Ernest Hemingway has long been regarded as one of the greatest American authors. His brilliance, which is demonstrated so clearly in his most well known novels, “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, “A Farewell to Arms” and “The Old Man and the Sea”, trickles down to even his shortest works. In the short stories, “Indian Camp”, “Hills Like White Elephants” and “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”, he reaches his audience with all of the gusto a reader can hope for from a piece of his work – long or short. His writing uses modernism in such a way as to teach the reader about human beings and the external situations that they turn internal – even if he was unable to internalize the same lessons in his own life.
Hemingway faced many battles of his own during his life; including war, alcoholism, multiple marriages, bipolar disorder and eventually his life ending in tragedy – by his own hand. For someone who had dealt with so many challenges along the way, it should be no surprise to readers that his wit and wisdom becomes radiant in his words. In “Hills Like White Elephants”, he takes on the tough issue of abortion without an obvious statement as to the nature of the character’s argument. The girl in the story does not appear to want to go through with it while the man in the story would prefer that she would. “We’ll be fine afterwards. Just like we were before” (Hemingway 3). While she remains unconvinced that she will, in fact, be “fine” afterwards, it is interesting to note that both characters are so vividly drawn within the context of the disagreement – without ever being overt or ugly about such a sensitive issue. This is an example of modernism at its finest, focusing on the individual and what is stirring within. “Modernists concern themselves with the sub-conscious” (Lorcher 2009). While Jig does not state outright that she does not want to go through with it, she does not want to speak of it either. “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?” (Hemingway 5) Instead of coming to a definitive answer to the issue at hand, she chooses instead to ignore the problem while the man in the story wants to face it head-on and come up with the solution – the solution he wants. One interesting thing to note about this piece is the use of the words “girl” and “man” as opposed to “woman” and “man”. The woman’s way of dealing with the problem at hand could be perceived as childish – in her attempts to ignore it. Drinking and changing the subject being two of her tactics, both of which do not deter the man she is with.
In “Indian Camp”, we again see interpersonal turmoil – though not as blatant. This time it is between a father and son. The son, Nick, who may have begun the evening with interest becomes disheartened by the extreme nature of what he witnesses. “He was looking away so as not to see what his father was doing” (Hemingway 2). The father then proceeds to boast about the fantastic job he has done in delivering the Indian woman’s child – though a suicide in the same room causes him to reconsider his boasting. In “A Clean Well-Lighted Place”, the interpersonal turmoil is between co-workers – coming from two different angles on aging. While aging is not the only component to the story, it is interesting to note the two viewpoints of people who hold the same job. One wants to go to bed while the other has no desire or interest in doing so.
During the reading of all three of these stories, there is a sense of seniority. A father over a son, a man over a woman and an older co-worker disagreeing with the actions of a younger co-worker. However, in each of these stories – in the end – the character who appears more naïve ultimately shows their own brand of wisdom. In “A Clean Well-Lighted Place”, the younger waiter wants to return home to his wife and go to bed – and so he does. In “Indian Camp”, the son finds the trauma of watching a troubled birth and a suicide a decidedly difficult thing to bear and makes a wrong assumption based on the close proximity of these two events – “he felt quite sure that he would never die” (Hemingway 4). In “Hills Like White Elephants”, it is very possible, at second glance, that it is not that Jig wants to remain in denial or continue to use avoidant behavior but she is carefully considering the consequences her actions may have on her – as well as on her relationship with the man with whom she speaks.
In Hemingway’s life and subsequent death, there is a pervasive sense that he may have been or become disillusioned himself – and ultimately became a bit unsure of anything at all. For many who have been through many trials and tribulations in life, this is a natural reaction. Things do not always work out the way one may hope and growing older and “wiser” may not hold the answers one is expecting. Situations between people will always come from two different angles and worldviews, regardless of the closeness of the relationship. “Modernists believe the world is created in the act of perceiving it; that is, the world is what we say it is” (Lorcher 2009). Ultimately, Hemingway’s wisdom comes in the form of understanding human nature to the point of understanding the differences between individuals and looking into this with grace and tact. In understanding modernism, it helps to understand that most modernists do not prescribe to one line of thinking. They do not side with one thought process or worldview. Ernest Hemingway mastered this in his career – as is evident in the stories mentioned herein. No one person is the champion of the story but merely human, no one person is in the right or in the wrong – they just are who they are. This is a direct reflection of who Hemingway was in his own life; a unique and seemingly larger than life soul from whom countless readers have reaped the benefits and rewards.
Lorcher, Trent. “Lesson Plans: Modernism in Literature”. 26 Dec 2009. Brighthub.com. Web. 18 June 2011.
Hemingway, Ernest. “Indian Camp”. http://www.nbu.bg/. Web. 19 June 2011.
Hemingway, Ernest. “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”. Mrbauld.com. Web. 19 June 2011.
Hemingway, Ernest. “Hills Like White Elephants”. Gummyprint.com. Web. 19 June 2011.