The Writer’s Workshop: “Indian Camp”

Joyce Carol Oates

Lesson time 12:22 min

Joyce and two of her students—Lindsey Skillen and Corey Arnold—read from Ernest Hemingway’s story “Indian Camp.” They review the work as they would in one of Joyce’s collegiate or graduate classes.

Joyce Carol Oates
Teaches the Art of the Short Story
Literary legend Joyce Carol Oates teaches you how to write short stories by developing your voice and exploring classic works of fiction.
Get All-Access


[MUSIC PLAYING] - This is Lindsay, and this is Corey, and each of them has written a story for today. We'll be taking up Lindsay's story first. Then we'll take up Corey's story. But first we're going to talk about a classic famous American story by Ernest Hemingway called "Indian Camp." So this story has all the quintessential elements of a classic Hemingway story, the nature of the style, the movement of the story, the pacing, what is put in, and particularly what's left out, what is implicit, what's implied. Just a minimum of characters-- no last names, characters who are related to one another in ways that might be a little bit mysterious. But if you read it carefully, you can figure it out. So people who are used to reading a story by Henry James, Edith Wharton, reading this story-- or Willa Cather-- reading this story, the average reader might have really wondered what it was about. And the average reader at that time would have felt the ending was just totally almost shocking, because it's so abrupt. And readers at that time were used to a more rounded ending. Readers were used to being told what to think. And in a story by most of Hemingway's contemporaries, the characters in this story, at least one of the characters, would have certain thoughts that would tell the reader what to think. Hemingway leaves all that out, and he leaves a lot of things out. Therefore, though he wrote the story a long time ago, it still is very contemporary. In some ways, it seems completely contemporary of our time. So just anything you want to say about the story as a reading experience? - Just in general, it just makes me think about how much Hemingway trusts his reader to kind of co-create the story alongside him, which is true of most of his stories that I've read. And it strikes me that that takes a lot of confidence in your reader, because-- and you have to relinquish some control there and leave room for misinterpretations and things. I think maybe as young writers-- I know this is a problem for me-- you want to have-- you want to direct somebody's emotional response very closely. And if you write in a style, that's just not a possibility, or it's less of a possibility, I would say. - Yeah, that's a very good point that he trusts his readers to read carefully. So you really have to read the story more than once. Hemingway is-- Hemingway's easy to read, but he's not easy to understand. - Yeah. - And the famous Hemingway dialogue seems as if it's natural, but it's really stylized, and people don't-- don't actually talk that way at all. It's a very sort of almost like a postmodernist sort of appropriation of how people talk, but it's not really literal. So we noticed the vocabulary is scaled down, so it could be the vocabulary of a boy about eight or nine. I think that's how old he is. I love that beginning. "At the lakeshore, there was another rowboat drawn up," period. "The two Indians stood waiting." It's j...

Find your voice in fiction

The author of some of the most enduring fiction of our time, Joyce Carol Oates has published 58 novels and thousands of short stories, essays, and articles. Now the award-winning author and Princeton University creative writing professor teaches you how to tap into your storytelling instincts. Find ideas from your own experiences and perceptions, experiment with structure, and improve your craft, one sentence at a time.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

She had some wonderful perspectives about writing, particularly exercises to encourage creativity and getting started, as well as different sorts of arcs stories can take.

It reminded me of the romance of being a writer writer not just a writer-for-money.

fantastic class, my only wish is that it was longer. it gave me so more more perspective on crafting short stories and thinking about the angles to approach a character or story from.

A great pleasure to get to know and hear Joyce. Her instructions are quite useful.



What lies beneath the surface is the fascination of Hemingway, you have to look quite deep to see the real story. At least, some interpretations of it. I think that was Hemingway’s intention and his genius. The story has many layers, many depths and is open to what the reader can see, or what he is blind to. Personally, I see that George was the Father, not because of the cigars, although that was a hint. There are other clues. Why was he there, he had no other reason to be there at all. The woman bit his arm…’Damn squaw bitch!’ Shows his contempt, a typical rapists refrain. The young Indian laughed at him. Why? Maybe he thought Uncle George had got what he deserved. And again, when ‘Uncle George looked at his arm. The young Indian smiled reminiscently.’ Why did he smile and why was he reminiscent. Unless he was remembering the screams as the young woman fought her rapist. Maybe she even bit him then too. Why was the baby not given to her as soon as it was born, and where did Uncle George go? Did Uncle George take his son? The Husband’s suicide also points to at least someone else being the Father. And if it were from a rape? The shame, the injustice, I suspect the Indians had suffered more than their fair share at the hands of Colonial Supremacy. A new Father would be joyous, he would want to be protecting his newborn Son and his wife, would he not? He rolls to the wall when the Doctor says ‘ But her screams are not important. I don’t hear them because they are not important.’ The doctor is saying that the suffering of this woman in childbirth, or in rape, or even the suffering of the Indian community itself, is not important. The good Doctor does not hear it or does not want to. Now that would make a man want to kill himself. Symbolically, Nick does not see into the pan, does not want to see the ugliness, as young as he is, he too turns a blind eye. And at the end, the sun coming up and the bass jumping all symbolic of the continuation of life. The same as it as always been, the oppression of the Indians and no doubt, continued rapes. But Nick feels safe in his world, he most certainly won’t be the Indian cutting his own throat. His world is protected. It is a shame that Hemingway left out the first paragraph referring to the church last Sunday. It would have been a very poignant note to the story.


