Being Operated On: Hemingway’s “The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio”

Being Operated On: Hemingway’s “The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio” – Critical Essay

Adrian Bond

During the party at the end of “The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio,” an accordion “inhal[es]” and “exhal[es]” (366). However one might feel about the supposed musicality of human lungs, in a story concerned with inmates in a hospital, with casual injury and inexorable death, the detail seems generally relevant. In fact, the appearance of corporality here–where it shouldn’t be–is a pointed reminder, the deflected center of a larger design Hemingway refocuses with, what was for him, an almost unconscionable use of figurative language. Hemingway would be as quick as his character Cayetano Ruiz to disclaim “philosopher” status (366)–as both writer and media celebrity he was a salient figure in a long tradition of American common sense. It is therefore not surprising that when he does touch upon metaphysical speculation the contact is phenomenological. Another metaphor–this one Frazer’s self-conscious allusion to people being “operated on” (367)–allows Hemingway entrance into the epiphenomenalism of mind.

Immediately following the accordion (steadily breathing like a patient on the operating table) and those other sounds of the bells, the traps and a (telltale) drum, Hemingway supplies a list of the ward’s inmates. The accompanying biographic information ensures their anonymity: “there was a rodeo rider …,” “There was a carpenter …” and so forth. Oddly, Cayetano appears in this list. A figure who was allowed to speak, to live in dialogue, to assume character status, is reduced to the autopsy of third-person narration. The inmates’ biographies are foremost histories of particular–sometimes serious–but generally unremarkable afflictions. There are broken ankles and wrists, a “broken leg” and a “broken back,” as if the human body were made of something cheaper than porcelain but no more durable, and “There was Cayetano Ruiz, a small-town gambler with a paralyzed leg” (366). We could easily add other characters to this list–all of them, in fact. The entire story, as far as it is Frazer’s story (and it is no more his than anyone else’s), moves toward the economy of an epitaph. That central character appears to us without a personal history. He is a writer (we conclude from two references to writing) who has sustained an injury falling off a horse (or so he says), an injury that is not new to him and seems to amount to more than a riding accident, for “Mr. Frazer had been through this all before” (363).

Halfway through the story Frazer’s nerves go “bad,” a state he views with clinical detachment, for “while he was pleased they lasted that long … he resented being forced to make the same experiment when he already knew the answer” (363). The chronic sufferer is appropriately a writer, hence a recording consciousness. (Hemingway’s aesthetic of literary veracity, telling it “The way it was,” is broadly informative here).(1) As if in an out-of-body experience, the mind confronts the stranger of the body, seeming to hover some place above it–watching, making notes–and, in doing so, assumes a marginality belied by its apparent authority. Despite third-person narration, details of Hemingway’s story move almost exclusively through the perceptions of Frazer and that character’s powers are–in a limiting sense–spectatorial. “It’s coming along good now since he spliced the bone,” Frazer reports to the detective sergeant who replies with odd sobriety, “Yes, but it’s a long time. A long, long time” (357). Behind this comment lurks an implicit and disturbing pun: a patient is one who is patient. If the story reads as if it were about the injury rather than Frazer it is because the life of an affliction is life per se. There is no real past or future for Frazer, just a protracted present, in that existing is itself a continual but futile experiment, a process of being operated on. The identities of patients can be subsumed by the accounts of their injuries, the abstraction of mind left hovering on the periphery like an awkwardly assembled subplot. While details of the story remain as uncommitted as those in a diary, the injury itself ensures resolution. Injury is, in fact, plot.

