Ernest Hemingway in Spain. (Photo courtesy John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)

The good life

From our print archive: Ernest Hemingway's positive sources of satisfaction and happiness.

Ernest Hemingway never claimed to be a philosopher. In fact, for thirty years now, he has scoffed, sporadically—sometimes raucously—at those who attempt to organize and systematize knowledge. When he thinks of going across the river and into the trees, it certainly is not the Grove of Academe that he has in mind. We may safely conjecture that he has no sympathy with the syntopicon. Academic intellectuals irritate him profoundly, and there is no reason to think that he would want to change the epitaph he offered them in 1937, in a parody of Andrew Marvell:

“Then worms shall try
That long-preserved sterility—
With your quaint pamphlets gone to bust,
And into footnotes all your lust.”

Despite this attitude, Hemingway is fundamentally a philosophical writer. His main interest consistently has been to examine the human predicament through fictional epitomes of life. He is concerned with a man’s relationship to the universe in which he finds himself—a stranger, and afraid, in a world he never made. The particular situations in which Hemingway’s characters are placed are nearly always unusual or exotic. But what they lead to is a consideration of the fundamental conditions of human life on earth.

Almost any of his short stories would do for an illustration of this. Perhaps none is better known than “The Killers”—which has appeared in so many anthologies that, Hemingway says, he is now embarrassed to read it, and wonders whether he really wrote it, or just heard it somewhere.

The dramatic tension in this story depends on whether Ole Andresen, the big Swede prizefighter, will or will not appear at George’s Lunchroom at six o’clock to be blasted by the sawed-off shotguns of the waiting gangsters. But by the time we get to the end of the story, we see that what really matters is the effect all this has on the boy, Nick Adams, who watches the hired gunmen prepare the ambush. For Nick, it is a paralyzing introduction to the anonymous evil of a supposedly civilized world, symbolized not only by the gloved hands of the killers, as they calmly eat ham and eggs, but by Ole Andresen’s insistence that their identity does not matter.

“I’ll tell you what they were like,” Nick says, when he goes to Andresen’s rooming house to warn him. “I don’t want to know what they were like,” the prizefighter answers. ... “There ain’t nothing to do.”

The story can be read as an indictment of society. But it goes beyond this. Its essential subject is the lightning flash of discovery that—for all of us—sometimes falls across the world, to reveal close beneath the surface of everyday events, a plain where the life of man is ugly, brutish, and short.
Hemingway, the philosophical writer, has not, like Plato or St. Thomas, a neat philosophical system to offer us as a solution to the human predicament. Some glimmerings of metaphysical principles may be inferred from the behavior and attitudes of his heroes; but what we are faced with in most of his work is a deep-seated metaphysical skepticism. The typical Hemingway hero has as his focus of concern not metaphysics, but ethics.

“I did not care what it was all about,” says Jake Barnes, the hero of The Sun Also Rises. “All I wanted to know was how to live in it. Maybe if you found out how to live in it you learned from that what it was all about.”

This emphasis on “how to live,” with its rather surprising echo of Matthew Arnold, of course brings us to our question. What, for the typical Hemingway hero, constitutes the good life?

First, we ought to observe that, in the only view of things that Hemingway allows himself, the good life is entirely earth-bound. It is not a preparation for an afterlife in heaven, because heaven is something the Hemingway hero knows nothing about. In the face of blind natural forces which at worst are menacing, at best are indifferent, and at all times are mysterious, the consolations of traditional religion are easily exhausted.

Nothing in Hemingway expresses this more strikingly than the story called, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” The central figure of the story is a Spanish waiter who, after his own cafe has closed for the night, looks for another where he can sit down and drink, in order to avoid going home to darkness and a sleepless bed.

But it is not simple insomnia that keeps him up. It is cosmic insomnia. What does he fear? he asks. And then he answer himself “It was all a nothing, and a man was a 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—“ Then he goes on, using the Spanish word nada, nothing, in a grim parody of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our nada who are in nada, nada be thy name. Thy kingdom nada, thy will be nada, in nada as it is in nada.”

