Hemingway’s Universe: The Gravity of Irony

By Jack Kamm

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 “The tragedy of machismo is that a man is never quite man enough.”  ~Germaine Greer

            Like most of us, Hemingway couldn’t expunge his childhood, whose damage turned his art, in later years, into a refuge from demons. One demon—the confusion of manhood with machismo—urged him to destroy; the other, succubus of his mother, became the soiled archetype of Hemingway’s fictional women.  Their fate, as well as that of his men, reflects the irony of a universe antagonistic to Western belief.  Fall down any of the entrapping black holes, and not even the light of hope can escape. So trapped yet impelled by the drive for life, his characters, with whatever grace they can muster, struggle through an unpredictable universe.

            Hemingway’s childhood, a graceless corner both windy and dark, incited his battle against effeteness.   Disappointed that he was born a boy, his mother—whom he held partly responsible for his father’s suicide in 1928 and whose funeral  he did not attend—toyed with his anatomy (not to mention his psyche) by dressing him in an ignominy of lacy white dresses and pink bows.  Not only did the cross-dressing embarrass him, its statement of gender-rejection wounded him.

            Disowning the sissy-image, as an adult he wedged himself into a fearless persona that made him a man’s man who not only out-drank you but, in the prize-ring, out-boxed you. In Africa he slaughtered kudus and sable elk.  In the Atlantic, he jammed hooks deep into the jaws of marlins.

            Justifying Brutality
            Rhapsodizing death, he tried to ennoble it with the lyric of his own rationality—a remarkable paean to an artist’s justification of brutality.  For example, at the moment of the bull’s death, he makes the animal one with the matador by interchanging their identities. “His shoulder went forward between the horns as the sword went in,” Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises informs us, “and for just an instant he and the bull were one.”  It took a sword, a killing weapon, to unite them–not the life-affirming gift of mercy or kindness. Even the fish Hemingway killed he called his brothers.  In The Old Man and the Sea, Santiago tells himself, “You loved him [the marlin] when he was alive and you loved him after. If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him.”

            Really…?

            We might excuse Santiago for the absurdity of such rationalization, but should we excuse Hemingway? On the other hand, if Hemingway needed fanciful reasoning to justify his destructiveness—both in literature and in life—he accepted as well self-reprimand.  In “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” Margot rebukes Wilson, the white Hunter who is also Hemingway’s doppelganger. “You do kill anything, don’t you?” she asks him. Wilson kills lions for sure.  And buffalo.  And whatever other game his clients request, and it’s doubtful that he seeks penance in church—or anywhere else for that matter.

In most of his killing scenes, from the picador who disables the bull to the matador who drops it, from the Wilsons in Africa to the Santiagos in the Gulf Stream, Hemingway expresses his love of destruction, yet stays clear of moral culpability and, therefore, avoids–whether for his characters or for himself–the tortuous and often unmanly route toward expiation.

Hemingway’s Fictional Women
In much of Hemingway’s world, a man is defined not only by his proclivity to destroy, but by his interplay with women.  That he had four wives (Hadley, Pauline, Martha and Mary) attested to the spectacle of his macho abacus: four proper notches on his potent pistol, four more diplomas on the wall of his heterosexuality. The problem is that his fictional women, only partly sculpted, fall into one of two types: manipulative, selfish, hazardous and infuriating—or masochistic and fatuous. In either case, none of them seems whole.

The Predator: Margot
In “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” Margot sneaks into Wilson’s tent at night while her husband sleeps. Wilson groups her with women who are the “hardest in the world…the most predatory and the most attractive and their men have…gone to pieces nervously as they have hardened.” He scorns her for cuckolding her husband as punishment for Macomber’s running from the wounded lion. “She’s damn cruel,” Wilson thinks, “but they’re all cruel.  They govern, of course, and to govern one has to be cruel sometimes. Still, I’ve seen enough of their damn terrorism.”

            At the end, Margot’s terrorism takes a fatal turn after she witnesses Francis’ return to a bravery that might very well have pressed him to leave her. Shooting at the charging buffalo apparently to save her husband, she shoots him instead.  Did she, consciously or not, shift the bore of the rifle that fatal inch…?  Wilson thinks so.  “That was a pretty thing to do,” he scolds her. “He would have left you too.”  Then he asks: “Why didn’t you poison him?  That’s what they do in England.”

