Study Guide

True at First Light

by Ernest Hemingway

True at First Light Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Every reader of True at First Light, which Ernest Hemingway’s heirs and publishers report is the last of his posthumous works, should be reminded of John Updike’s comments on the publication of Islands in the Stream (1970). In words that apply to each of the works that have been issued in Hemingway’s name since his death, Updike wrote:

This book consists of material that the author during his lifetime did not see fit to publish; therefore it should not be held against him. That parts of it are good is entirely to his credit; that other parts are puerile and, in a pained way, aimless testifies to the odds against which Hemingway, in the last two decades of his life, brought anything to completion. It is, I think, to the discredit of his publishers that no introduction offers to describe from what stage of Hemingway’s tormented later career Islands in the Stream was salvaged, or to estimate what its completed design might have been, or to confess what editorial choices were exercised in the preparation of this manuscript. Rather, a gallant wreck of a novel is paraded as the real thing, as if the public are such fools as to imagine a great writer’s ghost is handing down books intact from Heaven.

The odds to which Updike refers are now well known: Hemingway’s last years can only be described as a tragedy. A lifetime of hard drinking, courting physical danger, ricocheting between periods of mania and depression, and coping with the frenzy of renown had begun to affect him by the mid-1940’s. The wounds, concussions, and broken bones had all taken their toll. Then, when he was returning in January, 1954, from the six-month stay in Africa that True at First Light recounts, two plane crashes and a brush fire within a single week left him with two spinal disks cracked and impacted, his liver and one kidney ruptured, a dislocated right arm and shoulder, a concussion and a cracked skull that leaked cerebral fluid for several days, and first-degree burns on his face, arms, legs, chest, and back. Physically and mentally debilitated, he returned to his home in Cuba but would never be the same. The prescriptions and self- medications that he took to treat the aftereffects of all this, together with his increasing consumption of alcohol, eventually led in 1960 to a mental breakdown and paranoid delusions. As a result, he was hospitalized at the Mayo Clinic—where he was given electroshock treatments that affected him like a series of new concussions, leaving his memory weak but his delusions intact. On July 2, 1961, he committed suicide in his Ketchum, Idaho, home.

In the weeks and months that followed, his widow Mary discovered that he had left fifty pounds of unpublished manuscripts—thousands of pages, hundreds of thousands of words. As executor of his estate, she was left with the responsibility of sorting this all out and determining what, if anything, from this cache of manuscripts deserved to be published. Ultimately, she (and, later, his sons) determined that every one of the works that he left behind deserved to be published—the letters that he had specifically directed them not to print, the stories he had chosen not to publish or collect, and each of the long works that he had been unable to shape into a finished form that satisfied him.

There are still no introductions that respond to Updike’s questions for any of the books that have been published since Hemingway’s death. However, thanks to Hemingway biographers such as Carlos Baker and Michael Reynolds, and to Rose Marie Burwell’s comprehensive examination of the postwar manuscripts and the books eventually drawn from them in her indispensable Hemingway: The Postwar Years and the Posthumous Novels (1996), people do know much more about how the posthumously published books evolved.

Hemingway returned to Cuba after the Allied victory in Europe intent on writing an epic about World War II. He failed; but between 1945 and 1961 he never stopped writing. The last two books that he published, each of which grew out of longer works that he had begun in the 1940’s, included one of his worst and one of his most highly praised. Across the River and into the Trees (1950), the remains of his original plan to write a novel about World War II, was variously described by reviewers as a parody, a travesty, an embarrassment, trash, and worse. Hemingway was clearly finished, many of them said. The Old Man and the Sea, which appeared two years later, surprised even the naysayers and was generally hailed as a small masterpiece.

In the last nine years of his life he published no more books, but he worked compulsively on five different projects: a novel set in the south of France during the 1920’s (published in 1986 as The Garden of Eden); another novel, consisting of four major...

(The entire section is 1978 words.)

