Main Characteristics of Ernest Hemingway as A Novelist

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      Ernest Miller Hemingway (1899-1961) is one of the major novelists in the history of American Literature. He is generally considered to be the spokesperson for the generation that faced the loss and devastation of two world wars in a lifetime, a generation that Gertrude Stein named the ‘Lost Generation. Other writers belonging to the group of American expatriate authors, writing on the ‘Lost Generation’ include William Faulkner, Scott Fitzgerald, John Don Passos, and Sinclair Lewis. These writers were concerned with the losses concerning the social, moral, and psychological spheres of human life and strove to show the losses suffered by the man in these spheres due to the wars. They tried to do so by portraying the realism, the horror and brutality concerned with the war in their writings. Hemingway was himself chiefly concerned with these themes and with the dilemmas faced by the modern war-torn, devastating new world.

Hemingway’s Works and Major Influences

      Hemingway’s first published work appeared in 1923, as ‘Three Stories and Ten Poems. In 1924, came the collection of short stories In Our Time which was published first from Paris and then in 1925 from America with some more stories and sketches added to it. After this, a spate of works followed, major among which are The Torrents of Spring.

      The Sun Also Rises (1926), A Farewell to Arms (1928), Death in the Afternoon (1932), Green Hills of Africa (1935), To Have and Have Not (1937), The Fifth Column (1938), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), Across the River and into the Trees (1950) and The Old Man and the Sea (1952). The most popular and well known among all these novels are however The Farewell to Arms” which brought him literary fame and success, and then For Whom the Bell Tolls, but most of all ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ which won him literary acclaim and was responsible for the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize which was awarded on him.

      In his thoughts and art, Hemingway was deeply influenced by the two world wars, Mark Twain and the Bible. During the beginning of his career, while he was living in Paris, he was influenced by eminent literary figures such as Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot etc with whom he came into close contact with. His days as a reporter and a war correspondent for the newspapers also had a marked influence on his style. The training he got as a journalist helped him to do away with stereotypical phrases and metaphoric embellishments in his prose style. In keeping with his desired simplistic effect, he also learned to use the simplest possible words. In many ways, Hemingway was also influenced by Ring Gardner as a popular writer during his school days and his earliest works can be said to be a direct invitation of Gardner’s style. On the other hand, Joseph Conrad also played a significant part in shaping Hemingway’s style. Hemingway acknowledged his debt by saying that he would resurrect Conrad by sprinkling T.S. Eliot in powdered form over Conrad’s grave. Modern readers discern an influence of Sherwood Anderson from the similarities and parallels seen between The Old Man and the Sea and Anderson’s I Want to Know. However, Hemingway himself has denied any such influence. However, the fact remains that like any other author, Hemingway was influenced by many writers and artists.

Hemingway’s Choice of Plot

      Like Hemingway’s choice of words, his choice of plots is restricted to that which is simplistic. In all his novels, his plots are strikingly simple, his stories are mainly those concerning one or two major characters and the ordeal, disappointment, and frustrations that they suffer in life and how these terrible experiences reveal the sufferings and the inner, psychological pains and wounds of these people. All his novels are based on this theme except for the novel ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls' based on his experiences during the Spanish Civil War, wherein he discusses social and political problems and where forces about them, play major roles in determining the destiny of the key characters in the novel. All his novels are however full of suspense and therefore are of interest to the reader.

      The Sun Also Rises is the story of a group of American expatriates living in Paris after the war. Jack Barnes and impotent because of a wound during the war lives an aimless life of drinking, playing, and sex. Lady Brett Ashley is a woman constantly on the move from one affair to another. She falls in love with Jack but they cannot consummate their love. She goes on to affair after affair, finally she meets a young man who wants to marry her. But she cannot and calls Jack to rescue her. The novel looks at these aimless people and their aimless drifting, with a plain, factual point of view.