            The Good Girl: Catherine
            In A Farewell To Arms, Catherine Barkley—who poisons herself by falling in love—is Margot’s counterpoint.  Pliancy replaces sadism; fatuousness replaces cunning; self-effacement replaces ego. “There isn’t any me anymore,” Catherine informs Henry.  “Just what you want.”  Later she tells him, “I’m you.  Don’t make up a separate me.”   Soon he becomes her “religion”—all she has. Throughout their conversations her favorite epithet oozes from her lips.  “But, darling…I’m married to you”; “You see, darling…”; “Poor darling”; “Goodbye, darling”; “Are you all right, darling?” “Oh, please, darling, please make it stop.”

            Hemingway’s facile sprinkling of this endearment reflects a vacancy of her personality–a vacancy that he as a writer can’t seem to fill.  Unlike Margot, whose bitchiness masks her fear of abandonment, Catherine is concerned with being a “good girl,” a label that today would infuriate feminists. Joining Henry in bed, she says, “You see?  I’m good.  I do what you want.” When he tells her that she’s wonderful, she replies, “No I’m not…But haven’t I been a good girl until now?” Another time, filled with amour, she reminds him,  “I’m a good girl again.”

            The Masochist: Helen
            In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” goodness—human or abstract—becomes twisted up in death: not only Harry’s death but the death of romantic falsehoods. No sugary Hollywood ending here. No tender grasping of hands or avowals of eternal love at the end. Hemingway calls Harry’s wife Helen–“the woman.” More like Catherine Barkley than Margot Macomber, she takes an emotional beating and comes back for more.  She asks Harry, who’s dying from gangrene, whether he loves her.  “No,” he replies.  “I don’t think so.  I never have.”

            Sadistic, he goes on hurting her because it’s “more amusing. The only thing I ever really liked to do with you I can’t do now.”  Finally, before falling asleep, with her sitting at his side, he calls her a bitch—a rich bitch.  “That’s poetry,” he adds.  “I’m full of poetry now.” Like a spoiled, raging child he blames her for the choices he himself made–namely, the materialism and hedonism of her lifestyle over his writing.

            And what’s Helen’s response to his abuse? In Hemingway’s truncated, misogynistic version of her, she’s incapable of showing any outrage or indignation rising from womanly pride–a pride that should hold true regardless of Harry’s impending death. “Stop it,” she tells him.  “Why do you have to turn into a devil now?” Even Margot Macomber, far tougher than Helen, cannot stand up to Wilson’s hectoring accusations.  “Stop it,” Margot cries.  “Stop it.  Stop it.”  Then later: “Oh, please stop it.  Please, please stop it.”  Is this cry the best response Hemingway empowers these women to deliver?

            The Moth: Brett
            If only stopping were easy, however. Brett Ashley, in The Sun Also Rises, can’t stop being herself, nor can Jake—who enjoys indulging his own masochism—stop himself from not stopping her.  At thirty four, she might have baked his groin to full flavor if he were able to make love, but the war made him impotent, “a rotten way,” he acknowledges, “to be wounded.” Yet she flutters about him like a crazed moth singeing herself against the flames of their mutual frustration. In a taxi stopping on the Rue Mouffetard, Jake kisses her.

            “Don’t touch me,” she says.  “Please don’t touch me.”

            “What’s the matter?”

            “I can’t stand it.”  What she means to say, as she does another time, is, “I simply turn all to jelly when you touch me.”

            Realizing the impossibility of sexual intercourse with Jake, the man she loves—and knowing, equally, his hunger for her—why does she vibrate around him?  Is she so ignoble that she cannot temper her appetites with decency, if not for herself then for him? Why does she share a temporary bed with men she disdains, yet clings to the man with whom she can never be intimate?  Jake ponders an interesting answer: “I suppose she only wanted what she couldn’t have.”

            Are these words, through Jake’s voice, an excuse for her—or is Hemingway exploring the puzzling heartlessness of a woman whose ministrations, like his mother’s, remind him of the emasculation he felt as a boy? Often in the next room, Jake overhears Brett’s conversations with her beau du jour and feels “pretty rotten.”  “I heard them talking,” he says, “but I did not listen.”

