woman to remove the breech baby she is desperately trying to birth. Nick carefully watches his father wash his hands and order the old woman in the shanty to boil the instruments he would need. His father is firmly in the role of teacher and Nick the student, but the father's lessons go awry. The birth is violent -- Uncle George ends up being bitten by the woman, who is held down while Nick's father performs a c-section with a jack knife and sews her up with fishing line. The men are the head actors here. Two Indian men and Uncle George hold her down while Nicks' father performs the surgery, but Nick is mentally trying to escape. "How do you like being an intern?'" his father asks. Nick like and says he likes it all right, but "He was looking away, so as not to see what his father was doing." When his father invites him to watch the stitching of the woman's abdomen, Nick refuses, for "His curiosity had been gone for a long time."
As much as the woman giving birth and the man in the top bunk, Nick is being help captive in the Indian Camp shanty, and he cannot escape the violent initiation into manhood that he is experiencing. His father is there to guide him, and for a time in the story, his father is truly a competent guide, a hero. He travels to this place in the middle of the night and saves to lives -- the mother and her newborn son. Nick's loss of innocence, however, also includes the fall of his father from pure hero status, and the fall is remarkably quick. After the operation, both Nick's father and Uncle George are high on the adrenaline of having pulled off such an amazing delivery. Hemingway compares them to "football players…in the dressing room after a game." Truly the conquering heroes. The surgery is one for the record books and Uncle George calls Nick's father a great man. Nicks' point-of-view isn't addressed in this section, except that we know he is observing the celebration -- the heroics of his father. And then things take a tragic turn. Nick's father says that the father of the baby must also be very excited, but when he pulls back the blanket covering the Indian man, he discovers that the man's throat is slit and the razor lies next to him. Suddenly, Nick's father realizes that the initiation is going too far, that he never intended to expose young Nick to something like this. He tells Uncle George to take Nick away, but he does not do so before Nick sees his father tip the Indian father's head back.
On the way home, Nick's father apologizes for bringing him, but the experience cannot be undone. Nick asks many questions on the way home, questions that reveal his lingering innocence about life -- do women always have such a hard time delivering babies? Why did the man kill himself? Do people kill themselves often? Women as well as men? He is trying hard to understand what he has just experienced, and he still sees his father as a n authority figure, the one to turn to for these answers. Once again, Nick refers to his father Daddy (four times in the last conversation alone), an attempt to place himself back in the role of a child. For Nick, the initiation into adulthood was too much to handle. The idea that his father could not handle the situation successfully, that he was not competent, is scary to Nick, and he needs to have his father be the hero again and replace the world to the way it worked before this night, but the conversation reveals that his mind is working overtime trying to answer the questions of the night. Finally, he asks if dying is hard. His father says, "No, I think it's pretty easy, Nick. It all depends.'" The sun is coming up, a fish jumps, and Nick, like a small child would, runs his fingers through the water. The last sentence of the story is perhaps the most significant of all, for it demonstrates concretely that Nick is trying to reject his forced initiation into adulthood. Being an adult is messy, and in the real world people die. It is only an innocent child who can truly believe that they may live forever. As the story ends, Nicks innocence returns, and "he felt quite sure that he would never die."
Flannery O'Connor's story, "Good Country People" is far more complex than Hemingway's "Indian Camp," but the main thematic element being explored in this essay remains -- sometimes a traumatic initiation into adulthood isn't really coming-of-age at all, because the character rebels against the entry into adulthood. For Nick Adams, we are not sure what the consequences will be as he grows up. For the main character in O'Connor's story, Hulga Hopewell, the consequences are tragic.
The story begins with a description of Mrs. Freeman, specifically concerning her interactions with Mrs. Hopewell, Hulga's mother. She has been working for Mrs. Hopewell for four years, and the two women often converse over breakfast in the Hopewell's kitchen. Hulga spends…