Hemingway wrote in Death in the Afternoon that “All stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true story teller who would keep that from you.” He might have added that most of his own stories and major novels if traced back far enough, also begin in death. In The Sun Also Rises (1926), death from World War I shadows the actions of most of the main characters; specifically, death has robbed Brett Ashley of the man she loved before she met Jake, and that fact, though only alluded to in the novel, largely accounts for her membership in the lost generation. A Farewell to Arms (1929) begins and ends with death: Catherine Barkley’s fiance was killed before the main events of the novel begin; and her own death at the end will profoundly influence the rest of Frederic Henry’s life. The Caporetta retreat scenes, often referred to as the “death chapters” of A Farewell to Arms prompt Frederic Henry to give up the death of war for what he believes to be the life of love. In For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), death is nearby in every scene, a fact suggested first by the image of the bell in the novel’s title and epigraph, the bell whose tolling is a death knell. Perhaps most important in For Whom the Bell Tolls, Robert Jordan’s choice to die as he does comes from his reflections on the heroic death of his grandfather compared with what he sees as the cowardly suicide of his father. Finally, Santiago’s memories of his dead wife in The Old Man and the Sea (1952) play in and out of his mind as he confronts the possibility of his own death in his struggle against the great marlin and the sea.
In Hemingway’s work, as Nelson Algren observes, it seems “as though a man must earn his death before he could win his life.” Yet what may appear to be Hemingway’s preoccupation–or, to some, obsession–with death should not obscure the fact that he is, above all, concerned in his fiction with the quality of individual life, even though it must be granted that the quality and intensity of his characters’ lives seem to increase in direct proportion to their awareness of the reality of death. If the constant in Hemingway’s works is the fact that “All stories, if continued far enough, end in death,” the variable is his subtly changing attitude toward the implications of this fact, no better gauge of which can be found than in the ways his characters choose to live their lives in his major novels.
(Adapted from Bryant Mangum, “Ernest Hemingway.” To read the article, click here: “Ernest Hemingway,” in The Critical Survey of Long Fiction.)