Critical Essays The Hemingway Code Hero


Indigenous to almost all of Hemingway's novels and in fact to a study of Hemingway in general is the concept of the Hemingway hero, sometimes more popularly known as the "code hero." When Hemingway's novels first began to appear they were readily accepted by the American reading public; in fact, they were enthusiastically received. Part of this reception was due to the fact that Hemingway had created a new type of fictional character whose basic response to life appealed very strongly to the people of the 1920s. At first the average reader saw in the Hemingway hero a type of person whom he could identify with in almost a dream sense. The Hemingway man was a man's man. He was a man involved in a great deal of drinking. He was a man who moved from one love affair to another, who participated in wild game hunting, who enjoyed bullfights, who was involved in all of the so-called manly activities which the typical American male did not participate in.

As more and more of Hemingway's novels appeared and the reader became more familiar with this type of person, we gradually began to formulate a theory about the Hemingway code hero. We observed that throughout many of Hemingway's novels the code hero acts in a manner which allowed the critic to formulate a particular code. It must be emphasized, however, that the Hemingway character or code hero would himself never speak of a code. He does not make such broad generalizations. To actually formulate a set of rules of conduct to which the Hemingway character would adhere is, in one sense, a violation of the essential nature of the code hero. He does not talk about what he believes in. He is a man of action rather than a man of theory. Therefore, the following concepts of the code hero are those enunciated not by the hero himself but by the critics and readers who are familiar with the total body of Hemingway's works and of his views.

Behind the formulation of this concept of the hero lies the basic disillusionment of the American public, the disillusionment that was brought about by the First World War. The sensitive man in America or the sensitive man in the world came to the realization that the old concepts and old values embedded in Christianity and other ethical systems of the western world had not served to save mankind from the catastrophe of this World War. Consequently, after the war many sensitive writers began to look for a new system of values, a system of values that would replace the old received doctrines that had proved to be useless. Having endured the great calamity of World War I, Hemingway found that he could not return to the quiet countryside of America, could no longer accept those values that had previously dominated all of America. Instead, he searched for some principles based upon a sense of order and discipline that would endure in any particular situation. We can conclude this by saying that Hemingway's values then are not Christian, they are not the morals that we have grown accustomed to in twentieth-century Protestant America.

A basis for all of the actions of all Hemingway key heroes is the concept of death. The idea of death permeates or lies behind all of the characters' actions in Hemingway's novels. This view involves Hemingway's concept that "when you are dead, you are dead." There is nothing more. If man cannot accept a life or reward after death, the emphasis must then be on obtaining or doing or performing something in this particular life. If death ends all activity, if death ends all knowledge and consciousness, man must seek his reward here, now, immediately. Consequently, the Hemingway man exists in a large part for the gratification of his sensual desires, he will devote himself to all types of physical pleasures because these are the rewards of this life.

Hemingway's characters first attracted attention because they did drink a lot and did have many love affairs. This appealed on a simple level to the populace. In its most elementary sense, if man is to face total oblivion at his death, there is nothing then to do but enjoy as many of the physical pleasures as possible during this life. Thus the Hemingway man will drink, he will make love, he will enjoy food, he will enjoy all sensuous appetites — all the sensuous pleasures that are possible. For example, we need only to recall small insignificant scenes in Hemingway works, such as in A Farewell to Arms, when in the midst of the battle Frederick Henry and his two ambulance drivers sit down in the middle of the battlefield amid all of the destruction and thoroughly devote themselves to relishing, enjoying, savoring every taste of their macaroni, cheese, and bottle of mediocre wine.

Returning to the primary consideration, that is, that death is the end of all things, it then becomes the duty and the obligation of the Hemingway hero to avoid death at almost all cost. Life must continue. Life is valuable and enjoyable. Life is everything. Death is nothing. With this view in mind it might seem strange then to the casual or superficial reader that the Hemingway code hero will often be placed in an encounter with death, or that the Hemingway hero will choose often to confront death. The bullfighters, the wild game hunters — characters like these are in constant confrontation with death. From this we derive then the idea of grace under pressure. This concept is one according to which the character must act in a way that is acceptable when he is faced with the fact of death. One might express it in other terms by saying that the Hemingway man must have fear of death, but he must not be afraid to die. By fear we mean that he must have the intellectual realization that death is the end of all things and as such must constantly be avoided in one way or another.

But — and this is the significant point — man can never act in a cowardly way. He must not show that he is afraid or trembling or frightened in the presence of death. We can extend this idea further by saying that, if man wishes to live, he lives most intensely sometimes when he is in the direct presence of death. This will at times bring out man's most innate qualities, test his manhood, will contribute then an intensity, a vivacity to the life that he is at present leading, and it is for this reason that Hemingway often places his characters either in war, in bullfighting rings, or on the plains of Africa where he must face an animal determined to kill him. It is then that the Hemingway man shows the coolness, the grace, the courage, the discipline which have prompted the idea of grace under pressure. The man who never encounters death, who never faces any danger at all, this man has not yet been tested; we don't know whether he will withstand the pressures, whether he will prove to be a true Hemingway man.

Thus in the short story "The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber," at the age of thirty-five Francis himself had never tested his courage. On the first test he ran; he ran like a coward. But on a subsequent test he stood up and proved himself to be a true, good Hemingway hero. It is thus only by testing, by coming into confrontation with something that is dangerous that man lives with this intensity. In the presence of death, then, man can discover his own sense of being, his own potentiality.