Defying death and preserving dignity | Sunday Observer

Defying death and preserving dignity

Ernest Hemingway working on a book in December 1939 (Pic: Wikipedia)
Ernest Hemingway working on a book in December 1939 (Pic: Wikipedia)

Literary critics consider Ernest Hemingway as a master stylist and probably the most influential prose writer in the 20th century. He had a reputation for blood sports such as, bullfighting and hunting. His novel “For Whom the Bell tolls” (1940) depicted his sympathy towards the Loyalist side in the Spanish Civil War. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his brilliant novel “The Old Man and the Sea”.

Like Coleridge’s “The Ancient Mariner” or Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” “The Old Man and the Sea” can be read on more than one level of meaning. It is both, an exciting and adventurous tale. The story is based on one of his adventures during a fishing expedition in Cuba. The protagonist Santiago reveals his character through his endless monologue with nature, including the fish. The novel is a silent testimony to his incredible gift of relating to nature and describing it.

Even those who are not doing literature for an examination should read “The Old Man and the Sea” because it is not only a moral fable but also a parable of artistic creation. Hemingway said, “I tried to make a real old man, a real boy and a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things. The hardest thing is to make something really true and something truer than true.” True to his words he wrote a marvellous novel.

Sense of community

According to A.M.G. Sirimanne, an eminent literary critic, the old man awakens to a sense of community and the need for love and companionship at the end of the novel. He is a primitive archetype, the human essence winnowed and sifted by age and experience, an elemental essence in the way King Lear at the end of the play becomes an element within human limitations.

Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald had a friendship that blew hot and cold over two decades. One day, Fitzgerald remarked, “Ernest would always give a helping hand to a man on a ledge a little higher up.” Arthur Higbee, a correspondent for the United Press met Hemingway in the Ritz bar in 1956. Higbee was sitting with a girl to bid her farewell. The girl while looking around spotted Hemingway talking to someone at the end of the bar.

“Isn’t that Hemingway?” she asked.

“It’s Hemingway all right,” he said.

Bloody Marys

She then asked Higbee to invite Hemingway for a drink. Higbee cautiously approached Hemingway and told him that a young lady wished to have a drink with him. After answering another phone call Hemingway came and sat down. Higbee ordered a round of Bloody Marys.

After exchanging pleasantries, Hemingway said he had to leave. When Higbee signalled the waiter for the bill, he said Hemingway had already paid it. Hemingway always obliged when strangers walked up to him and asked him for his autograph or to have a drink. He never put on airs although he was a Nobel Prize winning author.

Hemingway (1898-1961) was born in Oak Park, Illinois, but spent most of his boyhood in Michigan, where his father was a doctor. He encouraged his son to enjoy camping in order to teach him the rudiments of physical courage and endurance. Hemingway worked as a reporter for his school newspaper. He graduated from high school but did not go to college. After working as a reporter on the “Kansas City Star,” he volunteered to serve in the American ambulance unit in France during World War I. He was severely wounded in the war.

Writing fiction

After the war he wished to settle down in the United States but opted to live in Paris like many other American writers. Again, he became a newspaper reporter and supported his small family. It was at that time that he started writing fiction.

He said, “I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel or had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action: What the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced.”

While living in the United States Hemingway admired Sherwood Anderson’s stories, but when he moved to Paris he came under the influence of Gertrude Stein. However, he did not want to follow Stein’s style of writing. Instead, he developed his own prose style. After publishing “Our Time” (1925), a collection of stories, “The Sun Also Rises” (1926) and “A Farewell to Arms” (1929), Hemingway established himself as a writer.

Hemingway was on par with two of his contemporaries such as, Fitzgerald and William Faulkner as far as his stories are concerned. His short story writing skills attracted many followers. Once he compared his method to the principle of the iceberg.

“There is seven-eighths of it under water for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it, then there is a hole in the story.”

Complex meanings

If you happen to read his short story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”, you will come across complex meanings beneath the surface of apparently simple actions and dialogue. His philosophy in writing fiction appears to be defying death and preserving your dignity. As a successful writer he earned a great deal of money. When “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” was made into a film, it became a box office success.

Hemingway rarely analyzed his method of writing fiction. However, he has justified the way he was writing. In a preface to one of his collections of stories he wrote, “In going where you have to go, and doing what you have to do, and seeing what you have to see, you dull and blunt the instrument you write with.

But I would rather have it blunt and dull and know I had to put it on the grindstone again and again and hammer it into shape and put a whetstone to it, and know that I had something to write about, than to have it bright and shining and nothing to say, or smooth and well-oiled in the closet, but unused.”

With all his literary achievements the tragic end came when Hemingway shot himself with a shotgun in his Idaho hunting lodge.

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