Evil: The Rendered Abstract
The conflict between good and evil is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, conflicts found in storytelling. Throughout oral and written mythologies, from primitive anecdote to formal legend, characters have acted out the meaning of these two abstract nouns. Unlike the essay, which seldom uses characterization leading to realization through denouement to define abstractions, storytelling brings to life the abstract by making the word flesh.
In Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Killers,” prizefighter Ole Andreson lies in bed in Mrs. Hirsch’s rooming house with all his clothes on, unable to make up his mind to go outside.1 Meanwhile, at Henry’s lunchroom, two men in topcoats, silk mufflers, and gloves have come to Summit, a small town outside of Chicago, to kill Ole Andreson. By the behaviors of Ole Andreson, the killers, and the other characters affected by Andreson’s dilemma, Hemingway defines good and evil without ever using either abstract noun.
To bring his characters to life and, consequently, the values for which they stand, Hemingway begins “The Killers” with the sentence: “The door of Henry’s lunchroom opened, and two men came in.” The independent clause to the left of the coordinating conjunction speaks of Henry’s lunchroom. A lunchroom is a place where people serve other people, prepare food for them, and generally converse with others in a setting conducive to the healthy assimilation of sustenance for the body. Therefore, Summit’s citizens might expect to find a decorum of manners in a lunchroom, as no sensible customer would long patronize an establishment where he or she could not eat in peace. Hence, the clause suggests these assumptions.
Yet the following clause introduces the very forces that will violate these assumptions: thus, the confrontation between these two entities, the characters in the lunchroom and the two men who enter it, forms the foundation for the conflict that ensues from their succinct juxtaposition.
Hemingway builds on this foundation in the scene that follows.
“What’s yours?” George asked them.
“I don’t know,” one of the men said. “What do you want to eat, Al?”
“I don’t know,” said Al. “I don’t know what I want to eat.”
Initially this interaction may seem typical. However, “Outside it was getting dark. The street light came on outside the window.”
The use of “dark” and “light” suggests the intentions of the two men, who are about to use the menu to see if their wills can dominate George’s will without risking interference from agencies--suggested by the street lights--outside the lunchroom.
Street lights in Summit would not exist if a municipality with codified powers of taxation and regulation did not exist. Since regulations suggest rules and laws, the presence of street lights in Summit implies the presence of a police force the citizens can call upon if violations of these laws in their various forms eventually occur.
The conversation continues:
“I’ll have roast pork tenderloin with apple sauce and mashed potatoes,” the first man said.
“It isn’t ready yet.”
“What the hell do you put it on the card for?”
The first man’s response, “What the hell do you put it on the card for?” is the first query the men make into George’s character. If George’s response to the first man’s question is too assertive, George will be difficult to dominate.
To further confirm George’s passivity, the first man uses the word “hell” again after George explains that “That’s the dinner. You can get that at six o’clock.”
“It’s five o’clock.”
“The clock says twenty minutes past five,” the second man said.
“It’s twenty minutes fast.”
“Oh, to hell with the clock,” the first man said.
“Everything we want’s the dinner, eh? That’s the way you work it.”
The two men push a little further.
“This is a hot town,” said the other. “What do they call it?”
The men have known all along the name of the town, but to call Summit “a hot town” and to pretend to forget its name establishes for the two men a final method by which they can determine not only the aggression of George, but also the aggression of any other customer or employee who happens to be in the lunchroom, observing their behavior.
When George says, “That’s right” and fails to defend the honor of his town, the two men waste little time in stripping George of any residual self-respect.
“What are you looking at?”
Denied the right to look at another person, George tries to laugh. But George is not allowed to laugh.
Then the two men deny George, ever-accommodating, ever-forgiving, the right to think: “So he thinks it’s all right.” Max turned to Al. “He thinks it’s all right. That’s a good one.”
The tyrannical force of Max and Al has now emasculated George. By not defending George from the two men’s assault, Nick, the story’s protagonist, who has been standing nearby, has by default emasculated himself as well. Max realizes as much and dismisses Nick in one command: “Hey, bright boy,” Max said to Nick. “You go around on the other side of the counter with your boy friend.”
