Hemingway: The Relevance of Biography to Interpretation Essay

Hemingway: The Relevance of Biography to Interpretation Essay
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  • University/College:
    University of California

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Words: 3366

  • Pages: 13

Hemingway: The Relevance of Biography to Interpretation

Even a cursory examination of the literature addressing Hemingway’s writing and his life can seem overwhelming. The purpose of this paper, however, is to demonstrate that some of Hemingway’s writing can be best understood through reference to his own life experiences. This is not meant to suggest that the text does not at times provide some internal textual evidence regarding the meaning of the piece as a whole, for it most certainly does, but that external biographical evidence must also be considered and weighed when interpreting Hemingway’s work.

In this paper it will be suggested that an examination of the external evidence, as it relates to Hemingway’s own life experiences, is particularly relevant to any interpretation of Ten Indians or Hills like White Elephants and that in these short stories a reconciliation of the external biographical evidence with the internal textual evidence may better aid in understanding the stories themselves.

Significant Biographical Characteristics: Machismo and Gender Relations

In order to better understand Hemingway’s writing it is necessary to know about the man himself and some of the major events and experiences which shaped his thought process. With reference to the short stories specifically addressed in this paper there are two biographical characteristics which seem to aid in efforts to interpret meaning or to otherwise try to make sense of the text. The first biographical characteristic is often referred to as Hemingway’s extremely masculine lifestyle or what some scholars have referred to as his macho orientation.

It is well-established among scholars and historians, for instance, that Hemingway thoroughly enjoyed rigorous physical activities and pursuits; it has been noted that Hemingway was known for his “highly developed skills in such ‘manly’ fields as hunting, fishing, boxing and sailing. ( Harry Sylvester, who used to box with Hemingway frequently, once told me that Hemingway was the strongest man he had ever known. )” (McCaffery 12). He was, in short, an independent-minded writer whom enjoyed physical exertion, challenging himself through a variety of pursuits, and outdoor activities.

While some scholars, such as McCaffery, have viewed Hemingway’s manliness in a positive light there are some whom have viewed him in a less flattering light; indeed, as a leading Hemingway scholar has pointed out “Others view his masculinity as negative machismo. They consider him the worst example of a sexist, racist, homophobic man, and often refuse to read or teach Hemingway, or make apologies when they do. ” (Moddelmog 2). Whether loved or hated, therefore, scholars seem to agree on his manliness and his abrasively macho view of life.

For purposes of interpretation, this informs us that though a gifted writer, and an artist, Hemingway was not the sort of intellectual that was confined to a library or a desk at home; quite the contrary, unlike many other writers, he actually did live in many respects the very type of life which he wrote about. His were not speculative musings, or romantic idealizations, but reflections and comments on situations and characters with which he was intimately familiar. Any attempt to understand or interpret his written work, therefore, must to some extant take note of Hemingway’s own life experiences and philosophical mind-set..

The second biographical characteristic which can aid in the interpretation of Hemingway’s text more specifically, with respect to Ten Indians and Hills like White Elephants, involves his personal experiences with women and how he dealt with gender issues such as relationships and fatherhood in his writings. Hemingway, to put it mildly, experienced the company of many women and seemed almost forever to have troublesome or difficult relations with the opposite sex. He loved women and yet he seemed to struggle to understand them in reference to his own lifestyle and psychology.

Referring to Hills like White Elephants, one researcher has observed that “the subtle and dramatic dialogue in ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ reveals a clear, sensitive portrait of two strong personalities caught in a pattern of miscommunication due to gender-linked language patterns” (Smiley 92); another researcher, referring to Hemingway’s writing more generally, has argued that he must be understood as a human being whom was never quite comfortable about “his own failed or failing marital and/or extramarital relations. ” (Spilka 299).

Gender communication or the lack thereof, particularly that dealing with romantic relationships, is pervasive in Hemingway’s writing and can to some degree be related to his own life. In sum, external biographical evidence is extraordinarily relevant when attempting to interpret Hemingway’s writing and it must be considered alongside the internal textual evidence of each written piece of work. Ten Indians An initial and superficial reading of Hemingway’s Ten Indians suggests a rather common plot in which a young boy falls in love, in which he is subsequently betrayed, and in which innocence is lost or diminished in the process.

In the instant story, the protagonist is Nick Adams and he falls in love with a young Indian girl whom he apparently adores and whom he trusts feels the same as he does; the twist is that she has been spotted with another boy and that Nick is forced to confront the betrayal. The betrayal, however, is not easily predicted; it is not easily predicted because Hemingway creates a pleasant setting and a happy family atmosphere within which to develop his more depressing plot. Indeed, the protagonist

Nick Adams returns home to his father after spending a happy Fourth of July with his friends the Garners. Over a late meal of cold chicken and huckleberry pie the father, who “made a big shadow on the kitchen wall,” informs Nick that his Indian girlfriend Prudence Mitchell spent her Fourth of July “threshing around” in the woods with one Frank Washburn (Carter 103) Everyone had seemed quite happy. The Fourth of July is a joyous occasion for friends and family, and young Nick Adams is in love.

