“Hunters in the Snow” starts out on an uncomfortable note. Tub, cold and uneasy, waits for over an hour to be picked up by Kenny and Frank. When they finally do arrive, instead of apologizing to Tub for their lateness, Kenny, who is characterized by a certain lack of empathy and a great amount of callousness, jokingly attempts to run Tub over. Frank, in his own world, watches from the passenger seat and appears to be idly amused by Kenny’s tasteless joke. The idea that personal interest may potentially overwhelm the individual’s ability to react to and evaluate situations occurring directly outside of their own conscious being is shown in Frank’s apparent lack of attention to Kenny’s abuse of Tub. When, after trying to run him over, Kenny scoffs at Tub, comparing him to a “beach ball with a hat” (Wolff 139), Frank simply smiles and looks away, as if completely unaware that Kenny’s words and actions are extremely cruel and potentially hurtful to Tub. We learn later that at an earlier stage in the three men’s friendship, it was Frank who was constantly badgered by Kenny, and that Tub had always come to Frank’s defense. This is one of the clearest indications given by Wolff that Frank’s current level of self involvement overpowers his sense of moral duty. At the same time, this interaction between the three friends highlights Kenny’s lack of consideration for anyone’s feeling except his own. Tub, at this point, seems entirely blameless. In the first few pages of the story, Wolff leaves Tub to function as the story’s quintessential loser; he is, it seems, the poor slob that everyone should feel bad for. Common courtesy, basic human decency, and general morality all influence this reasoning. With this in mind, Tub’s situation becomes an essential tool in the moral excavation of Frank and Kenny’s characters. Kenny’s constant harassment of Tub for being overweight leaves little to like about Kenny, as it’s clear that his own amusement and lack of personal interest is of higher value to him than any desire to exhibit a level of righteous morality. Kenny treats Frank with a similar level of disrespect, although not in the form of direct abuse. Instead, Kenny callously betrays Frank’s trust, and openly alludes to Frank’s affair with his fifteen year old baby sitter, saying, “I won’t say a word. Like I won’t say anything about a certain babysitter” (140). When the men finally set out to hunt, any doubts about Tub’s placement in the men’s friendship dissipate. Tub is the third wheel, and this is made perfectly clear. Wolff, always the objective narrator, portrays a perfect objective example of this separation, saying that “Frank and Kenny worked one bank and Tub worked the other, moving upstream” ( 141). The two men quickly leave Tub behind, far more interested in personal gain than in their friend’s well being. Through all of this, Wolff reiterates the idea that, at this point in the story, Tub is the outcast amongst the three friends. Still under the impression that Tub is not to blame for his misfortunate situation in life, the men’s neglect of him is another indication that their interest in their friend only extends as far as is convenient for them. The story takes a dramatic turn when the men, returning from a fruitless attempt at hunting, stumble upon an old dog that belongs to a couple who have granted them permission to hunt on their land. In what appears to be an act of pure apathy, Kenny shoots the dog between the eyes. When Tub questions Kenny’s actions, saying, “What did he ever do to you? He was just barking” (144). Kenny turns towards Tub and acts as though he will shoot him next. When Tub shoots Kenny instead, it appears as though he is acting in self-defense. To Tub’s benefit, Kenny has not told his companions that the dog’s owner had asked him to shoot the dog. When Tub finds this out later in the story, however, it is clear that he has already stopped any subjective consideration of Kenny, and therefore does not exhibit remorse, or any other sign of morality. Ultimately, Wolff’s decision to have Tub shoot Kenny adds a twist to the plot which, in turn, develops the story into a fundamental study of how morality can be overshadowed by narcissism.
