A conflict has its own dynamics – it generates and releases energy. The friction between two clashing interests has a massive potential for fiction, as it provides dramatic power and may ultimately reflect man’s fight for survival. This antagonism is both symbolically and directly the dominating thematic drive in most of Ernest Hemingway’s writing. In his literature we meet people who in some way are faced with the option – do or die. The bull fighter, the boxer, the hunter, and the soldier are all confronted by the same ultimate trial – to overpower the opponent or to be violently crushed. The defeatism even pervades human nature, man stands alone, and if love is found, it is just as easily lost.
Life and Times
Young Hemingway took more interest in hunting and fishing than his studies, and he was a keen boxer and footballer. After graduation he worked as a journalist for some time, and in 1917 he volunteered for war service in Europe. He was an ambulance driver in France for some time and joined combat in Italy where he was seriously wounded. After the war he settled in Paris where he met up with other artists and intellectuals of the modernist tradition. Paris had since the early 1920s become a refuge for disillusioned artists who sought an escape from the provincial and narrow-minded conformity of their home country. This vibrant scene was the venue for famous artists like Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and writers like T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and Gertrud Stein, who referred to this group as “the lost generation”. Hemingway continued his war correspondence during the Spanish Civil War and also during WWII. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1954.
Death and Art
Hemingway’s writing includes acclaimed war novels like A Farewell to Arms (1929) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). Other famous titles are The Sun also Rises (1926), To Have and Have Not (1937), and The Old Man and the Sea (1952). His war stories are based on his own experiences as a soldier and war correspondent. He belongs in both a naturalist and modernist literary tradition and his thematic approach evolves round death, often violent and often for an already lost cause. This tragic irony runs through most of his literary production – life is a fight man is destined to lose. Symbolically, this defeatism is expressed in a ritual-like encounter between man and his enemy, for example in a bull fight or a lion hunt. The bull fight and hunting scenes are recurring topics in Hemingway’s literature, so are settings like Spain and Africa.
He said that the bull fight gave him “the feeling of life and death and mortality”. Death was for Hemingway the ultimate limit of experience; the ordeal we all have to face and must stand up to like men. He said that he could only write “what he truly felt” – which leaves us with speculations about his own death, since he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Whether it was an accident or a suicide it was a dramatic end to a dramatic life. It may be relevant to claim that Hemingway lived and died like one of his own protagonists. But this may be his tribute to his own art. For many modernist artists life and art were inseparable; the optimal aim for a consistent artist was to create a sublime synthesis of life and art.
Style and Technique
In correspondence with his rather fatalist themes Hemingway’s style is blunt and direct, and his narrative is displayed in a minimalist language. An anecdote has it that he once won a bet that he could write a novel of six words: For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Worn. In a good narrative what is left unsaid is often more important than what is said. In his short stories he developed his so-called “ice-berg technique” which means that a minimum of information is given, and it is up to the reader to figure out what is beneath the surface. Hemingway said about his writing, “I always try to write on the principle of an ice-berg. There are seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows”. His method can be demanding for an inexperienced reader, but it is a subtle and artful kind of literature that invokes reflection and opens for interpretations.
Hemingway has been criticised for his somewhat macho approach and for giving his male protagonists a non-feminist attitude. The critics may have a point, but as an author Ernest Hemingway is ranked among the great names of 20th century literature, and his writing inspired and influenced many contemporary writers.
Tasks and Activities
- Why do you think the modernist artists in 1920s Paris were called “the lost generation”?
- Explain the expression “tragic irony”.
- Search the net for more information about Hemingway’s life and its parallel to his literature.
- Read one or two of Hemingway’s short-stories (The Killers, Hills Like White Elephants, The Sea Change, for example, and see what you make of his ice-berg technique.