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Reoccuring Themes in the Works of Hemmingway


Submitted By dreadrecords
Words 1980
Pages 8
,July 21st 2009

ENC 1102 M,W, 7:45am

Term Paper

“The Theme of Human Struggle in the Works of Ernest Hemingway”

In my research paper I will show how elements of life and death, folklore/fables, myths, and rites of passage support the theme of human struggle against nature in the stories "The Old Man and the Sea," "Indian Camp," "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" and "The Snows of Kilimanjaro” by Ernest Hemingway. Through comparative analysis of these stories' underlying themes I will address the initiation experiences of his heroes. Human dignity, morality, and the formation of human individuality through mental strife and the struggle against nature are often themes of Hemingway. Humans cope with the complexity of the world by developing simple mental models based on opposite parts. Life and death are together, two extremes of one energy. Life is the active force and death is the inactive force, but they cannot be separated. Thus, they are two aspects of one reality. When people are reading about living beings and mythological beings or those who are dead, they view the word of the dead as a living world. The dead eat, sleep and move. In the book “The Hero in Hemingway's short stories”, J. DeFalco points out that: " in the Myth there are usually three dominant movements which are cyclic in pattern. They are the departure of the hero, the initiation, and the return from heroic adventure." (17). The movements of the hero to the world where mythological beings dwell is called passage. Usually, the boat, which carries heroes, travels over the river from one bank to another. So, in the myth there is a clear boundary. However, there are no clear boundaries in fables between the real world and the unreal world. A being of a fable usually has magic powers and dwells on earth in close relationship to humans. They live in the primeval forest and contact people who come into their territory. In folklore, many stories are about animals that behave like human conflicting with others or with people. In such a plot, the animal is an image of the death or the savior of a main character who is in jeopardy of the visible death. Hemingway's works are based on the cradle of human race and nature. In his stories are found elements of folk traditions. One being is an initiation ceremony that exists in all historically known societies that marks the passage from one social or religious status to another. As well as in myth this ceremony exists in folklore. In the world literary tradition, unusual circumstances surround the birth and adolescence of an epic hero, such as Hercules. Before they become warriors who are personally liable for their nations, they have to get unusual characters through the initiation ceremony. According to Joseph DeFalco, "Individuals have certain notions derived from social customs... the nature of experience rarely allow the sensitive individuals to remain excluded in infantilism for long, however, willingly or unwillingly the individual is eventually thrust into the world of experience and forced to deal with it."(23) In the encyclopedia the initiation ceremony is defined as: “The transition and attendant ceremonies, such as ordeals and rites, involved in passing from one state or status to another, often from childhood to adulthood.” It was among the most important social institutions of early humans. The ordeal measures the initiate's worthiness to enter the new status. Initiation may mean the cessation of contact with those who have not been initiated. Seclusion, mutilation, symbolic representation of death and resurrection, the display of sacred objects, special instruction, and restrictions on the initiate are frequent attributes of the ceremonies. Many early societies had puberty initiations. Their purpose was to induct the young person both into the full status of an adult and into the religion of the group. In the short story Indian Camp, It seems to be an initiation into the process of life and death; the character Nick goes through the initiation ceremony that includes the telling of tribe's customs that might be known by adults or consecrated people. Thus, the boy's father teaches his son how a woman delivers a baby. His story style resembles an initiation of mythological hero, "... What she is going through is called being in labor. The baby wants to be born and she wants it to be born. All her muscles are trying to get the baby born. That is what happening when she screams." (Hemingway, The Nick Adams Stories, 17). Symbolically, the journey across the lake is reminiscent of a hero crossing a river when he goes to the other world. " They walked up from the beach through a meadow that was soaking wet with dew... Then they went into the woods and followed a trial ..." (17) The initiation ceremony was executed before puberty, the fact that the boy is a small child, and for such a ceremony " the guide figure" takes the "immature hero" to the place where the rites of passage will happen. In the story, the guide figure is the boy's father, "he protectively has his arm around Nick" (DeFalco 29). Many other rituals and symbols in the story shows a relation to folklore and myths, among them the smoking ritual, the crossing the lake to the dark side, and also the skills that allow his father to help deliver the baby, might be seen as a magic ability with magic tools as he uses " a jackknife" as a scalpel "and nine foot, tapered gut leaders." (Hemingway, 19) Hemingway shows the effect of birth and death on young Nick Adams. The boy observes the birth of a male baby and the suicide of his father. This cycle is the law of nature: the dying of one being and his continuation into the next generation. After the initiation, the reader learns that Nick feels: "quite sure that he would never die." (21) At first sight, the plot of the story Short