illustrated portrait of American author Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway

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Ernest Hemingway Short Fiction Analysis

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Any study of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories must begin with a discussion of style. Reacting against the overblown, rhetorical, and often bombastic narrative techniques of his predecessors, Hemingway spent considerable time as a young man working to perfect the spare form of narration, dialogue, and description that became the hallmark of his fiction. Nowhere does he achieve greater mastery of his medium than in his short stories. He expressed his belief and described his own method in a passage in Death in the Afternoon: “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer has stated them.” Following this dictum, Hemingway constructed stories that sometimes make readers feel as if they are unseen auditors at some closet drama, or silent observers at intimate moments in the lives of characters struggling with important, although often private, issues.

“Hills Like White Elephants”

The technique is readily apparent in “Hills Like White Elephants.” Set in Spain during the hot summer, the story contains little overt action. Hemingway sketches the background deftly in a single opening paragraph of half a dozen sentences, each of which provides vital information that establishes a physical setting and a symbolic backdrop for the tale. On one side of the little junction station, there are fertile fields; on the other, a barren landscape. Only three characters appear: a man identified as an American, a girl, and a woman who serves them in the little café at which they have stopped to wait for the train that passes through the unnamed town on the route from Barcelona to Madrid. The entire story consists of a single scene in which the man and the girl sit in the café, drink various alcoholic beverages, and converse.

Much of the dialogue seems little more than small talk, but there is an underlying sense of tension from the very first exchange between the man and the girl after they order their beer. The girl mentions that the hills in the distance “look like white elephants,” to which her companion replies, “I’ve never seen one.” She immediately responds, “No, you wouldn’t have,” and he fires back, “I might have. Just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything.” The harshness of their responses contrasts with the inconsequential nature of the subject of their discussion, suggesting that the relationship between them is somehow strained but that neither wishes to discuss openly the real issue over which they are at odds.

For nearly half the story, the two try to make conversation that will ease the tension, but their remarks serve only to heighten it. The man finally mentions, in an almost offhand way, the subject that is really on his mind: He wants the woman to have an abortion. “It’s really an awfully simple operation,” he tells her. “It’s just to let the air in. it’s all perfectly natural.” The woman, who sits silent through his pleading, finally replies, “Then what will we do afterward?” The man repeatedly assures her that things will be fine if she agrees only to terminate her pregnancy, since in his view the baby will destroy the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. The woman is wiser; she knows that their relationship has already been poisoned forever and that her pregnancy is not the sole cause. Theirs has been a peripatetic, rootless life, as barren in some ways as the countryside in which they now find...

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This summary of the story, like summaries of so many of Hemingway’s stories, is inevitably an artificial construct that does not convey the sense of significance that readers get from discovering the larger issues lurking beneath the surface of the dialogue and description. This story is about choice, a vital choice for the woman, who must face the dilemma of either acquiescing to the man’s wishes and undergoing what is for her more than a routine operation or risking the loss of a man for whom she has had some genuine feelings of love. Ultimately, either through his insistence or through her own realization that she must try to salvage their relationship even though she senses it will be futile to do so, she agrees to his demands. Her closing remark, on which the story ends, carries with it the strong note of cynicism that pervades the entire story: “I feel fine,” she tells the man as they wait for the train’s imminent arrival.

In addition to his distinctive style, Hemingway has made his mark in the literary world through the creation of a special kind of hero. The “Hemingway hero,” as this figure has come to be known, is usually a man scarred by some traumatic experience—war, violence, a love affair gone bad. Often a physical maiming serves as a symbolic reminder of the psychological dysfunction that characterizes these figures. Despite having received a bad deal from the world, the Hemingway hero perseveres in his search for a good life, creating his own meaning out of the chaos of existence—the hallmark of existential heroes in both American and continental literature. These heroes do what is right without expecting reward, either in this life or in the next.