            Daddy’s Lap
            Unlike Margot Macomber’s cruelty, which springs from anger against her own pusillanimity, Brett’s cruelty takes the form of exhibitionism and teasing. Strutting around Jake, she shows him what he can never have. Frustrated at his incapacity and furious at her own irresoluteness springing from a moral shortcoming, she turns Jake the lover-manqué into Jake the good father who always rescues her. She becomes the lusty but spoiled daughter who uses Daddy’s lap as a safety net: at least there she’s allowed to play out her sexual fantasies and save a bit of face, for which little girl—if she’s loving—doesn’t nestle in Daddy’s lap and thus bask in the smiles of an approving and cooing society?

            Moreover, assured of his readiness always to rescue and embrace her—she can circle, swoop and alight on the flares of other men with little concern for scorching her wings. She hangs with the Count, who wants to take her to Biarritz, Cannes and Monte Carlo. Yet even while romping with him from bar to bar, she flits over to Jake.  “Just wanted to see you,” she says while the count waits, but admits that these contacts with Jake are a “dammed silly idea.” Are they less silly than—while sleeping with Mike Campbell, who wants to marry her—her taking up with Robert Cohn, an infatuate who follows her around unashamedly? Later, she ripples the red cape of her passion in front of Romero, her matador.

            And during these assignations, she has kept Daddy’s lap in reserve for when she needs it.  After her explosive finale with Romero, from the Hotel Montana she sends Jake a telegram begging him to hook up with her in Madrid. Like the reliable, protective and over-indulgent father, he comes to her rescue once again, delivering himself via the Sud Express.  In her room, they embrace.

            “I’ve had such a hell of a time,” she informs him.  Then: “I’m going back to Mike.  He’s so damned nice and he’s so awful.  He’s my sort of thing.”  As she blathers on, Jake—simply by listening instead of telling her to shut up—overlays her inanity with his own parched cravings that, more and more, slice deeper into his self-punishment.

            After some drinks, they drive around Madrid in a taxi.  “Oh, Jake,” she says.  “We could have had such a damned good time together.”

            “Yes,” he answers.  “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

            Metabolic Certainty
         This poignant reply, filled with misery as well as overripe nobility, reflects Jake’s certainty of his own helplessness in a future with her. Such a future, he knows, will be filled with the inviolate ache of a longing that can never be satisfied. Yet his certainty, a courageous one, is not intellectual.

            Like Hemingway’s, his awareness is metabolic, cellular—a somatic perception that offers him the option of survival through the nourishment of wishful imagery—the prettiness of what could have been between Brett and him. Without her in his life, he realizes, the option of maintaining his own equilibrium is gone.

            Arguably, this realization shows Hemingway’s bravery too, perhaps a reckless bravery: projecting onto his male characters the audacity of certainty in a mercurial universe. Wilson never waffles at his assessments of Macomber or about keeping Margot in his cot at night. Close to death, instead of retarding his dreams, Harry accelerates them—all substitutes for his thwarted stories, all excruciating in their certification of his squandered talent.  With a surety blessed by love, Henry cuts himself off from the army and his responsibilities as a soldier.  Santiago, without vacillation, plunges into the deepest part of the ocean in search of the marlin. To their credit in Hemingway’s world of masculinity, these men, too impatient with the nonsense of intellectualization, would snigger at Hamlet’s dishonorable crawl into indecision.

            Yet it was the old waiter in “A Clean, Well Lighted Place” who saw that in the end all our choices, driven by certainty or not, deliver us to…nothingness.  “Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name,” he chants.  “Thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada.” Considering this hopelessness, what drives him to face tomorrow? Hemingway’s universe crackles with cross-currents of answers and motivations. His characters need reasons to live or to die, whereas the behavior of the cosmos—idiosyncratic at best—owes explanation to nobody, certainly not to the gods of logic.

            The Code: Primordial Gallantry
            Accordingly, despite his awe of certitude, Hemingway needed to lose himself in the anonymity of a philosophy or a code that accommodated his deductions. Yet despite his attempts to be the professional puppeteer totally hidden, parts of him do peep out behind the curtain on his fictional stage.  On it his characters don’t strut.  Instead, like Jake Barnes, Bill Gorton, Harry, Santiago, Wilson, Ole Andreson, Frederic Henry—they carry bits of Hemingway’s persona as they stride toward any beam of guidance. They discover that beam in a code Hemingway constructed from an observation less of society than of Nature, whose force he saw as primordial yet gallant, and whose face he superimposed onto the smug grin of a civilization that gluts on introspection.

