Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In spite of its incompletion and limitations, Islands in the Stream contains variations on most of the Hemingway themes. Primary here is the initiation theme that is central to so much of Hemingway. In nearly every Hemingway work—from the young Nick Adams in the stories of In Our Time (1924) to the old fisherman Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea—the typical protagonist is being tested in a world where the rules no longer work, and where justice and fairness are absent. It is essentially a man’s world—which is why the sporting activities and metaphors work so well. (David becomes a man when he wins and then loses the giant fish—and acts bravely throughout the battle.) Yet the Hemingway images (of the bull or boxing ring, and here of deep-sea fishing) also capture the world that Hemingway’s heroes inhabit: a world of random and brutal violence, where death may be sudden and arbitrary. As Thomas Hudson says early in this novel, “truly, there is something about every day to frighten you.” Into such a world, the most important qualities a character can carry are courage, toughness, and a stoic calm. In Islands in the Stream, Thomas Hudson stands up in spite of all the blows life deals him and, in the end, loses his life in the battle to help save his country—even though by then he does not “care anything about anything.” What saves Hudson, Hemingway wants the reader to believe, is his concept of “duty,” first to his work and then, when he can no longer paint, to the war. The trick is not to give up, and certainly not to sell out one’s talent, as Roger Davis may have done. “Any form of real betrayal can be final,” Hudson thinks late in the novel. “Dishonesty can be final....

(The entire section is 711 words.)