      In A Farewell to Arms, we again have the story of an American Lieutenant Frederic Henry is in the ambulance unit of the Italian army serving in the Italian Austrian front during the First World War. The story deals with his attitude to war and love. Coming to both casually he soon falls really in love with Catherine Barkley an English Nurse and after being wounded he also comes to war with an attitude of conscientiously performing his duties. However, a realization of the brutal horrors of the war and being almost executed forces him to desert the war and run away with Catherine, now pregnant with his child. Completely deserting the world, they set up on an isolated idyll in the mountains of Switzerland. But this is short-lived as Catherine dies in childbirth, the child itself being stillborn and Henry is left desolate, alone again.

      In For Whom the Bell Tolls, we again have the story of an American. Robert Jordan volunteers to go on a mission to help the liberationist faction during the Spanish Civil War. He is to join the Liberalist guerillas and blow up a strategic bridge near the mountain of Segovia. The novel records three days and nights of his time with the guerillas, during which he falls in love with Maria, carries out his mission and is severely wounded and knowing that he would only impede the escape of his comrades, decides to stay back and cover them, assuring Maria, that one can only die alone.

      The Old Man and the Sea, his last novel and generally considered by critics as his best and greatest novel is the story of the heroic courage of an old Cuban fisherman Santiago. Having gone eighty-four days without catching any fish; he goes out into the deep sea where he succeeds in hooking a huge marlin with whom he struggles for three days and two nights. As he succeeds in catching it and returns homeward with the marlin lashed to the side of his boat, he is attacked by sharks. He fights with them valiantly with limited means. He does not give up but the marlin is reduced only to mere skeletons. He is, however, undefeated, going to exhausted sleep, planning for the next day.

      Critics have characterized Hemingway’s plots as cyclic plots. However, this definition as such is not comprehensive because a cyclic plot does not include the Hero’s achievement of a certain insight in the course of the action. Hemingway’s plots in this regard fall more under the definition of aspiration plots as the hero almost usually achieves insight into his own identity and then passes on the result of these unique experiences to the rest of the world though, on the other hand, he does not achieve anything in terms of physical and material gains. The protagonist in his novels almost usually gains stature and increase in status as the novel progresses. Hemingway is a novelist of the extreme situation and in this regard is comparable to artists such as Malraux, Conrad, etc.

Hemingway’s Choice of Theme

      Hemingway’s choice of theme again has been criticized for being restricted to death, horror, and violence. Some critics have however explained his obsession with death, as due to being one of the lost generations, under the impact of the two world wars and several others and therefore living in a war-torn, ravaged world. Hemingway was 'taken in, by war, death, and violence. This has been discussed in quite some detail by Edward Wagenknecht in his book The Cavalcade of the American Novel’. He says, “he made an art out of killing. He has killed like a highly sensitive, pitiful, civilized man who feels himself under a terrible compulsion to kill because something has gone wrong in his thinking. He has been taken in by these things for more completely than any sentimental old maid of the friendship village school was taken in by the moonlight and the roses”.

      Hemingway was strangely preoccupied with death. A close study of his novels reveals this fact. The world that he portrays in his novels is a world at war. Death looms large on the horizon. The eminent critic Robert Spiller has observed that Hemingway had but one theme, this being how a man may face death in a world stripped of all values except intensity. Hemingway, in his preoccupation with death, showed an affinity to the other great American writers of his time. It is but evident how for the American writers, an obsession with evil, early sorrow and death was a subject close to their heart. Behind Hemingway’s obsessive reflection on death lurks an intense suspicion of ultimate doom. The image of ultimate doom haunting him has brought on an intense and passionate fondness for life and being alive. The author of the book Ecclesiastics has observed repeatedly that extinction may well be the end of all, and this thought is what arouses both in Hemingway and his protagonist a desire to live well, to take each moment and live it as fully as possible. In The Sun Also Rises, Jack Barnes comments on life and death, ‘Maybe if you found out how to live in it you learned from that what it was all about.” Such an interest in life shows the existentialist streak in Hemingway. A careful study reveals that almost all of Hemingway’s characters are poised on the abyss of non-meaning, standing on the edge of nothingness. In the vision of nothingness about to engulf human life, there comes a ray of hope. This is built on human courage and endurance. That man may be on the brink of death but he may not be defeated. On the other hand, as a corollary to living life well is the notion that man should die well. It is as a result of this notion that Hemingway’s heroes show incense fortitude courage and endurance even on the brink of death. Hemingway was also haunted by the image of Christ on the cross and in one of his short stories has been commented on Christ through a Roman soldier: “He looked pretty good to me in there today”. The figure of Christ, his suffering, and undefeated courage are again seen in the old Cuban fisherman Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway’s fascination with war and death comes across in almost every novel and almost all his short stories. He never lets the reader, his audience forget that death awaits everyone at one point in their life or the other.

