Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway

Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway Themes


Nature, in the form of beautiful landscapes and wholesome surroundings, is a constant presence in Hemingway’s short fiction. It is often the only thing in the text, animate or inanimate, that is described in a positive or laudatory fashion. Hemingway was a great believer in the power of nature, both in terms of its beauty and its challenges, to improve one’s quality of life. He was a lifelong outdoorsman, an avid hunter, fisherman, camper and boater, and he believed that overcoming natural obstacles using only one’s intelligence and skills made one a better person. In addition, Hemingway’s characters look to majestic landscapes and other manifestations of natural beauty for hope, inspiration, and even guidance during difficult or challenging times.

In many Hemingway stories, the ability to conquer nature by hunting and killing animals is the test of masculinity. For example, in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” the title character comes into his own by shooting buffalo. In “Up in Michigan,” Jim Gilmore is marked as masculine and therefore desirable to Liz Coates because he goes on a deer hunt. In “A Day’s Wait,” Nick Adams goes hunting in order to teach his sick son self-reliance. Lastly, in “Fathers and Sons,” Nick describes with admiration his father’s ability to see and shoot game and describes with gratitude his father’s transfer of hunting and fishing knowledge to him.

In other Hemingway stories, nature is simply a benevolent influence on the characters. In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” the protagonist Harry looks to a frozen leopard on the summit of the mountain as an example of how to attain immortality. In “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” the middle-aged waiter points out that one of his café’s most desirable features is the shadows of leaves on the tables. In “Hills Like White Elephants,” Jig looks to the beauty of the Ebro River valley for guidance as to whether or not she should get an abortion, and in “Old Man at the Bridge,” the old man’s gaggle of doves is the only symbol of hope in an otherwise depressing situation.


Also a near-constant presence in Hemingway’s stories is the theme of death, either in the form of death itself, the knowledge of the inevitability of death, or the futility of fleeing death. Clearly evocative of death are the stories in which Hemingway describes actual deaths: the war experiences of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “In Another Country;” the suicides of “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” and “Fathers and Sons;” and the accidents of “The Capital of the World” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”

Hand-in-glove with the theme of death is another Hemingway favorite: fatalistic heroism or heroic fatalism. This attitude entails facing one’s certain death with dignity. In addition, Hemingway can be seen to embrace nihilism, the belief that life is meaningless and that resistance to death is futile, in some of his stories. In short, Hemingway, critics have speculated, feared death but was fascinated by it; it crops up in one form or another in nearly every one of his stories.

Fatalistic Heroism

Also known as heroic fatalism, this attitude was a Hemingway favorite. Fatalistic heroism derives from the belief that death is certain to come and that resisting it is futile; one may as well face death with stoicism and resignation. This belief and its accompanying stoic behavior patterns appear in several short stories.

In “A Day’s Wait,” a 9-year-old boy believes he is dying based on a mix-up between the Fahrenheit and Celsius thermometers; he holds his feelings in all day until his father disabuses him of the notion that his death is imminent. The next day, Schatz cries easily at things that do not merit such a display of emotion as a backlash against his earlier iron self-control. In “The Killers,” Ole Andreson awaits his death by hired hit man with resignation, stating that he is through with running from his past mistakes and is ready to face his fate. In “Old Man at the Bridge,” an old man is seated in a position that will shortly be overrun by Fascist troops during the Spanish Civil War; he is too old and tired to go on, and instead of panicking, he simply stares ahead and talks quietly to himself, resolved that he will die.

The presence of fatalistic heroism in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” is debatable because there is disagreement over whether Harry the dying protagonist meets his death willingly or unwillingly. At his last moment of consciousness, Harry seems peaceful, but he subsequently has a dream that he is rescued and flies to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro. What he is actually doing is drawing his last breaths on his cot. Throughout the day that the story covers, Harry has been upbraiding himself for not reaching his potential as a writer, and he seems fairly dissatisfied with his own behavior; it is unclear whether he absolves himself before he dies or not, and therein lies the crux of the fatalistic heroism debate.


Disillusionment and the depression that results from it are recurrent themes in Hemingway’s short stories. Hemingway himself suffered from feelings of disillusionment and dislocation following his harrowing experiences during World War I. In this respect, he was a representative of “The Lost Generation,” the generation that came of age during the Great War and arguably lost faith in many of the values, ideas, and beliefs that gave life meaning before the war. Awash in this abandonment of tradition, Hemingway and others drifted into existentialism, a philosophy that posits life is meaningless until an individual gives his or her own life meaning, and nihilism, a philosophy that posits life is meaningless and without objective value.

