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Hemingway’s Code Hero: Survival in the Existential World

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Hemingway’s Code Hero: Survival in the Existential World


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            The idea that heroes exist has long been present in literature. The famous works of Grecian and Roman writers, poets and lyricists which contained majestic adventures of heroes who had to battle it out with foreign enemies or legions of monsters have been stamped in the minds of the people and even have influenced other literary works. For example, who could forget the famous Trojan horse and the bravery of Achilles who played a major part in defeating the Trojans? In more modern works, who could forget the courage and tenacity of Harry Potter who had to face different enemies each time and eventually coming face to face with Lord Voldermort himself? Heroes and their quests have been emulated, copied, acted, re-enacted and even turned into action figures and video games.

This is most probably because heroes are living a “larger than life” life, one that is so different from reality that children and adults cannot help but be magnetized into their own world, adventure and magical weapons.

However, there are also protagonists who appear to be un-heroic but who are really heroes. These type of heroes appear in the more somber and serious literary works like in the case of Ernest Hemingway whose heroes are rather tragic, emotional and very unconventional. In this research essay, the idea or concept of Hemingway’s hero and the certain principles or conduct that the hero lives by will be portrayed and discussed—with the belief that the hero’s code in Hemingway’s works focuses on the dignity that the hero portrays while living in the harsh realities of the real world.

The Concept of the Hero

            When the famous Russian folklorist by the name of Vladimir Propp first studied the concept of hero, none could have prepared for what his theory would mean. Because of Propp’s study on the attributes of fairytales and eventually what makes the hero a hero, the world soon realized that there are things which are common among myths, legends, folklores and epics throughout the world when it concerns the characteristic of the hero as what Wilfred Guerin et al. discusses in A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. Ranging from the Homeric epics to the more modern sci-fi, it was quite evident that heroes had certain norms when it concerns their adventures, characteristics and even their fates. But what stands out among these characteristics is the notion that the hero has a sense of honor or dignity when faced with adversity, whether it was facing dragons to save the damsel in distress or to continue a fight with an opponent’s back not unturned, it was obvious that hero, under all circumstances must have his code of honor. Like the Japanese warrior or samurai who has the bushido way of thinking, all heroes, whether tragic ones or epic ones, would rather die with their honor intact rather than lose that honor and emerge victorious.

Hemingway’s Life and His Concept of Hero

            The heroes portrayed in Ernest Hemingway’s works are of no exemption to this concept. Through the many different themes, settings and characters that Hemingway has imagined and written in his literary works, it was quite evident that his hero’s only code is that of dignity. Many other literary works portrayed the heroes as being larger than life with many positive attributes and characteristics that would make it so obvious that the hero is only imagined and could never exist in real life; Hemingway believes otherwise. Hemingway believes that a person can only become a hero when he has survived in the real world. Like Hemingway, his characters have to show tenacity amidst adversity and above all, they must show dignity.

            Ernest Hemingway’s life was full of turmoil and strife. Among his works, it is A Farewell to Arms which showcases the life he had once as an ambulance driver on the front during the First World War as what Bryant Mangum writes in Ernest Hemingway:

In 1918 he joined an American ambulance unit in Italy, where he was wounded.  In a Milan hospital he met Agnes von Kurowsky, who became the prototype for Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms. (n.p.)

This novel which centers on the driver’s blooming relationship with a British nurse is bittersweet as the two are pushed and pulled together and apart as the war happens around them. The end is tragic as Lieutenant Henry loses both his wife, Catherine Barkley and their child. It not only A Farewell to Arms which is patterned after Hemingway’s life, his other novels like For Whom the Bell Tolls and even The Sun Also Rises are derived from his personal experiences during the World War I. This could explain why Hemingway’s heroes are surrounded by many adversities and yet, they always manage to emerge victorious in the end in the most unconventional ways. Unlike the usual hero portrayals found in literature where he manages to acquire great wealth or kingdoms, marry the beautiful damsel in distress who turns out to be a princess or even have the whole world celebrate his greatness and bravery, Hemingway’s heroes end up in melancholic tragedy that they not only lose the heroine in the end, they manage to lose everything except their dignity as a man. Thus, it can only be deduced that above all worldly possessions or wealth, it is dignity which Hemingway esteems above all—and the different heroes in his literary works and their code of honor proves it.