Hemingway’s Realism

      Hemingway in his literary theories and approaches was both a realist and a naturalist. He was for the notion that an artist should depict life as it is. He believed that a novelist should depict the actual and the real. This was one of the reasons why he based so much of his work on his own personal and actual experiences further based on actual observation and realization. His subjects are the problems of his contemporary generation - the lost generation and the problems they faced due to being ravaged by the war. His events, characters, and dialogues are emphasized by the introduction of small realistic details. A life like characteristic is imbued into his novels.

Hemingway’s Symbolism

      Malcom Cowley in 1944 first pointed out that Hemingway used image that was symbols of an inner world and should therefore be placed among the symbolist and not really among the realist. His use of symbols starts right from the beginning of his literary career. In The Sun Also Rises, Jack Barnes is war-wounded arid rendered impotent. This is a symbol of the whole atmosphere of barrenness and meaninglessness of life. In A Farewell to Arms, the mountains are associated with the concept of war and thus the concept of—death, destruction, filth, and fatigue. Catherine Barkley herself symbolizes home and place and love. Another, recurring symbol in the novel is the rain. It symbolizes, death and destruction and pre-empts death wherever it occurs in the text. In For Whom the Bell Tolls, snow is used as a symbol for death and this is evident in the senses where a spring snowfall increases the danger of Hordan’s mission and indirectly contributes to his death. In this novel, sinister Fascist planes and the hawk are also symbols for death and mortality. Hemingway's symbolism reaches a peak in his last novel and masterpiece The Old Man and the Sea and the symbolism in this novel has a far deeper significance. Life as Old Santiago undergoes is itself a struggle, and an ever-continuing fight against the unconquerable forces of nature. Where even in defeat, a kind of victory is possible, the message that Hemingway puts across in this novel is that a man may be down and out on his luck, and yet he can dare to stick to his principles and though his struggles achieve victory even in defeat and accost failure in the face and make it a thing to be proud of. “What a man can do and what a man endures” is the main theme that Hemingway is concerned with within the novel as also man’s dependence on his fellow beings and his dependence and oneness with nature. The old man is fascinated by the wonderful creatures of the sea, their number, variety and scale is still a sense of Man’s smallness in comparison with the old man. The symbol of Christ’s crucifixion is another major symbol in the text. This can be seen in the wounds in the Old man’s hand and later when he comes home shouldering the mast. Santiago has also been interpreted as symbolizing St. James and St. Francis. The Christian symbol is emphasized through the Old Man’s basic humility and deep compassion for the living creatures of the sea. Further in the text, the boy Manolin symbolizes hope, faith, and promise. These are the various symbols in the text.