With this bleak and irreligious view of the universe, which is shared in some degree by all of Hemingway’s heroes, what can a man turn to for salvation? Can organized society give the sense of light and order necessary merely as a foundation for the good life?

Hemingway and his heroes think it quite doubtful. They regard as superficial and spurious the order imposed on life by the conditions of civilized society. Beneath a smooth but brittle social surface rages the reality of shock, disruption, and violence.

In keeping with such a view, most of Hemingway’s heroes have a tendency to stand aloof from the social enterprise. They do not become outlaws, unless subjected to extreme pressure. But at best they are not enthusiastic members of the community.

The novel that most typically exhibits the Hemingway hero in opposition to society is A Farewell to Arms, published in 1929. As a man who was himself seriously wounded in battle before he was nineteen years old, Hemingway from the beginning has written about war with an authoritative intimacy. At the time of writing this novel, he certainly regarded war as the nadir of social failure. It is such a view that gradually becomes that of the hero, Frederick Henry, as the events of the story unfold.

Frederick Henry is a young American Italy to study architecture. He joins an Italian ambulance unit at the outbreak of the First World War, and is soon at a station near the front line. His living conditions, for man in uniform, are remarkably pleasant—there is a comfortable house to live in, good food, convivial companions, pretty girls, and not too much work. But the dismal panorama of war is laid out before him in full view.

As the months and years pass wearily by, an overwhelming sense of progressive corruption and decay begins to pervade the novel’s atmosphere. Not only do the endless advances and retreats, with their endless quotas of killed and wounded men, begin to make the fighting seem utterly futile, but the personalities of his soldier companions begin to disintegrate visibly under the relentless impact of duties that seem inadequate, hopeless, and absurd.

Finally Frederick Henry himself is wounded—wounded, in a kind of outrageous burlesque of heroism, while eating spaghetti in a dugout—and sent back to convalesce in the strangely normal life of wartime Milan. Although the hero enjoys a very satisfactory love affair with a British nurse there, the ironic contrasts of civilian wartime society with the specter of doom and disaster at the front line only serve to increase his disenchantment.

Ernest Hemingway in Kenya, 1953. (Photography by Earl Theisen, LOOK Magazine Collection, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Reproduction number LC-L9-60-8812, frame 8)


Desertion and escape

When his convalescence is over, he returns to the front just in time to take part in the most disastrous retreat of the entire war: the retreat from Caporetto. Separated from his unit, and threatened with military execution as a spy, he solves the problem by deserting, and joins the British nurse in a spectacular escape to neutral Switzerland.

Frederick Henry’s desertion, of course, is cast in a somewhat special light by reason of its being a desertion from a foreign army. Nevertheless, his action represents a harsh rejection of society. It is a bitter declaration that the common human enterprise is the next thing to null and void. The cafes are closing down. The clean, well-lighted places are few and far between. The darkness of nada threatens the forms of the two lovers who have said their farewell to arms.

It is often stated that Hemingway’s later novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, marks a reversal of his pessimistic view of social action. There is some justice in this, especially if the book is compared with the novel that preceded it, To Have and Have Not.

From the renegade Harry Morgan, who feels forced by the depression into acting like a pirate to support his family, to Robert Jordan, the American volunteer fighting for the Loyalist cause in Spain, is indeed a long step in the direction of society. It returns the Hemingway hero to the human community, and certainly indicates a shift in values when measured against Frederick Henry’s desertion in A Farewell to Arms. Yet the shift was not nearly as great as many readers and critics claimed, when For Whom the Bell Tolls was published in 1940.

It is important to notice that when the Hemingway hero comes back to take his place in society, he comes back warily, with misgivings. He comes back with his fundamental attitude toward life essentially unaltered. Instead of a hero who stands apart from society in disgust, reproaching it for its failure to solve the grim predicament of human life, we have a hero who has developed an acute sense of the community of that predicament. No man is an island, it turns out: we are all part of the main.