“In Another Country”

Two fine examples of Hemingway heroes appear in the story “In Another Country.” The tale is set in Italy during World War I. A young American officer is recuperating at an Italian hospital, where he mingles with Italian soldiers who have seen considerably more action than he has seen. The extent of their physical injuries mirrors the psychological scars that the war has inflicted on them. One of them, a major who had been a champion fencer before the war, diligently undergoes therapy on a machine designed to restore his withered hand. He is hard on the young American for entertaining thoughts that full recovery for any of them is possible, yet he insists that they all go through the motions—not only with their therapy but also with other activities as well. He demands that the young man learn Italian correctly, for example, arguing that one must follow the rules in life, even when they seem meaningless. Clearly bitter over his fate, he nevertheless keeps up his treatment, until an even more ironic blow strikes him: His young wife contracts pneumonia, and while he is going through the motions to recover the use of a hand damaged beyond restoration, she lies dying. His anger at the cruelty of her impending senseless death drives him to lash out at the institution of marriage; when she dies, however, he breaks down in tears and abandons his therapy. The young American, witness to the Italian’s great love, comes to understand how nothing of value can last in this world. The lesson is bitter, but it is one that Hemingway heroes must learn if they are to go on living in a world where the only certainties are chance and chaos.

The young American in “In Another Country” is similar to the main figure in Hemingway’s stories, Nick Adams. Seen often as an alter ego for the writer himself, Nick appears in almost twenty stories, and from them readers can piece together his history. A youth who spends time in Michigan and who has many of his ideals shattered by his participation in World War I, Nick develops the characteristics of the Hemingway hero: He becomes convinced of the world’s essential callousness, yet he steels himself against its cruelties by observing the rituals that give his own life meaning. Hence, in “Big Two-Hearted River,” Nick uses the activities associated with fishing as a kind of therapy to recover from the trauma of war.

“The Killers”

One of the most anthologized of the Nick Adams stories is “The Killers.” In this tale, Nick is a young man, still quite naïve and still given to romanticizing events in his life. Two Chicago gunmen arrive at the small diner where Nick is eating. They bully the waiter, bind and gag Nick and the cook, and wait impatiently for a boxer named Ole Andresen, a frequent patron of the diner, so that they can kill him. When Andresen fails to come to dinner, the gangsters finally leave. Knowing that they will seek out Andresen, Nick runs to the boxer’s boarding house to warn him. Surprisingly, Andresen refuses to run away; he is content to wait for whatever fate brings him. Nick cannot understand how anyone can accept his lot with such resignation. The lesson for him—and for Hemingway’s readers—is that there comes a point when it is impossible to keep moving on, to keep effecting changes by running away. All people must stand and meet the destiny allotted to them, no matter how bitter and unfair that may seem.

“Soldier’s Home”

Like Nick Adams and the young American in “In Another Country,” the hero of “Soldier’s Home” has been scarred by his experience in World War I and has discovered upon his return to his hometown that he cannot find a sympathetic audience for his complaints. The people who did not go to war have already formed their opinions of what happened “over there” and have spent their patriotic energies feting the first groups of returning servicemen. Krebs, the protagonist of the tale, had remained in Germany with the occupation forces for a year beyond the declaration of the armistice. He is greeted with suspicion by his fellow townspeople; they cannot understand why he has waited so long to come home. When he tries to tell people what the war was actually like for him, he is rebuffed. He finds that only when he invents tales of heroism do people pay attention to him. Krebs has slipped into a continual state of ennui; no suggestion for action, either from family or friends, strikes him as worthwhile. In this sense, he fails to fulfill the role of typical Hemingway heroes, most of whom go on doggedly with their lives, all the while knowing that their efforts are doomed to failure. The overriding atmosphere of this story is one of pessimism, almost defeatism without hint of defiance—a rather unusual stance for Hemingway.

Two of Hemingway’s greatest short stories are set in Africa, a land to which the author traveled on safari in 1933-1934. Often anthologized and frequently the subject of critical discussion, both “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” detail relationships between weak men and strong women, displaying Hemingway’s hostility toward females who seem to prey upon men, sapping their creativity and in some cases emasculating them.