The Portrayal of the Hero in Hemingway’s Works

            Ernest Hemingway has written many novels, plays, essays and short stories which have become renowned in the literary world, even to those people who have no interest with literature. This just means that Hemingway is one of those prized literary figures which have created masterpieces that developed the literariness of literature. Among those works, it is the short story A Clean and Well-Lighted Place, the novel The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms, and the novella The Old Man and the Sea which hold great weight and relevance to the essay’s thesis. First, it is important to characterize Hemingway’s heroes based on their attitude and attributes and with A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises which both exemplify the hero of Hemingway.

A Farewell to Arms

            The novel A Farewell to Arms is set against the Fist World War and which features the ambulance driver, Lieutenant Frederic Henry as a the hero and the heroine as Catherine Barkley as the British nurse. It is Henry who is narrating the story and it is also his perspective who is uses in the novel. Thus, the judgment passed to everything and everyone can only be through his own opinions. In the beginning of the novel, readers catch a glimpse of how Henry is before he met Catherine. Henry is very passive and unassuming even a little boring. He was very self centered who put his own conditions, frustrations and desires first before asking or inquiring about the things that his comrades need. It can be concluded therefore that Henry was a person who can even be ignored and not thought of compared to other characters. Rinaldi seemed even more passionate and exciting than Henry and even the young priest that Henry meets is more hero material due to his wit, intelligence and moral principles. And yet Hemingway chooses Henry was the lead and as the hero and he might have a reason for this. Aside from the fact that Hemingway sees himself as Henry (they were both ambulance drivers who served in the front during the world war), Hemingway wanted his characters to be so unassuming and normal they would not even be given a second thought. More like Clark Kent who manages to be unassuming, Hemingway’s hero has to be so boring that he seems so un-heroic. His characterization of the hero does not resemble the larger than life, the epic and the magnificent. His heroes do not even seem like the normal human beings that one would meet in their everyday lives. Hemingway’s heroes have to be the most boring and weird individuals who would want nothing more in their life than just one thing: Henry wants Catherine, the old man (in A Clean and Well-Lighted Place) want a glass of brandy, etc. Their desires and wants are so simple that they would be incorruptible and would be unable to harness any intentions of doing evil. This is just one characteristics of the Hemingway hero. There is another more interesting and unique feature which Hemingway instills in his heroes as it is portrayed in The Sun Also Rises.

The Sun Also Rises

            In the novel The Sun Also Rises the background of all the characters are the same—they have in some way or form, have been part of the World War I and they are on the verge of picking up their lives and restoring order. Hemingway opens up the plot with the friendship of war veteran Robert Cohn and expatriate, Jake Barnes. The most notorious character in the group is Lady Brett Ashley who is well-admired by men, even Cohn and Barnes are smitten with her. The engaged Lady Ashley has a past with Barnes while the awed Cohn chooses to pursue her waits for her beck and call. The engagement of Lady Ashley to Mike Campbell does not hinder her from sleeping around and this sets the tone for the entire novel as being wild and callous.

In the later part of the play when Barnes and Cohn decide to take a break from France and visit Spain for a fiesta, Lady Ashley and her fiancée also decide to go with them. The Lady Ashley adds another admirer to her roster as she gains the affections of Romero, a famous and young bullfighter that the group watched while attending the fiesta in Spain. Lady Ashley and Romero ends up leaving and living together making Campbell and Cohn the ones who need to accept defeat in the face of love. With all that is happening over Lady Ashley and his men, Barnes is consistently the mediator and the moral figure in the entire book. He manages to tame the temper and control the wild antics of all the characters while managing his own troubles. Towards the book’s end, Lady Ashley decides that she cannot be with anyone and “sends away” Romero with the belief that what he is doing is for his own sake and betterment. She then calls on Barnes to come fetch her and the book closes in a sweet sad moment for the two as they are together but are so separately alone.