Hemingway’s Distinctive Prose Style

      Hemingway has a distinctive prose style, unique and which many critics admit is Hemingway’s contribution to the modern twentieth-century prose style. Various critics have praised his prose for its clearness and hard, clear style. His style shall be permanently remembered for its colloquialness marked by a deliberate simplicity of diction and syntax. He aimed to write clipped sentences, and make curt understatements. His is a non-literary style shaped by his reading of the Bible and his days as a reporter in the Kansas City Newspaper and later as a war correspondent. He seems to have modeled his style on the reporter’s handbook for the reporters which directed them to ‘use short sentences short paragraphs, vigorous English. Be positive, not negative. Avoid the use of adjectives especially such extravagant ones as ‘splendid’, ‘gorgeous’, ‘grand’ magnificent’. Hemingway guided by these principles developed his clean, lean, and spare style that won him so much fame and critical acclaim. He himself acknowledged his debt by saying “Those were the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing”. Describing his style Ford has said, “Hemingway’s words, strike you, each one, as if they were pebbles fetched fresh from a brook. They live and shine, each in its place”. ‘The reader is swept on by the swift progress of Hemingway’s prose, the choked eloquence and damned up emotions, which like rocks in a river, makes the torrent flow more excitedly. Rarely has there been sharp a focus on things seen and touched and cherished and lost; seldom has there been a greater justification of passing time and its grin relentlessness. Never has there been is an American writer so dramatic a conflict of bitterness and brilliance, incredible failures and unquestionable successes, physical ecstasy, intellectual exacerbation, shocking violence, and lasting vitality. Another eminent critic Louis Untermeyer has commented on l; is a style that is ‘hard, clean, close-clipped, persistently masculine, his very adjectives are appropriately, even aggressively, athletic and accurate. “Hemingway imbued his writings with a certain magic that brought a new significance to even the common idioms and familiar phrases.

      Hemingway had developed a style of his own. Some of the remarkable qualities characterizing his prose are the conversational tone, objectivity wherein the author remains deliberately in the background. Never put him between the text and the reader, never interpreting always working through simple suggestions and implications. Edgar Johnson has commented on his simplistic style stating that “The simplicity of Hemingway’s style... is not the simplicity of Sherwood Anderson, so little removed from childishness but a simplicity that has passed through the sophisticated criticism of Gertrude Stein, the simplicity of an analytical mind that has deliberately rejected complexity as a method. It seems simple because it is stripped and transparent but it is packed with commutative suggestions revealing depth within depth that may be overlooked on a first reading.

      Hemingway’s prose is a distinct and unique style. However, what appears to be on the surface—a simple, colloquial style, is not what it really is. There is a lot more underneath the clean stripped surface. Hemingway aimed to write on a style devoid of cheating of any kind. However, his lean and spare style is endowed with depth and beauty by the use of symbolism, irony, and allusion to connote meanings that are not visible on the surface. For example, in A Farewell to Arms, Henry’s experience of love and war denotes the experience of the entire American country during and after World War 1. Similarly, Santiago, the Old Man of The Old Man and the Sea, and his experience are representative of the struggle of man against nature, kind and benevolent at times and at others cruel and destructive.

      “Hemingway will certainly be remembered as a stylist. His short, concrete sentences, his lively dialogue and his desperate search for the exact words which will express on exact and limited truth and landmarks in the twentieth-century fiction. His prose rhythms have transformed the staccato rattle of his early writings, into the liquid cadenced, a ripple of his later works. To this bare style, we also bring his gifts as a poet. He is extremely sensitive to the light, colour, form, and atmosphere of particular places. He succeeds admirably in suggesting an emotional atmosphere. His ability to express what he feels and thinks is superb”.

Hemingway’s Idealism

      All of Hemingway’s protagonists rang on to an idealism, some dedication to a cause. This idealism marked the greatness of Hemingway as a writer and endeared him to many readers and critics alike. For example in For Whom the Bell Tolls, the hero Robert Jordan hopelessly committed to the lost cause of the liberalist in the Spanish Civil War. He volunteers and comes to Spain almost as soon as the war starts and he claims to have fought that summer and that fall for all the poor in the world against all tyranny for all the things you believed and for the new world you have been educated into”. The world that Jordan fights for is a world where the “have not’s do not exist for all will be happy”. Hemingway expressed his idealism through Jordan.” You are not a real Marxist and you know it. You believe in Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. You believe in Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Don’t’ ever hide yourself with too much dialectics. They are for some but not for you. you have to know them in order not to be a sucker. You have put many things in abeyance to win a war. In this war is lost, all of those things are lost”. Hemingway has named his novel with a phrase taken from John Donne and through it has emphasized the essential kinship that exists between one human to another. The book and its message are like a gospel of life dedicated to a noble cause and as such is of great and intense interest to all readers, whether they have any interest in the Spanish Civil War and their political situation or not. This is because the book doesn’t, merely deal with the war but of the human spirit and he has portrayed this spirit with a splendid evocation of the scenes and with magnificent and beautiful characterization. Alfred Kazim is ‘on native ground, says of Hemingway’s portrayal of the Civil War that it was ‘less a study of the Spanish people than the study of epic courage and compassion. The idealism that had always been to frozen in inversion, so growing and self-mocking has now become an unabashed lyricism that enveloped the love of Robert Jordan and Maria, the strength of Pilar, the courage and devotion of the guerillas, the richness and wit of Spanish speech in a hymn of fellowship”.