True at First Light Chapter Summaries

Chapter 1 Summary

Ernest Hemingway is on safari in Africa with his wife, Mary; they are camped in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro. The Hemingways have been in the company of a white hunter, Philip Percival, whom Hemingway refers to as “Pop.” Percival is leaving the hunting business in the face of civil unrest and is returning to his family and farm. The Mau Mau, a native group, is rising up against the white settlers and their unfair business practices. Percival advises Hemingway to be a strong leader in his camp among the native Africans. Although Hemingway wishes he had more extensive training from Percival, he bids him good-bye.

In the early morning, Hemingway and Mary go out to the salt flats where the animals come to feed. Mary is in quest of one particular black-maned lion but does not see him. Hemingway and his tracker find their own footprints from the day before. They joke and tease each other about the apparent age and weakness of the people leaving the tracks. Mary goes off a distance from the others, upset with Hemingway’s overprotectiveness. Suddenly a female rhino emerges from the bushes and runs toward the hunters. Grabbing Mary, the native hunters move back to the cars and take off. Back at camp, Hemingway and Mary begin to fight; Mary still feels upset by Hemingway’s hovering over her. Hemingway reflects on the necessity of retaining childlike observation of the world around him as well as a childlike trust.

Although Mary’s main quest is to kill the lion, she also wants to kill a gerenuk, a type of gazelle. The native hunters understand her desire to kill a lion but not her desire to kill a gazelle. At lunch, Mary expresses regret that Percival is no longer with them, though she enjoys being alone with Hemingway. She promises to refrain from getting too angry about Hemingway’s overprotectiveness.

The Game Department Informer suddenly appears, telling Hemingway that a native Maori has murdered his cousin and has...

(The entire section is 549 words.)

Chapter 2 Summary

The next morning, Hemingway awakens Ngui, one of the native hunters, to ask if he heard the lion. Ngui is at first surly but admits that he heard one lion, although he did not think it was the big lion Mary is seeking. Another hunter, Keiti, agrees that it was not the same lion. The lion of Mary’s quest, according to Hemingway’s friend Arap Meina, has hunted long and made trouble for the Masai. The Masai chief is contemptuous of Hemingway, says Arap, because he has had two chances to kill this lion and now must let a woman do it. The Masai chief comes to Hemingway to tell him that the Informer misunderstood him. Hemingway explains that his wife must kill the lion before the Birthday of the Baby Jesus, as this is the custom in their country. The African members of the hunting party do not believe this.

Hemingway remembers the two times the lion escaped them, when “Pop” (Philip Percival) was still with them. Pop told Hemingway that eventually the lion will make a mistake and that will be the time to get him. They talk of building Mary’s confidence in the hunt.

Arap Meina arrives to tell Hemingway that Mary’s lion has killed and therefore will be moving down to the plains. He also says that a group of the Mau Mau has escaped from prison and is heading toward the camp. Hemingway tells Mary that the lion they heard in the night was not her lion. Keita says he does not think the Mau Mau will come to the camp, but Hemingway prepares for an attack anyway.

Later, Hemingway is resting and reading when a police officer arrives. The officer asks for Hemingway’s help in the Mau Mau uprising. Hemingway agrees and will send for a plane at his own expense. When the officer leaves, Hemingway tells Mary about the prison escape. She is unimpressed. Hemingway and the native hunters continue to prepare the guns should the Mau Mau arrive.

Hemingway and Mary go out hunting for wildebeest. Mary brings down a bull with one shot, then she puts him out of his misery with another. Hemingway shoots a gazelle at Mary’s request to “show off.” Back at camp, the animals are butchered. Debba, the Widow, and her little boy arrive at the camp. Hemingway greets them and gives them some of the meat from the kill. That night in bed, Hemingway wonders what the big lion is doing at that moment. He also thinks of Debba, though he regrets getting involved with the village.

