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For Whom the Bell Tolls

Ernest Hemingway

Critical Essays The Discipline of the Code Hero

If the old traditional values are no good anymore, if they will not serve man, what values then will serve man? Hemingway rejects things of abstract qualities — courage, loyalty, honesty, bravery. These are all just words. What Hemingway would prefer to have are concrete things. For Hemingway a man can be courageous in battle on Tuesday morning at 10 o'clock. But this does not mean that he will be courageous on Wednesday morning at 9 o'clock. A single act of courage does not mean that a man is by nature courageous. Or a man who has been courageous in war might not be courageous in some civil affair or in some other human endeavor. What Hemingway is searching for are absolute values, which will be the same, which will be constant at every moment of every day and of every day of every week.

Courage itself, then, is a relative value. It might be true for one moment but not true for the next. As he expressed it in his novel A Farewell to Arms: "I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. . . . Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates." The quotation indicates then that Hemingway is searching for concrete things that one can feel, touch, and see. The name of a place is something that a man knows.

Ultimately therefore, for Hemingway the only value that will serve man is an innate faculty of self-discipline. This is a value that grows out of man's essential being, in his inner nature. If a man has discipline to face one thing on one day he will still possess that same degree of discipline on another day and in another situation. Thus Francis Macomber in the short story "The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber" has faced a charging animal, and once he has had the resolution to stand and confront this charging beast, he has developed within himself a discipline that will serve him in all situations. This control can function in almost any way in a Hemingway work.

We have said earlier that the Hemingway man drinks a lot and yet the Hemingway man is never a sloppy drunk. Such people as Mike Campbell in The Sun Also Rises often prove to be non-Hemingway characters. The sloppy drunk is rejected. The man who cannot hold his liquor does not possess the proper degree of discipline. It is fine to drink, to drink an immense amount. But to get to the point that a man does not know what he is doing, denotes lack of the discipline that is necessary to a code hero. If a man does not know what he is doing from having drunk too much, he is no longer in possession of his own faculties. Thus a typical Hemingway character is a man who is always in control of the situation, who has the discipline to handle any particular given circumstance.

This discipline functions in other ways also. For example, the Hemingway hero will often say, "don't let's not talk about it." This means after he has performed some act of bravery he will not discuss it. Talking is emotionalism. It is the action that is important. If you talk about the act too much you lose the importance of the act itself. Even after two characters have made love they do not talk about it. This is a type of discipline also, the discipline of refusing to be emotional about an event. If a character ever expresses any emotion he is often ashamed of having done so. You lose the value of any act by talking too much about it.

The Hemingway code hero is also a person of some degree of skill. It is seldom mentioned what the character does, but we do know that Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls is an excellent teacher of Spanish. We also know that Frederick Henry has been a good architect and that Jake Barnes is a highly competent journalist. In A Farewell to Arms, Rinaldi devotes himself completely to his surgical operations. It is in the act of doing that which a man is good at doing that the code character finds himself. Rinaldi makes the statement that he only lives while he is performing an operation. Thus the Hemingway hero will be a person who possesses some skill and who is highly competent at that particular skill. On the contrary, he detests people who are mediocre. There are enough people who are like the Hemingway hero that he will not associate with the ordinary or mediocre person. The Hemingway hero feels that if he is not accepted in one group he makes no intentions to join that group.

In The Sun Also Rises, Jake Barnes cannot understand why people like Robert Cohn keep hanging around where they are not wanted. Jake Barnes knows that there are enough people in the world who think like him, who like him, so that he has no intention of associating with people of another nature.

This attitude leads to the concept of the loyalty that a Hemingway hero feels for other people. He feels an intense loyalty for a small group of people. In A Farewell to Arms, we find that Frederick Henry deserts the Italian army because the Italian army is abstract. The concept of the national government is also abstract. However, the loyalty that he feels to his small individual group, that is, the group of ambulance drivers, is very important. This concept is later modified in For Whom the Bell Tolls because Robert Jordan does feel a sense of loyalty to the Spanish land. He enters the war partly for this reason. But his most intense feelings of loyalty are for a small guerilla band with whom he works behind the lines in Spain. Again a sense of loyalty is expressed in The Old Man and the Sea between the young boy and the fisherman. In any case, the Hemingway hero cannot feel a sense of loyalty to something abstract, but as far as the intense personal immediate friendship is concerned, he is totally devoted to this smaller, this more personal, group.

In conclusion, the Hemingway hero is a man whose concepts are shaped by his view of death, that in the face of death a man must perform certain acts and these acts often involve enjoying or taking the most he can from life. The Hemingway man will not talk about his concepts. Thus to formulate them as we have done here is a violation of the concept. He is a man of intense loyalty to a small group because he cannot accept things abstract. He must need the definite, the concrete. He does not talk too much. He expresses himself not in words but in actions. Consequently, most of Hemingway's novels are based upon action. The Hemingway hero then is not a thinker; he is a man of action. But his acts are based upon a concept of life.