The central theme in Hemingway’s work is heroism.Most of his novels are not primarily studies of death or simply researches into the lost generation.They are essentially the portrayal of a hero, the man who by force of some extraordinary quality sets the standards for those around him.Hemingway has always kept four subjects in his mind when writing.These four subjects which have always fascinated Hemingway are fishing, hunting, bullfighting, and war, in which all have shown some type of international aspects.But most of Hemingway’s novels are the studies death.They are a portrayal of a hero, but also a heroes struggle and perception of death. What truly influences Hemingway’s writings, more over to the portrayal of a hero is the notion of death.To be a hero means to dare more than other men, to expose oneself to greater dangers, and therefore more greatly to risk the possibilities of death and defeat. (Connolly, p.226)
Hemingway said, “My favorite characters are men who deal in death and accept its risks”.To understand why Hemingway revolves his novels around the concept of death, one must look at his own life and how the meaning of death affected Hemingway himself.In 1928 Hemingway’s father Edmonds Hemingway committed suicide.It is said that he had much bad luck, and was not all of it his own.Many thought that Hemingway’s next theme would actually be fear.Through out Hemingway’s childhood he remained unhappy.He was only compatible on the surface between his parents.His mother nudged him toward music, preferably church music.His father put a fishing rod in his hand at the age of three and a rifle at ten. In Hemingway’s first novel In Our Time, shows of Hemingway’s own struggle with his parents through the eyes of Nick Adams.For example, in one of Hemingway’s short stories from In Our Time it reads:
“Your mother wants you to come and see her,” the doctor said.
“I want to go with you,” Nick said. “. . . I know where there’s black squirrels.”
“All right,” said his father. “Let’s go there.”
These last lines from the chapter, “The Doctor and the Doctor’s wife” from, In Our Time, show how Hemingway’s struggling relationship with both parents was a struggle for him to choose between his mother with music, or his father with fishing and hunting. (Baker, p.29)
In the novel of, In Our Time, Hemingway creates the character of Nick Adams in order to depict himself.Nick’s youth is wild and free, just as Hemingway himself lived and led a life of a vagrant, coming face to face with violence and evil on the road.Nick Adams spends his summers in Michigan among the Indians, where he sees life in the raw.Just as Nick sees life in the raw so to does Hemingway.Ernest Hemingway loving neither his family nor school ran away twice from home.He led a life of a vagrant where he worked on farms, washed dishes in restaurants, and hopped on freight trains.Nick who is in fact the reflection of Hemingway witnesses a doctor-father perform a Caesarian operation with a jack knife.Nick sees an Indian girl with brown legs, flat belly, and hard little breasts, which initiates him sexually at a very young age.Nick also cuts a freshly caught trout into pieces and uses the chunks as bait to catch more trout.He is living in a savage world of sacrificed animals.These are the years of apprenticeship for a boy who wants to be strong yet has weaknesses, which is specifically an equivocal attitude toward his father.Nick who is a portrayal of Hemingway is grateful to the doctor for the rifle and hunting lessons, but he resents his father’s weaknesses toward his mother and his conventional ideas about sex. (Waldmeir, p.66)
Hemingway in his writing uses a particular hard style to tell hard stories.He depicts characters in his stories such as bloodied prize fighters, hired killers, disemboweled bull fighters, crippled soldiers, hunters of wild animals, and deep sea fisherman.Hemingway portrayed his characters as heroes, but they all in someway dealt with the perception of death.Hemingway himself said, “My favorite characters are men who deal in death and accept its risks”.To understand why Hemingway wrote about death in his writings, one must try to understand how the events in Hemingway’s life formed this style and temperament, which gave birth to this obsession of death. (Leff, p.54)
Because Hemingway’s relationship with his parents was not good, it caused him to run away from home twice.Hemingway then became a vagrant on the American road.After living as a vagrant for a couple of years, the U.S. in 1917 entered World War I.Hemingway tried to enlist, but was rejected because of a bad eye.But why would Hemingway enlist and put himself in war.Many Americans would pray that they would not get themselves drafted into the war.And yet even though Hemingway was not drafted, he voluntarily enlisted, and was lucky they did not accept him because of a bad eye.But that didn’t stop Hemingway from going to Europe in World War I.He decided to volunteer as an ambulance driver with the American Red Cross.He basically put himself into bloody battles where he could of gotten himself killed.Hemingway managed to get himself severely injured, for which the Italians honored him with the Italian Al Valore Militare medal.Over a hundred steel fragments were taken out of his leg.When his leg was almost blown off Hemingway said, “I died then”.It almost appears as if Hemingway wrote about characters that in some way or another deal with death because Hemingway himself wanted to die. (Baldwin, p.657)
