Skip to main content

About Ernest Hemingway


ISSUE:  Spring 1953

The Old Man and the Sea. By Ernest Hemingway. Charles Scribner’s Sons. $3.00.

I confess that I am unable to share in the prevailing wild enthusiasm for this new book of Hemingway’s, “The Old Man and the Sea.” It is of course a remarkable advance over his last novel; and it has a purity of line and a benignity, a downright saintliness, of tone which would seem to indicate not merely that he has sloughed off his former emotional fattiness but that he has expanded and deepened his spiritual perspective in a way that must strike us as extraordinary. But one must take care not to push these generosities too far, if only because they spill over so easily into that excess of blind charity we all tend to feel for Hemingway each time he pulls out of another slump and attains to the heroism of simply writing well once again. It should be possible for us to honor him for his amazing recuperative powers and his new talent for quasi-religious revelation and still be able to see that it is not for either of these qualities that his book must finally he valued, but for the degree of its success in meeting the standards set down by his own best previous achievement as an artist. I have these standards in mind when I say that “The Old Man and the Sea” seems to me a work of distinctly minor Hemingway fiction.

I have come to this conclusion after noticing, first of all, that the style of the book, in spite of its antiseptic clarity and restraint, is oddly colorless and flat, as if there were nothing sufficiently strong within its subject to resist it at any point and provoke it into fully alert dramatic life. In the best of the early Hemingway one always felt that the prose had been forced out under great pressure through a tight screen of opposing psychic tensions; and one read it with the same taut apprehensiveness, the same premonition of hugely impending catastrophe, as that with which it was written— quite as if one were picking one’s way with the author through an uncleared minefield of language. But now the prose—to change the figure once again—has a fabricated quality, as if it had been shipped into the book by some manufacturer of standardized Hemingway parts.

It soon becomes clear, however, that this weakness of style is merely a symptom of a far more serious weakness in the thematic possibilities of the material itself. The theme of the strong man struggling to survive amid the hostile pressures of a purely physical world has never been the central theme of Hemingway’s greatest fiction; in fact, when one thinks back over his recent novels, one is tempted to conclude that it fails him miserably as a central theme each time he tries to use it in anything more ambitious than a short story.

What has always served Hemingway best has been the theme of the shell-shocked, traumatic man struggling to preserve himself not from physical but from psychic destruction. This was the theme of his great early work; and it provided him with a formula for dramatic success on which he has never been able to improve.

When Wyndham Lewis observed that the typical Hemingway hero is a man “things are done to,” he was undoubtedly thinking of the impression we get of that hero as we watch him suffering and enduring through the course of the typical Hemingway novel. But if we are to understand the operation of the dramatic formula, we must begin farther back than Lewis began and conceive of the hero not merely as a man “things are done to,” but as a man to whom a great many things have already been done. For the two best heroes, Jake Barnes and Frederic Henry, this antecedent suffering was the result of war; and the effect of this suffering was first physical and then psychic trauma.

Jake is introduced to us at the beginning of “The Sun Also Rises” as having been sexually mutilated by a wound. At the beginning of “A Farewell to Arms” Frederic has already spent two strenuous years at the front. Each has been initiated by violence, Jake through direct physical contact with it and Frederic through long vicarious association with it; and each has made his separate peace, his private adjustment to the problem of survival. Onto the background of incessant war they have both learned to project an artificial system of checks and balances, a kind of psychic radar screen composed of propitiatory rituals and sacred signs which, if rigorously maintained, will preserve them at least temporarily from destruction. There is, of course, no ultimate escape from the violence against which their defenses are raised; for it is both universal and abstract, and completely unselective in its choice of victims. “It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too, but there will be no special hurry.” All one can do in the face of such indiscriminate killing is make certain that one is not very good or very gentle or very brave; and, luckily, that is exactly the assurance which the code of the hero provides.

Within the magic circle of their code Jake and Frederic are permitted the luxury of retaining intact the values of a successful life. They may have love, honor, goodness, gentleness, dignity, and bravery; for these are actually the values on which the code is founded. But the code is required to function amid the harsh facts of reality; and the harshest fact of all is that, however good these values may be in themselves, they can never with safely be openly asserted in a world dominated by a lawless violence. Jake and Frederic may possess these values, but only so long as they possess them implicitly and say nothing about them, or are careful to express them concretely and only in ways that have been ritualized by the code as, for example, in sexual intercourse, which is ritualized love, or in simple, manly forbearance, which is ritualized goodness and dignity, or in bull-fighting, which is ritualized bravery and a way of courting death with honor. To assert these values openly is to uproot them from the concrete, physical circumstances of ritual and to consign them to the realm of the abstract where they will he infected with the violence of the world and become destructive. For Jake and Frederic the overt assertion of any one of the implicit values of the code represents a giving of the self, a loss of will and consciousness which is tantamount to death.