            The Code, disdainful of the equivocation that comes from over-thinking, demands an immediacy of “grace under pressure.” No matter his pain or the danger he faces, a man should not whine. Further, the Code exhorts the matador who, at moments of his greatest peril—the horns of the bull pointed at his hip—to demonstrate equanimity. Wasn’t Francis Macomber elegant when, on recovering his bravery, he faced the charging buffalo without quaking? In “The Killers,” Ole Andreson is resigned to the inexorability of his doom, and in bed chooses to face the wall rather than gape at a humiliation sure to come from his begging the hitmen for mercy.

            Furthermore, one following the code cannot be a sissy revealing the shameless underbelly of emotions. For instance, it’s taboo for Jake Barnes to discuss his impotence with his buddy, Bill Gorton, who cautions him: “Never mention that.  That’s the sort of thing that can’t be spoken of.”  In addition, regardless of Wilson’s actual thoughts, he—who did save Macomber’s life—never discusses fear or bravery with him. His response to Macomber’s thanking him is, “Nothing.  All nonsense.”   It’s clear that these men avoid Iron-John bondings where, over beers and tears, they might lament their own pathetic blunders. In Hemingway’s world they’re allowed to blunder and to suffer but without self-pity and without discussion.

            In addition to the rule of suffering silently, the Code requires sportsmanship, maturity and mutual respect.  Any violation is gauche, even shameful, like the idea of Wilson’s talking about his clients or bragging about his bravery.  Yet at certain moments in their lives, some characters do falter. For instance, Mike Campbell is a “bad drunk.” Robert Cohn surrenders all pride in his pursuit of Brett Ashley and suffers Campbell’s castigation: “You came down to San Sebastian where you weren’t wanted, and followed Brett around like a bloody steer.  Do you think that’s right?”  Frederic Henry goes AWOL to satisfy his romantic needs while abandoning his military obligations. Thinking about his “accident,” Jake Barnes weeps—but only in the privacy of his room.  `

            The Code, as well, compelled Hemingway to hide the bouquet of his sensitivity in the caves of masculinity. There’s nothing wrong with creating a tender moment on the page—many poetic images abound in much of his work, especially in The Old Man and the Sea.  But to counter-balance such sensitivity one had better fight the sharks afterward.  Santiago “—rammed the harpoon down onto the shark’s head at a spot where the line between his eyes intersected with the line that ran straight back from his nose….” This kind of macho compensation parallels a man holding a can of beer in one hand while the other picks a flower.  He sniffs the flower, then takes a gulp of beer and belches to show that he’s not a milksop.

            Pain Management
            So the question is this: If a Hemingway man is to avoid ungainliness—how does he, feeling pain, express his hurt? Over whiskey, Jake camouflages his torment with a snicker or with burly talk about sports or by popping in and out of cafes and hotels in Paris and Madrid.  At a bullfight, he becomes the matador—scarlet with a fervor for the kill–a Romero as wish-fulfillment not only in bed but in the bullring.  Jake becomes the hero who, with a single thrust of the sword (the steeliest of erections), vanquishes his impotence and then, as tangible proof of a virile performance, slices off an ear of the bull and tosses it up to cheering admirers.

            Once, after Brett stands him up, Jake leaves the table at the cafe to return to his hotel room.  But he doesn’t brood or curse or slam his fist into a wall or call up a friend and whimper. Instead, he projects his feelings onto an empty barge on the dark Seine—a snapshot of desolation. An example of Hemingway’s skill, the emptiness of the barge becomes the objective correlative of a jilted heart, as well as an apt metaphor of Jake’s bereft relation with Brett.

            In Hemingway’s world one works first and seeks pleasure afterward, not as a reward for working but as execution of life’s order of primacy. His characters measure that primacy, their time for pleasure, by their senses rather than by the capricious standard of reward and punishment. It’s good to enjoy a whiskey-soda, as Harry does; it’s good to sleep with a woman even if she’s your client’s wife, as Wilson does; it’s good to watch a bullfight, as Jake and his pals do, even though death for the bull is a fait accompli.  These kinds of pleasures, certainly earned, are their own excuses for being and, accordingly, account to no Higher Being.

