Ernest Hemingway’s Realism and Naturalism

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      Hemingway’s art is in many ways a romantic art but his realism stands over and above this aspect. The incidents and dialogues and characters in his novels are all drawn with touches that contribute to its realism. In order to achieve his unique brand of realism, Hemingway employs a new kind of technique, completely absent in romantic novels. His technique is to introduce a host of minor details which is of no significance as far as the development of the story is concerned nor do they contribute towards character portrayal. These details serve to enhance the realism of the novel, though they are details of unimportant matters. They also serve to project the feelings of the character into the atmosphere. In A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway writes “A wine shop was open and I went in for some coffee. It smelled of early morning, of swept dust, spoons in coffee glasses, and the wet circles left by wine glasses. The proprietor was behind the bar. Two soldiers sat at a table. I stood at the bar and drank a glass of coffee and ate a piece of bread. The coffee was grey with milk, and I skimmed the milk scum off the top with a piece of bread”.


      Hemingway also belongs to the world of Naturalism. Evidence to support this statement can be found in almost all his works and the kind of naturalism Hemingway portrays is a basic naturalism. His heroes are strong, brave men who believe more in action than reflection no matter to which social strata they belong. Such men can be seen in men as Harry Morgan, Colonel Cantwell, etc. Harry Morgan in To Have and Have Not is a murderer but this killing is a natural one, coming off his need to protect his livelihood and his wife and daughter. Similarly, Colonel Cantwell, in Across the River and into the Trees, is a war veteran who loves Venice, its art, and history and spends his time with his mistress, a nobly born young girl of only nineteen as compared to his fifty-four years. Both Harry and Cantwell are men of courage and guts which Hemingway calls Cojones. According to Hemingway man is nothing without cojones. On the other end of the scale, we have the super civilized men, who are necessary to the mode of basic realism and yet are men and women when Hemingway barely tolerates. They are in the story and out as soon as possible. They are homosexuals, sexually incompetent spouses, parasites, and finicky artists or writers.

Simple, Honest People

      Among Hemingway’s minor characters are mostly simple, uncorrupted people whom Hemingway respected and admired. A host of examples can be taken in The Light of the World, Hemingway has portrayed. Alien, a good-natured, 350-pound prostitute, or the Fontana an honest bootlegger of ‘Wine of Wyoming", the jockey has already done for in My Old Man, and in For Whom the Bell Tolls Pilar, the earth mother symbolizing strength and courage, the Priest in A Farewell to Arms who believes in divine love and wishes to spend a lifetime in a place where to love God is not a dirty joke. Hemingway admired the Indians in northern Michigan where he grew up and has favorably portrayed them. Similarly, he has portrayed the Spanish bull-fighters that he came to know during his years in Spain and the deep fisherman he knew in Cuba has been celebrated in The Old Man and the Sea.

Hemingway’s Nature

      Hemingway’s nature is according to his interpretation of the moment. He has no fixed attitude to it and thus nature as he represents it varies. This variation makes it difficult to define. When nature is being used for sporting activities such as fishing, hunting, bull-fighting, and skiing, she is portrayed as benign and restorative. Nature is beneficent yet the joy it affords is mystical.

      However, to describe in words this mystical joy is difficult. The mountains are usually symbols of hope, peace, and contentment and streams are rivers, and fishing is usually connotated with the good and positive. However, negative attitudes can also be discerned in stories such as The Snows of Kilimanjaro when the snow-capped mountains are a symbol of death and disaster, and in Big Two-Hearted River, there is a sinister place where the river narrowed and went into a swamp and where Nick Adams no matter where and how he fishes shall never go near. The animal world is also seen in the same two-pronged maimer. Some animals are to be respected and admired such as the bully who is used for bull-fighting and this gives men the pleasure of a fine sport full of courage and agility of mind and body, on the other hand, the hyena which looks silly anyway and is contemptible. The huge marlin in The Old Man and the Sea is a great, admirable creature, a wonder of creation, however, the old man says, ‘But thank God, they are not as intelligent as we who kill them; although they are noble and more able. The sharks who attack the marlin ultimately reduce it to its skeleton, no less are portrayed as the crushing evil forces in nature.