Although scholars have debated Hemingway’s intentions, because of different conclusions discovered in preliminary and final drafts of the manuscript, it is true that “In the final part of the published story, Nick goes into his room after the conversation with his father, gets undressed, and climbs into bed, lying with his face in the pillow and thinking, ‘My heart’s broken…. If I feel this way my heart must be broken’” (Nolan n. p. ). Thus, the story would appear to be a familiar one of trust, betrayal, and heartache.

Further and more careful readings of the text, however, suggest deeper and, possibly, more metaphorical intentions by Hemingway. If from a superficial point of view the story appears to characterize the fallen world of young love then from a more careful examination of the text, reference to the aforementioned biographical characteristics and the relevant scholarly literature the story may also be said to characterize the fallen world of a man’s sense of orderly nature itself.

This notion of metaphor, that the text sets forth a young boy’s broken heart to represent a larger type of destruction, is persuasive given the context in which Hemingway set the story and given the way in which the destruction of the wilderness is simultaneously presented in the text. As an initial matter, it is important to understand that Ten Indians was one of many short stories written by Hemingway which detailed and explored the coming of age of Nick Adams.

Some scholars have suggested that the protagonist, Nick Adams, was in many ways a personal reflection of Hemingway’s own coming of age story and that he was an autobiographical figure for Hemingway in certain respects. Indeed, there are several interesting connections between Hemingway’s personal history and the people and places created in the short story, Ten Indians. First, although Hemingway was born in Illinois, it is commonly understood that he considered his spiritual home to be in Michigan. This area served as the setting for this particular short story.

Second, he relied upon the local Indians of the region to create some of his important characters; in fact, he drew upon his real life observations of the Ottawa and Ojibwa Indian tribes. Indeed, the Indians and their country had a profound effect on Hemingway’s imagination. From his first attempts at fiction and in his later Nick Adams stories, he would draw upon his experiences at Walloon Lake, using Indian characters and wilderness settings. (Nagel 108) Together, these real life experiences helped Hemingway to create both the setting and many of the main characters for his short stories.

In addition to providing inspiration for his setting and characters, there was a deeper conflict which Hemingway’s real-life experiences contributed to his writing design in Ten Indians; more specifically, drawing upon Indian tribes whose lives had become fundamentally changed through close contact and interaction with a different American culture, Hemingway was able to cleverly depict a metaphorical illustration of innocence lost through the betrayal of Nick Adams by the Indian girl. Nick’s innocence, it can be argued, has been destroyed in much the same way as the Indian wilderness.

Hemingway lamented the modernization which infringed on the forests of northern Michigan and the parallels between the destruction of the wilderness and the destruction of Nick Adams’ heart are striking. These parallels have been noted by one scholar whom has suggested that: Hemingway shows the wilderness being destroyed and, with the loss of the trees, the end of the Indian way of life. This fallen world is the setting of “Ten Indians,” a story that centers on the adolescent Nick Adams’s first disappointment in love as he learns that his Indian girlfriend, Prudence Mitchell, has been unfaithful (Nagel 108-109)

When examining the text of Ten Indians, therefore, it is important to note these important parallels, Hemingway’s love of nature and his view of man’s place in nature. Literally speaking, Hemingway drew on a familiar and beloved setting and populated much of the story with the type of Indian characters that were well-known to him. Figuratively speaking, or metaphorically speaking, Hemingway managed to link the fallen world of the pristine natural wilderness with the fallen world of a young man’s broken heart. It is against this contextual framework that any analysis of Ten Indians must proceed.

This is not meant to suggest that either fallen world was the predominant theme; to be sure, both the text and the scholarly literature would seem to demonstrate that Hemingway found both the destruction of the wilderness and the destruction of a first love as betrayals that would inevitable shatter an individual’s innocence and mark another stage in the coming of age of young boys. A young boy, reconciling the external evidence with the internal evidence, might be better advised enjoying the beauty of the forests than the beauty of insincere wiles of young girls.

Hills like White Elephants Although a comparatively short story, Hemingway’s Hills like White Elephants is full of tension and moral dilemma; more specifically, the text appears to suggest that the man and the woman are debating whether the woman should have an abortion and what the implications will be depending on whether the abortion is done or not done. What is most striking, from a textual analysis, is the contrast between the rather relaxed atmosphere or setting and the deeply personal nature of the discussion.

On the one hand, for instance, the man and the woman are relaxing at a train station, drinking alcohol, and waiting for a train. This would seem to imply a happy couple, an anticipated journey, and a relationship that will endure at least until the train arrives. These contextual clues, however, are sharply betrayed by the underlying discussion regarding whether the woman, Jig, will undergo an operation to have an abortion. One might anticipate some form of closure, some final decision arrived at by the main characters, but instead Hemingway leaves the reader grasping for answers as the story comes to a conclusion.

He leaves them grasping for answers because rather than stating what decision has been made, and whether the American and Jig will actually ever see each other again, Hemingway finishes his story without a definitive declaration in either respect. With respect to the operation for the abortion, the woman states that she is willing to have the operation; the American man, however, doubts her sincerity. The reader is therefore forced to wonder, as the American wonders, whether the woman is agreeing or temporarily attempting to placate her partner and lover.