Happy Life of Francis Macomer is about fear, love, death, killing, and many other topics that each person picks up through his or her own reading and imagination. But if we turn to folklore we find the initiation ceremony is on a deeper level of the tale which is hidden behind apparent details. One of details is "Francis Macomber's complicated life because of marriage to a dominant woman" (John Killinger, Hemingway and the Dead Gods, 44). In this story we can discover the life, initiation and death of ancient hunters. Immature people comprehend it as a death and revival. Wilson is a professional hunter who simultaneously is a teacher and guide figure. During the initiation, he repeats the phrase about "American boy-men": " It's that some of them stay little boys so long... Sometimes all their lives. Their figures stay boyish when they fifty. The great American boy-men." (Hemingway, the Short Stories, 38) it proves the infantilism of Macomber. After Macomber wounds buffalo bull, he fells not fear but elation; he passes the test and becomes the hunter. Moreover, he becomes a man: " You know something did happened to me... I feel absolutely different." These changes frighten his wife and surprise Wilson. He went through the full cycle of the journey toward manhood, the American boy-man is dying and the new man who is full of activity and courage is born. But there is no future for the hero because his maturity comes late: " That is, it is part of the tradition in literature of the lament for the passing of life and for missed opportunities" (DeFalco207) Margot kills Francis because she fears that with his new-found confidence he will leave her. In "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" and "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," which are both set in Africa, chronicle the deaths of their heroes at important points of personal realization. "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" can be viewed thematically as the last phase of the initiation of the hero. Harry suffers from gangrene and cannot be treated because he and his wife and their hunting party are stuck in the wild. Harry remembers and assesses his past as a writer and wishes for time to write more stories, to be true to his talent. Again, we might find similarity with ancient hunters' funeral ceremonies. After a hunter's death, his people wrap his body in animal skin. They think that the dead person will be reincarnated into this animal. They believe that a big bird will come and take the packed body to the mountain where their ancestries live. "Kiliminjaro is identified in the epigraph appended to the story as: " the Masai 'Ngaje Ngai', the House of God" (DeFalco, 208) Harry dreams that a plane, at the end of the story, is similar to the bird in the sky which carries him off toward Kilimanjaro. " ... high and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro. And then he knew that there was where he was going". ( Hemingway,78) "The Old Man and the Sea" is also significant as an example of initiation, for in it the boy, Manolin, learns what it means to be a man. He has not only been thoroughly tutored in the craft of big-game fishing, but, still more importantly, he has absorbed knowledge about love, death, courage and endurance: "The old man had taught the boy to fish and the boy loved him". ( Hemingway, , ) Santiago comes home with only the skeleton of his fish, but he has not truly been defeated. He has achieved a spiritual victory, something far more meaningful than having fifteen hundred pounds. He conquered the fish and survived for three days on the sea. The massive skeleton itself stands as proof of his heroic accomplishment, and it is a good example for the boy. Now Manolin knows that it is possible to catch the fish like that and survive in such circumstances. The Bible itself is an example of folklore. John Killinger in his book Hemingway and the Dead Gods compare Santiago with Christ. He writes:" Like the Christ of the passion, Santiago goes out alone, without even a boy. As Christ was three days and nights in the tomb, Santiago is three days and nights on the water... Both have marred hands- Christ from the nails, and Santiago from the fishing line". (80) Also, Gerry Brenner in Story of a Common Man, finds Mythic adventures a motif in the story. For example, he states: " Santiago's voyage, ordeal, and return replicate the traditional pattern of hero's journey-initiation-return cycle, the hero's journey is completely- inspired; his initiation releases reservoirs of vitality needed by his disintegrating community; and his return restores to his community some wisdom that benefits its renewal". (11) Finally, Ernest Hemingway's heroes have different names although they are fundamentally the same person, drawing from the same experiences of initiation/rites of passage. It is obvious that many of his stories have some ingredients common to variations of life and death tales, fables, folklores, and myths. However, all have these stories have the same fundamental theme of the Human Struggle.


• The Hero in Hemingway's Short Stories by Joseph Defalco; Published by: Duke University Press 1963.
• The Nick Adams Short Stories by Ernest Hemingway; Publisher: Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group. Feb. 1981
• In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway; Publisher: New York: Scribner's, 1925.
• The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway; Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons 1952.
• The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber by Ernest Hemingway; Publisher: Esquire 1936.
• The Snows of Kilimanjaro by Ernest Hemingway; Publisher: Esquire 1936.
• Hemingway and the Dead Gods: A Study in Existentialism by John Killinger; Publisher: The University Press of Kentucky, July 1982.
• Encyclopedia Britanica Publisher: Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. 2003

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