Upstaged by his own body, dispossessed of autonomy, Frazer is a curiously extraneous character, dependent on Sister Cecilia and his radio as intermediaries between his private room and the larger world of human society. “The Gambler …” begins with Hemingway’s characteristic vantage: “They brought them in around midnight” (355). The nominative pronoun can site but not identify the agents who–to borrow Leslie Fiedler’s neologism–“undermind” the Hemingway universe, glimpsed in the instant between a paranoid sense of conspiracy and the fatalistic resignation to it.(2) “They” are, of course, specters of an absent volition personified in syntax, the active voice paradoxically constructed on an unprecedented pronoun. Put in the service of narrative technique, “They” ushers in with the story’s very first word the principle of essential disenfranchisement explored at length through the experiential and epistemological foreclosure of the hospital setting, the infantilization effected by the matronly nurse Cecilia, and, above all, the stasis of bedridden patients literally reifying as the story progresses.

Despite his practical limitations, Frazer does attempt to assert a sort of aesthetic control.

It is really best to be in bed if you are in a hospital; since two views,

with time to observe them, from a room the temperature of which you

control, are much better than any number of views seen for a few minutes

from hot, empty rooms that are waiting for some one else, or just

abandoned, which you are wheeled in and out of. (358)

Frazer’s program requires the centralization of the self spatially within the bed, within the private room. The view from a room, like the songs on a radio, acquires importance to the degree that it is unchanging and familiar. The order of the exterior confirms the interior. Frazer would not change the view, “not even by a different angle” (359). An adjustment in angle would reorient spatial relationships, move him from where he should be. (One such movement, by the over-zealous doctor, brings appropriately disastrous results [358]). Frazer finds himself by locating the outer world. He resides at the intersection of the two lines of sight (the “two views” seen through the room’s two windows).

The geometry is sustained and we have the sense that it is meant to assume more than dramatic weight when we are given a statement such as the following:

From the other window, if the bed was turned, you could see the town, with

a little smoke above it, and the Dawson mountains looking like real

mountains with the winter snow on them. (358)

An immediate implication is that the Dawson mountains, being relatively small, only acquire the designation “mountains” circumstantially. The vagueness of the description, however, invites a more impressionistic reading. Realness is a quality that the Dawson mountains only mimic. The language of seeming is applied to the exterior, just as that of being is relegated to the interior. At night, listening to the radio, Frazer’s mind wanders. Hemingway documents his nocturnal daydreams. “He had never been in Minneapolis… but he knew what it looked like that early in the morning” (358). Frazer “lived” in Seattle from two o’clock on; while being in no sense actually at that place, he grew “very fond of Seattle, Washington” (363). Just as the reality of the Dawson mountains depends upon Frazer’s acceptance of the illusion, the city becomes an experiential quantity only when it is constructed in imagination.

The radio is the aesthetic tool par excellence, able to create out of an absolute economy of material. For Frazer it functions primarily as a sort of time machine, enabling escape from the linear chronology of the hospital: “due to the difference in time, when they signed off at four o’clock in the morning it was five o’clock in the morning in the hospital” (358). Hospital time is the “long, long” duration of suffering, the time that, like the drumbeats of the heart, measures human life in its irrevocable progression toward death. The daytime of the ward, coinciding with the operation of the X-ray machine–which, when used, renders Frazer’s radio useless–is dehumanizing. Listening to the radio all night, and so presumably sleeping during the day, Frazer reclaims his autonomy by reordering his circadian rhythm. That this cycle reverses the normal distinction between day and night carries obvious overtones. Frazer’s radio experience is, of course, a dream-life–if not literally a dreaming, then a free play of the imagination. It is only in the internal life of the radio experience that descriptive accounts move beyond the “simpler” reality of the hospital (358). It is only in that final interior that Frazer, the figure without any detailed past, truly lives. Frazer was “in Seattle” in the same way the detective sergeant suggests Cayetano could be “in Chicago” (356). The creative geography of nightly meandering is situated in a conceptual “place,” a topological center. Physical space converges on mental space; Frazer’s private room reduplicates and represents his mind. Given his metonymic bias, Hemingway is as deliberately metaphoric here as he is likely to get, but, then again, this is largely Frazer’s design. In Frazer’s perception, mental space is almost tangible, and Frazer observes–apparently in a further detachment of vantage–as an idea goes “around the corner” into the “well-lighted part of his mind” (367).