            Cosmic Irony: The True Divinity
            Hemingway, as well, accounted to no Higher Being. He wrote neither to right himself with God nor to satisfy his egoistic thirsts.  He wrote to be the best he could be and, thus, be the best of all other writers. He wrote to show that fictional truth is more authentic than facts overlaying reality. He’s not one of the obsessively loquacious artists like Philip Roth or Thomas Wolfe, who use their prolixity as therapy as well as waves upon which to float, for all to see, the garlands of their narcissism.

            Hemingway’s fiction interprets a universe indifferent to fairness, manners and societal imperatives.  Instead, flirting with whimsicality, his universe seduces the unexpected–a seduction that often can be deadly, whether it comes from the sudden charge of Macomber’s lion or from Catherine’s pregnancy or from the thorn that scratched Harry’s leg. Given the proclivity of danger to hover, any deference Hemingway received from life came, he believed, not because he was privileged but because he did his job: he functioned as part of a cosmic whole.

            Yet how whole can the cosmos be without irony—the true divinity in Hemingway’s universe?  Far different from the dynamic of cause and effect, irony is the glue that holds his work together.  Airborne from something as spontaneous as a sneeze, the unexpected virus strikes during moments of joy or love or birth.  In Hemingway’s world, isn’t it ironic that for Jake Barnes, impotence born of battle has become the pain of inaction? That he and Brett who can’t have each other cling to each other? That Francis Macomber dies at the height of his bravery, and that his wife kills him by trying to save him?  That the old man, searching for Light, stumbles into the Nada of the waiter’s darkness?

            And what about the irony shrouding Catherine Barkley in A Farewell To Arms?  Although in the high bloom of love for Henry, her body wilts at childbirth. “This was the price you pay for sleeping together,” he thinks. “This was the end of the trap.  This was what people got for loving each other.” In a non-ironic world—where faith replaces serendipity and logic demonstrates causality—War produces Death and Love creates Life. Isn’t this the postulate that Sunday school teaches…? But for Catherine and Henry living in Hemingway’s domain, death [in war] brings love and love [in romance] brings death.

Can’t get more ironic than that—or more existential.

Existential Winds
      Hemingway’s characters don’t discuss these ironies with God because, even if aware of them, they can’t find God in the rubble of their lives. Nor can they find Him at dusk when their fingers twitch toward the light switch, or when they shiver on the frosty sheet of a mateless bed, or when their throats clench with the craving for another drink. Even Lt. Henry, the existential warrior crying out to God for Catherine’s life (“Please, please, please, dear God, don’t let her die.”) received no response except tires hissing over rainy streets at night. The world these people inhabit, a godless ether, is no stranger to breakage.

“A man can be destroyed,” Santiago says, “but not defeated.” His soul came out whole but not his body. Broken too was his achievement, for at the end of the hunt, his fish, chomped away by sharks, was just a tailbone, regardless of its power as a symbol of achievement. In a different sense, Henry saw breakage in war but a worse kind in love–worse because love is not supposed to be a battlefield.  The credibility of war delivers on its promise of death.  By contrast, love–which promises joy–deceives and ultimately breaks you.

“If people bring so much courage to this world,” Henry proclaims, “the world has to kill them to break them.  So of course it kills them.”  Catherine agrees.  “I’m all broken,” she discloses in the hospital. “They’ve broken me.”  Unlike Henry’s reference to the “world,” her continued use of the pronoun “they” offers no clear antecedent:  “If anything comes between us we’re gone and then they have us.”

            They? Lethal winds gusting from a mechanistic universe? But those winds need not stay astronomic. Their maleficence can be local as well, like hellions growing in one’s own body. Henry says, “You always feel biologically trapped.” You may not slip on a banana peel; at childbirth, you may simply die from a narrowness of hips as Catherine did despite her hope to have kept “young Catherine small.” You die as well from a scratch on a thorny bush as Harry did, or from a despair that shoves the muzzle of a shotgun into your mouth. For Catherine in the end, life—the living of it and then the leaving of it—is “just a dirty trick.”

            The Collision Between Irony and the West
            In this sense, Hemingway’s universe and Western culture bob against each other like two bubbles in a faulty syllogism. Unlike the fickleness and indifference of that universe, Western belief sees life not as a dirty trick but as the clay sculpted by the merciful and purposeful hand of God. With this perception, Judeo-Christianity is the most un-ironic of cultures.  Although one’s fate may be inexplicable, one can be sure that God has a purpose, which usually speaks to reward and punishment.

            It’s the belief in this purpose that sweeps away the idea of cosmic indifference the way one sweeps crumbs off the table, for to leave a single crumb remaining is to admit a flaw—and God is flawless.  With Him at the helm, irony perishes and every cause produces a designed effect that, in most cases, only He understands.  All one needs to know is that submission to Christian or Judaic decree will bring rewards–if not on earth, then surely in the Afterlife.

            On the other hand, Hemingway sees no irony in religion because in the literalness of religion there’s no surprise or whimsicality or accident! Laws of piety are fixed and absolute and their violations produce predictable consequences. Religion tells us that defying God brings punishment…maybe not today or tomorrow but twenty years from now. Who can disprove that assertion—especially if, twenty years later, you do slip on a banana peel and break your neck?

            Yet neither Hemingway nor his characters bother to seek such proof because in place of the West’s version of moral balance, they see hypocrisy. How else can God explain the serial killer who wins the lottery or the philanthropist who dies choking on a chunk of Chateaubriand? Hemingway doesn’t expect to find the Code in religion because in religion there’s no grace under pressure—only the demands of a bullying God.

            In the absence of God while in the empiric presence of irony, however, Hemingway’s characters are free to make their own discoveries, accept responsibility for their own deeds and seek their own purgation without having to impute catastrophe to God’s will. They accept what reality requires of them; their pride springs from the inviolability of that acceptance.

            For instance, the self-tortured Jake Barnes endures an impossible romance without souring in the curdled dreams of self-pity.  In “Soldier’s Home,” Krebs, returning from the war, finds that only lies bring acceptance. In “Hills Like White Elephants,” honesty offers a scorching revelation to a couple who, facing the possibility of parenthood, find a truth behind each one’s fears. And Francis Macomber, in his reality, discovers courage as well as self-respect at the instant of his death.

            To regain their courage after sunset, however, some people need to snap on the lights—not to extinguish the darkness but to flicker a path through it. Rather than return to a lonely home smelling of his wife’s death, the old man returns night after night to his “Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”  Jake Barnes knows that it’s “awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night it is another thing”; therefore, for six months he sleeps with the lights on.  Frederic Henry, as well, realizes that “the things of the night cannot be explained in the day because they do not then exist.”

            The Search For Causation: Chicken or Egg?
            What is clear in Hemingway’s universe, whether night or day, is the absence not only of God but of the face of any other prime mover.  If Hemingway’s fiction spools out a bridge from his characters’ lives to our own, then only we—not they—can cross it at will because they’re fixed on the page and we’re not.  On returning from their world and everything we’ve experienced there, we need to ask the following questions: Is there a single ultimate cause in the affairs of humankind?  Is every decision one makes a springboard to the next so that the first road one takes in life leads, ultimately, to the last?  Or is life a procession of episodes loosely rendered to include accident, coincidence and miracles? If there’s a wholeness to one’s existence, at least in the sense of beginning, middle and end—how do we explain the scattering of life’s parts, some of which, like friendships, often vanish in any given lifetime?

            Hemingway’s characters want answers too, but their venue for discovery is less cerebral. They’re not intellectuals.  Bypassing the philosophic forum, their struggle speaks through a curiosity-driven angst.  Watching Harry die, his wife Helen asks, “What have we done to have that happen to us?”  Harry thinks his woes started with his neglect to apply iodine to the scratch on his leg.  Or did they start when he used that “weak carbolic solution when the other antiseptics ran out that paralyzed the minute blood vessels and started the gangrene”?

            In her tormented drive for explanations, Helen rummages back even farther, to hiring a “good mechanic instead of a half-baked kikuyu driver, who would have checked the oil and never burned out that bearing in the truck.”

            “I don’t mean that,” Harry says, pushing back to the possibility of an even earlier cause—“If you hadn’t left your own people, your goddamned Old Westbury, Saratoga, Palm Beach people to take me on—” [to lure him away with her money], then, he believed, he might still be writing and not dying in Africa. Of course,  Harry can go as far back as his birth to say: If I hadn’t been born, I wouldn’t be dying right now. Perhaps this insight is the closest we come to the logic of an irony that rules Hemingway’s universe, an irony of scattered causes producing scrambled effects—a true challenge to connecting the dots of existence if one can find them in the first place and then to deduce from the effort even a semblance of causation.

            Two Novels: An Armature of Episodes
            Those dots certainly seem random in The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell To Arms.  Events appear to be armatures on which Hemingway hangs his creative indulgences—loose and episodic.  He plays the role of a heedless universe, not of God.  TSAR can be read as a series of pleasure-driven romps through Paris and Pamplona. Unconnected, the capers seem to function only as self-propelling escapes from the reality of loneliness, from the moribundity of hope and from the cruelty of love.

            The novel can also be read as Jake Barnes’ attempt to speed through the misery of his life in order to reach the end that much sooner.  Jump fast enough from bar to bar, from country to country and the speed of transition blurs the pain. It’s not the cause and effect of events but rather Jake’s grapple with his torment in a world free of theological fiats that unites the novel.

Similarly bifurcated, A Farewell To Arms shows a war fought on two fronts: the enemy as battle and the enemy as love.  The part on war, however, seems disconnected from the part on love only because Hemingway spends fifty-percent of the first half dramatizing events instead of narrating only those whose patterns re-form in the second half. Do we need all that detail about war? Wasn’t the novel really about the courtship between love and destruction? About Henry and Catherine and the fate of their bond in an impersonal universe indifferent to human mortality? If not, then the two sections of the novel are as ill-fitting as a half pear pressed onto a half apple.

One Battlefield, Two Wars
As a soldier, Frederic Henry knows that life is precarious. In the absence of God, one can be brave or cowardly and still meet the same end…but it’s better to be brave, especially in war because the Code demands courage. Henry accepts this exhortation just as naturally as he accepts icicles on a January morning.

But soon his priorities—not his resolve—change: he switches his bravery from war to love. Heeding his heart while discarding his duty, he chooses Catherine over country.  Consequently, he is willing to face the enfilades of destiny on a different battlefield, one whose weaponry aims at a heart newly kindled by the fires of romance.

For this reason alone, his choice was brave because in war there’s only one two-headed enemy—mutilation and death. Falling in love, however, he falls into the ambush of many enemies, fickleness and fading ardor among them. In war it’s clear why life ends, but do we know all the reasons why love ends…? Henry knows at least one: the tyranny of biology.  It’s the showcase of his choosing love over war and the tragedy of that choice that illuminate the novel.

Omens: The Final Paradox
Much of Hemingway’s fiction is illuminated, as well, by representations, like heat and cold and light and dark. In A Farewell rain was, if not a talisman, then a portent. Or, from Hemingway’s point of view, it was a washing away of the foulness of life, a hosing down of the stain of Catherine’s and her baby’s death. But it was Catherine, not H Henry, who saw rain as part of just another “dirty trick.” She tells him that she’s afraid of rain “because sometimes I see me dead in it.”

Henry, on the other hand, found the omen of the omnipresence of rain too painful to reflect upon.  It was easier simply to note its presence, as he noted during the war the dust from the soldiers’ boots powdering the leaves of trees. “It turned cold that night and the next day it was raining,” he tells us near the end. Sometime later the air around a cathedral is “wet in the mist.”  It rains on Henry while he waits in the carriage for Catherine and he smells the “wet street.”  On another day, during a storm, the wind “drove down the rain…” Even while he ate spaghetti with a friend, “it was dark outside and still raining.”

             At the end, with Catherine and their child dead, Henry shuffles out of the hospital into the bleakness of yet another rainy evening.  Most likely, as well, he goes to bed with a bottle of whiskey on the night table.  He’ll keep the lights on while waiting for morning. He knows that he said farewell to the crushing arms of war. He knows too that in his universe, where irony’s snigger replaces God’s muteness, farewells apply to love too—that the arms of love can not only embrace destruction: they can cause it.

The End

 

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One response to “Hemingway’s Universe: The Gravity of Irony

  1. This is utter psychobabble bullshit. Read his collection of short stories. Literary critics can’t write so they dump on real writers.

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