120spacer.gif (56 bytes) An OAC ISU on Hemingway,
by Peter Trainor


Ernest Hemingway: The Descent into Hopelessness

By Peter Trainor
January 23, 2001
For Mr. M. Aller-Stead
OAC Writer's Craft
Monarch Park Collegiate

     In a letter to his publisher, Ernest Hemingway described writing as something he had to do "to be happy, whether [he was] paid for it or not." For Hemingway, writing was not a profession, but a self-professed "obsession"; it was a tool he used to explore and reflect on his experiences and emotions.1
In this way, Hemingway's work is inseparable from his character. What continues to fascinate readers and critics alike is the relationship between Hemingway's fiction and his reality. We know that Hemingway was born in Oak Park, Illinois in 1899; that he served in the First World War; that he became a correspondent for papers in Kansas City and Toronto; that he loved to hunt and fish; that he received the Noble Prize for literature; that he suffered from depression; and that, at the age of 62, he put a double-barrelled shot gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. We look to his writing as s a complex record of his thoughts and experiences, to answer the inevitable question: why? An examination of A Moveable Feast, The Old Man and the Sea, and Islands in the Stream, three of Hemingway's novels, provides some explanation. Each novel is representative of particular stage of Hemingway's understanding of his own purpose, and each plays a fundamental role in his eventual acceptance of nihilism.

     A Moveable Feast is a non-fictional account of Hemingway's exploits as a young man living in Paris in the 1920s. In the novel, he describes his life living in a flat with his wife, Hadley, and son, Jack, nicknamed Mr. Bumby. Hemingway makes his living as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star, although he writes short fiction in his spare time. In Paris, Hemingway is surrounded by brilliance and achievement in the art galleries, the museums and, more directly, amongst the famous people who are his neighbours. To Hemingway, these surroundings represent what he hopes he will someday achieve himself and tries to learn everything he can from them. He describes his walks to the Musee du Luxembourg "to see the Manets and the Monets and the other Impressionists." He goes "nearly every day" because he knows he is "learning something from the painting," something that may elevate his own creativity to comparable heights.2

     In the same fashion, Hemingway spends much of his time trying to learn from those who have already achieved his goal of becoming an acclaimed and respected artist. As a young and promising writer, Hemingway is able to meet and befriend many of Paris' celebrity authors and painters. Initially, he approaches them as a child approaches a grandparent, full of awe at the enormity of their experience and accomplishment, and thus eager to learn from and even mimic their approach to life and work. One of his mentors is the famous painter and author Gertrude Stein. As Hemingway puts it, "Miss Stein instructs" him as to what should be important in his life, what he should and should not talk about or write about, and even the rights and wrongs of homosexual sex. She treats Hemingway and his wife "as though [they] were two very good, very well mannered and promising children." 3

     However, Hemingway slowly begins to see Stein's many faults and, in time, her aura of wisdom and knowledge dissolves. "As I got to know her better," Hemingway recounts, "I found that for her to keep happy...it was necessary that her work be published and that she receive recognition for it." 4  And yet, "although she [relied on] the publication and official acceptance" of her work to provide her with a sense of self, "she disliked the drudgery of revision and the obligation to make her writing intelligible." 5   Stein is also stubborn, defensive, and conceited. She sees herself as the supreme authority on everything and will not associate with those who do not accept her views as absolute truth. Hemingway realizes that, despite the fame and respect she has acquired in the intellectual world, Stein's identity and purpose in life rely on the praise of others. He sees her as someone who has failed to discover a substantial meaning in life. Hemingway goes through a similar enlightenment about other celebrities - - for example, Ford Madox Ford and F. Scott Fitzgerald--initially looking up to them as flawless examples of what he will someday become, and then realizing that they are in many ways just ordinary people who "talk a lot of rot sometimes" and find meaning in their lives for all the wrong reasons. 6   In a sense, Hemingway becomes what the existentialists would call the "absurd man"--the man who realizes that, in order to live a satisfying and meaningful life, the individual must discover his own raison d'etre, something that can not be provided for him by others. This realization begins Hemingway's lifelong search to find his individual purpose, and is therefore a fundamental step towards his eventual understanding that his quest is futile.

     When he wrote The Old Man and the Sea in 1952, Hemingway was a middle-aged man and he had largely achieved his dream of becoming a famous, respected author. Through his story of the old fisherman, Santiago, Hemingway concedes that his search for meaning has failed because it has been solely within himself, focused on his heroic individualist exploits. His fascination with bullfighting and boxing; his love of hunting and deep sea fishing; and, of course, his obsession with writing and his quest to become a famous and respected author--in these solitary interests he tried and failed to find his purpose. In The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway reflects on his realization that the answers cannot be found solely within the individual. Such an approach, Hemingway concludes has not yet been and will never be successful. In fact, it has steered him away from the true source of meaning: his relationships with other people.

