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The Hand of the Master

ISSUE:  Spring 1980

Hemingway at his best is not a maker of metaphors. He resists the notion that anything can overtly be compared to anything else. While his images almost always function on two levels—the literal and the figurative— Hemingway refuses to help his reader bridge the gap between the two realms by in any way suggesting that his language might be two-dimensional. The pervasive sense that an overwhelming symbolic logic lurks just beneath the level of the literal is precisely the sense of the uncanny which Hemingway at once wishes to exploit and deny. From the perspective of rhetorical decorum, the “uncanny” acquires a stylistic as well as a psychological definition, since the tenor of every vehicle is just “that which ought to have remained hidden and secret, and yet comes to light.” Once Hemingway begins to take his metaphors as metaphors, his writing collapses the tension between the literal and the figurative which had lent it such an air of suspicious calm. The novels from 1940 on can be read as a debate over the uses of self-consciously metaphoric language. At the heart of this debate is the metaphor of the hand.

The “thing of the hand” haunts For Whom the Bell Tolls, where it refers to reading the future from one’s palm. Like most of Hemingway’s heroes, Robert Jordan spends his time “”looking into the future in English.”” At first he is open to Anselmo’s question, “”Can you read in the palm of the hand?”“

“No,” Robert Jordan said and he dipped another cup of wine.

“But if thou canst I wish thee would read in the palm of my hand and tell me what is going to pass in the next three days.”

Anselmo recommends Pilar, she reads the palm, and, correctly forseeing Robert’s doom, refuses to speak of what she sees. While its ending has effectively been given away, the novel settles into a debate over whether a man truly carries his fortune in his hand. This debate expands to cover all forms of divination and culminates in Chapter 19. To the question “”Do you believe in the possibility of a man seeing ahead what is to happen to him?”” Robert replies that such forebodings are “”evil visions,”” projections of what one fears, and therefore need not be accepted: “”Seeing bad signs, one, with fear, imagines an end for himself and one thinks that imagining comes by divination.”” While Pilar marshals counter examples, she will, under pressure of the attack, finally renounce them: “”In regard to that thing of the hand. That is all gypsy nonsense.”” Skepticism has apparently triumphed over superstition.

Fortune-telling is a business of the hand. So is suicide. Once Robert Jordan has rehearsed his family history, it becomes imperative for him to renounce as “crap” the business about “Pilar and the hand.” Robert’s father, like his author’s, has killed himself with a hand gun. In both cases, the gun had been handed on to the son. Robert threw his Smith and Wesson into the deepest lake he could find; Ernest received his in the mail from his mother, along with a moldy chocolate cake, for a keepsake. In disposing of the gun, Robert has a premonition that he will repeat his father’s act: “he climbed out on a rock and leaned over and saw his face in the still water, and saw himself holding the gun.” It is especially this “evil vision” against which all Robert’s resistance to divination is meant to defend. And the novel upholds him in his resolve. Lying wounded at the end, Robert refuses “to do that business that my father did.” On the contrary: Robert’s last act is to touch “the palm of his hand against the pine needles where he lay.” He uses his hand to extend his life. The novel literalizes the metaphor of the hand as fortune in order to reject it.

Writing is also a business of the hand. As we watch Robert sketching the bridge, “glad at last to have the problem in hand,” we encounter the sense of relief Hemingway felt in 1939 in finally sitting down to write the novel. There was no such gladness in writing Across the River and into the Trees. His blustering denials of doubt in the project (“Am trying to knock Mr. Shakespeare on his ass”) are enough to suggest diminished confidence in his creative power. More striking is the way in which this anxiety finds its objective correlative in a part of the Colonel’s body. Hemingway has the Colonel make love with his “big, long, strong, spatular fingered hand.” Never mind that the need for such dexterity has been contrived by Renata’s indisposition, nor that the hand has “been shot through twice”:

The wind was very cold and lashed their faces but under the blanket there was no wind nor nothing; only his ruined hand that searched for the island in the great river with the high steep banks.