Both Nick and George ask, “What’s the idea?” By now, though, it is much too late. The belligerence of Max and Al has had its way, unopposed by the unsuspecting males in the lunchroom who have taken too long to recognize the two men’s animosity for what it is and, therefore, to take action against its dehumanization.
The takeover of Henry’s lunchroom concludes when Al, speaking to George asks: “Who’s out in the kitchen?”
“What do you mean the nigger?”
“The nigger that cooks.”
George’s use of the word “nigger” reveals that dehumanization, to be sure, existed in Summit before the two men entered. However, the depth of contempt that the two men have for human dignity far exceeds that of George. Sam, the cook, recognizes the difference the moment he comes in from the kitchen:
“All right, nigger. You stand right there,” Al said.
Sam’s instant recognition of the malice behind the two men’s authority not only differentiates Sam from George and Nick but also prepares for an exploration of the depth of that malice in the middle of the story.
The middle of a short story should expand upon the issues established in the beginning. The middle of “The Killers” begins as the two men explain to George from their perspective, in their vernacular, “what it’s all about.” Through remarks that ridicule conventional society, Max and Al deliberately reveal their contempt for civilized life: “You ought to go to the movies more. The movies are fine for a bright boy like you.”
How does Max and Al’s view of movies differ from that of George?
For decent people, the movies they choose to see are a source of entertainment. Manufactured, produced, and marketed according to palatable standards of morality, the movies, according to Max and Al, offer people like George an escape into a fantasy world that has little to do with the way Max and Al think the real world operates. Willing suspensions of disbelief occur all the time in the movies: the good guy wins; the bad guy loses. At a very minimum, harmonious background music flavors dramatic scenes in movies, whereas scenes in real life occur in dissonant rhythms. Thus, the movie life that is an imitation of real life for characters like George is merely a facade for Max and Al, whose statement suggests he believes the movies are an unsophisticated collection of illusions and make-believe half-truths impacting little on the way informed men like them conduct their affairs.
Because their disdain for the movies suggests that Max and Al view everyday existence as a haphazard set of circumstances governed by chance and power, they consequently both seek to control, for they both believe there is no universal order, except that order which either of them can bring to bear on a given situation by sheer force and power. Hence, when George asks Max and Al, “What did he [Ole Andreson] ever do to you,” Max, who has orchestrated the order of the lunchroom scene “like a photographer arranging for a group picture,” tells George, “He [Ole Andreson] never had a chance to do anything to us. He never even seen us.” Max conveys in his remark his belief that cause and effect is unpredictable, that events have unintended, unforeseen consequences. Consequently, chance governs the outcome of human affairs.
An exchange between Al and Max also shows their callousness toward religion:
“I got them tied up like a couple of girl friends in a convent.”
“I suppose you were in a convent.”
“You never know.”
“You were in a kosher convent. That’s where you were.”
This flash of contempt between Max and Al, coming on the heels of Al’s admonishment of Max for talking “too goddamn much,” distills into just a few sentences the inhumanity inherent in Max and Al’s darkened vision. By joking about “convents,” and “kosher convents,” and by using “goddamn,” Al and Max reveal their disdain for both the Jewish and Christian institutions set in place to mitigate the presence of evil in the lives of Adam and Eve’s descendants. Lacking compassion because everything in their belief system is governed by chance and power, Max and Al even compete between themselves to dominate the other. George’s life, predictable, dependent upon structure as codified by the rules and regulations of a moral society, contrasts with Max’s and Al’s lives, unpredictable, devoid of all moral structure as George would know it.
These contrasting views of human existence are reinforced by the wall clock, with its rotating hands and numbered face, which mechanically reflects spinning constellations into manmade months and years. Max and Al hide in Henry’s lunchroom to take advantage of the predictable routines of the lunchroom customers.