Dr. Carl Jung, in his book “Psychology and Religion,” has referred to this fear of losing consciousness as one of the primitive “perils of the soul” and as an equivalent of the fear of the “beserk condition in Germanic saga.” “even an ordinary emotion,” says Jung, “can cause a considerable loss of consciousness. Primitives therefore cherish elaborate forms of politeness, speaking with a hushed voice, laying down their weapons, en crouching, bowing the head, showing the palms”—in short, reproducing in ritual form the quiescent attributes of the sternly conscious mind. We may add to this what we know of other primitive practices designed to exorcise evil. Sir James Frazer, for example, speaks of the tribal custom of pantomime, in which, in the form of religious ceremony and dance, the event most dreaded by the tribe is represented as actually happening, but happening in a way which makes it acceptably familiar and therefore purgative of the fear which is attached to it in life.

Recognizing as we do the peculiarly instinctual nature of Hemingway’s art it should not come as too great a surprise to us to disc-over close parallels between his creative processes and those of primitive man. The code of his heroes is clearly the symbolic construction of a psychic barricade erected against one of the primary perils of his soul the loss of consciousness leading to the lawless or berserk condition. His art, when it is truest and most organically his, is a pantomimic rendering of a series of events which result in the breakdown of this barricade and in the subsequent loss of consciousness which he so greatly dreads. When the breakdown and loss occur, the emotion of fear is pinged and the full dramatic energy of the art is released.

We might well suspect this somewhat extra-literary view of the code as dramatic formula if we did not have before us the evidence of the two novels of Hemingway’s—”The Sun Also Rises” and “A Farewell to Arms” which stand above all his others in quality precisely because in them the code and the circumstances and consequences of its destruction are presented and objectified in the purest possible form. It is in them, furthermore, that, in strict keeping with the nature of the code, the destructive agent is most clearly seen to arise out of the overt and violent assertion of some value on which the code is actually based but which it is against the law of the code to affirm.

In “The Sun Also Rises” Hubert Colin, the man who behaves badly by daring to admit his feelings, is the bearer of the destructive agent; and it is part of the consuming irony of the novel that the feelings he dares to admit are precisely those which Jake and Brett would like to express if they dared and if Jake’s wound did not make it impossible for them to do so. The wound may be taken as a symbolic representation of the taboo which the code has imposed upon such feelings. In a passage of dialogue between Brett and Count Mippipopolous early in the novel this taboo is somewhat obliquely suggested by Brett:

“Doesn’t anything ever happen to your values?” Brett asked.

“No. Not any more.”

“Never fall in love?”

“Always,” said the count. “I am always in love.”

“What does that do to your values?”

The count replies that love, too, has a place in his values; but since love is forbidden in Jake’s and Brett’s values, the wound is there to prevent them from having it and to force their emotion into channels of expression which their values do approve—Brett into sexual promiscuity and Jake into manly forbearance.

In the beginning the Pamplona fiesta is another approved channel: the drinking is carefully ritualized; the talk is good; and the weather is fair, as it always is for Hemingway when life is being lived according to the rules. But as the excitement of the holiday grows more intense, as the drinking spills over into drunkenness and street dancing, and as Jake, Brett, Mike, Bill, and Robert Cohn are caught up in a mounting tide of uncontrollable emotion, the fiesta becomes a setting of nightmare violence, a frenzied correlative action, for the berserk behavior by which Colin brings about the destruction of the code.

It is interesting to see that, as this occurs, all the elements attending on such destruction are actualized in the form of concrete, dramatic events. On the morning the first signs of disaster appear, the weather changes, and it starts to rain. Mike, to the great disgust of the aficionado Montoya, breaks the rules by behaving badly toward the bullfighter Romero. Colin, having been humiliated once too often by the unfeeling Brett, knocks down Jake and Mike and has a vicious fight with Romero. Immediately afterward a Spaniard is gored to death by a bull, not, significantly, in the ring where his death would be in accordance with the rules, but in the runway leading to the ring. Coming back to his hotel after the tight with Colin, Jake feels unreal, as if he were walking in a dream; and this, like the whole nightmare of the fiesta itself, symbolizes the dreaded loss of consciousness which accompanies the death of the code. Finally, as Cohn, who has been the agent of this death, leaves Pamplona in defeat, the gored Spaniard’s funeral procession moves through the streets on its way to the railroad station. In this fashion the pantomime is completed, the fear is purged, and all the elements of the code ritual are thoroughly objectified in the art.

At the beginning of “A Farewell to Arms” Frederic Henry’s relations with the war are strikingly like Jake’s relations with Brett. As long as the war is fought according to the rules, it is essential to Frederic’s psychic survival that he be attached to it and that be respect its values; but it is equally essential that he maintain his spectatorial role with regard to it and that he respect its values in his own way. He will do his job conscientiously; but he will not be brave or honorable or glorious or self-sacrificing. These are dangerous abstractions of the true values of war, and are “obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.” They are like love as opposed to sex, goodness as opposed to forbearance, nightmare as opposed to good clean daylight. They force the mind away from essential experience and make one uncomfortably aware of the violent world outside that sometimes haunts one in sleep. It is only by living within the code that one can remain intact and completely, safely awake.