Having established the topological construct and its corresponding axiology (the relatively higher value of interiority, versus the lower of exteriority), Hemingway can use the same figuration to explode Frazer’s model of mind. When Cayetano makes a distinction between “real” gambling and his own particular activity, he opens with that adjective a rather large gulf. What can be ordered by the individual, manipulated by “the hands” and “the head,” is that which is ultimately un-“real.” Cayetano is a gambler who never “really” gambles. He wanders on the outskirts of that real thing, working the towns, but without luck, never getting into the center (365). Frazer is identified as a writer (a word that is never, in fact, assigned to him), and yet, appropriately we realize, within the story that he never (“really”) writes. We see him once approaching the activity of writing, but here he is only parodying the lyrics of a popular song, “Betty Co-ed” (359). This in not writing per se, but rewriting, and the discovery of Frazer’s marginal method informs his other great creative activity, the radio dreaming. To enter the radio experience is to become a wanderer, to “go farther west” as if in actual motion (358), to work the cities along the airwaves like the itinerant Cayetano working the small towns, to find what is most real in your experience, where you “live” and what you “know,” is not your own. Frazer’s conceptual life is an exercise in displacement, a living in the interstices of time difference; he hears only the songs that other people ask for (363), and lays claim to experience that he can never fully possess. Even the radio is only “rented” (361). And the private room is only borrowed, destined finally to be abandoned. Death, that final process of dispossession, is hinted at repeatedly, and figured in every detail of the story.

The obsessive concern with sanity points accusingly in a similar direction. Cayetano’s sense of order rests on the conviction that a man (his assailant in particular) can be sane, “not crazy” and, accordingly, predictable (356). The thin Mexican echoes this concern when he asks of Cecilia, “Is she a little crazy?” Although Frazer is quick to respond, he doesn’t really deal with the question (362). Sanity is for him a touchy subject. He has been through this experiment before; he knows his nerves will eventually give out. When Sister Cecilia tells him the injured Cayetano is “very bad,” Frazer reveals his understanding of what “very bad” implies, asking her, “Is he out of his head?” (359). Cayetano later confirms this worst possibility: “I was crazy with it in the belly” (365). Frazer is aware of the ephemerality of selfhood, that once the nerves go (as they do during the course of the story) he will become a different person–which he does, crying when the nurse leaves the room, keeping a stiff upper lip when she’s present, manipulating the presentation of self in a way that Cayetano considers un-“healthy” (365). Mental health is predicated

on physical health, selfhood equally bound to the “long, long” time of the hospital. The gulf between “now” and “later” is self-estranging. The man with his nerves intact contemplates the man out of his head with pain; the discoverer of the “real opium” envisions the stranger “in the daylight” for whom this truth makes no sense (367). The perspective is only a “difference in time.” But the particular moment one occupies makes all the difference. There is no continuum between successive incarnations; each exists as discretely as a separate being. Identity is perpetually present because the present is perpetual in experience.

Although it is little consolation, Hemingway does suggest one escape from the present-bound self. If life is a process of being “operated on,” Frazer wonders why people shouldn’t be allowed “anaesthetic.” The discussion begun in the presence of the three Mexicans, Frazer resumes alone when he considers the variety of “opiums” of the people, those things they embrace in order to keep their minds off the operation of daily existence: religion, gambling, drink, sex, music and so on (367). In the parlance of French existentialism, these activities constitute “divertissement”: they are distractions from the truth of our mortality. By keeping our minds off ourselves, they speed us to our end. Hemingway suggests the darker implications. “Let a little [drink] mount to your head,” and “Afterwards comes the headache” (361). The Mexicans may bring–in Frazer’s terms–the “opium” of their music, but Cayetano comments, “As musicians they are fatal” (365). The modifier is deliberate. Like rhymes by which to march and lyrics on which to mount revolutions, the Cucaracha has “the sinister lightness and deftness of so many of the tunes men have gone to die to” (367). The song is played for a ward full of sleep-dancers, and the music they take like lethe is a memento mori, “the noise of … inhalations and exhalations,” the beating of a “drum” whose fatality is one with its mortality. For the moment, human corporality can be creatively displaced, transferred to neutral objects, but it cannot truly be escaped. For all people, as for Cayetano, the living-decaying patient whose very smiles reveal “bad teeth” (366), death is at the heart of existence. One can only raise a finger to one’s nose in apology for the odor (357). There is no remedy, no true curing in the hospital, only anaesthetic. What is really needed is a good fix–the story’s original title was, in fact, “Give Us a Prescription, Doctor”–a dosage strong enough to get us through the operation of life. Frazer suggests as much. There is a “sinister lightness” to his favorite tunes, one of which is even suggestively titled “Little White Lies” (359). He indulges in drink, that “sovereign opium” (367), and he listens to the radio.