Chapter 3 Summary

The next morning, Hemingway inspects the camp with Keiti, and all is well. They discuss plans to intercept the Mau Mau should they come to any of the villages. Keiti does not believe they will come.

Hemingway discusses the guns with Mwindi, who is in charge of all the paraphernalia in the camp. He is teaching the Kamba language to Hemingway, as is Ngui, but Mwindi thinks Ngui’s Kamba is wrong. Hemingway and Mwindi discuss the posting of guards. Mwindi also does not believe the Mau Mau will come to the camp.

Hemingway reflects on the division in the camp between the active hunters and warriors and those who are not active. Some support the Mau Mau’s complaints, while others do not.

Hemingway...

(The entire section is 428 words.)

Chapter 4 Summary

Hemingway and Mary drive out to meet the plane, which is piloted by Willie. Willie and Hemingway speak of a coming boxing match in which Hemingway will be the main event. They make plans to check the possible damage by the elephants.

Mary tells Willie of Hemingway’s made-up religion, which he uses as an all-purpose excuse. The local people are also taking up this religion and copying many of Hemingway’s habits.

Willie asks about the landscape in the area, especially the mountains. Talk turns to the recent conquest of Mount Everest. Hemingway and Willie go up in the plane to survey the village but see no signs of damage. They return to camp, and Willie suggests taking Mary up in the plane that afternoon....

(The entire section is 417 words.)

Chapter 5 Summary

In the morning it is still raining but not as heavily as it was the day before. Keiti tells Hemingway that the weather will be good the next day. Hemingway lies and tells him that he dreamed it had rained heavily up in the Reserves. Keiti replies with a dream of his own in which it rained clear up to the desert. Then Hemingway tells him of his real dream in which they hanged the Informer. Keiti dislikes the Informer and enjoys this dream, but he warns Hemingway not to practice witchcraft with dreams.

The Informer arrives and tells Hemingway that he is a sick man, which he is. Hemingway gives him some medicine and tells him to home to bed. The Informer tells Hemingway that a girl in the village is ill and is sad because...

(The entire section is 408 words.)

Chapter 6 Summary

Mwindi awakens Hemingway and Mary before dawn. Although the rain has stopped, Hemingway thinks it is still too muddy to take the car out to where he believes the lion has made a kill. The area they call “the swamp” is really an isolated forest area. This is where the lion retires after eating. Hemingway hopes to trap him between his kill and the forest.

Hemingway and Mary are bickering as they set off to catch the lion. They see birds perched in the trees, which means the lion is still at his kill. They see him, but he moves off into the tall grass. Mary complains that they should have come out early, but Hemingway argues that it would not have been light enough to shoot. They argue back and forth about their...

(The entire section is 407 words.)

Chapter 7 Summary

The next morning at breakfast, Mary asks Hemingway if they are making any progress with the lion. Hemingway says that sometime the lion will make a mistake and Mary will shoot him. That afternoon they shoot baboons for population control. When they return to camp, G.C. has arrived. He gives Hemingway a copy of their operation orders, saying they are the only thing keeping his morale up. Mary comes back to camp after having shot a wildebeest.

G.C. is glad to be back at camp. He loves his job as a game warden and believes in its importance. Hemingway reminisces, telling G.C. of the last time he saw the British writer George Orwell alive in Paris in 1945.

G.C. does not sleep well and stays up most of the night...

(The entire section is 463 words.)

Chapter 8 Summary

The day Mary shoots her lion, the weather is beautiful, and flowers had blossomed after the rain. Mary awakens before dawn but complains of not feeling well. She is in a bad mood, but Hemingway reasons that this will help her in the hunt because he believes she is too kind-hearted to be an aggressive hunter.

They wait until it is light to start. Hemingway compares the tenseness they are feeling to that of a matador before a bullfight. When dawn breaks, they drive to a spot in the meadow. They stop, and almost immediately the lion comes toward them. Hemingway and G.C. agree to go back to camp. The lion goes back into the forest. Mary is not happy, but she understands this is necessary to get the lion to break his...

