The Battler by Ernest Hemingway
The Battler is another story about Nick Adams, the protagonist of a series of Ernest Hemingway stories. In this one he is still an adolescent travelling by freight train somewhere near Chicago. He gets kicked off by a brakeman and is walking near the track, his face bruised from the fall. It is very dark and cold outside. A fire appears in the darkness and as Nick comes closer he sees a man sitting next to it. The man has a completely bruised face with only one ear left. He is small, but obviously quite strong. After being invited Nick sits down and tells the man what has just happened to him. The man calls him a tough boy and introduces himself as Ad Francis, a former well-known fighter. Another man called Bugs appears in the darkness. He brings some food with him and starts making a little dinner for them. When he asks Nick to slice the bread, Ad sees the knife and wants to have it. Bugs forbids him to take it and goes on talking to Nick. After a while, not saying anything, Ad stands up and wants to fight Nick. But he knows that Ad is much stronger than he and therefore wants to avoid a fight. Since Ad does not give in, Bugs sneaks behind him hitting him so hard that he loses his consciousness. The question why Ad becomes mad like this, Bugs answers with a story about Ad´s sister. First she was Ad’s manager during his time as a champion-fighter, and then they got married. A short time after the marriage she left him, and that was the time when Ad started to beat up people. It got so far that he was arrested. In jail he got to know Bugs and since then they have made their way together. After he has finished Bugs tells Nick to leave, so Ad will not be upset when he wakes up. He gives Nick another sandwich for his journey, then Nick goes out into the darkness, walking up the track again.
Which role does Ad play for Nick?
When Nick sees Ad for the first time they look very alike. Both have bruised faces, both fell down (Nick from the train, Ad from his life as a famous boxer), and now both are sitting by the fire. Nick admires Ad for his toughness and the success he once had. But what he does not see at first sight, is the fundament on which this life was based on and where it lead to. Ad achieved everything with brutality, his toughness and his physical power was all he needed to be on top of the world. But especially when you reach all your success by being brutal, it will not last forever. Ad could fight the strongest men, but he was not able to handle feelings like loneliness or sadness. So he could not comprehend the loss of his wife and went mad. Finally he fell so deep that he ended in jail and now lives the life of a poor man. He is not able to control himself anymore and he needs Bugs to take care of him. Although he probably knows about that, he is too proud to admit it even after all that time. Instead he tells Nick that his friend is crazy, too. At the example of Ad Nick can see, where brutality and false pride can lead to. At the beginning he admires Ad for exactly those characteristics, but maybe afterwards he has learned that this is not the path to happiness.
During this encounter Nick also faces death, since a man who snaps in and out of reality like Ad could easily have killed him. But Nick remains calm without any cowardice; slowly backing up while trying to talk Ad out of the fight. Even though he is young, he shows mature behaviour and behaves the way Hemingway would want a real man to behave.
Why does Hemingway refer to Bugs as negro and nigger?
There are two possible explanations for this. A first interpretation could be made on the grounds of Bugs´s very contradictory character; on the one hand he is very polite, gentle and nice - really caring for Ad – on the other hand he is brutal, being a former convict who was in jail for "cuttin‘ a man" as he says. He has to hit Ad to get Nick out of danger, but even while hitting he is careful not to hurt. Hemingway`s calling him negro as well as nigger could emphasise Bugs´s brutality.
Another possibility could be that Hemingway wanted to point out the racial discrimination which was prevailing in the USA at Hemingway’s time. A strong argument for this interpretation is that Bugs is such a friendly character through his hospitality, but is still abusively called nigger. Whatever he does, however he behaves, the nigger prejudice will follow him throughout his entire life.
What is Bugs’s role in this story?
Bugs can be seen as a counterpart to Ad: he is nice, patient and calm. Ad on the other hand can snap in and out of reality at any moment, he is dangerous for society and has to be kept away from it. Bugs´s role is to keep him away, to protect him from himself. Bugs reminds the reader of a caring mother or a nurse: he protects Ad and Nick, feeds them, settles an argument and punishes.
Did Nick learn any lessons from this episode?
Maybe Nick did not learn explicit lessons, but it can be said that he made some crucial experiences which might have influenced his further development. He must have found out that brutality does not really help you in life, that the gentle way is the better one. Another thing he experienced is how to face senseless aggression without cowardice. Finally the horrifying story about Ad’s sister might have influenced Nick´s attitude towards women, since he could have interpreted it this way: Do not depend too much on a single person, do not fall in love to hard – a woman can always leave you and harm you by this. Do not become vulnerable, you can be as strong as you want to your environment, but a woman can still hurt you. And with reference to this story there is also the virtue not to project one´s aggressions on the environment as Ad did.
Why is this story called "The Battler" and not "The Boxer"?
This story does not only refer to Ad’s struggle in the ring as a fighter, but also refers to Ad’s battle of life. It shows that life is an endless battle, and how a person can become if this battle is lost.