After the war in Europe was over Hemingway returned to Key West, Florida.There he wrote several other books which included, A Farewell to Arms, Death in the Afternoon, and Green Hills of Africa.But it seemed that Hemingway felt dissatisfied about himself.In Africa he hunted with very rich people who were dull, drank too much, and played too much backgammon.Hemingway himself had drunk too much.He later became depressed primarily because of his two failed marriages.But in 1940 at Cheyenne, Wyoming he remarried writer Martha Gellhorn.Together they took a trip to China and then settled in Cuba.After a while some signs of suicide were becoming apparent.In 1942 Hemingway offered his yacht “Pilar” to the United States Navy, in which he volunteered to serve as a one man suicide squadron.Hemingway wanted to cruise by himself to attract enemy submarines, then when one of them stopped him, he would blow up the submarines and himself.The Navy refused to allow him to do that.Hemingway again showed signs of suicide and death.Clearly volunteering his own self to attract enemy submarines, and to sacrifice his own life just to do the U.S. Navy a favor, showed that Hemingway was on a breach to die.In Hemingway’s writings about death he resorts to using vast symbols rather than metaphors.As Baker says, “A world is not wholly without values when it recognizes esthetic values.The writer, like the hunter and the soldier, respects his code, and by his word magic, succeeds not in capturing time, which to Hemingway would mean recapturing horror, but in killing it”.Hemingway also said, “all stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true storyteller who would keep that from you”.Hemingway in most of his writings dealt with the theme of heroism but most importantly death.Death is the recurrent theme in many of his novels, in which the fear of it terrorizes Hemingway, until at last he is forced into it himself by committing suicide.The perception of death is eminent in many of his novels along with his own biographical background.Such novels as, Death in the Afternoon is a climax of death, which moves to A Farewell to Arms.Death also by gangs in The Killers, and the man who is dying of Gangrene in The Snows of Kilimanjaro, and of the fear of death in Hills Like White Elephants. (Baker, p. 76)
Hemingway’s recurrent theme throughout most of his novels is death.But in mostly all of his novels he uses the same type of simple literary style.Hemingway said,
“That great American writers of the past are colonial writers, that is, English
writers who happened to have been born in America.I recognize Edgar Allan
Poe’s skill, but he is dead.I dislike the rhetoric in Melville; he cannot read
Thoreau.As for Emerson, Hawthorne, Whittier, and company, they were
English Colonial who do not know that a new classic does not bear any
Resemblance to classics that have preceded it”.
This basically sums up the type of writer that Hemingway was.Some critics question Hemingway’s point of view.Baker thinks, “I question this point of view, even though a new classic may not imitate the older ones, it is indebted to them.Hemingway himself is the best proof of that.He absorbed the simplicity of rhythm, syntax, and vocabulary which constituted Mark Twain’s freshness”. (Baker, p.47-51)
Hemingway’s quote basically depicts himself as one of the best writers of the twentieth century.Baker goes along by comparing his work to Mark Twain, who was a great author of the nineteenth century who wrote clear easy to read books which gave beauty and format to the everyday American.Not only was Hemingway’s style clear and simple, but it was also direct and to the point.Hemingway says during an interview,
“The Old Man and The Sea could have been over a thousand pages long and had
Every character in the village in it and all the processes of how they made their
Living, were born, educated, bore children, etc.That is done excellently and
Well by other writers.In writing you are limited by what has already been done
Satisfactorily.So I have tried to learn to do something else.First I have tried
To eliminate everything unnecessary to conveying experience to the reader so
That after he or she has read something it will become a part of his or her
Experience and seem actually to have happened.This is very hard to do and
I’ve worked at it very hard”.
This is what truly makes Hemingway one of the best writers of the twentieth century.Although he lived a bitter life with most of it reflecting in his works, he still writes a book that is clear and simple to read with much room left in it for critics and interpretation. But it is not difficult to understand its meaning the first and only time you pick up one of his books. It is true that one of Hemingways recurrent themes is heroism and death, but within all his novels he manages to convey all that is needed to make each and every short story stand out and remembered as though it were a 500 page masterpiece.