Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

From the beginning, critical estimates of Hemingway’s novel have been largely unfavorable, and the book continues to rank among his least successful. However fine the narrative technique and style, the novel centers so heavily on the hero that his character and expression influence readers most strongly. Cantwell closely resembles earlier Hemingway heroes such as Frederic Henry in A Farewell to Arms (1929) and Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). Like them he is tragic, yet he carries the machismo of the traditional hero to excess. Once, while walking at night with Renata, Cantwell bridles at insults from two sailors. When they go too far, he approaches and begins a fight, quickly knocking one out. After landing several devastating blows against the other, he smashes him above the ear and turns rapidly away so that he will not hear the sailor’s head bounce against the pavement. Then, ignoring the hurt to his previously injured hand, he tells Renata that they should walk in such a way that the backs of their legs look dangerous.

In his attitudes, Cantwell resembles Hemingway and is in fact a highly autobiographical character. His blunt criticism of military and political leaders such as General George Patton, British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, President Harry S Truman, and President Dwight David Eisenhower embarrassed many readers at the time. The dialogue incorporates the mannerisms of earlier Hemingway heroes taken to excess—insider jokes, cryptic allusions to weapons and weapons systems, military jargon, and slangy nicknames. Cantwell refers to a martini with fifteen parts gin and one part vermouth as a Montgomery—the point being that British Field Marshal Montgomery wanted favorable odds of fifteen to one before attacking and even then moved with caution. The numerous references and allusions to the World War II era must inevitably pose more difficulty for readers as time passes. One must be rather well grounded in languages to recognize and understand all of the Italian, German, French, and Spanish phrases and sentences sprinkled throughout the book.

Although the novel reveals many of the qualities of Hemingway’s art, it does not advance his previous achievement, either aesthetically or thematically. It remains among the minor achievements of a major novelist.