Ernest Hemingway

A Very Short Story

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A Very Short Story Summary

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“A Very Short Story” (1924), a short story by American author Ernest Hemingway, first appearing in Hemingway’s short story collection, In Our Time. It concerns an injured American soldier fighting in Europe during World War I who falls in love with a nurse named Luz. The story is reportedly based on Hemingway’s own relationship with Agnes von Kurowsky, a nurse with the American Red Cross whom Hemingway fell in love with while being treated for injuries in Milan, Italy. Kurowsky also served as the basis for female characters in Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and A Farewell to Arms.

The story begins during World War I on a “hot evening in Padua,” a city in Northern Italy. The unnamed protagonist is carried to the roof of the hospital on a cot by orderlies who are accompanied by a nurse named Luz. They all drink, watching smoke billow up into the sky from the chimneys. Before long, everyone leaves the roof except Luz and the protagonist. Luz sits on the cot next to the protagonist, and it is suggested that a sexual act occurs between them. “She was cool and fresh in the hot night,” the story reads.

For the next three months, Luz volunteers for night duty so she and the protagonist can spend more time together alone. The protagonist recalls the day of his medical operation when Luz prepared him in front of the surgeons. As the anesthetic kicked in, he worried that he would accidentally reveal something about his relationship with Luz due to the hazy delirium of the drugs. After recovering enough to be mobile with the help of crutches, the protagonist completes some of Luz’s simpler duties, like taking the patients’ temperature in the middle of the night, so she can stay in his bed. At this point, he says, all of the other patients know about his relationship with Luz. None of them minds.

Before long, the protagonist has healed enough to return to the frontlines. He and Luz visit the local cathedral and pray, wishing they could marry. Unfortunately, custom dictates that an impending marriage be announced on three successive Sundays (a practice known as “banns”), and there is not enough time before the protagonist must leave Padua. “They felt like they were married,” the story reads, “but they wanted everyone to know about it, and to make it so they could not lose it.”

Between the time the protagonist leaves Padua and the end of the war, Luz writes to him at least fifteen times. Unfortunately, he doesn’t receive any of the letters until after the armistice. He sorts them all by date, then reads about how much she misses him and how impossible it is to live without him. They reunite, but Luz refuses to return to America with the protagonist until he can secure a good job. They quarrel about this, and by the time he kisses her goodbye at the Milan train station, they are still quarreling, which makes the protagonist sick to his stomach.

After the protagonist leaves for Chicago, Luz goes to the city of Pordonone to help open a hospital. Stationed in Pordonone is a Special Forces unit of the Royal Italian Army known as the Arditi. During a muddy, rainy, and lonely winter, Luz makes love to the major of the Arditi battalion. She writes to the protagonist, stating that she had never known the love of an Italian before and that the love affair they shared in the hospital was merely “a boy and girl affair.” In that final letter, Luz expresses that she will always love the protagonist but that she and the major will definitely be married in the spring. The protagonist never responds to her final letter. Meanwhile, the reader learns that the major did not marry Luz in the spring, nor at any other time.

The story ends with a characteristically terse sentence that emphasizes the utter coldness that sets in with the end of the protagonist’s relationship with Luz. In strikingly matter-of-fact language, the final sentence reads, “A short time after [the protagonist] contracted gonorrhea from a sales girl in a loop department store while riding in a taxicab through Lincoln Park.”

“A Very Short Story” is an early example of Hemingway’s paradoxical ability to accentuate devastating emotional consequences through stark, plain language.