“What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada.” – The middle-aged waiter, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”
Despite the bravado of his characters, the stirring exoticism of his settings, and his much-admired spare, bold writing style, Ernest Hemingway was a writer whose canon is filled with themes of disillusionment, futility, despair and the inevitability of death. His heroes are usually tragic ones; his exotic settings often host scenes of violence and brutality, and his spare writing style is often notable for the anguish it leaves unexpressed. Hemingway, though an adventurer, risk-taker, and world traveler, was also a philosopher deeply influenced by currents of existential and nihilistic post-World War I thinking. As such, he was an unofficial spokesperson for his “Lost Generation,” a group of American expatriates who came of age during the Great War and subsequently suffered profound intellectual disillusionment and dislocation because of war traumas. Though Hemingway, with characteristic bravado, dismissed the term “lost generation” as an overstatement, many of his fictional characters are forced to search for meaning, purpose, and happiness in the midst of depression and futility, the classic existential quest of the lost, directionless individual.
Existentialism and nihilism, the twin philosophical systems that influenced Hemingway’s writing and that of many of his expatriate colleagues, came into vogue following World War I. Existentialism, a philosophy with roots in the 19th century writings of Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, was championed in the postwar period by Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Existentialism posits that existence is inherently meaningless; individuals are responsible for giving meaning to their own lives by overcoming feelings of angst and despair and imposing individual value systems on themselves and their actions. Individuals who manage to live by the belief systems they espouse are termed “authentic”; they are existential successes. Those who do not are existential failures, and can easily drift into nihilism, a belief system that posits that life is futile and that even the individual cannot impose meaning on his or her own life but must exist in a meaningless, purposeless environment until the advent of death. Nihilism was popularized primarily by Nietzsche, who observed that traditional belief and value systems were slowly and inevitably being destroyed in the modern world.
While the best-known example of Hemingway’s existentialist philosophy is his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises, his short stories explore many themes relevant to his particular brand of existentialist nihilism. “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” for example, describes the depressed thoughts of a middle-aged Spanish waiter who believes that life is meaningless, and that though one may try to impose meaning and order on one’s own existence by inhabiting a “clean, well-lighted place,” this endeavor is ultimately futile as death inevitably overtakes us all. In “The Capital of the World,” Hemingway describes the tragic accidental death of a young Spanish waiter aspiring to be a matador. His hero, Paco, “died, as the Spanish phrase has it, full of illusions. He had not had time to lose any of them, nor even, at the end, to complete an act of contrition.” Paco, in contrast to many of the “second-rate” bullfighters who inhabit the hotel where he works, believes in the romance and the honor of bullfighting. It is better for Paco, Hemingway implies, that he died trying to accomplish his dream of becoming a matador rather than eventually rotting away as a disillusioned has-been bullfighter in a town full of disillusioned has-been bullfighters.
Hemingway’s existential themes also appear in his African stories. In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” one of Hemingway’s best-known stories, dying writer Harry realizes too late that he has failed to fulfill his potential as a writer, choosing instead to make his living by marring rich women. He has neglected to live by his own self-imposed value system, and he suffers all the anguish of a failed existential hero who knows death is upon him. In “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” the title character is a cowardly, henpecked husband whose wife openly insults him by sleeping with the couple’s guide while on safari in Africa. Macomber is sorely in need of something to give his life purpose and to allow him to reclaim his masculinity; he finds it in the act of hunting buffalo on the plains. Just as his confidence begins to return, Macomber is killed, cutting short a promising, existentially authentic career.
Hemingway also explores existential and nihilistic themes through his semi-autobiographical hero Nick Adams, who appeared in a number of Hemingway stories. In “The Killers,” Nick risks his life to warn Ole Andreson, a former prizefighter with a shady past, that hit men are after him. Andreson displays a remarkable lack of alarm at the news, choosing to go about his business just as if nothing had happened, though this means he will inevitably be assassinated. This type of fatalistic heroism or heroic fatalism was a favorite theme of Hemingway’s. It is a sort of end-stage nihilism where the protagonist realizes the essential meaningless of life and the futility of fleeing death; his final existential act is to face his fate with dignity. Taken in Hemingway’s terms, such nihilism is not necessarily a defeat; on the contrary, it is a display of one’s courage in the face of a brutal, chaotic world.
Another story in which this fatalistic heroism makes an appearance is “Old Man at the Bridge,” a story that began as a 1937 news dispatch from the Spanish Civil War. A 76-year-old man who has just been forced to give up his life’s work looking after a number of animals is drifting aimlessly along with a stream of refugees. He is existentially empty and directionless, without family and without destination. He had to leave the animals he looked after behind in his hometown because of artillery fire, and his life is consequently without purpose. He sits by the side of the road, too tired to walk a short distance to escape the coming onslaught of Fascist forces. His attempt to get up and walk to safety ends in failure. Instead of panicking or begging passerby for help, he remains stoically, fatalistically and nihilistically sitting by the bridge in an arguably heroic acceptance of his inevitable death.
Hemingway’s battered, traumatized, injured protagonists face down wounded lions, advancing armies, and gnawing feelings of “nada” in their search for meaning, happiness, and peace. Like their creator, they are somewhat philosophically lost because of the traumas and tragedies they have had to endure. Some of them find existential authenticity and most do not, but even those who slip into nihilism are heroic in Hemingway’s literary universe.