But as supper time approaches and more citizens enter Henry’s expecting the supper prepared, the most aggressive customer says, “Why the hell don’t you get another cook?” The fact that George’s most aggressive customer uses the word “hell” signals to Max and Al the lost opportunity they first established when they used the same word earlier in the story to test their authority.
Recognizing, therefore, that the passage of time marks an increasing threat from those whose lives are governed by a conventional application of time’s implicit rules and regulations, Al says to George, “So long, bright boy…. You got a lot of luck.”
In a continuum of recognitions, the lunchroom occupants express their attitudes towards the behaviors to which fortune has just subjected them:“I don’t want any more of that. . . I don’t want any more of that.”
Because Sam, the “nigger” in this society, has been on the receiving end of demeaning abuse since he was very young, Sam’s personal resolution for his lifelong dilemma has been to do his job and tend to his own business: “You better not have anything to do with it at all…. You better stay way out of it.”
But George, who still believes something can be done to protect Ole Andreson, says to Nick, “You better go see Ole Andreson.”
Believing that he can “swagger it off,” Nick, the most innocent of the men, journeys to Hirsch’s rooming house to discover for himself the meaning of his experience with the two strangers who just left Henry’s.
“Is Ole Andreson here?” Nick says at Hirsch’s rooming house, where a woman comes to the door.
The woman takes Nick “up a flight of stairs and back to the end of a corridor,” where she knocks on the door. When the door to this room opens, the turmoil that began in Nick’s life when the door to Henry’s lunchroom opened and two men came in becomes a struggle for Nick that forever changes his assumptions and beliefs.
Andreson, who is lying in bed with all his clothes on, asks Nick:
“What was it?”
“I was up at Henry’s,” Nick said, “and two men came in and tied up me and the cook, and they said they were going to kill you.”
Nick thinks it “sounded silly” when he described the event to Andreson. The word “silly” becomes the key to Nick’s struggle, for if Nick can reduce the violence of Ole Andreson’s dilemma to a weak-minded act of inconsequential absurdity, Nick can assimilate this moment into the scheme of things he held to be true before the two men entered Henry’s lunchroom. Therefore, hopeful that he can shape this interpretation out of his trip to warn Ole Andreson, Nick begins by offering to tell Andreson “what they [the two men] were like.”
But Andreson, who rolls over and looks at the wall of a room he has been unable to leave all day, does not want to know what the two men were like.
Determined to cling to his belief that he can do something to help Ole Andreson, Nick reveals in his next statement to Andreson that he, Nick, is closer to George on the continuum of characters and their reactions to Max and Al and their insidious ways than he is to Sam:
“Don’t you want me to go and see the police?”
“No,” Ole Andreson said. “That wouldn’t do any good.”
The police exist to prevent violations of the rules and regulations so that order might prevail over chaos, form over formlessness.
But Ole Andreson’s answer denies the viability of that structured view of human affairs in this circumstance.
With increasing desperation, Nick tries again:
“Isn’t there something I could do?”
“No. There ain’t anything to do.”
Then Nick searches for any possibility that can come to mind:
“Maybe it was just a bluff.”
“No. It ain’t just a bluff.”
Could Andreson get out of town?
“No,” Ole Andreson said. “I’m through with all that running around.”
With his last statement to Nick, Andreson reveals that he, too, has gone through a search similar to Nick’s, for Andreson once thought that he could “fix it up some way.” But now Andreson realizes that the force the two men represent is not only unforgiving but also ubiquitous, though people like Nick and George may not recognize its shape or presence until a door opens and two men casually enter a lunchroom.
The character most naive to Ole Andreson’s dilemma is the woman Nick assumes is “the landlady.”
“I’m sorry he don’t feel well,” the woman said. “He’s an awfully nice man. He was in the ring, you know.”
“I know it.”
“You’d never know it except from the way his face is,” the woman said. They stood talking just inside the street door. “He’s just as gentle.”
“Well, good-night, Mrs. Hirsch,” Nick said.
“I’m not Mrs. Hirsch,” the woman said. “She owns the place. I just look after it for her. I’m Mrs. Bell.”
