I teach in an honors college where we encourage students to actively co-create the classroom experience. To this end, early in each semester, I invite small groups of students to lead discussion on the assigned reading. But because I love teaching Ernest Hemingway’s “The Three-Day Blow” so much, I’ve only recently begun including it, somewhat reluctantly, as one of the stories for the student groups to facilitate. I didn’t need to worry. I’m consistently impressed by contemporary college students’ grasp of the 1925 story of Nick and Bill drinking and talking, kicking around a variety of traditionally masculine subjects—“bro-ing out,” as the students say—to avoid discussing Nick’s recently ended relationship with Marjorie until the whisky provides protection for Nick and Bill to talk about their emotions. Most students agree that although Nick legitimately seems to want to go into town Saturday to see Marjorie, he probably won’t do so, leading them to realize that Nick is unwilling to risk his masculinity by telling Marjorie he was wrong and that he’s sorry.
This semester, the students drew special attention to the scene where Nick looks in the mirror, smiles, and winks at himself: “It was not his face,” Nick thinks, “but it didn’t make any difference” (45). Perhaps because everyone was wearing a mask—and perhaps because, as college students, many of them feel this way often—the discussion evoked reflections about how people act differently when they’re with different groups of friends like how Nick accepts Bill’s negative view of relationships at the expense of his own thinking. At the same time, they recognized the scene as an experience many had recently had: as novice drinkers feeling outside of their bodies looking at their almost-selves in the mirror. For Nick—and, of course, for Hemingway—this is the ideal symbol. In his evaluation of Maurice Hewlitt’s The Forrest Lovers, Nick explains,
“What I couldn’t ever understand was what good the sword would do. It would have to stay edge up all the time because if it went over flat you could roll right over it and it wouldn’t make any trouble.”
“It’s a symbol,” Bill said.
“Sure,” said Nick, “but it isn’t practical.” (42)
Not recognizing one’s own reflection is both a literal experience of intoxication and an analogy for performing roles we don’t recognize as our own. That these experiences occur at the same time elevates the scene to a practical symbol that reveals Nick’s acquiescence to a narrow masculinity and parallels how masculine drinking cultures dictate and restrict students’ behavior. Nick may not want to be like Bill and Bill’s dad, he may not want to have to get drunk to talk about his emotions, he may not want to be lonely. But the pull of the masculine standard leaves Nick in a situation—like the prescribed situations in which many students find themselves—acting in a way that gives him some pleasure while erasing or limiting other ways he might rewardingly exist in the world.
Hemingway, Ernest. In Our Time. Scribner, 1925 .
Dustin Faulstick teaches in the Lewis Honors College at the University of Kentucky. His work has appeared in the essay collection Wharton, Hemingway, and the Advent of Modernism, and in the journals Studies in American Naturalism, Literature and Belief, New Ohio Review, and Religion and the Arts. He is writing a book on Ecclesiastes and early-twentieth-century US literature.