Big, Two-Hearted River begins with a train dropping off Nick Adams near the wilderness of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. What follows is a straightforward narrative of one of his days camping alone near the river. Nick is most intrigued by the river, which he uses to provide food for himself and much more: he finds healing through the river
Much like Hemingway himself, Nick Adams finds himself continually haunted with frightening flashbacks to his past suffering and grief. As he alludes to in other stories, Nick turns to fish (especially fishing with grasshoppers) to release his mind from the terrible pressure of his life. As he makes coffee, for instance, he is reminded of his old fishing buddy and oil tycoon, Hopkins, who Hemingway suggests took his own life a few months before, after receiving a disturbing telegram, perhaps about his lover. Other disturbing flashbacks in Big, Two-Hearted River, include a tragic execution scene where the man waiting to be hanged loses control of his bladder. This is bad form, Hemingway suggests since the man doesn’t possess the author’s famous “grace under pressure” ideal.
Throughout Big, Two-Hearted River, as Nick constructs his tent, fishes in the nearby river and cooks his catch, Hemingway describes his mood in two ways-up and down. If he stands up or climbs up a hill (on his way to build his tent, for example), he is in good spirits; but if he sits down (as he thinks about Hopkins, his friend who committed suicide, for instance) or descends, his mood is falling. Thus, Nick’s mood follows his actions-form follows content.