But the weather forecast is not favorable. The storms that sweep the human continent, and the quakes that rack its surface, are so fierce that it will be kind of a miracle if it does not end in annihilation. Still, each of us, thinks Robert Jordan, must do what he can to maintain its integrity, even if this involves the desperate paradox of war.

That paradox is at the heart of For Whom the Bell Tolls. Its hero is constantly reminded that the human community, which at best is in dire condition, ironically subjects itself to gradual self-destruction when it resorts to war. This is why the Loyalists are often shown in as bad a light as the Fascists. They are just as opportunistic, just as ridden with internal treachery, and—above all—just as cruel.

Yet there is a right side and a wrong side in a war. And Jordan realizes that not to fight on the right side is to forego even the remote, the thousand-to-one, chance o£ salvation for the human enterprise. So Jordan dies fighting as a guerrilla behind Fascist lines, in a military operation that is a failure because some of his comrades have given secrets to the enemy. The total effect of the novel, far from being a stirring testament of newfound social faith, seems almost to echo, instead, the somber tones of “Dover Beach:”

“And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

Well, what about the good life? We see that if the Hemingway hero is to have one, it can depend very little on religion or the accomplishments of man as a social animal in the larger sense. What are to be his positive sources of satisfaction or happiness?

To begin with, there must be absolute honesty. Thrown back on himself by his rejection of religious and social authority, the Hemingway hero’s obligation to truth is the basic tenet of his creed. He must avoid what one Hemingway hero calls “the nausea in regard to experience that is the result of untruth or exaggeration.” In the realm of morals, where distinctions between good and bad are to be made, this means a rigorous pragmatism.

“So far about morals” Hemingway said in 1932, “I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after, and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.” The things the Hemingway hero feels good after are, many of them, pleasures of the senses.

He tremendously enjoys good food. His appetite is so keen that it often serves to relieve the anguish imposed upon his soul by his pessimistic philosophy and by his most recent emotional disaster. In the midst of sorrow there may be, with luck, roast young suckling pig—which is what Jake Barnes dines on in the last episode of The Sun Also Rises, as a kind of protection against his outrageous treatment at the hands of the heroine. Frederick Henry consumes a double order of ham and eggs while waiting to hear news from the Swiss maternity hospital, which he has every reason to expect will be tragic. On the other hand he also celebrates moments of happiness with copious meals, elaborately described.

With or without meals, the Hemingway hero is very fond of alcoholic beverages. Barnes and Henry always show a truly Homeric ability to hold their liquor, and even the old man of The Old Man and the Sea, who is surely the most sober of Hemingway’s heroes, likes a beer when he can get it.

Other sensual pleasures are likewise enjoyed to the full. There are few writers who so often characterize smells, for instance, as Hemingway does. Sights and sounds, too, are great sources of pleasure for the Hemingway heroes. They are almost always great lovers of what Hemingway calls “country”—a word that seems to include every aspect of a natural scene that can be taken in by sight, hearing, touch, and sense of smell.

Finally, at the apex of the pleasures of the senses, which mean so much to the Hemingway hero, are the pleasures of love. They seem, in fact, to occupy a place of almost religious significance in his scheme of values. The climax of the act of love comes close to contradicting, for him, the dismal conclusions about human existence made by his intellect. It is, says Colonel Cantwell, in Across the River and Into the Trees, “the only mystery that he believed in, except the occasional bravery of man.”

Hemingway’s frank emphasis on sensual pleasure has shocked and irritated a good many people. Their irritation has blinded them to his peculiar manner of dealing with it. They have failed to notice just how the Hemingway hero takes his pleasures.



For he is nothing if not discriminating. He is never promiscuous. This applies not only to sex, but also to eating, drinking, looking at countryside or at paintings—to all exercise of the senses. When he eats and drinks he is the gourmet, even under primitive conditions. “I was lucky to get him instead of a dolphin,” reflects the Old Man of the Sea as he chews a strip of raw bonito. “Dolphin is too sweet ... This would not be bad to eat, with a little lime or with lemon or with salt.”