From this point on, the idea that extreme self-indulgence is an overpowering disorder, powerful enough to thwart morality, becomes the story’s main focus. Kenny, crippled and reduced to an invalid, immediately shifts from one of the story’s main characters to a background character. The two remaining leads, Tub and Frank, propel to the forefront as the sole focus of the story. An unsettling feeling slowly creeps over the narrative, initiated by Tub’s interaction with the farmer when he and Frank go to the farmhouse to ask to use the phone to call an ambulance. Tub says to the man, “My friend shot your dog” (146). After just a moment’s conversation, Tub is made aware that the man had asked Kenny to shoot his dog for him, as the man had neither a gun nor the heart to kill his own dog and put it out of its misery. When Tub chooses to withhold this information from Frank, he ceases to be a misfortunate soul and becomes, instead, as apathetic and self-interested as Frank and Kenny combined. Almost immediately after Kenny is shot and loaded into the back of the truck, both Tub and Frank begin to make a conscious shift away from the idea that Kenny is dying in the back of the truck. Shortly after they are on the road, Frank declares how cold he is and insists that he needs to stop to get warm. This seems reasonable, at first, given the fact that Kenny’s truck is missing a window, Kenny has all of the blankets, and it is the middle of winter. When it is made clear that the two men intend to stop for longer than a moment, Wolff presents the chilling possibility that the two men are not all that interested in Kenny’s wellbeing. This possibility becomes solid fact as the two men collectively forget about the dying man that they’ve left alone in the bed of a pickup truck, as they sit in a warm restaurant and chat, with overwhelming depth and concern, about themselves. Frank says, “Tub, I think I’m going to be leaving Nancy” (149). This line is a clear indication that Frank has lost all interest in his dying friend. Instead, he focuses in on his life and his affair with a fifteen year old babysitter. Tub, in response to Frank’s disclosure, says, “Frank, when you’ve got a friend it means you’ve always got someone on your side, no matter what. That’s the way I feel about it, anyway” (150). This statement furthers the theme of self-indulgence, and adds a twist to it. Tub professes his loyalty and friendship to Frank, when in actuality his loyalty is solely to himself, and this is made clear through his inability to think beyond what he would, personally, like to hear if the situation was reversed. Frank, as well, is unable to think past his own desires. Having no problems with his wife, Frank is thinking about leaving her for a young girl. He is forsaking the moral path for the path of self-indulgence, not only in drinking coffee and chatting with Tub while Kenny is outside freezing to death, but in his desire to leave his wife and family, who depend upon him, for what he hastily decides is true love. Because he is of such questionable character, there can be no sympathy for this idea of following true love. Actually, because of his moral impurity, it seems as though he is actually functioning denying morality all together in an effort to lose himself in a world of self-indulgent vice. The men, finally returning to the truck, acknowledge Kenny and pitilessly blame his extensive pain on himself, as though he could, at this point, make decisions based on his own well being and was not at all in need the aid of his friends. Franks shows this callousness by saying to Kenny, “It wouldn’t hurt so much if you just stayed put” (151). Quickly forgetting about Kenny once again, Tub and Frank continue with their driving. Tub reveals that he has been careless and left the directions to the hospital behind them at their last stop. Instead of worrying about getting there as fast as possible, something for which the directions would have been crucial, Frank says to Tub, “That’s okay. I remember them pretty well” (151). Frank’s lack of appropriate actions and reactions regarding Kenny are indicative of the idea that he is too self-involved to think clearly about anything beyond his own desires. The theme of self-indulgence carries over into the men’s second stop. Again, they leave Kenny behind and head inside a roadhouse to get warm. This time it is Franks turn to enable Tub’s acts of self-indulgence. When Tub confesses that he has been lying to everyone all along and that the actual reason for his obesity is that he is a chronic overeater, Frank opts to openly indulge Tub in his overeating. In ordering Tub four servings of pancakes and watching as he licks the plate clean, Frank becomes an obvious advocate for extreme self-indulgence. By backing any decision Frank makes, including his decision to leave his wife and family, Tub also becomes an advocate for extreme self-indulgence. In coupling these two men together and allowing each to give in to and support such depravity, Wolff sheds a light on the important role that self-indulgence plays in the decline of morality.
Our ability as human beings to consciously act with the goodness of others in mind is one of the most prominent characteristics that set us apart from animals. When Wolff, the consistently objective narrator, chooses to speak subjectively in the last two sentences of the story, it is to personally indicate and also comment upon the idea that Frank and Tub have crossed the line with their treatment of Kenny and are no longer acting within the ground rules of basic human morality. Kenny, still in the back of the truck, barely hanging onto life, says to himself, “I’m going to the hospital” (153). In response to this, Wolff says, “But he was wrong. They had taken a different turn a long way back” (153). By “they,” Wolff refers directly to Tub and Frank, using the men as a metaphor for society. These intuitive words tie the entire story together, and it becomes clear that Tub and Frank’s moral decline had started much earlier in their lives. In time, narcissism had taken over their lives and surfaced in many different forms, including overeating, lying, infidelity, and neglect. With the two men serving as a parallel for society as a whole, Wolff presents his reader with an unsettling need to examine their own selves. He shows how easily self-indulgence can overtake morality, and also proves that, without the desire to do what is good and right, real humanity is lost.
I am arrogant, self-serving, and in love with Matthew