Characteristics of The Ernest Hemingway Heroes

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The First Hemingway Hero

      The ‘Hemingway Hero’ is a feature in his fiction that has generated a large amount of discussion. It is rather a remarkable feature the ‘Hemingway Hero’ has been coined to refer to his protagonist who resembles each other and shares many common traits. These men are therefore referred to as “the Hemingway Hero”. They appear in various shades, under different names, in different guises in the various novels and short stories of Hemingway. The first hero is Nick Adams, who appears in his first published work, his collection of short stories, titled ‘In Our Time’. Nick Adams first appears as a young boy and then traces his growth and development into a young man. This collection containing short stories and sketches is chiefly based on the life of Hemingway himself.

      The most important events and accidents in the stories concerning Nick Adams are fictionalized accounts of the events in Hemingway. To our discussion of the Hemingway Hero, the sketch immediately following the short story the latter is most relevant and significant. This sketch which is hardly a page long talks about how Nick Adams has been wounded in the First World War and he has decided that he shall no longer fight for any country, his or somebody else’s thereby making his “separate peace” with the enemy. This short sketch is of extreme importance to our understanding of the Hemingway Hero and Hemingway himself and his works. Most of his heroes suffer from wounds either physical or psychological and if physical it is always the result of war and he is usually wounded in the lower portion of the body as Hemingway himself was wounded in the First World War. The scene itself is enlarged and incorporated into his later work A Farewell to Anns. Here, the protagonist Frederic Henry is wounded in his legs during the Austrian offensive against the Italians in World War I and eventually the realities of war arouse enough disgust in him to induce him to run away, deserting the army, claiming that he had made a “separate peace” and he was now thorough with the war. This scene also serves as a climax in the lives of various other heroes in his works.

Nick Adams, His Wounds and Other Experiences

      Nick Adam’s wound is of significance in two main ways. Adam’s wound is serious and as the physical wound intensifies it brings to a head, the other wounds psychological and otherwise that he has received as a boy growing up in his native land. The Hemingway hero emerges as a man wounded, in mind and body. Similarly, the fact of his “separate peace” being established, and that he is no longer a ‘patriot’, marks the growth of the hero towards a long break with a society which again becomes a feature or characteristic of the Hemingway hero in his further books. Nick Adams appears again in two subsequent volumes of short stories, Men Without Women published in 1927 and Winner Take Nothing published in 1933. These stories are remarkable for the fact that Hemingway hero instead of changing the features already outlined in the volume In One Time, they Serve to fill the gaps that were in existence in Nick Adams life and career. In the short story “The Killer” for example, Nick is brought face to face with a sickening situation when he meets a man running from a group of gangsters who are out to murder him but now refuses to run anymore. Nick conies into close contact with homosexuals and is also introduced to the seamy side of the world of prostitutes in the short story titled “The Light of the World”. In “Fathers and Sons”, we read about Nick brooding about his father’s death and how it deeply troubles him. Why these thoughts trouble him is not clear but later in For Whom the Bell Tolls, the protagonist Robert Jordan who undergoes the same experience, conies out and explains. Jordan’s father had committed suicide, (This is again fictionalized fact, Hemingway himself was greatly troubled by his father’s suicide). In ‘A Way You’ll Never Be” Nick, at last, meets the fate he had been so desperately trying to avoid is “Big Two-Hearted River”. Here is a continuation of a situation in the first volume into the second. Nick is shown going entirely out of his mind as a result of his experiences in the war. Hemingway suffered from insomnia and in the war story ‘Now I Lay Me” Nick is shown fighting the same problem. He cannot sleep because he is thinking and so Nick Adams suffers from this insomnia for a long time. He cannot sleep. He keeps thinking about several things and the things on his mind that keeps him awake are all scenes and events that are closely related to scene and events in the earlier stories. This sleeplessness for thinking too much is again echoed in Frederic Henry “I was not made to think hut, to eat and sleep and drink” in A Farewell to Arms. A similar projection can be seen from the story. ‘In Another Country” which extends Hemingway range of essential interest from Nick to another individual casualty of the war, in “The Sun Also Rises”. In the former Nick is damaged and in the latter, a whole group of people from the same “last generation” suffers in the same disaster, mutilation, devastation, and destruction.

