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Ernest Hemingway FAQ: Themes

Question How does "Soldier's Home" tie into the notion of the lost generation?

Answer The theme of alienation, isolation either from society or one's self is a recurring and necessary theme in much of Ernest Hemingway's work.

In examining "Soldier's Home," we ask ourselves the following questions. Is Krebs isolated and alienated? He returns home to Oklahoma, but isn't greeted with the same heroic welcome as the other officers who came back earlier. People treat Krebs more like an outcast than a hero. Keep in mind also the title of this story, "Soldier's Home." Isn't one supposed to feel welcomed into his or her home?

What does Krebs tell people about his war experiences? He tells them lies naturally considering nobody is interested in hearing his stories, having already heard enough overly dramatic stories from the other officers. Lying makes Krebs feel lost within himself and in a sense bitter towards the war, there the theme of alienation sets in.

Does Krebs practice intense self-discipline? He sleeps late, reads, eats, and sits on his front porch watching the girls walk by. If anything, he seems disciplined to do nothing significant with his life. Ironically, he has been cast into a role of passive observer rather than the active participant he seemed to be in heading off to assist in the war effort. Has Krebs been cast into this role of passive observer voluntary or involuntarily? This Hemingway does not implicitly state. Where else are there examples of Krebs falling into the role of passive observer and what does this do to his hero status?

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Question How does existentialism play out in Ernest Hemingway's fiction, particularly "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber"?

Answer Existentialism is a major component of Ernest Hemingway's fiction. We see the focus on the strength and perseverance of the individual, the underlying theme that we create ourselves, existence before essence. It's the responsibility of Hemingway's characters to create their essence, act as if something has meaning, and create a type of moral code. Many of Hemingway's so-called heroes attempt to create such a code, one which must be practiced and upheld with intense self-discipline, the legendary "grace under pressure."

What code has Francis Macomber created for himself? Or has his code been created for him? By who? How does Macomber try and live up to this code? Does he succeed? What is his wishful essence? What is his realized essence? Do these two conflict or comply with each other?

For more information on existentialism, read the Wikipedia entry for existentialism.

For articles and books with critical discussions of "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" see the Ernest Hemingway Bibliography.

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Question What makes Ernest Hemingway a modernist?

Answer In modernist fiction, characters are generally on some type of quest. They are preparing to recompose themselves, to live all they can, to find meaning in a disordered and confused world. The Victorian age of rationality and progress has been replaced by a loosely moralistic generation easily seduced by transitory pleasures, a generation with very little ambition, motivation, or regard for the consequences of their actions.

What most modernist writers are trying to do (including Hemingway) is to show the surface disorder of their surroundings, but also to imply that there exits a certain underlying unity. They attempt to depict the various ways in which their characters can become honorable and dignified in a dishonorable and undignified world. In regards to content, modernist writers are attempting to make their work new, bold, and original.

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Question What is one theme of "Indian Camp"?

Answer "Indian Camp" can have many themes depending on the critical viewpoint you decide to take. There is the theme of compensation for powerless male figures. How does Nick Adams compensate for his father's apparent powerlessness in preventing the Indian's suicide? Where else do we see Nick trying to be perhaps more mature, more of a man? Where do we see him attempting to gain control over a certain situation? What situation is he trying to gain control of at the end of this story, particularly in the last line of the story? We see Nick immersing himself in the security of his past knowledge and experience in order to better cope with the uncertainty of his present and future experience. Find some examples of this. Finally, there is the all important Hemingwayesque theme of boy's initiation into manhood. Was Nick's initiation into manhood a successful one?

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Question What is Ernest Hemingway's "nada" philosophy?

Answer The Hemingway hero is a restless man, doesn't like the night, often will sleep through the day and stay awake during the night. The darkness of the night represents nothingness, the state in which things will be when one is dead, absolute oblivion. Darkness and sleep must be avoided, for in these states there is nothingness, "nada." Hemingway's discourse on "nada" is his way of exploring the darker side of his spiritual self.

In "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," the idea of "nada" causes the older waiter to contemplate suicide, to question whether or not the example of the old man is one in which he should follow. He doesn't follow the old man's example, and then, judging from the last sentence of the story, feels the need to make excuses for his cowardice.

In "The Killers," Ole Andreson shows similar cowardice in his unwillingness to leave his room. He simply waits for the killers to come and get him. This is his response to "nada," to give up, to do nothing in this world of nothingness. Death is the ultimate fate of everyone. He accepts that. Nick doesn't want to accept it and is propelled into action, telling George that he is going to leave town.

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Question What makes Ernest Hemingway a fatalist?

Answer Many of Ernest Hemingway's novels and short stories are preoccupied with violence and death. To some, this would indicate Hemingway's fatalistic tendencies as a writer. For others, it might signify his attempts at realism. Hemingway, in my opinion, is both a realist and a fatalist, and each of these positions are equally important to his art.

Let's take A Farewell to Arms as an example. Part of the subject matter here pertains to war. In a war, people are killed. That is the unfortunate reality of war and Hemingway portrays this reality with brilliant clarity. When Hemingway kills off Catherine Barkley at the end of the novel, in this instance, he is probably being more fatalistic than realistic. Women do die in childbirth, but I would imagine this was a less common occurrence when the labor took place under the supervision of a doctor in a hospital, as is the case with Catherine's labor.

Ernest Hemingway believed that all stories end in death and that true storytellers would not keep this fact from the reader. His belief clearly shows us his fatalistic tendencies. However, it also shows us that death is of great significance to him as an artist and it is often a necessary component to his subject matter. Only when confronted by death can a character be transformed for better or for worse. Only when confronted by death can a character truly display the legendary "grace under pressure."

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Question How does Ernest Hemingway use nature in his work?

Answer In Ernest Hemingway's work, nature often exists solely to illuminate man's struggle with himself. His characters are often placed into naturalistic settings where they confront an idea, a feeling, a struggle and they must respond accordingly. Typically, they respond with Hemingway's code of "grace under pressure." Hemingway has a great deal of respect for nature and its role in shaping events, but he also has respect for man in nature shaping his own events.

Stylistically, Hemingway's descriptions of the natural world are some of the most visually compelling in all of literature. His ability to accurately describe a landscape in a relatively small amount of words is extraordinary.

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