In The Killers, Hemingway displays how passivity, rather than reducing one’s agency, can make one an agent, even an agent of evil, through cowardice and irresoluteness. He displays this in each character, either by example or by an ironic contrast. The first person named is neither of the apparent killers, Al or Max, but George. George shows the greatest passivity, doing nothing in the entire story except making a sandwich; he never goes into the back of the kitchen when Nick and Sam are taken, but merely stands there the whole scene. In his dialogue, he is evasive and non-confrontational:
“‘Well, bright boy [George],’ Max said, looking into the mirror, ‘why don’t you say something?’ ‘What’s it all about?’ ‘Hey, Al,’ Max called, ‘bright boy wants to know what it’s all about.’ ‘Why don’t you tell him?’ Al’s voice came from the kitchen. ‘What do you think its all about?’ ‘I don’t know.’ ‘What do you think?’ Max looked into the mirror all the time he was talking. ‘I wouldn’t say.’”
When Al and Max leave, George again does nothing, suggesting Nick go and warn Ole Andreson of his impending death, and saying, “Don’t go if you don’t want to.” And in the end, he epitomizes passivity in the final line of the story: “Well, you better not think about it.”
While Nick does go and see Ole Andreson, in the end he does not go to the police, simply because Ole Andreson is resigned to his fate. The mutual passivity of Nick and Ole Andreson leads us to the climax of agonizing irresoluteness on which the story ends. He goes back to the lunch house, and considers leaving the town himself, even though—while he himself did get tied up by two hit men—he had no reason to believe that he was in any apparent future danger, since they were presumed to be hit men from Chicago, in town only because Ole Andreson had come into town. Thus, Nick’s desire to leave can be interpreted as really a desire to run away from his decision to do nothing for Ole Andreson. Andreson himself has remained in his room all day, unable to decide if he would go out or not. He is described more than once as lying in bed with all his clothes on, staring at the wall; so irresolute that he can neither undress nor get out of bed. Thus both Nick and Ole Andreson exemplify passivity and irresoluteness, both fleeing responsibility in one way or another. While Sam the cook said outright, “Mixing up in this ain’t join to get you anywhere. You say out of it;” even so, George and Nick are shown to have done no better than Sam.
These characters are contrasted by Al and Max, who, while being hit men who assault two others in the story, never actually kill anyone. Their dialogue, like everyone else’s, is amusing, vapid, and inane, and their role is more to contrast the other characters than to have any real agency in the impending murder. The fact that George is the first, and Nick the third character introduced, and that it ends with them, and we never see Al or Max interact with Ole Andreson, places an emphasis on Nick and George as the main characters and on their relationship, more than Al and Max’s, to Ole Andreson. While Al and Max may actually kill him, the choices and inaction of the other characters is emphasized in the story as pertains to Ole Andreson’s likely death.
A couple details shed light on this role reversal: Henry is never seen in Henry’s lunch-room, but only George; and Mrs. Hirsch is never seen in Hirsch’s roaming house, but only Mrs. Bell, who looks after the place for Mrs. Hirsch. Titles, agency, and responsibility, therefore, are not what they seem. The title of “The Killers” seems at first to refers to Al and Max, but as far as the story is concerned, George and Nick are the protagonists, they have the ability to intervene, and by their passivity they become, and even feel, responsible for Ole Andreson’s death. It is not, I think, Hemingway’s point that George or Nick are more responsible for Ole Andreson’s murder than Al and Max if and when they kill him; rather, it is an important point that Al and Max never do kill him in the story, and in the narrative that the reader witnesses, George and Nick run from the responsibility that their knowledge demands of them. So if Ole Andreson never was actually murdered, if Al and Max for whatever reason did not kill him, then in the end Al and Max would be guilty of assault and intent to harm and kill; but George, Nick, and Sam, to the best of their knowledge, would be guilty of letting a man be murdered. As the story ends, with this murder not yet taking place, George, Nick, and Sam let Ole Andreson be murdered, and Al and Max do not actually murder him. It is more apt, therefore, to call the former the killers.