      Hemingway’s concern, therefore, was to portray an idealism of love, peace, and democracy and these are the evident theme underneath his intense fascination almost obsessed with violence, death, and war.

Hemingway’s Romanticism

      Further, in spite of the above-stated obsession, Hemingway was at the bottom of his heart a romantic. His A Farewell to Arms is a romantic tragedy, depicting as it does the love story between Catherine Barkley an English nurse, and Henry, an American both in the Italian Austrian front and the ideal, isolated idyll that they eventually set up in the mountain above Montreaux in Switzerland. The love they share comes to a tragic end as Catherine dies in childbirth leaving Henry desolate and alone in the world but having gained on insight. In For Whom the Bell Tolls. Hemingway kills the story of Robert Jordan a volunteer among the liberalist guerillas in the Spanish Civil War and Maria a woman who had been subjected to rape and torture at the hands of the Fascists. The doomed from the beginning love affair which lasts a mere three days is portrayed with loving tenderness. And ends with the Jordan staying back due to his wound, death inevitably tolling Maria, that all men have to die alone. These poignant relationships could only have been portrayed by a romantic. The romances end in pathos however as also in his other novels. And the tender pathos of his stories is well appreciated through the world shows itself to be cynical. Hemingway has a soft corner for romances and a distinct preference for love and tenderness, maybe because there seems to be a lack of love and tenderness in the war-torn society that was Hemingway’s world.


      Hemingway’s style spawned thousands of imitators but none to equal him. Critics have commented how half the young writers tried to imitate him and the other half tried not to. He was a very popular writer and enjoyed tremendous success in his lifetime. As a spokesperson for the ‘lost generation’ he brought fresh life and vigor to American literature. During the war, he won various awards for his valor and later for his literary career which culminated with his winning the Pulitzer prize and then the Nobel Prize for literature in 1954. The Nobel committee was highly appreciative of his style and lauded him especially for it.

      Heroes such as Santiago, of The Old Man and the Sea, Henry of A Farewell to Arms, Colonel Cantwell of Across the River and into the Trees, Jack Barnes of The Sun Also Rises, are literary characters whose creation is Hemingway’s contribution to the modern twentieth-century literature. These are re-marked by their constant zest and zeal for life and courage and fortitude to face the trials and tribulations that are life. Another major contribution is his introduction of the use of colloquial speech with simple words, diction, and syntax for literary purposes. Apart from this the reflection in his courting of his personal love of danger, deliberate courting of risky adventure, his love for bullfighting big game hunting, deep-sea fishing, etc. Over and above this has incredible heroism in war, which finds acute representation in his heroes make for memorable characters. Hemingway’s style of writing was a forceful yet fresh style marked by a blend of romanticism, realism, and naturalism, presented through the mode of symbolism and this style was the reason why critics placed him among the best American novelists and honored him with respect.

      Sheridan Baker has said of him: “And because we all respond to the romantic dream of embattled self, which is at the center of Hemingway’s best world, Hemingway will continue to be read and will continue in his way to be great. He has found, in himself, our own soft romantic centers, our sweet dreams of despair, and toughened it into bravery. He has caught man’s essential nagging belief aggravated by a nihilistic skeptical and uncertain period that we do not get all we deserve, that we are made for something better than brutality and death, that our virtues ought to be rewarded by some supreme and deathless love and by some- grandeur that neither the rubble of two wars nor the glitter of the suburbs can supply.”

      From this analysis, we may get the reason why Hemingway was so popular and in-demand during his day and continues to be so even today, fifty years after his death. That his contribution to American literature is great is of no doubt and his position among the American literary stars is assured.

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