Themes and Meanings
“After the Storm” tells about a catastrophic event, the sinking of a large ocean liner during a storm. The loss of life is in excess of 450 passengers as well as the entire crew. Readers are dependent, however, on the narrator to tell them about the catastrophe, and he views his loss of the booty as more catastrophic than the loss of life incurred in the sinking.
The narrator is a sponger, and the double meaning of the word is quite intentional. He makes a living harvesting sponges, but he also is not above living off carrion, just as do the birds that first attract him to the wreck. This man is willing to engage in a potentially fatal fight that is, by his own admission, not about anything. If he has any emotions about the deaths of those who went down with the ship, they are not revealed in this carefully controlled and tightly written story.
The story is essentially about predators: the narrator, the birds, the jewfish, and the Greeks. The narrator is an embryonic version of Harry Morgan in Ernest Hemingway’s later novel To Have and Have Not (1937). He is a man whose only hope of real wealth comes from the possibility of plundering something. His only obstacle to doing this in “After the Storm” is that he does not have the equipment to carry out the job, so that others beat him to the plunder. It is not unusual in the Hemingway canon to find characters whose success in an important venture is blocked by their lack of equipment or, in the case of Hemingway’s writing about wars, lack of adequate weapons.
The solitary qualities of this story remind one of those found in The Old Man and the Sea (1952), in which Santiago hooks his dream fish but does not have the equipment to land it, so he drags it behind his ketch while it is eaten away by sharks. By the time Santiago reaches the dock, little is left of the majestic fish with which he had his greatest and most threatening combat.
In “After the Storm,” the narrator is a loser, the captain of the sunken liner is a loser, and all those on board are losers. The birds win by getting the carrion that first attracts them to the wreck, the jewfish prosper afterward by living in the battered hull, and the Greeks succeed best of all because they have the equipment necessary to salvage the treasure.