Ambivalent Attitude

       It is therefore clear to the observer that Hemingway’s attitude to, nature was of an ambivalent kind, shifting and changing as and according to the requirement of the story he was dealing with. Two contrasting views on nature can be discussed in this regard. The view of nature in The Old Man and the Sea and the same in A Farewell to Arms, In the former, the Old Man is a primitive man, he is compared to saint Francis, a saint who kills in order to exist and live and kills his true brothers the fish as he refers to them. Following is an excerpt from the novel which illustrate clearly his concept about man and nature.

      “Then he was sorry for the great fish that had nothing to eat and his determination to kill him never relaxed in his sorrow for him. How many people will he feed he thought. But are they worthy to eat him? No, of course, not. There is no one worthy of eating him from the manner of his behavior and his great dignity. I do not understand these things, he thought. But it is good that we do not have to kill the sun or the moon or the stars. It is enough to live on the sea and kill our true brothers”.

      Another view of nature can be seen in Frederic Henry’s ruminations in A Farewell to Arms, as he and Catherine had a calm, happy life in Stress before they are forced to flee to Switzerland. He reflects on their love, their life, and the uncertainties of the future. His reflection is the following excerpt. If people bring so much courage to this world, the world has to kill them to break them, so of course, it kills them. The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kill. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure that it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry”.

      The World’ that kills and destroys here, is astern difficult to define. However, Henry’s other premonition about the biological trap springs to mind here. The idea conveyed is similar, as a consequence of love and loving the spring of the trap shut, as a consequence of life, the woAd kills. In the novel therefore Catherine dies and so does their child. Nature ensures that they die. Another aspect of the tern can be seen in Henry’s rejection of the war due to its chaos and disorder and its cruel aspect and his ultimate desertion. However, for his refusal to accept and confirm the world shall make him pay by breaking him though not killing him. The world has broken him once, he has been hit and severely wounded By a trench mortar shell and had almost lost his knee, but he was strong again. He made half the retreat and his escape with that damaged knee so now it is stronger. Similarly, he shall be a broken man after Catherine and their child’s death but he shall emerge a stronger man out of it.


      Hemingway as a storyteller believed that his job was to “state everything behaviouristically”. His task was to present actions and events as they occurred and instead of concluding any kind, to allow the actions and events to draw the reader's emotional response on its own. Hemingway believed in such a technique rather than forcing a response through the description, reflection, or direct statement. Characters in his earlier fiction live to act and experience. If life has meaning beyond the experiencing of it, then it can be expected that man shall learn as he lives. In The Sun Also Rises Jack Barnes comments on his chaotic world: 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”. This is therefore how Hemingway approaches his art from a natural point of view. There are no flourishes nor any contrivances. He represents things as he finds them and as he feels them. His varying attitude and his allowing the reader to feel for themselves are also elements of Naturalism, In conclusion therefore it can be said that his art is realistic fiction for presenting as accurate invitation of life as it is. But it bends more towards naturalism which is an even more accurate picture of life than realism. Hemingway’s art is truly naturalistic for the special selection of subject matter and a special literary matter. And for adhering to the thesis as developed by Zola in the 1870’s that man belongs entirely in the order of nature and does not have a soul or any other connection with a religion or spiritual world beyond nature, that man is essentially a higher-order animal. Naturalism can also be seen in his elaborate documentation and his choice of character—men who exhibit strong animal drives such as greed and brutal sexual desires, and who are victims both of their glandular secretions within and their sociological pressures without. Also because the ending is usually ‘tragic’ but not as in classical and Elizabethan tragedy, but because of a heroic but losing struggle of the individual mind and will against gods, enemies, and circumstances. The protagonist of the naturalistic plot is a pawn to multiple compulsions, merely disintegrates, or is wiped out, Hemingway art answers to all these elements of Naturalism.

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