29 pages 58 minutes read

Ernest Hemingway

The Killers

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1927

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “The Killers”

“The Killers,” by American author Ernest Hemingway, is a short story that tackles the themes Loss of Innocence, Passivity Versus Activity, and Disillusionment With Reality.

Originally published in 1927 in Scribner’s magazine, “The Killers” was later included in Hemingway’s short story collections Men Without Women, which came out later the same year, Snows of Kilimanjaro, and The Nick Adams Stories. The story has also been adapted into various film and animation versions over the years.

“The Killers” showcases Hemingway’s signature writing style, which is informed by his background as a reporter. Hemingway is acclaimed for this minimalism, crafting his narratives with uncomplicated language, concise sentence structures, and sharp, incisive dialogues that propel the story forward with momentum.

“The Killers” also features Nick Adams, a recurring character in Hemingway’s works. Nick Adams is often viewed as semi-autobiographical, drawing from Hemingway’s own experiences. The collective Nick Adams stories provide a coming-of-age narrative, depicting the growth and development of a young man through interconnected episodes.

This study guide refers to the version of “The Killers” included in the 2004 Penguin Random House edition of Men Without Women.

Content Warning: The source material uses the n-word, which has been obscured in this guide.

“The Killers” employs a third-person point of view and has a linear structure. Set against the backdrop of Prohibition-era Summit, Illinois, the story opens with two enigmatic men entering Henry’s lunchroom. The pair, Max and Al, bear an uncanny resemblance to each other and are dressed identically in black, tightly fitted overcoats, derby hats, mufflers, and gloves. As they debate over their meal choices, Nick Adams observes them from his spot at the counter.

Al finally places an order but is informed by the waiter, George, that their selections are unavailable: “That’s the dinner,” he says, “you can get that at six o’clock” (43). Looking at the diner clock, George lets the men know that it is 20 minutes fast. After a brief argument, the men reluctantly settle for available options: ham and eggs and bacon and eggs sandwiches. The two ask George if he has anything to drink, and George offers only non-alcoholic options.

The two men comment sarcastically on the liveliness of the town, Summit, and George and Nick: “the town’s full of bright boys” (45), they say. Their gloves remain on during the meal, adding to the unsettling atmosphere.

The situation escalates when the two order Nick to stand on the opposite side of the counter near George. George and Nick inquire what is happening, only to be met with cryptic responses. The men dismiss their inquiries as “none of your damned business” (45). Max and Al proceed to summon the kitchen’s cook, Sam, who is called the n-word by both the men and George. Al announces that he’s going to stay in the kitchen with Sam and Nick, while Max will stay with George in the front.

Amid George’s meek protestations and inquiries, Max eventually reveals their intent: They have come to Henry’s lunchroom to kill Ole Andreson, a former prizefighter known to frequent the establishment for dinner at six o’clock. When George queries the motive, Max admits it’s on behalf of a friend. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Nick and Sam are tied up and kept quiet with “a towel tied in each of their mouths” (48). Max tells George that if anybody comes in, he should tell them Sam is gone and cook the food himself.

When it gets to seven and Ole still hasn’t shown up, George tells Max and Al that he “isn’t going to come” (48). The two men eventually decide to leave and spare the lives of their hostages. George watches them go and then proceeds to untie Nick and Sam. The latter appears deeply unsettled by the ordeal: “I don’t want any more of that,” he says (50).

George reveals to Max and Al the murderous intent of the two men and urges Nick to warn Ole. Despite Sam’s attempts to dissuade him, Nick agrees to the task. George gives Nick directions to Ole’s residence, and Nick sets off. He arrives at Hirsch’s rooming house where Ole rents a room and asks the woman who answers the door if Ole is in. Guided by the woman, Nick goes to Ole’s room and finds him lying on his bed, fully clothed, his head resting on two pillows, avoiding eye contact with Nick.

Nick tries to warn him about the two killers, but Ole is resigned: “There isn’t anything I can do about it” (51), he says. He declines to hear a description of the men and discourages Nick from involving the police, stating he’s “through with all that running around” (51). Nick finally leaves Ole’s room and speaks with the landlady, who tells him that Ole appears to be sick, having stayed indoors the entire day. She describes Ole as an “awfully nice man” and “just as gentle” (52). Nick erroneously addresses the woman as Mrs. Hirsch, but she corrects him: “I’m not Mrs. Hirsch,” she says. “She owns the place. I just look after it for her. I’m Mrs. Bell” (52).

Returning to Henry’s, Nick recounts the encounter to George. They speculate that Ole might have double-crossed someone during his time in Chicago. Clearly upset, Nick says he’s “going to get out of this town” (51) as he can’t bear the thought of Ole in his room, anticipating his demise. The story concludes with George encouraging Nick to “not think about it” (53).