     The old fisherman, Santiago, has a similar realization. He begins the story with an individualistic goal representative of Hemingway's; to catch a truly great fish. Santiago is largely ignorant of the value of his relationships, and has only one friend, his young fishing companion, Manolin, whom the old man taught to fish and who cares deeply for him. When Manolin's parents force him to stop fishing with Santiago, the old fisherman Santiago shows little concern at the loss. "It is quite normal," he comments, and seems to think nothing more of it. Although he is not rude or dismissive of the boy, Santiago is much more concerned with himself and with the possibility of catching a great fish.

     The next day, Santiago goes out fishing without the boy and hooks the great fish he has been hoping to catch his entire life. Despite his age, he fights the fish for days, full of personal pride, "showing what a man can do and what a man endures" 7  Soon he becomes exhausted. His back is strained, and his hands become cramped and cut. Struggling alone with no one to help, he begins to realize the boy's importance. "I wish I had the boy...to help me," 8 he says to himself. "If the boy were here. If the boy were here." 9  Finally, Santiago kills the fish and straps it to the side of the skiff because it is too big to be brought into the boat. He has achieved his ultimate goal, his ultimate individualistic purpose. But he feels no pride or accomplishment or sense of victory. On his journey home, in spite of his best efforts to protect it, the great fish is devoured by sharks and all is lost. Santiago's solitary quest for meaning and purpose is false and futile. He realizes that his true purpose is not to catch the great fish but to enjoy and appreciate the love of other human beings, and to return that love. "The boy keeps me alive now. I must not deceive myself," he says. 10

     Through his tale of Santiago, Hemingway conveys his discovery that while the individual must find his own purpose in order to lead a fulfilling life, that purpose can not be found solely within the individual himself, nor through heroic individualistic deeds; indeed, it must be found in the relationships with those he loves and who love him. This is Hemingway's second great realization, and the second fundamental step towards his descent into nihilism.

     In Islands in the Stream, Hemingway's last great work, we are presented with Thomas Hudson, whose similarities to Hemingway himself in terms of profession, lifestyle, and history are too numerous to disregard. Once again, Hemingway is painting a picture of himself. Hudson has achieved his goal of becoming a famous and successful painter. He has caught his "great fish." However, like Santiago, he has realized the failure of his personal achievement to provide him with meaning and purpose and he often thinks regretfully about the carelessness with which he treated those who loved him when he was young. As a result of his "selfish[ness] and ruthless[ness]," he is now an intensely lonely man--an alcoholic living alone on an island, isolated from the rest of humanity. His wealth, fame, and success have brought him nothing. 11

     Yet, like Santiago, he still finds reason to live in the few relationships that have survived--specifically with his three boys: Tom, the son of his first wife, and David and Andrew, the sons of his second wife. The boys are most often with their mothers and Hudson sees them rarely, only for one or two months per year. Thus, Hudson gets "awfully excited when he knows he's going to see them," and notes that, "it is much less lonely sleeping when you can hear children breathing when you wake at night." His time with his boys is like a window through his loneliness and is one of the few things that still make him "very happy." 12

     When the boys are all killed, two in a car accident and one in the Second World War, Hudson concludes that the search for purpose in life is useless; it cannot be found within the individual, nor can it be found in other people. Hudson gives up his search and admits that he has lost all "interest in [playing] the game." 13

     Then, in a tragic concession of failure, Hudson joins the military. In a sense, he has come full circle; like the young Hemingway in A Moveable Feast, Hudson is looking to others to provide him with a reason to live. In the military, he is provided with a mission, with a purpose; yet, the tragedy is that this time he has actively chosen to accept meaning provided to him from outside, despite the fact that he realizes it is false and will never bring him happiness. He has been left with no other choice. It is at this point that Hemingway concludes that, whether through individual exploits or through external relationships, the quest to find true purpose in life is completely futile. He has embraced Nihilism.

     In Islands in the Stream, although we are presented with a character who obviously represents Hemingway, for the first time that character's experiences go well beyond those of Hemingway himself. While Hemingway's first two realizations, as presented in A Movable Feast and The Old Man in the Sea, are based on actual events in his life, his the acceptance of nihilism has no basis in reality. Hemingway himself never lost his children as his character, Thomas Hudson, does. However, like Thomas Hudson, Hemingway did spend his last years trying and failing to battle severe depression. Perhaps Hemingway believed that the only way to convey the extent of his suffering to others was by comparing it to an event as tragic as the needless death of childrren.


1 Letter to C. Scribner, Havana, 24 February 1940; in Carlos Baker (ed.).  Ernest Hemingway:
Selected Letters
(New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1981), p.503.

2 Ernest Hemingway. A Moveable Feast (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1964), p.13.

3 A Moveable Feast, p.14

4 A Moveable Feast, p.17.

5 A Moveable Feast, p.17.

6 A Moveable Feast, p.31.

7 Ernest Hemingway. The Old Man and the Sea (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1952), p.52.

8 The Old Man and the Sea, p.48.

9 The Old Man and the Sea, p.83.

10 The Old Man and the Sea, p.106.

11 Ernest Hemingway. Islands in the Stream (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970), p.9.

12 Islands in the Stream, p.51.

13 Islands in the Stream, p.196.


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