Existentialism in Hemingway’s Works

by Erin
Written for March 14, 2007

Ernest Hemingway commonly wrote about the most extreme forms of human experiences and emotions in his novels and short stories, which, even through his objective tone, he slanted to convey his individual opinions on these subjects. His characters all endured similar struggles such as coping with pain and isolation, and the way he illustrated these difficulties alludes to his personal views on life. He stressed the necessity of each person to make tough decisions and accept the consequences, and this emphasis on individual responsibility in challenging situations expresses Existentialist philosophy in Hemingway’s writing.

In Hemingway’s works, his characters often face difficult and pressing decisions with no way of knowing what the right choices are. For example, in A Farewell to Arms, Lieutenant Henry has to decide whether to wait in the traffic of the retreat or to travel the back roads, which would be faster. He chooses the latter, thinking that it would save time, when it actually causes him and the rest of his party to get stranded in the mud. After walking on foot for a while, Bonello leaves Henry and Piani. He willingly chooses to become a prisoner of war instead of continuing with them because he believes that he has a better chance of living as a prisoner, although there is no possible way he could know if the enemy will follow POW rules or if Henry and Piani would actually find their way to safety. Later Henry is captured by the carabinieri, and in an instant he must find a way to escape and jumps in the river, without knowing if he will even survive in the raging waters. Here, Hemingway writes, “I held onto the timber with both hands and let it take me along” (225), indicating that Henry is making his decision based on what seems to be right at the moment, even though there is no conclusive evidence that he has made the correct choice.

In The Old Man and the Sea, Santiago is also victim to tough situations and difficult decisions. For eight-seven days, each day he is faced with whether to push his old body to complete another day of fishing without knowing if he would finally catch a fish, or to simply quit. On the eighty-seventh day he catches an immense marlin, a fisherman’s dream, which is so massive it pulls him out to sea. He can either let it go or battle with it even though his body aches and he is tired, and there is the possibility that he will not be able to reel in the marlin. After finally catching it, he is challenged by sharks. The first shark he instinctively kills with a harpoon, but he realizes afterwards that there will be more sharks and more trouble for him and thinks, “He took my harpoon too and all the rope – and now my fish bleeds again and there will be others” (103).

“The Snows of Kilimanjaro” expresses this notion of not knowing the correct choice by revealing Harry’s regrets as he lies dying. He realizes that he should not have neglected the scratch but since he thought he would never infect, he ignored it. He has flashbacks about exciting events that happened to him throughout his life that he wishes he used as subjects in his writing. Another decision he questions is his marriage to Helen, which he thinks he did for financial security reasons instead of real love. When he made those decisions, he did not know which ones were right and only at the end of his life does he realize what the correct ones would have been.

Existentialist writers also tend to focus on self-discovery through extreme experiences, such as Hemingway’s common themes of pain, isolation, and the maintenance of healthy relationships with others. Pain and suffering is clearly expressed in all three works, such as in A Farewell to Arms when Lieutenant Henry gets injured while eating cheese. After the injury, the doctor examines him and asks, “‘How does that feel?'” Hemingway illustrates Henry’s suffering by writing afterwards, “Sweat ran all over me. ‘Good Christ!'” (60), which denotes his pain with both his physical and emotional reactions. Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea spends three days bearing pain from his back and his cramping, bleeding hands while keeping hold of an enormous marlin. Harry’s flesh is dying because of gangrene, illustrating physical suffering in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

All of these characters must endure some form of alienation. Lieutenant Henry is isolated when he is the only patient in the hospital and when he is escaping from the military by way of river and train. Santiago is alone because the village has shunned him, the boy is no longer permitted to fish with him, and he spends three days by himself at sea. Harry is almost literally isolated, save for the few people who are with him in the middle of Africa, but he is also alienated because he does not truly love his wife and she cannot understand what he is enduring.

Maintaining adequate relationships with others is another deep, meaningful, and challenging facet of human life that each character experiences. Henry goes through a relationship from its start to finish in A Farewell to Arms, and through the development of his bond with Catherine he grows personally as well. Santiago has a strong relationship with nature since most of the people he knows shun him and therefore it is difficult for him to form relationships with them. Harry has a poor connection with his wife considering he does not truly love her and he often treats her badly. In all of these situations, the characters are able to learn about themselves because of the difficult circumstances.

Ernest Hemingway’s writing in three of his works, A Farewell to Arms, The Old Man and the Sea, and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” clearly expresses the Existentialist viewpoint. He emphasizes personal struggles and difficult decisions, two key points of this philosophy, in all of these literary compositions. Hemingway’s focus on these aspects of the human experience is what accurately defines his writing as Existentialist.

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