Study Guide

True at First Light

by Ernest Hemingway

True at First Light Characters


The central character and the omnipresent focal point of True at First Light is the narrator who is, in propria persona, Ernest Hemingway. Given this fact, the narrative's primary mode of being amounts to an ironic, humorous, and self-deprecating record of the interior meditative life of a writer set in juxtaposition against the life of action of a temporary game warden going about his duties. In the contemplative mode, there is much made here of the literary life, of the writer's relationship to readers, critics, biographers, and fellow writers. Literary allusions abound. For example, the passage which gives the work its current title (not Hemingway's title, but a good choice made by the editor) evokes both Virgil and Dante in a context dealing with art and truth: "We were all reading the Georgics then in the C. Day Lewis translation. We had two copies but they were always being lost or mislaid. ... The only fault I could ever find with the Mantovan was that he made all normally intelligent people feel as though they too could write great poetry." Of course, Virgil's attention to husbandry, to divinity, to a religious attitude expressed in the mystery of sacrifice, as well as his sympathy with nature, animals and humankind make this allusion most apt for game warden Hemingway. The passage continues:

Dante only made crazy people feel they could write great poetry. That was not true of course but then almost nothing was true and especially not in Africa. In Africa a thing is True at First Light and a lie by noon and you have no more respect for it than for the lovely, perfect weed-fringed lake you see across the sun-baked salt plain. You have walked across that plain in the morning and you know that no such lake is there. But now it is there absolutely true, beautiful and believable.

The writer's job, then, the true vocation of the central character, part-time game warden and full-time writer Ernest Hemingway, is to make his Africa for the reader, to make it "absolutely true, beautiful and believable" at first, and last light. His success in doing so will be determined, for most readers, by how sympathetically they respond to the complex characterization of Hemingway presented here. Readers familiar with the Hemingway Legend, in thrall to the Papa Myth and the insistent biocritical shadow of perhaps the world's most famous writer-as-celebrity, may have a hard time coming to terms with the actual character and his love song for Africa. First-time readers of Hemingway, with less cultural baggage, may have a better chance of doing justice to this complex character.

Other important characters include Mary Hemingway, Pop, G.C., Keiti, Arap Meina, Mthuka, Ngui, The Informer, and Debba. Significant minor characters include Willie, Charo, Mr. and Mrs. Singh. The portrait of Miss Mary is centered on her quest for the lion and how she conducts herself in that quest. All in all, she receives good marks on this score (except for marksmanship). Other aspects of her character are revealed tellingly in her relationship with her husband—her generosity in regard to Ernest's attraction to his African fiancée Debba, and her fierce jealousy and protectiveness of her husband when it comes to any female contenders for his affection from and within their "white tribe." Her impatience with Ernest's joking, and with his "new religion," provide important counterweight in the narrative. Her characterization is complex, and it is based rather closely on the actual relationship of Ernest and Mary Hemingway. But her character stands out as exemplary in her determination to follow Pop's code of the hunt.

Philip Percival, or Pop, or Mr. P, is the book's primary exemplar. Hemingway characterizes Percival as "my great friend and teacher ... a very complicated man compounded of absolute courage, all the good human weaknesses and a strangely subtle and very critical understanding of people." He is "completely dedicated to his family and his home.... He loved his home and his wife and his children." (Here we note Hemingway's trademark repetition to emphasize a key value.) In the opening paragraph of the novel Hemingway identifies Percival as "a close friend of mine for many years. I respected him as I had never respected my father and he trusted me, which was more than I deserved. It was, however, something to try to merit." The real Philip Percival was, of course, one of the most famous of all white hunters in Africa; the consummate professional, he served as guide for Teddy Roosevelt and many other famous clients, and he appears in True at First Light in his own name and identity. While he is not physically present in the novel after the opening scenes, he remains very much in the narrator's mind and heart, and his presence dictates and enforces the ethical and moral codes of the hunt as conducted by Ernest and Mary as...

(The entire section is 1995 words.)