Nick’s mistaken assumption about Mrs. Hirsch underscores that all his earlier assumptions have been flawed too.
Max and Al believe that people like Nick and Mrs. Bell reach their opinions from flawed observations because they look along the surface of their experiences for actions that confirm their needs. In so doing, their simplicity of judgment shields them from recognizing the random forces that influence the actual nature of events.
The controlling image for this belief is contained in the image of the race track:
“So long, bright boy,” he [Al] said to George. “You got a lot of luck.”
“That’s the truth,” Max said. “You ought to play the races, bright boy.”
Max and Al bet on the races as chances for financial gain. If they could influence their chances for winning through trickery or chicanery, they surely would, for any influence they could bring to bear on the outcome of the race would be to their advantage. Just as they would bet on a horse race, they would also bet on a boxing match. Likewise, influencing the outcome of a fight would be to their advantage.
Max and Al are killing Ole Andreson “to oblige a friend,” which is to say, Ole Andreson failed to lose a fight he promised he would throw. When Ole Andreson failed to throw the fight, he negatively influenced the odds Max and Al and others like them had calculated to be in their favor.
In the final scene of “The Killers,” George, Sam, and Nick discuss the ways their random experience with the killers has affected their lives.
“Did you see Ole?”
“Yes,” said Nick. “He’s in his room and he won’t go out.”
By resolving not to go out of his room in Mrs. Hirsch’s rooming house, Ole Andreson has realized he can no longer escape the unforgiving, vindictive consequences of his betrayal. He cannot defeat Max and Al and their “friend,” nor can the forces of conventional society help him defeat Max and Al and their friend, no matter the town or room in which he hides.
Sam the cook opens the door to the kitchen when he hears Nick’s voice and says, “I don’t even listen to it.” And then he shuts the door.
By shutting the door, Sam hides from the knowledge that conventional beliefs cannot help Ole Andreson.
“Did you tell him about it?” George asked.
“Sure. I told him but he knows what it’s all about.”
Innocence lost, knowledge gained, Nick searches for a way to live with a view he finds uncomfortable:
“What’s he going to do?”
“They’ll kill him.”
“I guess they will.”
“It’s a hell of a thing.”
“It’s an awful thing,” Nick said.
Struggling with his new knowledge, Nick wonders what Ole Andreson did to get in wrong. To wonder is to search, to think: to think is to try to understand by bringing order out of chaos so that life might have some meaning.
In an explanation directly out of the movies, George says, “Double-crossed somebody. That’s what they kill them for.”
But Nick realizes that by referring to the movies, George has retreated into a contrived re-enactment of an event that for Ole Andreson is chaotically unforgiving, totally untoward. Unable to accept George’s method of escape, Nick tells George he’s going to get out of this town, as if by getting out of this town he will greatly reduce the chances that he will ever again encounter the likes of Max and Al.
Recognizing Nick’s desperate need to find a way to deal with the terror that they both have experienced, George, the passive man, the accommodating man, agrees that Nick should leave town: “Yes,” said George. “That’s a good thing to do.”
But Nick quickly realizes that if he should leave town, the memory of Ole Andreson’s dilemma will accompany him everywhere: “I can’t stand to think about him waiting in the room and knowing that he’s going to get it. It’s too damned awful.”
Yes, it is too damned awful. In a chorus effect not unlike that of the Greek playwrights, Hemingway has George offer Nick the method most commonplace people employ for dealing with Ole Andreson’s dilemma. Affirming that they all must try to escape evil’s chilling presence, they bury the recognition of its existence in the recesses of their minds, recalling that recognition only when circumstances beyond their control force them to face their knowledge.
Taking place in the town of Summit, this resolution to the “The Killers” truly does represent a spiritual summit meaning. Any confrontation with evil is at the summit of human existence: how human beings deal with evil defines who they are. Through the craft of storytelling, the conflict among the characters in “The Killers” about how to deal with evil has brought to life the abstract by making the word flesh.
1. Hemingway, Ernest. The Nick Adams Stories. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972.