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Critical Themes In The Writings Of Hemingway

Critical Themes in the Writings of Hemingway: Life & Death, Fishing, War, Sex, Bullfighting, and the Mediterranean Region Hemingway brought a tremendous deal of what is middle class Americanism into literature, without very many people recognizing what he has done. He had nothing short of a writer’s mind; a mind like a vacuum cleaner that swept his life experiences clean, picking up any little thing, technique, or possible subject that might be of use (Astro 3). From the beginning, Hemingway had made a careful and conscientious formula for the art of the novel (Hoffman 142). This preconceived formula contained certain themes that recur with great frequency and power throughout Hemingway’s writings. Such themes include an obsessive fascination with life and death, an interest in fishing, war, bullfighting, a strange perception of sex and an unusual fixation on the Mediterranean region. In Hemingway’s writings, the symbols are implicit; they follow the laws of reality to such a degree that in themselves they form a whole story (Wilson 2). Hemingway’s hero’s battles consist of conquering dread, a dread which is connected with earlier experiences, and which appears as a fear of life or death. These two elements, life and death, seem to take two opposite forms, but in reality they are the same. Life ends with death, because death is a constituent part of life, therefore life includes death (Scott 24). If you follow the main lines through Hemingway’s writings, you will very easily discover that everything deals with a sick, mortally wounded man’s fight to overcome the dread arising from his meeting with life (Young 21). In Hemingway’s world, death begins in childhood, as described with unsurpassed mastery in the short story “Indian Camp.” This story tells of young boy, Nick, who is present while his father, the doctor, performs a cesarean section on an Indian woman, without anesthesia, equipped with only a jackknife and fishing leaders to sew the wound up with. The Indian woman’s husband lies in the upper bunk during the operation, with the woolen blanket drawn up over his head. When they lift up the blanket, he has cut his throat. It is here that Hemingway’s long autobiography begins; this is how it feels to be human. Nick, the hero, has received his wound. He is scared to death, and all of his later experiences are more or less repetitions and variations of the same theme (Rovit 98). Hemingway’s field of vision was filled with cruelty, violence and pain. It bids fair to become his only theme, but soon another is added: What does one do to survive? Hemingway’s answer: fishing and hunting. This was because Hemingway, at 14, experienced the loss of his father through suicide, and was left with the skills of fishing and hunting that he had learned from his father as a young boy (Young 15). The lonely man with the rod fishing endlessly up and down a river seeks what all fisherman with a spiritual life get out of fishing: peace of soul. In its universality it quite simply belongs with being outdoors, with being alone in the woods and camping out, sleeping deeply, and looking at the river when you wake. The fish has purity as a life element. The fly, hook, or the spoon bait that enters the water sinks in reality down into the mind. The theme of fishing is exemplary in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Here the man and his fate are all alone: man, sky, sea and boat. All external circumstances are taken away, only the human and the battle remain. Deep under this man in his boat there moves a being, wet, shiny, big and strange. This is the fish. It is life’s mystery that he has beneath him. He is on the ocean with life (Brenner 67). The old man pursues this mystery alone on his vessel. For three days it drags him out to sea. He talks to the fish, and he understands it. He is close to the very inmost, ultimate thing in life. And yet he takes the fishes life. He then sails back to land with the swordfish latched to the side of the boat. To him, this fish is the last proud, beautiful secret of life. However, the sharks are aware of his recent prize. They devour every remaining piece of the prize, despite every effort made by this unyielding fisherman. When he sails into Cuba’s harbor at night, nothing but the skeleton remains of the fish (Brenner 72). The story of The Old Man and the Sea is the truest and deepest portrayal ever achieved of Hemingway and his writings. It is the first victory signal he has sent, and it tells us everything we can know about Hemingway: No one has been further out to sea, no one has caught a bigger fish, and no one has brought less home with him. Besides life, death and fishing, there is bullfighting. Hemingway was always a passionate observer, until he turned the tables and tried his luck as an amateur bullfighter (Bloom 37). The accounts of his own efforts in the arena belong to the book wholly devoted to bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon. One of Hemingway’s main points he tried to deliver in this book is that bullfighting is not a sport, however it is a tragedy, where every minute detail is determined in advance. Accidents, deaths, exaggerated foolhardiness or visible fear and cowardice hold no place in the arena. It is predetermined incorrect for the bullfighter to die instead of the beast itself. Along with the bull and the matador there is a third party that enters onto the dusty stadium floor: Death. This Death is not a visible Death, not a theatrical Death, but the living, invisible Death, the majesty itself. However, Death decides to end the life of the animal, not the matador (Hemingway 91). Both in the hunting and fishing stories and in the bullfighting book, it is clearly evident that, as a rule, Hemingway’s sympathy is sometimes one-sided, wholly with the beast or with the man, however he most often identifies with both. This gives the whole an inner and distinctive ambiguity; they have life and death in common, and they meet there. It is evident that in bullfighting Hemingway has met a symbolic world that reaches very deeply into the whole subconscious which drives him on so violently. It is in this realm, which is clearly divided from his conscious being by a very thin layer, that all of the terrified sensitivity, which has been his innermost torment, becomes obvious. Among the other themes, Hemingway was almost addicted to describing the act of sex. It is seen in many of his works to be a symbolic core; there are, however, no central women in his books! His descriptions of the sexual encounter are knowingly brutal, and in his later works they appear to be unintentionally comical. This comedy is found in Hemingway’s lack of success in making his female characters human. The Hemingway female is often associated with an animal, a thing, or a wet dream. Hemingway could only really find his comfort in dealing with men without women. The male to male relationships that he has invented in his works moves him to simplicity and truth. Yet even when Hemingway feels an obligation to introduce women into his more ambitious fictions, he can not further elaborate their parts beyond being taken to bed (Fiedler 143). In his writings, the rejection of the sentimental happy ending of marriage involves the acceptance of the sentimental happy beginning of innocent and inconsequential sex. This also allows to the camouflage the rejection of maturity and of fatherhood itself. Typically he aspires not to be the Father, but more so the man of the girl with whom he is sleeping (Fiedler 143). Hemingway often presents childbirth as a catastrophe. He sees it as an accident, which forces a leave of friends at the greatest moment of pleasure as in his short story “Cross Country Snow.” At worst, childbirth becomes that horror which drives the tenderhearted husband of “Indian Camp” to suicide, or which takes Catherine away from Lieutenant Henry in A Farewell to Arms (Reynolds 53). The Hemingway character feels a need for “lovemaking without end in a scarcely real country to which neither owed life or allegiance” (Fiedler 143). There is yet another theme that remains unexplored: war. This theme is evident in a lot of Hemingway’s writings. Hemingway produces this reverberated violence to portray his hero within the means of courage. “Life is a trap in which a man is bound to be beaten and at last destroyed, but he emerges triumphant, in his full stature, if he manages to keep his chin up” (Frohock 141). From the beginning, Hemingway has been less concerned with the relationship between humans than with the relationship between himself, or some projection of himself, and some aspect of violence. This harsh universe, is one where suffering and death are the rule, and which, in terms of what the human being expects of it, stubbornly refuses to make sense. War, to Hemingway, was almost an escape to a reality in which he was used to; a reality of harsh means and unhappy endings (Frohock 141). The last point, the fixation on the Mediterranean basin, also embraces, as a kind of substitute, Cuba and parts of Latin America. Most of Hemingway’s books take place in Italian or Spanish-speaking countries; and he has an unusual command of both languages (Oliver 127). There is not much factual support leading to the reasons why Hemingway based his settings in these areas, however some say it is in his love for traveling and his near hatred of the typical, unromantic view of what he saw as America. Hemingway’s work, as a whole, has been a sort of literary catalyst which has affected the entire course of American writing, and like a catalyst it has remained untouched by and superior to all the imitations of it (Geismar 142). The emphases of many different themes and the images in which Hemingway portray’s them vary, however, one thing remains the same: Hemingway had honestly worked within his own life experiences and developed their possibilities (Astro 3).