Similarities in Character

      In all the stories, Nick Adams is shown as an honest, virile, and sensitive person. Beginning from what kind of a boy he is, certainly not a simple and primitive person he is generally thought to be, to what kind of a man he becomes is chronicled in the short stories. Nick Adams is a boy and then a man who loves the outdoor life and he has a lot of courage but underneath everything, he is also a very nervous person. The same qualities of character can be seen in the protagonist of his other novels as well. It is as though Hemingway has taken Nick Adams, given him another name and a set of physical characteristics, and reworked a story around him. Thus, it is for Nick Adam and his variants that the term “the Hemingway hero” is coined. Nick Adams and these other protagonists share similarities in their life, experiences, and even in their mental attitudes. These similarities are obvious in their strikingness. The Hemingway hero is a man who would never completely recover from his sounds though he may learn to overcome some of his trouble and learn to live with some.

The Hemingway Hero in His Various Guises

      The Hemingway hero’s wounds are not just physical but psychological as well. In whatever guise he appears, wherever he appears he is always shown as suffering from some wound or scar. This is especially so because Hemingway was obsessed with the problem of learning to live with these scars. In the short stories, Hemingway depicts the various events and accidents that wounded Nick as a boy and then as a youth. The major incident that severely wounds Nick is the machine-gun fire in the war. This wound leaves both physical and psychological impacts on him. His emotional wound is what induces him after this to make a 'separate peace’ and leave the war. The same wound and reaction manifest itself in almost all his major novels. Jack Barnes in The Sun Also Rises suffers from a severe war wound that has made him impotent. But his wound went deeper than the fetish, he is emotionally impotent too, and more so since the expatriate society, he lived in suffered from moral aimlessness. Again, in A Farewell To Armsf Henry is wounded in his legs during the war. His physical wound has an emotional parallel. Later, the horrors that war imposes upon him force him to make a ‘separate peace’ and desert the army, and here he goes a step further, he deserts society itself but his wounds are compounded rather as Catherine dies leaving him alone. In To Have and Have Not, its hero, Harry Morgan, is physically wounded in the sense that he has only one arm, because economically wounded due to the separation and a society that allows no allowances. All his struggle through illegal and unlawful means comes to be sought and as he is arrested he realizes that all is futile, one man cannot fight against the forces and ever emerge victoriously. Then, in ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls, Robert Jordan the protagonist is again a wounded man. He suffers from emotional scars left by his father’s death, who committed suicide and thereby failed to endure life with courage. Along with this emotional wound that he carries, he later suffers a physical wound as in this attempt to solve this he joins the liberalist in the Spanish Civil War and is severely wounded in his legs, and because of it lies down to cover the escape of the other guerillas knowing that he cannot escape. And lastly in the novel ‘Across the River and into the Trees’ the protagonist is again a scarred veteran of both wars. He also suffers from scars left by a broken marriage and a dying body. The novel shows how he attempts to expiate his wounds in a love affair with a very young mistress. These themes or shall we say the similarities are anticipated by the wound that Nick Adam is affected with and only by an understanding of the psychic wound and its implication can the readers understand the two different sections of the short story Big Two-Hearted River, as also the fishing trip that Nick goes to and with which the volume In Our Time Ends. The trip is not a simple fishing trip. It serves a therapeutic purpose. It is as though he has come out into the water to heal his wounds. The account of the fishing trip serves another purpose. The volume of short stories presents a sort of fragmented biography and this is a way round it off Nick Adams suffers from physical, emotional, and spiritual wounds, and yet he is a young man trying and struggling to keep his life uncomplicated so that he was a smooth existence. He understands that to overcome the scars he received, he shall need time and courage, faith and endurance but he also believes and understands that one day he shall surely overcome his wounds and neuroses.