Hemingway’s clearest expressions of this bleak and depressing disillusionment are “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” and “The Capital of the World.” In the former story, a middle-aged Spanish waiter expresses the belief that everything is “nada,” nothingness; death comes to everyone and resisting it is futile. In the latter story, Hemingway paints a vivid portrait of a small residential hotel in Spain where everyone is an aging, disillusioned has-been except for Paco, a young waiter who dreams of becoming a bullfighter because he believes in the “romance” of such a calling. When Paco dies accidentally, Hemingway clearly implies that he was better off than all the other inhabitants of the hotel who lived the dream that Paco had, fell short of the ideal in one way or another, and must live out the rest of their lives in bitter disappointment. Paco retained his ideals and his life and death meant something to him.

“Up in Michigan” describes a different kind of disillusionment: romantic disillusionment. Liz Coates, long obsessed with Jim Gilmore, quickly loses her regard for him when he drunkenly rapes her one evening on a misty boardwalk.

“The Killers” describes a subtler form of disillusionment. Nick Adams, a teenager, risks his life to warn Ole Andreson, the target of two Chicago hit men, that his life is in danger. Instead of doing something to save himself, Andreson turns his face to the wall and says he is done running from his past. His death is inevitable. Nick is profoundly disappointed and even sickened at the thought of Andreson waiting for his fate to overtake him; the ways of the world are such that even great physical courage and sacrifice go unrewarded.


Hemingway, it is often noted, was enamored of a particular notion of masculinity. Hemingway’s heroes are often outdoorsmen or hunters who are stoic, taciturn, and averse to showing emotion. Real men, according to Hemingway, are physically courageous and confident, and keep doubts and insecurities to themselves. In addition, there is always an emphasis on the necessity of proving one’s manhood rather than taking it for granted. According to the author’s biographers and critics, Hemingway was brought up with this notion of masculinity; it certainly pervades all of his works of short fiction.

In “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” the title character goes from emasculation to full manhood just by shooting buffalo. In “A Day’s Wait,” Schatz proves his masculinity by stoically holding his emotions in check even as he believes he is dying while his father proves his by going shooting in spite of having a sick son at home. In “Up in Michigan” Jim Gilmore displays his masculinity by going on an extended deer hunt with his buddies and in “The Capital of the World,” Paco and Enrique play out a make-believe bullfight in order to prove they are manly enough for the real thing. “In Another Country” describes Nick Adams’s inferiority complex with respect to three Italian soldiers who received medals for bravery; he explains that received his simply for being an American. “The Killers” describes Nick’s heroic physical courage in defying hit men to warn their target, and “Fathers and Sons” describes Nick’s coming of age in terms of hunting and killing black squirrels.


Many of Hemingway’s characters have ambivalent feelings toward each other; in Hemingway’s universe, people are not wholly good or bad. In “Fathers and Sons,” for example, Nick Adams recalls his father’s admirable qualities, namely the ability to see like an eagle and an outstanding knowledge of hunting and fishing, and his undesirable qualities, principally cruelty and ignorance. The story is devoted mainly to Nick’s memories of his father, which are mostly painful, but Nick insists that he loved his father for a long time. In “Hills Like White Elephants,” Jig feels resentful toward her partner, who is insisting that she get an abortion, but at the same time she wants to repair her relationship with him, which has suffered because of the pregnancy. She weighs his promise that their relationship will go back to the way it was before if she gets the abortion with her own reluctance to get the procedure and certainty that their relationship has been irrevocably altered just by the pregnancy. In “Up in Michigan,” though Jim Gilmore’s rape of Liz Coates irrevocably disillusions Liz about him, she still kisses his cheek and puts her coat on him as he sleeps in a drunken stupor before walking back to the house and going to bed.

Animals as Symbols

Animals in the Hemingway canon, whether they are game, pets, or wild, sometimes serve as symbols for their human hunters, caretakers or observers. In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” the frozen leopard on the top of the mountain represents immortality, which is the quality Harry strives for even as he is dying. The hyena in that story, conversely, represents Harry’s impending death. In “Old Man at the Bridge,” Hemingway switches the word “pigeons,” a reference to the old man’s eight pet birds, for the word “doves,” a symbol of peace in the midst of the Spanish Civil War. In “Hills Like White Elephants,” the “white elephant” of the title is Jig’s unborn baby, a cumbersome, largely useless thing that is on the brink of driving the relationship apart. In “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” the wounded lion that Francis shoots and then runs away from represents the obstacle to his proving his masculinity; though not cowardly itself, it represents Macomber’s cowardice.