“That’s it,” she said.

He searches and finds twice more in the gondola ride, no small accomplishment for a man of 50. Such prowess makes his question of Renata— “”Why do you like the hand?”“—a little gratuitous. As in The Sun Also Rises, a hero who has lost, or almost lost, the use of a key member proves able to rise above, through moral or physical compensation, men in the book who appear much more whole. The major’s withered hand in the story “In Another Country” (1926) is a good early example of the ways in which Hemingway’s anxiety over potency—the major discusses a wounded Nick’s erotic future— easily generalizes itself to parts of the body other than the penis without paying any special heed to the symbolic appropriateness of the displacement. But Hemingway’s lifelong fascination with traumatized or amputated limbs cannot be seen, from 1940 on, as simply extending itself to the hand. On the contrary, the fascination with a potent hand is a sign of a complete shift in Hemingway’s attitude toward physical vulnerability and mental achievement. Hemingway now faces a threat to the integrity of his creative rather than his sexual apparatus. The hand has become the sexual organ of the Colonel not in order to compensate for a fear of impotence, but because fear for what the hand can continue to create has superseded whatever worries remain on behalf of the penis. Hemingway has lost confidence that the activity of his hand can still give people pleasure.

The natural defense against this fear is to convert the hand into an object of fantastic power. While the Colonel downplays its sensitivity, Renata must reassure him that “”There is very much sensation in that hand.”” It has become the stuff of her dreams: “”last week, every night, or I think nearly every night, I dreamed about it, and it was a strange mixed-up dream and I dreamed it was the hand of Our Lord.”” Renata confounds the Colonel’s hand with the hand of the Creator, but creation is the one thing he refuses to do with it:

“But you got your hand honorably?”

“Yes. Very honorably. On a rocky, bare-assed hill.”

“Please let me feel it,” she said.

“Just be careful around the center,” the Colonel said. “It’s split there and it still cracks open.”

“You ought to write,” the girl said. “I mean it truly. So someone would know about such things.”

“No,” the Colonel disagreed. “I have not the talent for it and I know too much.”

He is much more comfortable with his hand as a sexual surrogate. In his last memory of Renata, the Colonel beats up two sailors with a fist possessed of its own miraculous refractory period. “”There is nothing broken in it and that sort of swelling goes down.”” Attention here has clearly been displaced from one kind of tumescence to another: “”I love you with two moderately swollen hands and all my heart.”” Thus we find Hemingway in the ironic position of acting out a fantasy that the hand may be more resilient than the penis, whereas the problem for him has become that it may be considerably less. Writing has become a terminal occupation:

He reached into his pocket and found a pad and pencil. He put on the map reading light, and with his bad hand, printed a short message in block letters.

Almost the last thing the Colonel does is to write something, and it is his will.

The Old Man and the Sea marks the last complete remission of the debility which had afflicted Hemingway since 1941: writer’s cramp. Santiago worries about nothing so much as the “treachery” of a hand. “If he cramps again let the line cut him off.” Amputation is a melodramatic extension here of a deeper threat: that this man who brings up things from the depths is losing control of “the working part of his hand.” Santiago talks to anything that will listen, but above all to his hands. The struggle in the book is less against the fish than against his hands. “There are three things that are brothers: the fish and my two hands.” Santiago and his body stand outside this brotherhood in which the hands cooperate with the very opponent they are meant to master.

“How do you feel, hand?” he asked the cramped hand that was almost as stiff as rigor mortis. “I’ll eat some more for you.”

Here the “you” has been reduced to what holds the tool by which one makes one’s living. Santiago’s body has become a function of his hands and he keeps it alive in the hope that they will again return to his control.