The Hemingway Code Hero

      Hemingway created another recurring figure, who has come to be known as the ‘code hero’. This was a necessary outcome of Hemingway’s need for a figure to bind the wounds of the Hemingway hero. This figure, referred to as the code hero is in sharp contrast from the Hemingway hero. His function is to balance the deficiencies in the hero and if the position or stance that he has taken is wrong, to correct them. He has been given the term code hero’ because he represents that code according to which the hero should live. If the hero adheres to this code then he will be able to live in the world of violence, misery, and disorder without discomfort and with success. He can tackle the problems of the world that he has been introduced to and live in it with success. The code hero is therefore an exemplification of certain principles that the hero has to follow. He offers the following code of honor, courage, endurance, etc. that shall serve man in a positive manner in his struggle for life. It enables him to bear the tensions and pain that life imposes on man. These qualities make him a man, stand him in good stead in his battle against life which is usually a losing battle. It enables him to live life as Hemingway prefers “with grace under pressure”. The Hemingway code is therefore of great significance in the study of the Hemingway hero.

The Code Hero and the Hemingway Hero in his works:

(1). The Short Stories

      The first time that the code hero appears in Hemingway’s work is in the short stories. The Code Hero can be seen in Jack, in the short story 'Fifty Grand’, a prizefighter who has promised to lose a fight and with superhuman effort does exactly so. He can also be seen in Manuel, in The Undefeated. He is old and wounded but as a bullfighter, he simply refuses to give up and will not be beaten. In ‘The Short Happy Life by Francis Macomber, he is Wilson, the British hunting guide, who teaches Francis the ethics of hunting and the standards of shooting that make Francis towards the end of his life, a happy man. The gambler Cayetano, in The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio, is also a Code hero, when he doesn’t show any signs of pain or suffering even when he has been hit with two bullets in his stomach.

(2). The Old Man and the Sea

      The protagonist of The Old Man and the Sea, the old Cuban fisherman, Santiago is the first example of the Code hero. He is an old man, who has spent eighty-four luckless days without catching any fish and yet he persists. The ideal that he shows is that man may grow old and be down on his luck but he cannot be defeated. He may persist and even in defeat score a victory. Santiago catches a huge marlin after struggling for three days and two nights, and then sharks attack the marlin. He struggles against the sharks but is left with the skeleton of the marlin. Even then he doesn’t give up and brings in the skeleton and plans for the next day. His behavior while losing to the sharks that of honor, courage and endurance is what counts and is a demonstration of how one should behave in the losing battle that is life.

(3). The Sun Also Rises

      In this novel, the code hero is not physically present but the Hemingway hero is and he understands the code. The hero Jack Barnes shows all the typical characteristics of the Hemingway hero. He is also wounded as a consequence of the war. Only the wound is moved from the spine where Nick was hit to the genitals. Jack Barnes being rendered impotent due to a war wound has literal as well as symbolic meanings. His impotence does not in any way detract from his being a hero. He is still very much a hero. Similarities can be seen in that he cannot sleep at night when his mind begins to think and he cries all night long. He is also an expatriate, alienated from society and living in Paris with other expatriates and forming a dissolute, aimless group who are all in one way or the other victims. They are the “lost generation”. In this novel, the “code” is not as yet highly developed and yet Jakes knows what the code is all about so does Romero. But Robert Cohn doesn’t and neither does he understand that there are things that have to be properly done while there are still others that need not be properly carried out.

(4). A Farewell to Arms

      In this novel, both Hemingway and the code hero are put up for comparison and contrast. Frederic Henry is the hero. He is wounded during the war almost precisely where Hemingway himself was wounded during the war. He also shows the other symptoms of the hero. He cannot sleep at night here to his thought and he cannot stop thinking. Again, he has nightmares when he sleeps. He also runs away from organized society in his desertion of the army and later his escape with Catherine. On the other hand, stands the priest as the code hero. He stands for stoic endurance and courage. He defines what true love means and stands for peace, a land where religious love is sanctified. He is a man who draws comfort from sacred love and defines for Henry how this devotion is similar to religious love and is the first one to point out how peace and beauty mountains to Henry.

(5). Death in the Afternoon

      This is a work about bullfighting. Hemingway wrote it based on his actual experiences in Spain and his observation of bullfighting. This is a work of non-fiction. The subject here is death and the bull-fighter is a good example of the Code hero. In his confrontation with death and here a very violent death, his courage and dignity show him to be the high priest of death the ceremonial or ritual of the fight, the clash with the bull. The Code is personified in the manner in which he shows 'grace under pressure.