Bibliography

Astro, Richard and Jackson J. Benson. Hemingway: In Our Time. Corvallis, Oregon: Oregon State University Press, 1974. Bloom, Harold. Modern Critical Views: Ernest Hemingway. New York: Chelsea House, 1985. Brenner, Gerry. The Old Man and the Sea. New York: Twayne, 1991. Hemingway, Ernest. Death in the Afternoon. New York: Simon & Schester Trade, 1996. Hoffman, Frederick J. “Ernest Hemingway.” The Modern Novel in America. (1963): 98-111. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Carolyn Riley. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale, 1973. 142. Geismar, Maxwell. “Ernest Hemingway: At the Crossroads.” American Moderns: From Rebellion to Conformity. (1958): 54-8. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Carolyn Riley. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale, 1973. 142. Fiedler, Leslie A. “Hemingway.” Love and Death in the American Novel. (1966): 316-17. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Carolyn Riley. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale, 1973. 143. Frohock, W.M. “Ernest Hemingway-The River and the Hawk.” The Novel of Violence in America. (1957): 166-98. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Carolyn Riley. Vol.1. Detroit: Gale, 1973. 141. Oliver, Charles M. Ernest Hemingway A to Z. New York: Facts on File, 1999. Reynolds, Michael S. Hemingway’s First War: The Making of “A Farewell to Arms.” New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1976. Rovit, Earl. Ernest Hemingway. Boston: Twayne, 1963. Scott, Nathan A. Jr. Ernest Hemingway: A Critical Essay. Michigan: William B. Eerdman, 1966. Wilson, M. “Ernest Hemingway.” Lost Generation (1993). 16 Feb. 2001 {http://www.lostgeneration.com/hembio.html}. Young, Philip. Ernest Hemingway. Great Britain: The Oxford University Press, 1964.

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