Nonetheless, Frazer remains aware while the party progresses, resists from his vantage of consciousness the encroachment of general anesthesia. Such salvage, however, may not in the end represent salvation. Frazer, we are told–like so many other Hemingway characters–usually “avoided thinking” (367)..Whether or not Hemingway himself suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (and its prevalence in his work certainly raises suspicion), in universalizing the affliction, Hemingway suggests that thinking is itself inherently dysfunctional. Thus when Frazer says to Cayetano, “You are a philosopher,” the latter responds with a curtness that might double for authorial intrusion, “No…. A gambler of the small towns” (366). The objectivism of Hemingway’s fiction is consciously safeguarded, but there is more to this than mannerism. Hemingway resists pat materialism by providing, in order primarily to justify his minimalist aesthetic, a theoretically coherent skepticism of mentalism. Critics have stopped short of using the term behaviorist to describe Hemingway’s style, noting that his characters are repeatedly guilty of introspection.(3) But the qualification seems unnecessary and in fact obscures a central distinction. Behaviorism has little to say about introspection if by that term is meant–as these critics intend–a person’s awareness of an interior life of experience. What behaviorism does problematize, however, is the means by which such experience might be made public, validated, viewed from outside and what relation it might be said to enjoy with an individual’s demonstrative (and so, in principle, empirically verifiable) behavior. Hemingway offers a similar challenge to the notion of introspection as a literal “seeing into,” a putative access to a putatively consistent, stable and objective mind.

The prospects for that precious and vital phenomenon, self, are therefore bleak. Because of its variety and vigor, its movement, and not least, we should note, because it provides names of real places we recognize, the radio daydreaming seems more real than the Kafkaesque attenuation of life in the ward. But what might be attributable to authorial license–Hemingway’s escape from the dramatic constraints his setting imposes–is in Frazer’s case much more suspect. Hemingway follows modernists like Eliot in suggesting that impressionism is an unavoidable technique of description itself, but he nonetheless realizes how incomplete subjectivism is, how dependent experience is on the materials of the outside, those familiar, unchanging conditions, as simple as the particular songs on a radio, or a particular window-view. No aesthetic or conceptual system can ever truly be closed. Hemingway’s poetics of space do not observe the distinction Gaston Bachelard finds common to the metaphor, “the sharpness of the dialectics of yes and no, which decides everything” (211). The patient cannot fortify himself in a room against the intrusions of the injuring doctor (the operator embodied), nor even its ethereal, but equally evocative counterpart, the noise people make when they suffer: “every one,” we are told, “heard the Russian” (355). And the radio, supplying white-noise more than vox humana, is rendered impotent when “They” begin using the X-ray machine in the morning (359). Mentality is itself extraneous. To live with anaesthetic is in some sense not truly to exist. Drink “mounts to the head,” and pushes “you” out. The radio leads you, disincarnate, wandering in a dream world. But unmediated pain is equally disembodying. Pain makes one “crazy.” It too drives one “out of [one’s] head”–the effacement of self as topological displacement. Hemingway provides no middle ground, no true home for hospital inmates. To live is to exist always on the periphery of the body, to be essentially outside a more fundamental but unapproachable center.