“The Snows of Kilimanjaro”

“The Snows of Kilimanjaro” tells the story of a writer who is no longer able to practice his craft. Harry, the protagonist, has lost his ability to write well, having chosen to live a life of adventure and luxury. When the story opens, Harry is lying on a cot in the African plains, dying of the gangrene that he contracted by failing to take routine care of a scratch. Much of the story is given over to dialogue between Harry and his wife (presumably his second or third wife), a rich woman on whom he depends now for his livelihood; the tension in their marriage is seen by Harry at times as the cause of his inability to produce the kind of work that had once made him the darling of critics and the public. As Harry sees it, “He had destroyed his talent by not using it, by betrayals of himself and what he believed in.” In his imagination, he writes fragments of the wonderful tales that he wishes to tell; these are presented in italic passages interspersed throughout the story.

Though the wife holds out hope that she will be able to get Harry back to a hospital, the writer knows that he is condemned to die of his wound—itself a trivial cut, but in this case fatal because of the circumstances in which Harry finds himself. The physical landscape mirrors Harry’s failed aspirations. He is dying on the plains in sight of Africa’s highest mountain; he can see the summit, but he knows he will never reach it. Similarly, the gangrenous wound and the resultant decay parallels the decay of the writer who fails to use his talents. Both the striving for some imaginary heights and the senseless destruction of the hero are highlighted in the short epigraph that begins the story. In it, Hemingway notes the presence of a leopard carcass, frozen near the summit of Kilimanjaro. “No one has explained,” Hemingway writes, “what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.” No one can really explain, either, why men such as Harry strive to be good writers, nor can anyone explain why some succeed while others are blocked from achieving their goals.

Hemingway portrays the wife in this story with only a modicum of sympathy. She seems concerned about her husband, but only because she entertains some romantic notion that believing strongly in something will make it so; she is convinced that she can save her husband despite clear evidence that he is beyond hope. Harry calls her names and blames her for his failure, and though he realizes in the moments before he dies that she is not actually the cause of his failure—“when he went to her [to marry her] he was already over”—she never achieves a level of dignity that merits the reader’s sympathy.

“The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”

The story that critics often cite as Hemingway’s finest is also set in Africa. “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” details the relationship of Francis and Margot Macomber, wealthy Americans on an extended hunt with their professional guide, Robert Wilson. Told nonchronologically, the story reveals Francis’s initial cowardice in the face of danger, his eventual triumph over his fear, and his untimely death at the moment when he is able to display his courage.

It would be hard to characterize Francis Macomber as a Hemingway hero. In fact, he is quite the opposite. He has money, but he possesses none of the qualities that Hemingway considers admirable in a man. Francis is dominated psychologically by his wife, and much of what he does is aimed at proving his manhood to her. Their African safari is but another effort on his part to display his worthiness for her continued affection. Unfortunately, Francis is a coward. The story opens with a scene that displays the strain that he is under, having just displayed his inability to stand up to danger. Through conversation among the three principal characters, the reader is able to infer that Francis had failed to complete a kill on a lion he had wounded. When he had gone into the bush to finish off the animal, the lion had charged, and Francis had run away; Wilson had been forced to kill the animal. Margot had observed his behavior, and she is now openly disdainful of her husband. She even plays up to Wilson right in front of Francis. As a final insult, after the Macombers retire to their tent for the evening, Margot slips out and goes to Wilson’s tent to spend the night with him.

The following day, Francis has a chance to redeem himself. He and Wilson go out to hunt again; this time the quarry is buffalo. Margot remains in the vehicle once more, and the incident with the lion is repeated: Macomber wounds a bull, which slumps off deep into the brush, and he must go in after the beast to finish the job that he started. This time, when the bull charges, Francis holds his ground and fires at the animal, but the beast keeps on coming at him. Almost immediately, Margot fires from the car, but she hits her husband rather than the buffalo. Francis is killed instantly.

Margot Macomber is a classic Hemingway woman— the kind for which Hemingway has been criticized severely in the years since feminist critics have gained influence in American literary studies. She is physically attractive, though she is reaching the age at which her beauty is starting to fade. She is portrayed as being almost desperate to find some kind of security and is willing to use her sexual wiles to obtain it. She is cruel toward Francis when he shows himself a coward: She rejects physical contact with him and openly fawns over Wilson, though she taunts him too about his rather callous attitude toward killing. When Wilson mentions that hunting from a car (which he had done with the Macombers earlier) is a violation of the sport hunting laws and doing so could cost him his license, Margot leaps on the opportunity to suggest that she will use this information to blackmail him at some later time.