What strikes me is that the central horror of this story is not being addressed in this discussion. Let’s not forget that this woman is having a C-section without anesthesia. She’s being cut with a jackknife. It must be excruciating pain and surviving that experience while still delivering a living being is quite an achievement. However, the mother is seen almost as an animal; a screaming, biting creature, a bitch. Then, after the birth, as a spent and submissive figure. Despite her personal triumph of strength, the glory goes to the men, who congratulate each other. We are led to have a measure of sympathy for the Indian who killed himself, but there is no sense of compassion for the woman. It's an interesting juxtaposition that says something about cultural and gender roles. Did Hemingway intend this or was his bias leaking through?


What was implicit in the story was how secure Nick felt with his father and the intention of the father to give him that security. It starts with the father's arm around Nick in the first part of the story and then in the end when Nick felt sure he would never die. It seems like Nick's hand trailing in the water signifies his calm and attention change (like a young child does) after the father answered all of his questions. The father was trying to teach the boy when the lesson became way bigger than he intended. Even so, the father tried to soften the blow by answering all of his young son's questions. I feel I am left to make up my own mind about whether George was the father of the baby and why the Indian might have killed himself.

Bruce S.

The class is grasping at straws with the cigars signifying Uncle George as the father. The men were at a fishing camp, and it is doubtful they were their nine months previously. Also this is an area without doctors during this point in history, and Dad was doctor doing his duty even without the tools of his trade. She would have died without his help and she still might. He used a buck knife for a scalpel and fishing line for a suture. More likely the father couldn't stand his wife's pain, and feared the death of his wife and child or maybe he thought his foot might be amputated next.

Vangelis P.

Sorry, here it is https://archive.org/stream/IndianCampErnestHemingway_661/IndianCampByErnestHemingway_djvu.txt

Vangelis P.

For those who, like me, can't find the story https://www.google.gr/url?sa=i&source=web&cd=&ved=2ahUKEwiJ-LGGuP_jAhVM2qQKHXLSD0kQzPwBegQIARAB&url=https%3A%2F%2Fgenius.com%2FErnest-hemingway-indian-camp-annotated&psig=AOvVaw2zPJcm30CcPrzEnZA8e1qe&ust=1565771644013889


I've read and enjoyed Hemingway's stories and one of his novels. This story I hadn't read before, but it didn't strike me at all that Uncle George was the father of the baby; I found that an odd interpretation of the details of the story. I, like another commenter, thought it was a custom that the father is also present to ward off evil spirits. His suicide could've been because of his wife's extreme and torturous labor. I was mildly shocked at the doctor bringing his son, but considered the time period and the social lack of consideration of the Indians as deserving of privacy and respect.

A fellow student

If the Stepford Wives had children this is what they would sound like. They are so programmed they can’t even discuss this classic short story without genuflecting to social justice themes. The tragic irony here is that after JCO is gone they’re going to condemn every writer that ever inspired her.


For the life of me I can't find Indian Camp to download, I'm going on memory. I'm not a fan of Hemingway or Hemingway’s so-called “iceberg technique” or theory of omission. Convinced of his superlative writing skills, Hemingway limited his narratives to one tenth (an eighth by his miscalculation) of the story, insisting the reader could infer the unsaid. His theory cuts no ice with me. “Indian Camp” for example, is prefaced by an unrelated vignette about a drunken battery of soldiers trudging through France. What follows? A boy decides to remain immortal after he witnesses his father perform a C-section with a jack-knife and no anaesthetic, then suture the incision with a fish hook, all the while impervious to the mother’s screams and the father’s suicide. The reader is left bewildered because Hemingway neglects to mention couvade, the custom of a father taking to his bed during childbirth to protect his wife and child from evil spirits, and, in this case, his subsequent suicide to focus the spirits’ evil intentions on himself, not his family. True to form, nine tenths of the narrative is missing, lacks authorial comment or reflection, and is not so much lean or spare as incomplete. Exploring this understated style, scholars have dived below the surface to dredge up symbolism galore, despite Hemingway’s denial that he wrote symbolically. Perhaps “Indian Camp” is simply about racism and misogyny; do with it what you will. According to Stephen King, “Hemingway sucks. If I set out to write that way, it would have been hollow and lifeless because it wasn't me.” from King Stephen. The Rolling Stone Interview. http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/stephen-king-the-rolling-stone-interview-201410319#ixzz3LUF0BTCI. 9 Dec. 2014. Now that I've seen and heard this workshop I'll find the story, reread it and see if I can concur with Joyce and her students. I never assumed the Indian had been cuckolded and that George was the father. I supposed it was a certain curiosity he felt as a white man he could indulge, but I realize I'm delving below the surface of the story beyond the exposed floating iceberg. That a doctor took his son on his round does not seem unusual to me, perhaps even less so because they were going to an Indian camp where the patient's privacy was of little import--if I can allow myself to read into the action--part of that unrevealed nine tenths of the story!

Tiffany "Page" H.

Love that she addresses classes and workshops and writing groups! Lots of folks don’t know that most Universities offer certain classes you can audit - like take not for credit - you don’t have to apply for the expense of a whole MFA or whatever and you can get in classes with some phenomenal authors and around other like-minded writers and it is so much fun! And so much more challenging.