‘One Reader Writes’ by Ernest Hemingway: Short Story Analysis
‘One Reader Writes’ is a realistic modernist short story by American writer Ernest Hemingway, one of the greatest American writers of all time. In this short story, Hemingway uses his much-acclaimed Iceberg Theory, a very minimalistic writing style. Hemingway invented the Iceberg Theory, which had a significant impact on the writers of the twentieth century. The Iceberg Theory suggests using very little surface prose, which contains symbology. The story is so crafted in this minimalistic way to denote a more profound layer beneath the external. Here, too, there are many deeper aspects to the story, which would otherwise read as a straightforward story of a concerned wife seeking help from a medical columnist. ‘One Reader Writes’ was published in 1933 as part of Ernest Hemingway’s third short story collection, Winner Take Nothing. I have reviewed another Hemingway short story titled ‘A Canary for One’, which you can check out for reference.
The story is a concise piece penned in a minimalistic yet rich manner by the master writer Ernest Hemingway. The title originates from the fact that at the end of the day, to the medical columnist, this unnamed wife writing to him would only be a ‘reader’. She would otherwise have no other distinguishing factor, making it easier for the medical columnist to advise her on what steps she should take regarding her husband. The husband in question was a soldier who had married the woman in 1929 and was sent to Shanghai, China, on military service for three years. He returned suffering from the disease syphilis. Naturally, the presumption was that he contracted the disease because of sexual relations outside of marriage. Here are a few points to keep in mind when you think of the disease syphilis and what was going on in Hemingway’s mind when he wrote this short story:
- A bacterial infection is usually spread by sexual contact that starts as a painless sore.
- Syphilis develops in stages, and symptoms vary with each stage.
- The first stage involves a painless sore on the genitals, rectum, or mouth. After the initial sore heals, the second stage is characterized by a rash. Then, there are no symptoms until the final stage, which may occur years later. This final stage can result in damage to the brain, nerves, eyes, or heart.
- Syphilis is treated with penicillin. Sexual partners should also be treated.
- Syphilis is transmitted from person to person by direct contact with a syphilitic sore, known as a chancre. Chancres can occur on or around the external genitals, in the vagina, around the anus, rectum, or in or around the mouth. Transmission of syphilis can occur during vaginal, anal, or oral sex.
- Syphilis can be passed on by sharing needles and injecting equipment. To reduce your risk, avoid sharing needles or injecting equipment.
Note that where the last point is concerned, it is doubtful that the husband in question had got syphilis due to the sharing of an injection. Literary theorists and commentators on Hemingway’s works believe that the indication was that the husband indeed had contracted the bacterial disease due to sexual contact outside marriage. Note also that we are unsure whether the soldier got the condition due to sexual contact with a woman or man. In the early twentieth century, life in the army was not all that comforting as one would think it to be, especially not in 1929, China. Men in tight situations take recourse to same-gender sex, of which we are aware. When they do so, they think they are not cheating on their wives or girlfriends. I have recently reviewed a book dealing with this sub-topic titled 13 Years: A Naxalite’s Prison Diary by Ramchandra Singh, which you can check out for reference. So, we understand that there were so many questions and uncertainties in the naïve wife’s mind. She was sure that her husband had cheated on her, that he had STD (Sexually Transmitted Disease), and was a danger to her, their little daughter, and their relationship.
Where the wife’s father is concerned, he believes that anyone with syphilis would wish themselves dead. This is not because syphilis is painful, but because if undetected, it can lead to severe and fatal symptoms and infect the patient’s loved ones, primarily through sexual contact. The wife’s father looked down on men who contracted syphilis. He felt they were not fit to live. The wife is naïve, not well-educated regarding sex, and does not have trust in herself. She is equally ashamed of the fact that her husband has got syphilis. That is why she seeks the guidance of a doctor who advises a newspaper. She does not trust her husband with her worries; she has no faith in him anymore. The wife seems afraid of her husband. She does not even confide in her very opinionated father. Instead, she does something ironic. She tells the whole world about her problem through a letter addressed to a medical columnist. She would withhold her name, and she and the doctor would not have to meet. She is alone in this battle of affections and is desperate for any reliable source of knowledge. She pens the letter in one go. She does not make any mistakes and does not need to cross out or re-write the letter. It shows that, though disturbed, she was a practical woman. Yes, she was partially calm and believed that she and her daughter could live with the patient.
The woman mentions that she wants to believe her husband that they could have sexual relations and that everything would be alright. He was right because a person who has been treated for syphilis needs to avoid sex for only seven days after the treatment is over. Also, if one’s sexual partner is not treated, one can get reinfected with syphilis. One should not have sex with any partner who has syphilis until seven days after he or she finishes treatment. The wife did not know this and was in great agony and doubt. She believes her father but not her husband, though she desperately wants to believe in her husband. The illicit sexual contact has clouded her mind with doubts about her husband.
Notice that there is so much stigma towards people with syphilis or other STD and HIV related diseases. Not many people try to understand these diseases and then spread a lot of nonsense about it all. That is what I guess Hemingway wants to fight using his Iceberg Theory. He knows that readers of his short story titled ‘One Reader Writes’ will mostly have no awareness about the disease syphilis. He uses this confusion to craft a story that says more than even this analysis ever can or ever will. Hopefully, thanks to modern science and social awareness, we can better understand STD and how they can be treated. Yet, many people still seek medical newspaper correspondents for expert advice, especially on anything concerning sex.
Coming to the last part of this analysis, the wife is anxious, fretting, and in a state of near hysteria immediately after she pens the letter. She cannot believe that God or, rather, the Christian God could have made her husband get this disease. She continually prays that Lord Jesus Christ or God will take this disease from her husband. She is in denial, but she is still in charge of her mental faculties. This is a short story to talk about and create awareness. However, to a misinformed reader, it would seem like a mystery at the end of the story – would they be able to live together as husband and wife or not? Naturally, we know that can happen, but only, as the husband said after the treatment is over. Then probably the illicit affair in Shanghai would be tackled. The word ‘sex’ is not used here, just something in a roundabout way to indicate the same.
I always enjoy reading the works of American writer Ernest Hemingway. He is one of my favorites from the USA. I have his whole short-stories collection and hope to re-read and analyze them for you here on my blog. In keeping with the fact that an extremely critical American Election is going on, I have decided to blog about American books, fiction, non-fiction, short stories, essays, and other American bookish information. If you want to read or reference any writer from America, keep on watching this site. I hope to be reading and reviewing more American works in the coming days.
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