Unlike the Macombers, Wilson, Hemingway’s white hunter, possesses several of the qualities that the author admires. He is good at his job. He understands people like Francis and Margot, and he has little respect for either of them because they are essentially fakes. He makes his living by taking advantage of the desires of people like them to dabble in life’s more dangerous experiences. Having confronted danger almost every day, Wilson has become accustomed to living with his fears. He has even developed a certain callousness toward hunting and especially toward people who go on safaris. The behavior of the Macombers does not shock him. On the contrary, he is prepared for Margot’s gesture of infidelity; he carries a double cot with him so he can accommodate wives like her who find their husbands despicable and the white hunter irresistible. Though Wilson is not admirable, in his self-awareness he achieves a certain esteem that is clearly missing in either of the Macombers.

The major critical question that dominates discussion of this story is: Did Margot kill her husband intentionally, or is Francis’s death an accident? This is not idle speculation, for the answer at which one arrives determines the interpretation of the story’s central theme. If Francis’s death is indeed accidental, one can argue that Hemingway is making an ironic statement about the nature of self-fulfillment. At the moment that Francis achieves his greatest personal triumph, his life is ended. The fates simply destroy the possibility of his taking control of his life now that he has displayed himself capable of facing danger. Few details in the story, however, suggest that Francis should be considered a real hero. He may appear heroic at the instant of his death, but nothing he does before he faces the buffalo makes him worthy of emulation, and little that follows his death indicates that he has won new respect or lasting remembrance. Wilson does remind Margot that, had he lived, Francis would have had the courage to leave his wife. One must remember, though, that Wilson is the person who accuses Margot of murdering her husband, and he is searching to attach a motive to Margot’s actions.

If one assumes that Margot shoots her husband intentionally, the ending of the story prompts a different interpretation. Francis is a type of the man struggling to break free of the bond that strong women have placed on weak men—and, by extension perhaps, on all men. This harsh antifeminist viewpoint is supported by Hemingway’s portrayal of Margot as a classic femme fatale, valued for her beauty and grasping for security in a world where men ostensibly are dominant but where in reality women use their sexuality to gain and maintain control. Francis’s killing of the buffalo is symbolic of his ability to destroy the barriers that are keeping him from breaking free of his wife; when she realizes what the event means, Margot takes immediate action to prevent her husband from carrying through on his triumph. Unfortunately, Hemingway never lets the reader see into the mind of Margot Macomber (though he does share the inner thoughts of Francis, Wilson, and even the lion), so it is impossible to settle on a definitive reading of the wife’s motivation and hence of the story itself. As so often happens in real life, readers are left to draw conclusions for themselves from the events which they witness.

A key scene in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” may serve as a key to understanding Hemingway’s philosophy of life. After Macomber has wounded the lion, he and Wilson have a lengthy discussion about the necessity of going after the animal to kill it. “Why not leave him there?” Macomber asks. “It isn’t done,” Wilson replies; “But,” the professional hunter continues, “you don’t have to have anything to do with it [the final kill].” Wilson seems to be speaking for Hemingway here. Once something is started, it must be completed. Society depends on that dictum. This is more profound than it may seem at first. As anyone who has read Hemingway’s The Green Hills of Africa knows, the author sees the safari as a metaphor for life itself. The activities on the safari are self-generated: No one is forced to undertake anything on the hunt, but once one agrees to participate, one has an obligation to carry through according to the rules of the game. Wilson, who sees himself in terms of his profession, must finish the kill even if his dilettante employer refuses to do so. One’s duty, Hemingway says in Death in the Afternoon, is what one decides to do. Men and women are free to choose their destiny, knowing their struggle will always end in death; doing well that which they choose to do is what makes people heroic.


Ernest Hemingway Long Fiction Analysis