The Theme of Death in Selected Works of Ernest Hemingway

Categories: Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway wrote about death in many of his short stories. He often suffered from bouts of melancholy and his depression made a strong impact on his literary works. Many of Hemingway’s short stories show a common theme: that of someone waiting for death. “It is man’s attitudes toward life in the presence of death that Hemingway is most concerned. ” (Mangum,1623). Ernest Hemingway ended his life by blowing his head off with a shotgun. Rather than wait for death Hemingway decided when death would arrive.

He saw life as waiting for death; he took his fate into his own hands when he committed suicide.

Many of the stories relate to his life in this way. The short stories I chose to analyze are “The Killers” , “A Clean Well Lighted Place”, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”, and “Indian Camp”. Heminway’s life provided him with ample opportunity to confront both death and depression from a very early age. Working first as a reporter for the Kansas City Star and the bas an ambulance driver in World War One in the Italian army, Hemingway learned to admire what he called “grace under pressure,” an aphorism which indicates his preference for men of action and bravery.

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Corresponding to this philosophy, Hemingway became an avid devotee of bullfighting and wrote what many consider to be the most important non-fiction treatise on bullfighting ever written. This work is called “Death in the Afternoon,” and like much of Hemingway’s work and life, the study of bullfighting is primarily the study of death and how individuals face the imminent possibility of immediate death.

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Hemingway travelled with bullfighter and “ran with the bulls” in Pamplona, though he, obviously, never fought a bull in the bull-ring. (Wiki)

Another of Heminway’s passions was big-game hunting, again establishing his preoccupation with death. He felt that meting out death on a wild animal gave him a sense of death’s power and immortality. Many might find this belief to be callous and perhaps even cruel, but Hemingway’s interest in big-game hunting not only provided him with themes and setting for some of his best short-stories, but also proved crucial to his own death, as two near-fatal plane crashes in Africa preceded Hemingway’s suicide. A number of his biographers belive he may have never fully recovered form his injuries, especially unknown brain injures of some kind.

Hemingway confronted death not only in his personal life, but probed it’s nature as deeply as any writer in English as the following four short stories clearly demonstrate. (Wiki). “The Killers” is a well written short story in which death clearly emerges as the theme. The story takes place in a restaurant where various characters are working. George is the manager of the restaurant; Sam is the black chef working in the kitchen, and Nick Adams, also a restaurant employee, is the primary focus of the plot. Two hired killers walk into the restaurant and start to question all of the workers and then proceed to tie the workers up.

The killers are dressed in black. According to Dan Schneider, “comic touches pervade even the imagery – for example the killers are dressed in black overcoats and black gloves – the most trite symbol of evil going. ” (Bloom, page # needed). The killers symbolize evil and death from the moment they are introduced. They arrive at the restaurant and aggressively looking for a man named Ole Andreson, who is a regular at this particular restaurant. The killers wait inside the restaurant to see if Ole Andreson shows up. They tie up Nick and the cook and hold the restaurant’s owner as a hostage.

When Ole Andreson fails to show up the killers finally release the three men and disappear into the night. Nick runs off to alert Ole Andreson who is in his room at the boarding house. Upon his arrival, Ole Andreson is laying at the wall barely acknowledging Nick. Nick suggests to Ole Andreson that he involve the police, but Ole Andreson is not keen on the idea. He thinks that there is no solution to avoid his fate; he has simply decided to wait to be killed; essentially waiting for death. Waiting for the inevitable death allows it to occur.

Hemingway’s own ambivalence toward death is illustrated through the character of Ole Andreson. Ole Andreson decides there is no use in trying to run and there is no point to alert the police; his enemies will follow him anywhere. His opposite, Nick, cannot even stand the thought of death. Nick does not want to have to sit and ponder about what will soon happen to Ole Andreson. Ole Andreson realizes that his death is inevitable. The critics have the same opinion of the story as I did: Ole Andreson knows that his death is inevitable, therefore he might as well just sit and wait for death to catch up to him.

Caxton argues that even though the story revolves around Ole Andreson having killers hunting him, the character that changes the most is Nick Adams. “ Nick has not acquired all the experience he needs, he seems to be on the track to learning it. ” (Caxton, 2005) I agree with Caxton here, when he opines that Nick Adams changes emotionally, Ole Andreson knows he is going to die all along but Nick Adams worries for Anderson. It is hard for Nick to fathom the fact that Ole Andreson is going to die.

Most of the characters already know that Ole Andreson’s death is inevitable in that the hired killers are determined to succeed; Nick is the only one that does not allow himself to realize this truth because in Ole Anderson’s death he can envision his own mortality. As the story goes on Nick matures and he begins to understand the man’s situation. He is the sole character who changes throughout the story. The killers, Al and Max, are static characters who do not change throughout the story. George and the killers already understand the nature of death. The assassins simply have a job to do.

Their job is to kill Ole Andreson and they are not going to come short of their goal. Nick Adams also learns that some people in this world do not care about other people’s lives. In almost comical fashion, Hemingway utilizes the characters of the black cook, George, and Anderson as the three monkey theme of hear no evil, speak, no evil, say no evil. “In fact the black cook sees no evil and refuses to get involved. The restaurant manager George will speak no evil, and instead he sends Nick to see Andreson. Last of course, Anderson does not wish to hear of evil. ” (Schneider, 2.)

Every character is involved in death throughout the story. Death is involved either by characters having knowledge of death or characters trying to prevent it. By the end of the story Nick Adams understands that you cannot be ignorant about the inevitability of death, you just have to face it. “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” is another short story in which the plot revolves around death. This story is considerably longer than most of Hemingway’s short stories. “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” involves and revolves around a theme of death. The causes of death in the “Snows of Kilimanjaro” are natural.