(6). Green Hills of Africa

      Again, a work of non-fiction, based on his experiences of big-game hunting in Africa, the subject is death, death of men, horses, and big game. Again the hero is an inan confronting death and in his quest for big game is made a ‘separate peace’ and has cut himself away from ordered society and having alienated himself from nature and have rather superficial experiences.

(7). To Have and Have Not

      The protagonist of the novel Harry Morgan is here presented more like a Code Hero than the Hemingway hero. Harry Morgan is a man hard hit by the great economic depression in the 1930s. He is rendered helpless to find work and so he cannot support his wife and children through honest labor. He is therefore forced to take to crime and money through illegal means which pores to be his undoing. He is forced to murder when his own life is placed in danger and ultimately is arrested for the crime. In the end, however, he learns the lesson that in this hostile world one man is not enough. One man cannot fight and hope to win. This novel marks the end of the long exits that saw its beginning in the ‘separate peace’ that Nick Adams made. It also marks the end of the ideological separation Hemingway has made from the world. Thus here, Hemingway who had alienated himself for an isolated existence, finds that man has no chance alone. It was probably the Civil War in Spain that made Hemingway realize this code.

(8). The Fifth Column

      This is a full-length play again dealing with the Spanish Civil War. Hemingway in this play praises the loyalist with whom he was full of sympathy. In this play, the protagonist, Phillip, is immediately recognizable as a Hemingway hero. Phillip is similarly afflicted with thoughts and his memories cause him sleepless nights and as with the Hemingway heroes, he was nightmares at night. He cannot stop thinking and unknown to his wife he has fully committed himself to the loyalist quest for freedom and democracy in Spain. He is therefore in every sense a Hemingway hero. The only point of difference is that he has now come a long way from the earlier heroes like Frederic Henry whom he shares similarities with but who had decided that such patriotism was obscene and abstract and believed rather in the concrete names of places, rivers, streets which to him had more dignity.

(9). For Whom the Bell Tolls

      The theme of this novel is a continuation of the theme in To Have and Have Not, that a man has no chance alone against the world. Here, the statement is “no man is an island, entire of itself, whereas in the earlier novel, 'One man alone ain’t chance”. The protagonist Robert Jordan again symbolizes both the hero and the Code hero. The novel chronicles these days in his life. He has been sent on a mission, to blow up a bridge, to impede the movement of the Fascist during the Spanish Civil War. He is successful, but he is severely wounded in his legs and he chooses to stay back and allow his companions to escape rather than going along with them and restricting their movement. He is sure to die and Jordan fully understands this but does not flinch. He has, however, come to see the wisdom of such a sacrifice and the book ends without any bitterness. The hero is still the wounded man. But he has learned about life and how to live and function despite his wounds. His behavior is commendable. The manner in which he dies proves that life is well worth struggling for. His victory in having done his job well and to die, to sacrifice is well worth of it if there are causes enough.

(10). Across the River and Into the Trees

      In this novel, the protagonist Colonel Richard Cantwell is again a Hemingway Hero. He has all the old scars, particularly those he received as Frederic Henry in A Farewell to Arms. He is also again a wounded man who has alienated himself from society and lived a life of humanistic pleasures with his young mistress.

Unidealistic Realist

      The Hemingway hero is usually a realist and pragmatist. He believes in the fact that thought is a necessary guide for action. In order to prove the truth or something, he relies on the truth of his own experience. Abstract things are meaningless and insignificant until and unless it is centralized in a particular situation. The Hemingway hero believes in empirical evidence to test the validity of any truth and by observing any practical consequence. For example Jack Barnes, in The Sun Also Rises learns about life. “Perhaps as you went along, you did learn something. I did not care what it was all about. All I wanted to know was how to live in it. Maybe if you found out how to live in it you learned from that what it was all about.” Therefore the hero is a man interested in the facts of consequences.

