Saturday, October 9, 2010

Hemingway as a Craftsman

A Major Figure
Hemingway will survive in the annals of literary history as one of the major figures in the twentieth-century American fiction. His major contribution to the twentieth-century fiction are, his creation of heroes like Santiago in a world dominated by mediocrity, his use of the colloquial speech for literary purposes, and his vision which sees man as a solitary figure who has to forge his own values in a valueless world and give significance to his life and actions.

Great Stylist
Hemingway will certainly be remembered as’, a stylist. His short, concrete sentences, his lively dialogue and his desperate search for the exact word which will express an exact and limited truth are landmarks in the twentieth-century fiction. His prose­rhythms have transformed the staccato rattle of his early writings, into the liquid, cadenced ripple of some of his later works. To this bare style he also brings his gifts as a poet. He is extremely sensitive to the light, colour, form, and atmosphere of particular places. He succeeds admirably in suggesting an emotional atmosphere. His ability to transfer what he feels and thinks on to paper is superb.
Memorable Major Characters
His fictional character, Nick Adams, is a symbol of the twentieth-century disillusionment and sensibility. He has reappeared in a number of novels and reflects the shocked sensibility of the modern man. His later characters, particularly Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea, are a symbol of what man can be and what he can achieve against heavy odds. Manuel in The Undefeated is a symbol of the undefeated man who has laid down his life to prove his manhood to himself. Among the female characters Brett Ashley, as the twentieth-century Circe, Margot Macomber as the most predatory twentieth-century woman, and Pilar in For Whom the Be Bell Tolls, as the benevolent mother who gives life as well as love are his most memorable characters.
Memorable Minor Characters
Among his minor characters Anselmo, the guerrilla fighter who wants to eliminate all evil but does not want to shed any blood, Dr. Rinaldi whose belief in a life of the senses is unshakable, and the Priest, who shows Henry what spiritual love can be, Wilson the white hunter who exemplifies the Hemingway code are some of his live characters. Hemingway does not spend much energy on their creation but his ability to capture accents of their speech, their mannerism or even their essence in a few sentences can make them come alive in a short scene. Besides these few notable exceptions there are few characters that one can remember after having read his books and laid them down for some time. They are vaguely realised and they are introduced for a specific purpose ; once they have served that purpose they lose their significance.
Simple Plots
Hemingway’s plots are extremely simple. With the exception of For Whom the Bell Tolls in which social and political forces are introduced and they play very important roles in the destiny of the main characters, the other novels have very simple plots. They are mainly concerned with one or two major figures, their ordeals, their disappointments and frustration and their struggle to achieve some measure of dignity. The novels usually end at a point where they began. Jake Barnes’s love for Brett Ashley cannot be consummated because of his physical injury. At the end of the novel he is as frustrated as he was at the beginning of the novel. The few complications that are introduced are usually resolved and their method of resolution is just a step in the spiritual development of the main character. The breathless expectation of the reader that usually is associated with fiction is seldom intense. The reader is interested to know how the main character resolves a certain conflict and overcomes a certain obstacle but the end seems to be predetermined. In A Farewell to Arms Catherine Barkley is slightly crazy because of the loss of her lover. She meets Henry and falls in love with him. At the end of the novel when she dies in child-birth Henry is not in a very different state of mind from that of Catherine at the beginning of the novel. He is as disconsolate as Catherine in the first few pages of the novel. In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Robert Jordan has gone to blow up a bridge but the futility that hangs over the whole novel makes his valiant effort meaningless. He leaves a void in Maria’s mind and perhaps the psychological wound is much deeper than the one the Fascist had inflicted earlier. Pilar’s prediction that Jordan may not live for long seems to tape away the sting from the tragedy of Robert Jordan’s death. All that is achieved is the insight that one must go on struggling, come what may, and whatever be the cost. In Santiago’s heroic struggle one sympathises with him but he returns as empty­handed as when he set out on the eighty-fifth day.
Carlos Baker calls the plots of Hemingway’s novels cyclic but if they’ were cyclic then there would be no insight obtained in the course of the action. It is felt that his plots are not so much cyclic as spirallic, that is to say, the hero does not achieve anything materially but he has obtained an insight into his own identity and passes on this unique experience to the world. The main character invariably grows in stature in the course of the novel.
Experience Recreated
In Hemingway the fourth and fifth dimension that he talked of in Green Hills of Africa and which a writer should aim at have really not been achieved. All that he does achieve is a concentration on the present and his present is elevated because of its intensity to the level of “eternal now”. If this could be called the fourth or fifth dimension he does achieve it. He can tell us how a certain thing was done, what the feeling and the emotions of the participants were and because of the intensity of their experience in a mystical way “now” becomes eternal. They share the experience of other people at other places and in other times and thus they attain some sort of mystical union with them and in this they seek their immortality. Robert Jordan hopes to live in Maria’s memory after his death.
Symbolic Writer
Hemingway’s prose is not confined to the surface i.e., he has utilised the techniques of symbolization, irony, and allusion to connote meanings that are not visible on the surface. Frederic Henry’s experience becomes the experience of the whole of American nation during the First World War. Similarly, Santiago’s experience is the struggle of the whole of mankind against nature which is sometimes benevolent and son times mysteriously cruel. The ignorant tourists at the end of The Old Man and the Sea represent all the outsiders who cannot understand what Santiago has achieved and what his prize-marlin signifies. The short scene in A Farewell to Arms where Frederic Henry empties his glass on a burning log of wood so that he may drink his whisky and kills hundreds of ants prematurely even though they were bound to die in any case becomes a symbol of humanity caught between the devil and the deep sea. Death is the ultimate end and there is “no exit”.
These are some of Hemingway’s significant achievements as a craftsman. On these he has staked his claim for immortality. The Nobel Prize Committee acknowledged his contribution in the citation as the one who has achieved style-forming mastery of the art of modern narration. It is felt that it is eventually as a stylist and as a spokesman of the disillusioned twentieth-century generations that he will be remembered.

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