Nature in Hemingway’s Short Stories: Uncaring and Unyielding
In Hemingway’s short stories, nature is consistently depicted as both uncaring and unyielding. The author eschews any influence from the Enlightenment and Romantic periods. In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” he shows that memories and good intentions are no match for the ruthless onset of disease. “A Natural History of the Dead” sarcastically dismisses the notion of divine providence by documenting the ugly reality of death. And “The Capital of the World” demonstrates that nature can claim the life of a young, innocent man even if he feels no fear. What is important, then, is that men try to live their life according to a code of honor while they remain alive.
Writing in the post-World War I era, Hemingway refused to follow the lead of his literary predecessors of the 18th and 19th centuries when it came to a view of nature. Enlightenment thinker Alexander Pope wrote in his “Essay on Criticism”: “First follow Nature and your judgment frame / By her just standard, which is still the same.” Romantic poet William Wordsworth said in “Tintern Abbey”: “Nature never did betray the heart that loved her.” But Hemingway's work clearly dismisses any notion that we can either look to nature for guidance or rely on its kindness when confronted with trials.
In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” Hemingway’s choice of gangrene as the route to death for his protagonist, a writer named Harry, is grimly effective. Laid up in a camp on the edge of the Tanganyika plains, Harry contemplates his imminent demise with a tone of attempted detachment: “The marvelous thing is that it’s painless.” But that tone is hard to maintain when he sees “huge, filthy birds” gathering nearby, sensing that soon there may be a corpse for them to feast upon. As he verbally torments the rich woman who has loved him and paid his way for years, his rationalization, “I don't like to leave anything behind,” represents his desire to be as ruthlessly effective in dissecting his experience as nature is in destroying the weak and worn-out.
Harry knows that while he has made mistakes in his love life and career as an artist, it is not particularly his fault that he is doomed to die. Instead, it is a combination of a fluke and a seemingly minor oversight: “[He] had not used iodine two weeks ago when a thorn had scratched his knee as they moved forward trying to photograph a herd of waterbuck.” Evidently, neither the thorn nor the waterbuck intended for Harry to die, but they uncaringly contribute to that eventuality, and nothing can stop it now. He recalls with regret the stories about skiing and travelling and fishing that he will never get to write, but again, the vividness of his memories provides no shield from death. When he finally does die, the “strange noise” of a nearby hyena provides an appropriate closing note: nature will go on devouring.
“A Natural History of the Dead” lacks the grandeur of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” but its critique of the notion we can find God’s love reflected in nature is an incisive one. Writing in an inflated style that sarcastically mimicks that of a 19th-century naturalist, Hemingway alludes to the explorer Mungo Park, who allegedly took hope when he found a small flower out in the desert: “Can that Being who planted, water and brought to perfection, in this obscure part of the world, a thing which appears of so small importance, look with unconcern upon the situation and suffering of creatures formed after his own image? Surely not.” The rest of the story is devoted to debunking the notion that God cares for us.
Hemingway’s observation that war casualties often die “like animals” is intended to show that God does not afford his human creations any special dignity. Likewise, his graphic discussion of “mucus” and “maggots” points to a nature that mindlessly and tastelessly consumes its victims, rather than evoking some pretty garden of pleasure. In the final part of this...
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