But in the Isonzo bombardment the war itself becomes violent, breaks the rules, and wounds Frederic; and, characteristically enough, it is at the moment of wounding that he has the sense of losing consciousness or self which, like Jake’s sense of unreality, is the objective equivalent of the psychic breakdown of the code. “I tried to breathe but my breath would not come and I felt myself rush bodily out of myself and out and out and out . . . and I knew I was dead. Then I floated, and instead of going on I felt myself slide back. I breathed and I was back.” All that I have said here takes on added significance when one recalls that Hemingway was himself wounded in the first war and that his impressions of the experience, as he later recorded them, were strikingly similar to Frederic’s—”I died then. I felt my soul or something coming right out of my body, like you’d pull a silk handkerchief out of a pocket by one corner . . .” Later on, in the bewilderingly chaotic convoy movement back through the mud and rain from Caporetto, the destruction of the code by insane violence is again objectified; and, significantly, it is the carabinieri, those staunch defenders of the abstract values of an action now gone berserk, who force Frederic to take the plunge into the river which purges him of his connections with the war altogether.

After his wounding on the Isonzo and the simultaneous breakdown of the code, Frederic begins to affirm overtly his hitherto forbidden love for Catherine Barkley; and with the last of his obligations swept away in the river, the future is now clear for its complete fulfillment. But, unfortunately, with the code no longer in force, there is also nothing to prevent the rampant violence of the world from destroying that love; in fact, in Hemingway’s terms, this is fated to happen to all emotions that are pursued purely and for their own sake outside the limits of the code. So, in the closing pages of the novel, we are confronted with the irony for which the earlier dramatic manipulation of the code has prepared us: with the flight to Switzerland the lovers have won their freedom; but they have left behind them the ritualized faith which alone can make freedom tenable, and so they are condemned.

In the three novels just preceding “The Old Man and the Sea” the code, in the sense that I have described it up to now, almost entirely disappears. Harry Morgan in “To Have and Have Not” has no code. He is tough, taciturn, hard-drinking, and sexually athletic; but where these attributes were, in his predecessors, the ritualized forms of inner virtues that threatened at every moment to become violently and destructively overt, they are in him simply part of the static military equipment with which he does physical battle with a physical world in the face of certain physical death.

In “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” it is true, one finds elements of the old code formula. There is the familiar theme of loyalty to the common cause of the group, a loyalty which manifests itself in the same old courtesies and reticences. There is also the trapped-love motif, the tenderness of which is deepened by the violence which crowds close around it; and there is even the device of the code violator in this ease Pablo who, like Hubert Cohn, is meant to destroy Hillside and let the violence in. But the difficulty is that, the code of the group—or, more correctly, the pseudo-code—is set against physical and not abstract moral violence. It is physical death at the hands of the Fascists which Robert Jordan and the others face; and the only result of Pablo’s treachery is to bring that death a little closer. There is, consequently, no more room for the full dramatic formula of the code to work than there was in “To Have and Have Not,” no moment in the action when the violation of the code can be objectified in the terms of a correlative physical nightmare. In “Across the River and Into the Trees” the code—if one can call it that—is literally and consciously the joke-etiquette and tipsy mumbo-jumbo of an imaginary barroom secret society; and the trapped-loved motif, with its great dramatic potential, crumbles into the incestuous pawings of a lonely old man who has nothing better to do while he waits to die. Through some premature sagging of Hemingway’s creative muscles, what used to be a system of fine internal tensions working their way frantically to the surface becomes, in these novels, a fatty tissue of dead matter lying inertly in the open.

Finally, in “The Old Man and the Sea,” the purely physical takes over again; and we have nothing but the naked contest of strength and courage between the aged Santiago and the fish—a drama which, for all its delicacy and depth of execution, is as far below the standard of complexity set by the early novels as “The Sun Also Rises” would he if it consisted of nothing but the bull lights at Pamplona. As for the code, it has diminished to the merest remnant of its former self, is now merely a bit of worrying irritation in the old man’s mind over the hubris which has driven him to go out too far.

One remembers a bit sadly in reading over this novel Edmund Wilson’s comment of nearly fifteen years ago that Hemingway’s creative fluctuations are like the workings of the Bourdon gauge which operates on the principle that “a tube which has been curved into a coil will lend to straighten out in proportion as the liquid inside it is subjected to an increasing pressure.” At the time Wilson presumably meant the analogy as a compliment to Hemingway’s recuperative powers; but today it lends itself to a different interpretation. The tube now, we might say, has long since withstood the maximum pressure it was made to bear and has at last straightened out completely and for good. The tense young man in dramatic flight from the black horror of trauma has faded into the exhausted old man relaxed in an altitude of crucifixion and dreaming of the clear daylight and lions playing on the African coast.

0 Comments

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading