Hemingway the Absurdist
Hemingway’s beliefs are generally understood to be existential. This is a largely accurate generalization, but Hemingway’s writings lean toward a more pessimistic view of existentialism than that of his peers. His novels and short stories do not merely emphasize the need for individual decisions regarding purpose and personal development; instead he questions their existence outright. Hemingway’s stories do not arrive at optimistic conclusions in which the protagonist has found a new drive and desire for life; rather, they follow a pattern closer to the mythological punishment of Sisyphus. The Sisyphean endeavors of the characters in Hemingway’s novels and short stories demonstrate that his philosophical beliefs are more aligned with those of absurdism, as defined by Albert Camus, than those of existentialism.
King Sisyphus is a character in Greek Mythology who is primarily known for his eternal punishment. Sisyphus was a clever and deceitful man who stole from others and even murdered when it was to his benefit. He was caught, however, when he attempted to outsmart the Greek god Zeus. He was promptly sent to Tartarus, the deepest part of the Underworld, to be punished for eternity. He was then tasked to roll an enormous boulder up a hill, but whenever he neared the top, the boulder would roll back down to the bottom. This myth was made famous by “The Myth of Sisyphus,” a philosophical essay written by Albert Camus, one of Hemingway’s contemporaries, in 1942. This essay introduces Camus’ view of absurdism which is essentially the belief that human beings live in a world that is both chaotic and purposeless. Absurdism attempts to address a conflict in human nature. This conflict is the result of the human desire to find value and meaning in life, and the human inability to find any.
Sisyphus’s punishment is a frustrating and pointless task, which is why it is so well-suited to describe Camus’s and Hemingway’s worldview. To Hemingway, life is like rolling the boulder up the hill, a series of purposeless and difficult tasks that can only end in failure. That failure, of course, is manifested in many forms. There is failure to be found in sadness, in loss, in boredom, and in, one of Hemingway’s favorites, death. This concept of absurdism sounds similar to existentialism; however, it is much darker. While existentialists hold that each person must determine their own sense of purpose, absurdists hold that there is no purpose whatsoever. Any apparent sense of purpose is merely a false hope that will immediately be sent tumbling back down the hill like Sisyphus’s boulder.
For proof of Hemingway’s absurdism, look no further than one of his final works, The Old Man and the Sea. The plot of this famous novella is one long Sisyphean cycle. Santiago works to break his 84 day unlucky streak of failing to catch any fish, and comes painfully close when he catches the great marlin. He has nearly pushed his boulder to the top when the sharks attack and steal his prize fish, sending the boulder all the way back down to the bottom of the hill. While it may appear at first glance that Santiago’s adversity only begins after he spots the great marlin, he is actually battling various forms of adversity throughout the entire story. Santiago’s boulder takes the form of unluckiness, loneliness, ridicule, physical pain, mental pain, and finally the loss of his prize to the vicious sharks. After the sharks first attack, Santiago begins to regret his decision. He says, “I wish it were a dream and that I had never hooked him. I’m sorry about it, fish,” (Hemingway, Old Man and the Sea 110). Of course, if Santiago had known that his prize would be stolen from him in the end, he never would have caught the marlin in the first place. Therein lies the conundrum of absurdism. If everyone is eventually overcome by some challenge or adversity, then what is the point of fighting against it in the first place?
Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises, does not directly depict death or any great loss; however, it reveals perhaps the most hopeless situation that Hemingway ever created. The protagonist, Jake Barnes, is in love with Lady Brett Ashley. She also loves him, but refuses to enter into a relationship with him because Jake is impotent. Throughout the novel, Jake is forced to sit back and watch as Brett becomes romantic with nearly every man she meets. Meanwhile, he lacks any sort of purpose in his life. He is simply a drifter, resigned to float through life and wallow in his own self-pity. Jake encounters several distractions that allow him to take his mind off of the pointlessness of his endeavors with Brett and the pointlessness of his life, but he always finds himself back where he started. At one point he muses that, “Enjoying living was learning to get your money’s worth,” (Hemingway, Sun Also Rises 152). Jake accepts that philosophy and thinks that he may have found purpose at last, but after a moment he realizes that, “In five years… it will seem just as silly as all the other fine philosophies I’ve had,” (Sun Also Rises, 152).
Jake’s Sisyphean cycle is merely his attempts to get over his feelings for Brett. It is revealed that he has been struggling with this task for quite some time when he says to Bill that he has been in love with her, “Off and on for a hell of a long time” (Sun Also Rises 128). At the story’s conclusion, however, he finds himself with Brett once again. He has failed, and the boulder has rolled back to the bottom of the hill. He even begins to see the humor in his pathetic situation, almost laughing at his own pain. When Brett suggests that the two of them, “could have had such a damned good time together,” Jake replies, “Yes, isn’t it pretty to think so?” (Sun Also Rises 251).
Hemingway’s novels portray Sisyphean cycles in their entirety; however, his short stories approach absurdism with a different tack. Due to the constraints of the short story medium, Hemingway views various Sisyphean cycles through a sort of magnifying glass in which he focuses on one particular part of the cycle. Since Hemingway had a penchant for misery and failure, many of his stories take place near the end of a Sisyphean cycle, where a character fails or in many cases, dies.
Hemingway’s short story “The Killers” constructs a world in which the characters are very aware of the inevitability of death. Two men have been hired to kill a Swede named Ole Andreson, and they wait at his favorite restaurant for him to arrive. They take the waiter, the cook, and Nick Adams, a recurring character in Hemingway’s stories, hostage as well. When Andreson does not show up, the two men leave and Nick Adams rushes to inform Andreson about the men. However, Ole Andreson is already aware that there are men out to get him. He says, “I just can’t make up my mind to go out. I been in here all day” (Hemingway, Short Stories 221). He knows that he is doomed, but he cannot bring himself to face the inevitability. He cannot bear to see the boulder roll back down the hill. Nick is the only one with any desire to fight back; the waiter, George, and Ole Andreson have both resigned themselves to the pointlessness of such an endeavor. Repeatedly, Nick tries to reason with the Swede but Andreson repeatedly says, “There ain’t anything to do,” (Short Stories 221). Upon hearing about Andreson’s apparent welcoming of death, George seems unaffected. Nick says, “They’ll kill him,” and George replies, “I guess they will” (Short Stories 222). George realizes that the boulder will never reach the top of the hill, so it is not a concern whether the boulder makes it halfway or falls down just before the top. The task was pointless from the start.
Furthermore, by leaving out key details, Hemingway allows the reader to imagine when this Sisyphean cycle was set into motion. The men are after Andreson to settle an old score, so he must have had some affiliation or run-in with criminal activity. George says that Andreson must have “Double-crossed somebody. That’s what they kill them for” (Short Stories 222). Andreson also suggests that he has been delaying his inevitable death for quite some time. When Nick suggests that he leave town, he replies, “No, I’m through with all that running around” (Short Stories 221). He decides that he must face the adversity head on. He knows that the boulder will win in the end, but there is no avoiding it.
Hemingway did not simply write about the Sisyphean cycle; he lived it as well. Hemingway’s life can almost be divided into chapters. He quickly moved from one thing to the next in search of true purpose and happiness, but the details surrounding his death suggest that he never found it. He searched for fulfillment in love, and had four wives to show for it. He looked for it in his writing, and in alcohol, and in remote places such as Pamplona, Key West, or Cuba. The thrills of bull-fighting and his African safari left him empty as well. This lack of purpose was transcribed directly into Hemingway’s writings, and shows through in all of his plots. It is impossible to be entirely certain of Hemingway’s beliefs; however many of Hemingway’s most popular writings have plots that are in keeping with the teachings of absurdism.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. New York: Scribner’s, 1987. Print.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Old Man and the Sea. New York: Scribner, 1952. Print.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Scribner, 1996. Print.
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