            Like A Farewell to Arms, the characters in The Sun Also Rises have been part of the First World War with the exemption that all have lived to be wild and carefree. Though the main characters, Robert Cohn, Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley have turned out to be rather wild and passion-filled protagonists. This attitude that the characters have can only be explained by their tendency to force out the experiences and memories they had under the war. Thus, their carefree attitude, especially that of Lady Ashley, can be seen as a means to escape from the horrors of reality. This can be compared to Lieutenant Henry’s inability to focus on his duties and responsibilities as an ambulance driver in the Italian front in A Farewell to Arms. This common trait in Hemingway’s characters can be deduced as their imperfection as protagonists. Thus, this makes their existence believable and real compared to other heroes who does not seem to have any flaws and faults. In fact, Hemingway’s heroes seem to be full of faults and flaws with absolutely no redeeming characteristics: Lieutenant Henry who is a coward and passive ambulance driver; Barnes who is as passive as Lieutenant Henry but who is wild; the old man who is a drunkard in A Clean and Well-Lighted Place and there is even that young father in Hills like White Elephants who wants his own unborn son to be aborted from the womb of its mother. Hemingway wanted to portray his heroes as being so un-heroic that the readers would be compelled to be disgusted or mortified with their characteristics. However, what happens is the exact opposite as readers find themselves sympathetic to the plight of the heroes. This is the classic case of the Cinderella syndrome wherein the pitiful and the poor are portrayed to win the hearts of the audience. Unlike the typical Cinderella characters though, the hero in Hemingway’s works does not have that one redeeming attribute which would negate all their other flaws. For example, Cinderella was very kind and courteous while the heroes of Hemingway were not only pitiful, they were also rude or would be characterized with not commendable attributes. In Hemingway’s mind and world though, there is just but one thing which is of importance to the hero being regarded as the hero and this can be well portrayed in his short story, A Clean and Well-Lighted Place.

A Clean and Well-Lighted Place

            In all of Hemingway’s works, it is in A Clean and Well-Lighted Place which obviously points out the hero code found in the heroes of Hemingway. In an excerpt, the value of dignity is identified as the old man who has nothing and everything walks out of the bar with his dignity intact. Though the old man was deaf and drunk and without an immediate family to love him and take care of him, he still manages to be an inspiration to the young bartenders:

The old man stood up, slowly counted the saucers, took a leather coin purse from his pocket and paid for the drinks, leaving half a peseta tip. The waiter watched him go down the street, a very old man walking unsteadily but with dignity. (Hemingway 290)

Again, this points out to the undeniable fact that Hemingway uses such imperfect characters like drunkards and cowards but they still have their hero code about them—their dignity. As what Melvin Miles in Basic Overview of Ernest Hemingway writes, “The concept of “dignity” is both the basis and the goal of the code.  For Hemingway, dignity is the expression of true moral integrity, and it is the highest possible attainment of character” (n.p.). Like Lieutenant Henry who manages to be irresponsible over his duties and obligations as a member of the American troops (even if it was just as an ambulance driver), he does not feel dishonoured in anyway and even justifies his actions as that of logical and understandable. Since Lieutenant Henry manages to be justify his running away from his duties, he thinks that what he is doing is not wrong and even perceives it with all the dignity he can muster, as being right:

You were out of it now. You had no more obligation. Anger washed away in the river along with any obligation. I had taken off the stars…It was no point of honor. I was not against them. I was through. I wished them all the luck…it was not my show anymore. (Hemingway, “Farewell to Arms” 232).