The Hemingway Hero Learns the Code Empirically

      The Hemingway hero may be in many senses regarded as an anti-intellectual and a behaviorist anarchist on his insistence that any truth must be empirically proved and that he must learn this truth on his own, his own experiences, regardless of the accumulated experience of other men. He has to learn independently of others. This may seem an absurdity as no man can be complete on his own, but it is a theory that is true of most men. From this point of view then, the Hemingway heroes are normal, ordinary men of our day. When Jack Barnes could not find any world view, which could explain the facts of the world as he had experienced then, he says; I did not care what it was all about,” Hemingway heroes are normal males for their inability to explain the facts that they come across in their youth or which they experience in love and war. He, therefore, has to learn his code and in doing this, he is a careful planner but practically. He does not believe in the abstract or any thought of abstract reasoning. It has to be practical and realistic and if it is good it will yield good results, otherwise not. But even this good result is limited to a certain point because, at that level, practical planning way to luck and the requirement becomes that luck should favor the planner. But luck works unpredictably, and the only way to control luck into taking the precaution of following the rules, which is the common-sense way but also a negative approach. But knowing the rules of lice poses great difficulty to man in the sense that these rules are not easy to learn. These rules have to be learned through action and experience and there is no short way out. On the other hand, mere adherence to these rules is useless if not unpractical and insignificant. The way out is to choose an ethical pattern to follow wisely and sensibly and after careful consideration of the ethics and virtues being pragmatically proved through empirical methods added to one’s own experience and observation of others.


      In Hemingway’s hero and the working of his philosophy, issues about pragmatism; empiricism, and rationalism are interconnected and interrelated. However, there also exists elements of hedonism in the hero and his philosophy. Seeking the pleasure of the physical senses and material comforts and avoiding scariness and pain is a natural part of man’s constitution. However, man does not live by this principle alone. Thus, Hemingway’s code and conduct that make you feel good is moral in pure hedonistic. But then again restricting Hemingway’s hero to hedonism would be wrong.

An Artist and a Man of Action

      Hemingway’s hero and his qualities are not evident in one work but are to be accumulated from his entire works. However, in the novel, Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway makes his most revealing statement on the characteristics of the hero. As deduced from the statement in this book the Hemingway hero is both an artist and man of action. He stands somewhere between the two extremes. The Spanish bull-fighters Maria is the model of the man of action and the Spanish painter Goya is the model for the hero as an artist.

      These actual people serve as the model and in the novel, the bullfighter is depicted as a ‘generous, humorous, proud, bitter, foul-mouthed and a great drinker. He is neither materialistic nor loves money nor is he an intellectual. He loves his sport of bullfighting and loves killing bulls. He lives with great passions and enjoyment. However, the last six months of his life are very bitter. He contracted tuberculosis but he did not fear death and so took no care of himself. These qualities taken from a real man are given to the fictional soldier such as Colonel Cantwell. On the other hand Goya, the artist was a believer in “what he had seen, felt, touched, handled, smelled, enjoyed, drunk, mounted, suffered, spewed up, lain with, suspected, observed, loved, hated, lusted, feared, detested, admired, loathed, and destroyed”. This is a description of Goya’s beliefs and his paintings were a direct result and consequences of his beliefs and convictions established through difficult empirical means. And similarly, all the fictional Hemingway heroes starting from Frederic Henry to Colonel Cantwell, share the same attitude and outlook in their lives.


      The style that Hemingway follows is a curt, unemotional, and factual style. This style tries to present experience objectively though Hemingway is a stylist of narrow limits. Hemingway’s style is a repor- torial style that includes reporting of external actions in a boring, dispassionate way and as a rule, this is all that he ever attempts in presenting his characters and especially in depicting events and accidents. The central character in his novel, the “I” who also functions as a narrator is typical of most of his novels and short stories. However, this T is almost all the time generally describes as bare consciousness stripped to the human minimum. The “I” narrates the story but the style is akin to an impassive recording of the objective data of experience. The “I” is at best a de-personalized being and this is made clear by the absence of ideas and apparent emotion in him compounded by the fact that he has no memory of the past and no thought for the future. Apart from the typical Hemingway hero, he is an accomplished man from a number of angles. He is in the modern sense macho and a potent, red-blooded male. He is a sophisticated and extensive world traveler. He spends his time in the pursuit of women and sex, drinks hard, plays just as hard, and in the fact of danger is cool and self-assured. In much the same ways as Hemingway lived life on the fast lane with wine and women, courting death in various ways, so does the Hemingway hero.

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