Harry is a promising writer that has had his dreams thwarted by his unavoidable death. Helen is Harry’s wife is rich caring and loving. Helen and Harry embark on a trip through Kilimanjaro. Harry ends up getting a scratch from a poisonous thorn. The simple fact that Harry does not put iodine on the wound leads to infection which gradually turns the infected scratch into gangrene. The leg itself signifies impending death with Hemingway viscerally describing the putrid smell and awful vision of the slowly dying flesh. Helen tries to be optimistic about her husband’s leg, but Harry knows that he is basically waiting to die.

Once again the main theme of the story involves waiting for death and death itself. The only way for Harry to ease his pain is to get drunk. Harry has his servant Malo serving him Whiskey and cokes throughout the whole story. Malo’s primary role throughout the story is solely to serve Harry liquor and help him ease his pain. Death is not an action or condition that comes alone, along with death comes disappointment. “Hemingway declared this his favorite story, this is because it relates to his life”(Byrd,1997). Harry is a writer and has many goals that will never be realized or achieved because he is dying.

Harry has a specific fiction story in mind that he wants to write. It is difficult and painful for him to stop dwelling about his impending death dooming his ambition. Harry gets so frustrated that he starts to put down his wife in terribly hurtful ways. Helen tells Harry that an airplane is coming to save him, but Harry ignores what she tells him. When Helen argues that he is not going to die, Harry says that he can smell death coming from his leg. Death is so close that a flock of birds circles outside the house waiting for what they think is a decaying body.

“This story is a good one, not a great one, mainly because it is too long. ” (Schneider, ,2005. Schneider does not greatly appreciate the story, but he does recognize that death is the theme. According to Schneider, Harry’s life flashes before his eyes when the writing turns into italicized text. “The text in italics also reveals Hemingway’s fears of leaving his own work of life unfinished” (Pollklas,1998) The Snows of Kilimanjaro relates to Hemingway’s own life. According to Pollklas, “Hemingway’s fear that his own acquaintances with rich people might harm his integrity as a writer becomes evident in this story” (Pollklas, 1998).

I disagree with the critic about this statement. I doubt that rich people bothered Hemingway; he had more problems to worry about. My interpretation of the short stories I read is that Hemingway was more concerned with his own demons in the balance between life and death. Although the issue of wealth and its effect on Harry relates to Hemingway’s life Harry, unlike Hemingway, is forced into waiting for death. Hemingway was waiting for his own inevitable death up until the point when his depression controlled him and he committed suicide.

Harry’s fate leading up to the gangrene taking over is a perfect analogy to exactly how Ernest Hemingway felt about his own life, a feeling of helpless resignation. “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” is a story that symbolizes different topics that are bound together by the inevitability of death. “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is a unique story. The characters do not come into direct contact with death, but with the nothingness which hints and causes death. The story is unique because it is literally a story about nothing. Is nothingness the only state of being in this particular world? I think that nothingness symbolizes death in this story.

It is late morning hours and an old man sits and drinks brandy in the Spanish Cafe until he is drunk. There are two different waiters in the restaurant, one is young and the other is old. The young waiter in the restaurant is angry that the old man is taking so long to drink. The young waiter wants to go home to his wife and kids. The older waiter pleads for the old man stating that he is just lonely. The old man is rich, but he is suicidal. The depression has nothing to do with his money; it is because of the emptiness he is feeling in his world. The older waiter eventually closes down the shop and the young waiter goes home.

When the old man orders another drink at a Spanish bar across the street, he orders a cup of “nada” (nothing). The cup of “nada” represents the emptiness in the old man’s life. The old man’s attempted suicide is linked to the emptiness and death as well. This is how we come in contact with death in this story. The contact with death here is not direct but still is entwined in the perceptions of death. “There is a difference between the code heroes and the thing itself, death. ” (Schneider, 2005) In stories such as “ The Killers,” the heroes come in direct contact with death.

Ernest Hemingway felt that there is nothing important in his life and this is a partial but important component of his depression. The old man’s desperation is a vehicle for Hemingway to demonstrate his despair and obsession with death and nothingness being intertwined. “Indian Camp” is one of Ernest Hemingway’s classic stories. This short story is another episode of the Nick Adams saga. In this story Nick Adams is a very young boy who lives in the North woods. Nick, his father, and his uncle George set out on a trip to an American Indian camp that sits on the other side of a lake.

Nick’s father is a Doctor, just as Ernest Hemingway’s father was a Doctor. Hemingway is spawning characters that are similar to his own life experience. Nick’s father travels to the American Indian Camp because a young American Indian girl has been having severe labor pains for two days. She is still unable to deliver her baby, so Dr. Adams decides to help. When the family arrives the mother is in pain and her husband suffers from an axe wound to the leg from a few days earlier. A group of four American Indian men hold down the woman and Dr. Adams performs a makeshift procedure.

He uses his jackknife as a scalpel and performs a cesarean section on the pregnant woman. Dr. Adams successfully delivers the baby. In order to sew the incision, Nick Adams uses fishing line from the tackle box to stitch the incision. Dr. Adams is glad about his success with the delivery, but when he looks to the other side of the bunk bed he realizes that the husband has slit his throat. The husband can not deal with his injured leg and his wife’s horrifying screams, so he kills himself. This plot is particularly interesting to me because life and death is incorporated and intertwined throughout the story.

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The Theme of Death in Selected Works of Ernest Hemingway. (2016, Sep 07). Retrieved from

The Theme of Death in Selected Works of Ernest Hemingway

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