With respect to the relationship itself, the reader desiring a firm and resolute statement is left grasping for straws. This is because, rather than departing on the train to Madrid together as planned, the American places their bags or luggage at different positions on the platform before rejoining Jig. The story then finishes up with the man being suspicious of the woman’s true motives and convictions and with the placement of the bags providing a possible clue that the relationship is doomed.

The couple is together and yet the bags are separate; this is where Hemingway leaves his readers and scholars themselves have grappled with both the meaning of the story and the likely outcomes. The scholarly analysis of Hills like White Elephants has traditionally tended to focus upon the use of internal textual clues to determine whether Jig intended to have the operation and the fate of the relationship between Jig and the America; more recently, however, some scholars have begun to analyze whether and to what extant the short story may have been influenced or otherwise inspired by Hemingway’s own life.

This bifurcated focus has been summed up, analyzed, and synthesized by one leading Hemingway scholar whom has stated the scholarly emphasis thusly: “Two recurring themes in analyses of Ernest Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ are the debate over whether or not Jig will carry her pregnancy to term and the search for biographical experiences that may have inspired and influenced the story. ” (Wyche n. p). This section will examine each of these scholarly inquiries in turn.

The traditional scholarly interest has involved an examination of the text for clues in order to determine whether an abortion was actually pursued and the fate of the couple. A review of the literature reveals at least four possibilities: Three different scenarios have been seriously considered: the girl will have the abortion (albeit reluctantly) and stay with the man; the girl will have the abortion and leave the man; or, the girl will not have the abortion, having won the man over to her point of view.

However, there is strong support in the narrative for a fourth outcome that fits in, with the dark overall prognosis presented in other scholarly interpretations: the girl will indeed have the abortion, expecting in this way to stay on with the man, but after the operation has been performed, he will abandon her. Various verbal and non-verbal indications found in the story support this interpretation of the narrative, as does the very symbolism of the title itself. (Hashmi n. p. )

Although an extended analysis of each scenario is beyond the scope of this paper, a rationale for selecting the most plausible outcome based upon the text is not. The most persuasive outcome would appear to be the fourth; more specifically, a superficial reading of the text suggests that Jig will indeed have an abortion and that the American will abandon her despite her attempt to maintain the relationship. First, the American places their bags in different parts of the platform. Analyzed literally, this seems to suggest that he doubts her sincerity regarding the abortion and that he is preparing for a separation.

Second, they stand together and Jig tells the American that despite the strain of the abortion decision she remains fine. The man has made the decision to separate the bags whereas Jig would appear to believe that things will work out in such a way as to maintain the relationship. The man’s actions represent separation whereas Jig’s actions and words represent togetherness. It is therefore plausible to argue that she will pursue togetherness by having the abortion and that the man will pursue separation by encouraging the abortion and then abandoning or otherwise terminating the relationship.

Although never explicitly stating such a conclusion, the fourth scenario is supported by the aforementioned textual clues. Other scholars have instead focused on Hemingway’s own life in order to understand the story; in this way, the abortion issue is treated figuratively rather than literally. As one scholar pursuing this biographically-oriented type of analysis explains “While the figurative abortion in ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ can be understood on the basis of internal evidence, the concept of abortion as metaphor invites consideration of a number of biographical influences on the story,” (Wyche n. p. ).

While such an analysis requires a reconciling of certain parts of the text with information known about Hemingway’s personal life there are interesting parallels. One illustration involves the fact that Hemingway has been reported to have said that the birth of his first child led to the dissolution of his first marriage, that he was at the time too young to have become a father, and that “the author’s ambivalence toward fatherhood is well-documented” (Wyche, n. p. ).

Against this larger framework, comparing the author’s real life with his written work, it may become plausible to argue that the scholarship dealing with the outcomes regarding the abortion and the relationship are in actuality tangential or irrelevant concerns insofar as the author was concerned; more precisely, it might be argued that Hemingway was merely incorporating difficult moments from his own coming of age experience without intending to offer concrete conclusions.

In the final analysis, while it is both challenging and interesting to explore what Hemingway may have intended as a conclusion, it is perhaps more enlightening to view Hills like White Elephants as a writer’s reflections about his own past in which firm and absolute conclusions were never intended. Hemingway was placing the reader in his own shoes and asking what the reader might do, what the reader ought to do, in similar circumstances.

Such an interpretation is consistent with the biographical data known about Hemingway and makes the story more powerful and personal by forcing the reader to draw his or her own conclusions rather than being force-fed a set of conclusions by the author. Conclusion In conclusion, what makes Hemingway so alluring is that he actually lived the type of life that he wrote about.

It is therefore impossible to completely separate his own life from his writing as one might be able to do with other writers. As a consequence, interpretation must necessarily involve a balancing act in which external biographical evidence is weighed and considered alongside the internal textual evidence. It is this interplay, between real life and fiction, that perhaps makes Hemingway appear larger than life.


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