Along with the intense emphasis on discrimination by the Hemingway hero, there goes a special quality of concentration. It seems that, when he is happy, the mere act of perception is a positive pleasure for him. The effort of his creator, Hemingway, is to fix those perceptions so accurately with words that they will defy the corrosion of time.

Why does the Hemingway hero make a virtue of vivid perception and sharp discrimination? If we remember that, for him, life constantly stands in threat of becoming a meaningless chaos, that it is without the saving grace of supernatural order, and only most inadequately dealt with by organized society, we may begin to see the value of these things to him.

For discrimination implies order—an order deliberately and self-consciously supplied by the individual himself to his own experience. It is a bulwark against nada. The pleasures of the senses have a simple and positive value of their own; but it is only in their precise control that they can support the foundation of a good life.

Of course, that power of discrimination must be an active thing. The hedonism of the Hemingway hero is as far removed from that of the classical Epicurean, as it is from that of the mere sensualist, who abandons himself to the animal impulses of the moment. Epicurus taught that pleasure was the basic principle of the good life. But his natural disposition led him to think of pleasure negatively—that is, as the avoidance of pain. This vegetable conception of the good life is not for Hemingway.

He actively seeks pleasure, even at great risk, because the essential thing is to broaden the area of control over life, through the exercise of discrimination.
This emphasis on action, in turn stresses the connection between two apparently opposed activities, which—for the Hemingway hero—have very nearly the same value: work and sport. He usually has a profession or trade that he thoroughly enjoys, that he performs well in, and of which he is quietly proud.

It is generally overlooked that the hero of The Sun Also Rises, in contrast to the many playboy characters, is a hard-working newspaperman. Robert Jordan, besides being a teacher of Spanish, in For Whom the Bell Tolls, has become a proud expert in impromptu demolition, with bridges his specialty. No one can handle a boat better than Harry Morgan in To Have and Have Not.

But the importance of work competently done, for the Hemingway hero, go beyond any practical results it may produce. It is the discipline and skill, which count. Like discrimination in the enjoyment of sensual pleasure, discipline and skill bring order to life, the controlled order so necessary to the conception of the good life.

Coupled with this respect for work, the Hemingway hero has so much respect for sport that many people mistakenly judge Hemingway to be a super-sportswriter. Sports do involve various sensual and kinesthetic pleasures. But besides offering these chances for active discrimination, all sports require the imposition of additional orders on experience. There are the rules of the game. There are the skills necessary for playing it well. The sports of the Hemingway hero are always difficult ones to perform well. Again and again we find Hemingway’s precise, detailed descriptions of their proper performance.


Death as the end

There is something else brushed against, when we talk of the Hemingway hero as sportsman. It is his attitude toward death. Four of Hemingway’s five novels end in death scenes, and in many of his short stories death plays the principal role. “All stories,” he once said, “if continued far enough, end in death; and he is no true story-teller who would keep that from you.” The Hemingway hero is usually forced by circumstances to think much of death, and even without such circumstances he does so out of choice.

The dying writer, in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” admits that he has always been obsessed by death. He is obsessed by it because death, for him, is the end of everything. It is the end of all those brightly remembered hours and days of pleasure that have made up the good parts of a life he has loved very much. “I don’t like to leave anything,” he says. “I don’t like to leave things behind.”

It is true that this particular story ends in a mysterious way, which possibly suggests a heavenly destination for the dying man. But it is the only thing in all of Hemingway’s work that allows such a suggestion.

For Frederick Henry, Harry Morgan, Robert Jordan, and Colonel Cantwell, death is assumed to be final. They think it altogether likely that it is in the realm of nada. “It will just be nothing,” Robert Jordan tells himself in the final moments of his life. “That’s all it will be. Just nothing.” It promises to be the absolute cancellation of the good life, as of any other life.

This is hardly a cheerful view of death; but given Hemingway’s premises about the universe, it is more or less inevitable. Moreover, it has its own somewhat paradoxical contribution to make to the good life. It is only under the pressure of an acute awareness of death as final destruction, that the Hemingway hero is able to savor each pleasurable instant with such intense enjoyment. For him, the golden moments of his joy are immeasurably enhanced simply because they are so few, so few and fleeting. For him, the constant meditation on death adds to rather than detracts from the beauty of the world. This is never clearer than when love is in question.