(The entire section is 459 words.)

Chapter 9 Summary

Hemingway checks to see if Mary is awake, but she is still sleeping heavily. Hemingway tells G.C. that he will let her sleep; they can wait until 9:30 to leave. The two men pass the time by reading. Hemingway’s book is about birds, and it makes him realize how much he has missed by ignoring birds. In a general way, he comes to the conclusion that people do not deserve to live in a world if they do not see it. Hemingway believes that he and G.C. drink to dull their highly sensitive receptivity, which could become unbearable if it were always kept at the same level.

Mary wakes up feeling awful. She is still bitter at Hemingway for shooting at her lion first, as she believes. Keiti tells Hemingway that the game Scouts...

(The entire section is 461 words.)

Chapter 10 Summary

The people from the Shamba begin to arrive for the Ngoma, dressed in their finest. Hemingway returns to the mess tent, where Mary is complaining that he took all the beer. He says he brought one bottle back and asks her how she is feeling. She says she is feeling much better. She and G.C. did not find Hemingway’s bullet when they examined the lion, only G.C.’s. Mary comments that the lion now looks as dignified as when he was alive. She says she is going to the Ngoma with Chungo, one of the game scouts. She tells G.C. all the negative things Chungo has said about him. When G.C. becomes angry and demands that she go to the Ngoma with him instead, she says she made it all up as a joke.

Mary is writing a poem about...

(The entire section is 461 words.)

Chapter 11 Summary

Hemingway walks with Ngui the next morning, thinking how “stupid” it is to be White in Africa. He recalls hearing a Moslem missionary stating that the White man must stay in the shade and get drunk to prevent being burned. Hemingway and Ngui pass a cobra hole. Although there is money to be made in snake hunting, it is considered low. Hemingway says it is good the cobra is not out because it is probably Tony’s ancestor. (The Masai were considered to be descended from snakes.) He asks Ngui if he thinks the coldness of Masai women’s hands is due to snake blood, but Ngui says this is impossible. They go back to camp to find G.C. reading and drinking beer. Hemingway says G.C. ought to write a story of his life.

...

(The entire section is 453 words.)

Chapter 12 Summary

Mary is still feeling unwell. Mwindi says it is because of the lion, but Hemingway argues with him that Mary was sick even before eating the lion. He points out that he ate the lion and feels fine. He tells Mwindi that he will take Mary into Nairobi to be treated by a doctor.

Hemingway and Ngui shoot two birds for Mary. Hemingway decides that he will have Mary look them up in her bird book to determine what kind they are. Mary returns and Hemingway fixes her a drink, but he does not force her to take medicine. She says she seems to be thirsty all the time. She is upset that she has become ill when they were having such a wonderful time. She suggests sending for a plane to take her to a doctor in Nairobi to treat her...

(The entire section is 402 words.)

Chapter 13 Summary

The morning is very cold and Hemingway wonders what it means about the weather for the coming day. Mwindi urges him to eat, but he does not like to eat before a hunt. He finally submits. Mwindi worries that Hemingway will let himself go without Mary there.

After breakfast Hemingway and the African hunters drive until they are stopped by mud. Hemingway plans on counting the buffalo and photographing them, but not shooting them. There is also an old bull he wants to locate because it has not been seen for three months.

At noon it has changed from very cold to very hot. Hemingway is hunting a leopard that has killed sixteen goats. Leopards were originally classified as “vermin” but now are considered...

(The entire section is 413 words.)

Chapter 14 Summary

Hemingway shaved his head after Mary left for Nairobi. He does not know what Debba will think of it but is not worried about it. Mthuka had sent Nguili ahead to warn the Widow and Debba that Hemingway is coming to take them shopping for dresses. Hemingway offers to take Nguili with him up the mountain. The Informer shows up and requests to go too, but Hemingway refuses to take him because he still finds him excessively annoying.