Almost all we know of Santiago’s past comes from his one extended memory of the “hand game:”

They had gone one day and one night with their elbows on a chalk line on the table and their forearms straight up and their hands gripped tight. Each was trying to force the other’s hand down onto the table. . . . They changed the referees every four hours after the first eight so that the referees could sleep. Blood came out from under the fingernails of both his and the negro’s hands and they looked each other in the eye and at their hands and forearms and the bettors went in and out of the room and sat on high chairs against the wall and watched. . . . And at daylight when the bettors were asking that it be called a draw and the referee was shaking his head, he had unleashed his effort and forced the hand of the negro down and down until it rested on the wood.

What is this but a fantasy of the time when the power of Hemingway’s hand held him “dead even” with any competitors? (One remembers that his greatest rival had won the Nobel Prize just before Hemingway began work on The Old Man, and that at about this time he had begun to insist that Faulkner was a better writer than himself.) This memory compensates for what Santiago no longer is. Once again, Hemingway uses the experience of his hero to literalize a metaphor expressive of his own changing relation to his work. But here the literal dimension of the metaphor is not rejected. The time has passed when he is willing—or able—to “sweat blood” over the labor of his hands.

Yet Santiago does succeed in landing his fish. He brings the hidden to light with his hands. The book is at once about and evidence of such a triumph. Gregory Hemingway suggests, however, that it was precisely the imminence of failure during the “short period” of The Old Man which made the book a success:

The humility and empathy for man’s fate, which the Nobel Prize Committee remarked on and which it interpreted as “growth,” was the result of his seeing what it was “truly” like to be without his genius—and the knowledge of what it was like for the rest of the people all of the time to be uncushioned from the world by the intellectual and material rewards of genius.

So Hemingway’s sense of his failing powers gave his book power. Such a vision is necessarily short-lived, depending as it does upon having come to terms with the end of something. What was ending was not potency but creativity. Writing was no longer a response to experience but to the problems of writing itself. This is Hemingway’s late great theme, the burden of A Moveable Feast. If Santiago’s story is a lament for a dying self, Hemingway’s last book pays tribute to a dead one. Like all elegies, it purchases power by burying its speaker along with its subject. Then “I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.” Now my prophetic sense of an ending has been fulfilled: “In those days, though, the spring always came finally but it was frightening that it had nearly failed.” In these days, the implication follows, the springs have dried up; the spring never comes. A Moveable Feast is so gracefully parasitic on past creation that it could have been called, as had been “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” “On the Lack of a Theme.”

Hemingway began to make metaphors as his writing became aware of its impending demise. The Old Man is a book full of similes (“The sail. . .looked like the flag of permanent defeat”), of things he had previously refused to make with a pen. Metaphors extend human consciousness out into the universe of things. They make a home of (“humanize”) the world. This had always been Hemingway’s task, the infinite expansion of territory which could be included in “the good place.” What had made his writing powerful was the ever-present but unexpressed threat to this project which forced it to remain implicit and which lent to any metaphor the air of a wishful and unconvincing compromise. Reading The Old Man, where even the stars have become “distant friends,” Hemingway must have sensed that his project was at once perfected and finished.

The metaphor of the hand was above all one which Hemingway could not afford to leave on the level of the literal. Had he done so, he might have turned it much earlier against himself. The work from 1940 on can be read as a holding action in which Hemingway attempted to convince himself that the “hand of fortune” was just a metaphor. This demanded his acceptance of a metaphorical style which would make explicit the distinction between the literal and the figurative. It could be said that Hemingway increasingly resorts to figurative language in order to defend the province of the literal. Can we say that he prolonged his life by changing his style? Or are we to assume that because Hemingway discovered that he could no longer write like Hemingway with his hand, he turned it against himself? His increasing fascination with his hand was at once a symptom and a cause of his death as an artist. But was he also aware that it might lead to his death as a man? At the end, what had made him was used to break him. The conclusion his later works try to enforce is that were this to happen, it ought to be taken as a mere coincidence. They are not wholly successful in doing this. But whatever the ironies surrounding his suicide, Hemingway’s late experiments with figurative language were themselves the best defense against any literal reading of his last act as proving that we carry our fortunes in our hands.


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