True love between a man and a woman is one of Hemingway’s greatest values. But this, too, is subject to the ambiguous domination of death. There is a moving scene in A Farewell to Arms where the hero quotes Marvell to the heroine:

“But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near ...”

He does not go on to the next line, “And yonder all before us lie, deserts of vast eternity.” But the reader might think of that line at the end of the book, when the heroine dies in childbirth. Death cancels their good life. But while they were able to enjoy it, they enjoyed it with an intensity made all the more striking by the war background of desolation and hovering disaster.

Robert Jordan and Maria, in For Whom the Bell Tolls, must live all of whatever life they will have together in two days—and they both know it. “So if you love this girl as much as you say you do,” Jordan says to himself, “you had better love her very hard and make up in intensity what the relation will lack in duration and continuity.” This, for the Hemingway hero, is almost a stock situation—in love or not in love, every act of his life is conditioned by his anticipation of death.

1959: Matador Antonio Ordonez performing a pass in Sevilla, Spain. (Photo courtesy Ernest Hemingway Photo Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)


Dangerous play

And so we come, finally, to the human capacity that stands above all others in Hemingway’s system of values. Both the uncompromising honesty essential to the good life, and the full and proper appreciation of the pleasures of that life, demand a steady and acute awareness of death. Yet death, as the annihilation of everything good, is the human experience most dreadful to contemplate. The only possible solution to this predicament lies in a Promethean courage, a courage that enables the Hemingway hero to gaze into the abyss without flinching.

The deliberate cultivation of that courage must be the study of his life, and he never dodges the opportunity to practice it in any situation consistent with his other values. Thus, the sports that mean the most to Hemingway heroes are the dangerous ones, the ones involving death itself: big game hunting, deep sea fishing, and bullfighting.

Death in the Afternoon, a long non-fiction work, explains in great detail why the bullfight is a symbol of the values that lay the very foundation for the good life. In the ring, a man, by the combined exercise of superbly controlled skill and extreme courage, achieves through an art the only possible triumph over death. It epitomizes the attitude toward death cultivated by the Hemingway hero: an attitude, which, by courage, ironically translates the greatest anxiety into something almost resembling security.

Many people, of course, are rebuffed by Hemingway’s frank admiration for activities involving the act of killing. If death is the antithesis of the good life, how can the Hemingway hero be so calloused about giving it, even if only to animals? There is no simple answer. But, first of all, he is not calloused. And readers of The Old Man and the Sea will remember the convincing sense of sympathy and identification the old fisherman has with the great fish he is fighting. Hemingway’s book about big game hunting is oddly transformed by the sensitive admiration he feels for the animals he kills.

Secondly, Hemingway and his heroes are perhaps rightly contemptuous of the sentimentality so common in our culture, which permits us to dine on beefsteak or lobster, while uttering pious objections to such activities as bullfighting. Any bull, Hemingway argues, would rather take his chance in the ring against a matador, than be doomed to the sledgehammer at the Chicago stockyards. But the most significant answer would be in terms of the symbolic meaning the act of killing a dangerous animal has for the Hemingway hero. That act gives all the brilliant focus to his own final predicament in life, and to the courage, discipline, and skill, without which that life could not possibly be “good.”

It may appear to be a gloomy picture, the Hemingway picture of the good life. Yet his heroes are not gloomy people. They are witty when faced with adversities. They, like their creator, keenly enjoy the days granted them to live and to love, to breathe the clean air, to feel the warmth of the sun.

If we talk about Hemingway himself, rather than his fictional heroes, we must note his aesthetic principles. We must recognize the part played in his values by the discipline and skill of the working artist. We can find, by reading his work, that as an artist he is perfectly consistent with the principles of the good life as he sees them. And, of course, we should read his work.


E. M. Halliday (1913–2003), assistant professor in the humanities in the College, revised this essay based on a lecture he gave at University College on the theme, “The Good Life.”