An Introductory Overview

© 2002 Melvin C. Miles   

            Because they have a fundamentally coherent “world view” (i.e., an essentially cohesive view of the nature of the universe and of human life in that universe), great writers tend to be repetitious.  That is, certain basic themes tend to recur throughout their work and generally, similar elements (i.e., types of characters, conflicts, occurrences, symbols, images, etc.) tend to recur in their handling of these themes.  In these respects, Hemingway was certainly no exception.  From his earliest stories to his last, posthumously published novel, the same basic themes and motifs tend to recur again and again.  Since some initial familiarity with the central concerns and chief characteristics of a writer’s work can contribute to a reader’s understanding and appreciation of that work, the following material identifies and comments briefly on the chief themes and recurrent motifs in Hemingway’s fiction. 

 

“Nada” and the Nature of the Universe

            For Hemingway, man is born into a completely naturalistic and totally indifferent universe: a universe without supernatural sanction, and thus without purpose, order, meaning, or value.  The “nada” (or “nothing”) then focuses on man’s confrontation with the absence of God, the indifference and seeming hostility of the universe, and thus with the absence of purpose, order, meaning, and value in the universe and in human life.

 

Related Motifs, Images, etc.

A. Death: the great nada, inevitable and ever present.

B. Darkness and Disorder: symbols of the chaos, unknowability, and hostility of the universe.

C. War and/or the “Violent Encounter”: symbols of the hostility of life and the ever-presence of pain and death. 

D. Bad Nerves: the fear, anxiety, and loss of control, which the recognition of nada brings.

E. Insomnia: symptomatic of the fear of nada; a symbol of man’s attempt to, as well as his inability to, stop thinking about nada.

F. Despair: the absence of hope and confidence which the recognition of nada tempts man toward, and against which man must struggle.

 

Chance and Accident

            In a universe without purpose, order, meaning, or value, man is a victim of the irrational and often hostile workings of chance and accident, which often bring about gratuitous pain, destruction, loss, and death.

 

Related Motifs, Images, etc.

A. The Unreasonable Wound: the unexpected and irrational injury; symbol of the irrational hostility of life, and of the ever-presence of destruction and death.

B. The Unreasonable Death: same as above, but with the focus on death.

C. The Unreasonable Loss: same as above, but with the focus on a wound which results in the permanent loss of an ability, or on the death of a loved one.

D. Bad Luck: the negative, often hostile and destructive presence of chance and accident.


Illusions, Realities, True Values and False

            A universe without supernatural sanction is inexplicable (i.e., it has no purpose or order in terms by which man can interpret and thus explain it), and it is morally indifferent (i.e., it embodies no governing values by which man can order and direct his life).  For Hemingway, all traditional religious and/or philosophical explanations of the universe (and the value systems based upon these explanations) are simply illusions invented and maintained by men and their social institutions.  The Hemingway hero must reject all traditional, socially sanctioned explanations of the universe and the value assumptions based upon them as false and misleading.  He must accept the realities of nada, of chance and accident, and of death; and, having done so, he must attempt to discover, through experience and honest evaluation of experience, the things and qualities that possess immediate and/or practical human (as opposed to divinely sanctioned or philosophically deduced) values.  For Hemingway, since there are no divinely sanctioned absolute values, a thing, an experience, or an activity is valuable to the extent that it gives one a measure of immediate physical pleasure (good food, drink, sex, etc.); heightened emotional intensity (love, risk, danger, art, conquest, etc.); or to the extent that it helps one develop and/or reaffirm a realistically based self-control, and thus gives a measure of purpose, order, and ultimately, dignity to one’s behavior and to one’s life.  Such values are immediate and practical in two senses: first, because they do give one pleasure, intensity, and self-control; and second, because such values have no significance beyond the pleasure, intensity, and self-control they give. 

 

The “Undefeated” and the “Code” of Conduct

            While man has no control over his ultimate fate in a chaotic universe, nor does he have control over the vicissitudes of chance, accident, and destruction of which he is a victim, he can control the manner in which he confronts his fate and the manner in which he responds to the vicissitudes of chance, accident, and destruction.  Hemingway’s work embodies (in various forms) a “code” of conduct in terms of which, though a man may be victimized and, finally, destroyed, he may yet remain “undefeated” by refusing to yield in the face of his victimization, and by confronting his sense of destruction and death with honor, on his own terms.  In this sense, as Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea says, “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”

            The Hemingway “code” consists of standards and forms of conduct by which a man can confront the realities of nada (of chance, accident, destruction, and death) with dignity, and thus by which he can impose a measure of purpose, order, meaning, and value upon his life.  The concept of “dignity” is both the basis and the goal of the code.  For Hemingway, dignity is the expression of true moral integrity, and it is the highest possible attainment of character.  Basically, dignity is self-control in the face of nada, destruction and death (“Grace under Pressure”).  Such self-control is a visible expression of the self-discipline, knowledge, skill, and poise a man must achieve—as well as the honesty, courage, persistence, and stoic endurance he must possess in order to confront the vicissitudes of his life and the inevitability of his death on his own terms and with honor.

 


Related Motifs, Images, etc.

A. Ritual: the faithful compliance with the patterns of behavior developed to impose order and purpose on one’s actions. 

B. Grace Under Pressure: the artist’s or sportsman’s uncompromising commitment to conduct himself—regardless of the risks involved or the probability of failure—according to the rules and forms which govern his art, sport, or profession.

C. The Artist-Sportsman: symbol of dignity and uncompromising compliance with the code of proper conduct.

D. Clean, Well-Lighted Places: symbols of the order, purpose, meaning, and value created through and exhibited by compliance with the demands of the code.

 

Basic Hemingway Characters

A. Anti-Heroes: characters who are blind to the reality of nada, who live according to illusions, false values, and/or random impulses; such characters are generally either stupid and messy, idealistic and deluded, or self-centered and destructive.

B. Apprentice Heroes: characters who have recognized the reality of nada and who (depending on the stage of their growth) are either struggling with the fear, anxiety, and loss of control which the recognition of nada brings, or who are in the process of learning the nature of true values and the requirements of the code.

C. Exemplars or Code Heroes: characters who have recognized and accepted the reality of nada, who have learned the nature of true values, and who live in compliance with the requirements of the code.  Such characters are the models from whom the apprentice heroes learn.

 

Characteristic Hemingway Stories

A. Those in which the focus is on the apprentice hero and (depending on the particular story) his discovery of, first reactions to, and/or initial attempts to come to terms with nada and to learn to deal effectively with it.

B. Those in which the focus is on the exemplar or code hero, who has accepted the reality of nada and who already lives by the “code,” and through it, controls himself and his posture toward life.

C. Those in which the focus is on the teacher/student relationship between exemplar and apprentice heroes.

 

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