In revising Cartesian duality, Hemingway, like his pragmatist predecessors, privileges body at the cost of mind. The refutation of an “aboriginal self” that began with C. S. Peirce and continued through William James finds its fullest statement, with twentieth-century neuroscience as substantiation, in the theory of mental epiphenomenalism.(4) According to this view, “matter is the real substance of the world and mind a mere byproduct completely subject to matter’s motion” (Herbert 24). Before exploding selfhood entirely, Hemingway has Frazer briefly toy with an alternative. Frazer has the impression, if not the detective sergeant’s conviction, that mysteries can be “clear[ed] … up” (356), that the truth can be reached if only he could get to that “well-lighted” part within in his own mind, that ideal center (which, appropriately, he never reaches–“it was not really there of course”). He avoids thinking “except when … writing” (367), as if writing, as opposed to rewriting (the parody), were a centered activity, and presumably served the same function of catharsis for Frazer that it does for Nick Adams in “Fathers and Sons”: “If he wrote it he could get rid of it’ (371). Such writing would amount to more than the journal of a patient. It would not be an empty meditation on affliction, nor simply a further symptom. Rather, it would eradicate ailment, and in the same move reconfirm the self as center–driving pain out of the head and putting the self back in, leaving the body hovering around the mind. Frazer suspects that what is needed is a kind of thinking that is incisive, productive, a kind that illuminates. It is Hemingway’s final irony–technically and aesthetically his most profound undercut–that Frazer only explores this idea when he is inebriated, already to some degree “out of his head.” It is as if consciousness were itself only an opium dream. That best place–literally, the most “clear”–that most distinct center, “the well-lighted part of his mind,” has the annoying elusiveness of a mirage. It only appears “after two or more drinks in the evening” (367).

(1) See Carlos Baker’s discussion of the literary criterion of lived experience, a discrimination he accepts as Hemingway’s artistic manifesto (26-36).

(2) Fiedler of course has a different meaning, using the word throughout Love and Death in the American Novel to describe the resonating archetypes of American literature. I am suggesting, instead, a more basic onto-epistemic ironizing.

(3) Harry Levin, for instance, quibbles over Hemingway’s success in executing the behaviorism he intended rather than with the intention itself (77, 81). James T. Farrell makes a similar qualification (56).

(4) Peirce contends “We have no power of Introspection, but all knowledge of the internal world is derived by hypothetical reasoning from our knowledge of external facts” (5: 265). James similarly denies any foundation to selfhood so conceived, repudiating an “aboriginal stuff or quality of being” (4).


Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Trans. Maria Jolas. New York: Orion, 1964.

Baker, Carlos. “The Way It Was.” White 26-36.

Farrell, James T. “The Sun Also Rises.” White 53-57.

Hemingway, Ernest. The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. Finca Vigia Edition. New York: Scribner’s, 1987.

–. “Fathers and Sons.” Complete … Stories 369-77.

–. “The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio.” Complete … Stories 355-68.

Herbert, Nick. Elemental Mind. New York: Penguin, 1993.

James, William. Essays in Radical Empiricism. 1912. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1976.

Fiedler, Leslie. Love and Death in the American Novel. 1960, 1966. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Levin, Harry. “Observations on the Style of Ernest Hemingway.” Hemingway: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Robert P. Weeks. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice, 1962. 72-85.

Peirce, Charles Sanders. Collected Papers. Eds. C. Hartshorn et al. Vol 5. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1931-58. 8 vols.

White, William, ed. The Merrill Studies in The Sun Also Rises. Columbus: Merrill, 1969.

ADRIAN BOND teaches at the University of Toronto at Mississauga. He has published essays on Hemingway (in Journal of Narrative Technique) and Emerson (in Prospects: An Annual Journal of American Cultural Studies). He has also published short fiction in, among others, The Boston Review and The Quarterly.

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