Thus, dignity is the only thing which is important to the (past) ambulance driver. He did not even look back and considered that his running away from his comrades can be seen as a betrayal to them and can also be seen as a person who turns his back to his own country. But as what was explained earlier, Hemingway characterizes his character in a unique and unconventional way that they would seem so imperfect and even full of flaws. Again, as what Miles has written, it is only dignity which is important to Hemingway; thus, it is but natural that his heroes may be full of flaws but they need to have that one characteristic within them. The problem likes however with the question of what is it they should be dignified about. If the old man loses his drink and the bar closes down, why does he walk away with dignity when he has nothing to be proud of? If Henry loses his men, his wife and his child, what is it he needs to feel happy and dignified about? This can be explained by the concept of “nada” or nothing and the novella The Old Man and the Sea.

The Idea of “Nada”

            In A Clean and Well-Lighted Place, the waiter goes on a monologue featuring the word “nada” which means nothing: “What did he fear? It was not a fear or dread, It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee” (Hemingway, “The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway” 291).  This excerpt illustrates why the Hemingway heroes are all dignified, it is because they fear nothing because there is the concept of nothingness. For the Hemingway heroes, life does not exist, death does not exist, even God and the so-called destiny of many does not exist. Nothing exists for him and his life. The abstract is unfathomable and it is only his present life and that one thing which he focuses on as being the reason to live the present life which is logical. This is where the existentialist part of analyzing the Hemingway heroes comes in. In existentialism, the individual delights in freedom and it is quite obvious that if everything else exists (laws, rules, a god) then the freedom becomes limited. Thus, if everything is nada or nothing, then there is nothing to fear as what the waiter questions and then later on declares. This concept of nada or nothingness is relevant to the hero’s dignity because this ability to fear nothing and delight in freedom becomes his basis of dignity. For example, if he should lose his face in society, then it should not really matter since society is nothing; he can, therefore, keep his dignity intact even if on the outside, his reputation and honor are already in shambles. Dignity for the Hemingway hero becomes something very personal and something which can only be created and pulled out from the individual himself. Miles once again explains why this is the case:

Though a man may be victimized and, finally, destroyed, he may yet remain “undefeated” by refusing to yield in the face of his victimization, and by confronting his sense of destruction and death with honor, on his own terms.  In this sense, as Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea says, “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.” (n.p.)

Thus, though the Hemingway hero meets such tragic fate and ending by the time the book or story comes to an end, he still has his dignity to fall back on as he can never be defeated nor destroyed. Bryant Mangum also presents the same argument in Ernest Hemingway. Mangum goes on to explain that Hemingway’s stories may follow the same pattern as that of the myths and epics which ends up in tragic death. This is one recurring pattern in such literary works because the lives of the heroes can only come to a full circle with their deaths. The Hemingway hero is of no exemption as the hero meets death but a dignified death. Using Mangum own words, the hero’s death becomes triumphant because there “is the knowledge that it can be faced gracefully and with courage” (n.p.).


            In conclusion, the Hemingway hero is the unconventional type of hero who manages to be very different from the usual depictions of the masculine and magnificent hero. However, like all the other heroes, the Hemingway heroes consist of that one great trait which negates his other flaws and faults. The Hemingway hero survives reality because for him, reality is nothing and he is answerable to no one, not even a divine force. Ultimately, what should be remembered though is that the Hemingway hero also finds a reason to live and exist for no matter how trivial; be it a hot meal, a glass of brandy or a woman and this is what makes the Hemingway hero a true hero—he is able to be honest to himself and fully accept that there is something he needs amidst the belief that there is nothing he should need.

Works Cited

Guerin, Wilfred et al. A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.

Hemingway, Ernest. “A Clean and Well-lighted Place”. The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003. 288-291. Web. 24 July 2010.

Hemingway, Ernest. Farewell to Arms. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1986. Print.

Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Scribner, 1995. Print.

Miles, Melvin C. Basic Overview of Ernest Hemingway. Web. 23 July 2010.

Mangum, Bryant. “Ernest Hemingway”. Critical Survey of Short Fiction. Ed. Frank Magill.  Salem Press, 1982.  pp. 1621-28. Web. 23 July 2010.


Cite this Hemingway’s Code Hero: Survival in the Existential World

Hemingway’s Code Hero: Survival in the Existential World. (2016, Sep 23). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/hemingways-code-hero-survival-in-the-existential-world/

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