Hemingway reflects that the Wakamba have no obvious cases of homosexuality because of the severe punishments inflicted on incidents in the past. He also states that cannibals say that homosexuals taste bad, much worse than those convicted of bestiality.

The Widow and Debba come out...

(The entire section is 407 words.)

Chapter 15 Summary

Back at camp, neither Debba nor the Widow wish to wash off the dirt of the journey. They are afraid of Mwindi, who fills the tub, and of the tub itself. They had dropped off the Masai at the Manyattas. Hemingway tells the Widow to leave, but he is protecting her and is not sure if she has a right to be there. The Informer has arrived and stolen a bottle of lion fat, though both Debba and Hemingway know that it is adulterated with eland fat. They laugh about this. Because they cannot speak each other’s language, they converse in a limited way in Spanish. They had been sleeping when the Widow, who was standing guard, coughed to alert them to the theft.

Hemingway calls Msembi, who is serving as a mess steward. Hemingway...

(The entire section is 424 words.)

Chapter 16 Summary

Hemingway has accepted the decision of the elders and has driven Debba, the Widow, and the Informer back to the Shamba along with the cloth for the women’s dresses. He sees the bulge of the bottle of lion fat in the Informer’s shawl but says nothing. He reflects that it is a great satisfaction to have someone, especially a fellow writer, steal from you and think they have escaped detection. While he would never confront a writer, the Informer is a different matter. Keiti despises the Informer, and Hemingway has a great deal of respect for Keiti. He feels bad because Keiti disapproves of him. Msembi also feels bad about it, but neither one says anything.

Msembi offers to fetch the Widow and bring her back, but...

(The entire section is 433 words.)

Chapter 17 Summary

In the morning, when Mwindi brings him tea, he remembers Keiti and goes to see him. He is stopped by Arap Meina, who tells him there are “small problems.” Two Masai have come about lion trouble in their villages. Hemingway judges that their complaints are legitimate and tells them he will attend to their problems.

Mwindi then announces that there are two Masai women with sexually transmitted diseases. Msembi mixes medicine for the lesions, and Hemingway applies it. He also gives them some penicillin.

The next patient is a prematurely old man with a very high temperature, along with other symptoms. Hemingway treats it with malaria medication and penicillin, though he believes the latter is wasted on this...

(The entire section is 412 words.)

Chapter 18 Summary

The camp is put into order in preparation for Mary’s return. As Hemingway wonders what this new day will bring, the Informer arrives. He tells Hemingway that he believes a massacre is planned for Christmas. Hemingway dismisses this as more of the Informer’s nonsense.

Hemingway, Ngui, Mthuka, and Arap Meina drive out to the airstrip to wait for Mary to arrive in Willie’s plane. Chano also shows up because he is Mary’s gun bearer. Hemingway tells them that he dreamed the night before that they should pray to the sun as it rose and set, but Ngui says he will not kneel down like a camel driver. Hemingway says kneeling is not necessary.

Mary arrives and everyone greets her warmly. She has brought a great...

(The entire section is 427 words.)

Chapters 19 and 20 Summary

Mary tells Hemingway that Mwindi is worried about his hunting barefoot and going out at night. Hemingway dismisses this. Mary wonders why sometimes he takes so many precautions and at other times he takes no precautions at all. Hemingway says that he feels the time is getting shorter. Mary worries about him, but he says there is nothing to worry about, that they are both safe.

Mary says that for Christmas she wants to see the Belgian Congo. Hemingway resists the idea. Arap Meina comes with a report about lion trouble at the Manyatta. Hemingway decides to go to Laitokitok to see if anyone has heard anything. He invites Mary to come along. On the way, Hemingway ruminates over Mary’s request to go to the Belgian Congo....

(The entire section is 410 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear, Michael Foster