The Code Hero of Hemingway: Characteristics

Code Hero of Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway’s Code Hero

Nick Adams, The First Hemingway Hero

One of the most remarkable and talked-about features of Hemingway’s novels is what has come to be known as “the Hemingway hero.” The protagonists of many of his works so resemble one another that critics often refer to them in the singular as “the Hemingway hero.” The Hemingway hero appears under different names and guises in various books. The first Hemingway hero is Nick Adams who appears in the collection of short stories and sketches of the volume called In Our Time. In this volume Nick Adams is presented first as a boy and then as a young man. Many of the key events in the life of Nick Adams are reminiscent of the happenings in the life of the author himself. Most relevant to our purpose here is a little sketch, less than a page long, which follows the short story called “The Battler”. In this sketch we read that Nick Adams has been wounded in World War I and that he has made a “separate peace” with the enemy (that, in other words, he has decided not to fight for his country, or any other country, any longer). This short scene has a great importance for the understanding of Hemingway and his work. This scene will be elaborated by another protagonist named Frederic Henry in A Farewell to Arms, and it will serve as a climax in the lives of most of Hemingway’s heroes in one way or another.

The Wound, and the Break with Society

The fact that Nick is seriously injured is significant in two ways. First, the wound intensifies, and brings to a head, the wounds he has been receiving as a boy growing up on his native soil. From now on the Hemingway hero will appear as a wounded man, wounded not only physically but, as soon becomes clear, psychologically as well. Secondly, the fact that Nick has made a separate peace, and is not a “patriot” any longer marks the beginning of the long break with organized society as a whole which is the feature of the Hemingway hero in several books to come.

More about Nick Adams

In two subsequent volumes of short stories Men Without Women (1927) and Winner Take Nothing (1933), Hemingway included several more stories about Nick Adams. These stories do not change the features already outlined in the earlier volume. But they fill in some of the gaps in Nick’s career. In “The Killer,” Nick is exposed to a sickening situation in which a man refuses to run away any more from some gangsters who are clearly going to murder him. In “The Light of the World”, Nick is somewhat prematurely introduced into the seamy realms of prostitution and homo-sexuality. In “Fathers and Sons,” Nick is deeply troubled by thoughts of his father’s death. (At the time we do not know exactly why he feels troubled; but we do understand this when the hero, under the name of Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls returns to this situation and explains: Robert’s father had committed suicide).

In “A Way You’ll Never Be,” Nick meets the fate he was trying desperately to avoid in “Big Two-Hearted River” of the first volume, and, as a direct result of his war experience, goes entirely out of his mind. The war story called “Now I Lay Me” is about insomnia, from which Nick suffered for a long time following his wounding; he cannot sleep “for thinking,” and several things that occupy his mind while he lies awake relate closely to scenes and events in stories already mentioned. “In Another Country” extends the range of Hemingway’s essential interest from Nick to another individual casualty of the war, and thus points toward The Sun Also Rises, where a whole “lost generations” has been damaged in the same disaster.

Honest, Sensitive, Virile, Nervous

All the stories show what kind of a boy, then a man, this Nick Adams is. He is certainly not a simple primitive he is often thought to be. He is honest, virile, but clearest of all-very sensitive. He is an out-door male and he has a lot of nerve, but he is also very nervous. This Nick Adams appears under other names in other books of Hemingway, and he is the man for whom the expression “the Hemingway hero” is used. The similarities between the life, the experiences, and the mental attitudes of Nick Adams and other protagonists in Hemingway’s books are strikingly obvious. This man would learn how to live with some of his troubles and how to overcome others, but he would never completely recover from his wounds.

The Code Hero and His Main Qualities

To bind these wounds Hemingway created another figure who has come to be known as the “code hero.” The code hero is to be sharply distinguished from the hero. The function of the code hero is to balance the hero’s deficiencies, and to correct the hero’s stance. We call him the code hero because he represents a code according to which the hero, by observing it, would be able to live properly in the world of violence, disorder, and misery to which he has been introduced and which he inhabits. The code hero thus offers and exemplifies certain principles of honour, courage and endurance which in a life of tension and pain make a man a man, and enable him to conduct himself well in the losing battle-that is life. He shows, in the author’s famous phrase for it, “grace under pressure.”

The Code Hero in the Short Stories

The code hero also makes his first appearance in the short stories. He is Jack, the prize-fighter of “Fifty Grand,” who through a superhuman effort manages to lose the fight he has promised to lose. He is Manuel “the undefeated” bull-fighter who, old and wounded, simply will not give up when he is beaten. He is Wilson, the British hunting guide of “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” who teaches his employer the shooting standards that make him, for a brief period preceding his death, a happy man. And to distinguish him most clearly from the Hemingway hero, he is Cayetano, the gambler in “The Gambler, the Nun and the Radio,” who with two bullets in his stomach does not show a single sign of suffering, while the hero Nick, called in this story Mr. Frazer, clearly betrays the fact that he is suffering even though his suffering is much less.

Santiago, the Finest Code Hero

The finest and best known of these code heroes, however, is Santiago of The Old Man and the Sea. The chief point about Santiago is that he behaves perfectly-honourably, with great courage and endurance-while losing to the sharks, the giant fish he has caught. This is life: such is the message the code hero always brings; one must lose, of course; what counts is how one behaves while one is being destroyed.

The Hero in The Sun Also Rises

These are then the three important considerations with regard to the Hemingway hero-the wound, the break from society, and the code. The Sun Also Rises re-introduces us to the hero who is here called Jake Barnes. His wound, again with both literal and symbolic meanings, is transferred from the spine, where Nick was hit, to the genitals. Jack has been emasculated by a war-wound, but he is still the hero; he cannot sleep when his mind begins thinking, and he cries in the night. He has also parted with society; he lives in Paris with an international group of expatriates, a dissolute collection of amusing but aimless people- all of them, in one way or another, victims of the war. (This was the “lost generation”). Although the “code” is not highly developed yet, Jake and the few people he likes do know the code. There are certain things that may be properly done, and many that are not to be done. Some persons like Robert Cohn fail to understand the code, while others like the bull-fighter Romero do understand it.

The Hero and the Code Hero in A Farewell to Arms

A Farewell to Arms has Frederic Henry as the hero. Henry is wounded in the war as was Nick Adams (although now the most serious of his injuries is to his knee, which is where Hemingway himself was wounded in World War I). Henry shows clearly the results of this misfortune; again he cannot sleep at night unless he stops thinking; again, when he does sleep he has nightmares. The nearest approach to the code hero in this novel is the priest who tells Henry what is meant by true love and who finds comfort in his religious faith and in natural scenery.

The Bull-Fighter, a Man with the Code

Hemingway’s next two books were works of non-fiction. The books are Death in the Afternoon and the Green Hills of Africa. The first is a book about bull-fighting and the other about big-game hunting. But these books are really about death-the death of bulls, bull-fighters, horses, and big-game. Death is a subject which had always obsessed Hemingway. The bull-fighter is a good example of the man with the code. He is the high priest of a ceremonial in which men confront violent death, and his behaviour formalizes the code: he is the very personification of “grace under pressure”. But more clearly than anything else these two books present the picture of a man who had, since that separate peace, cut himself completely off from the roots that nourish, (that is, from society as a whole).

The Code Hero in “To Have and Have Not”

In the novel that followed, namely, To Have and Have Not, Harry Morgan is presented as the code hero. The novel tells the story of the man who is forced, since he cannot support his wife and children through honest work, to go his own way: he becomes an outlaw, smuggling liquor and people into the United States from Cuba. In the end he is killed, but before he dies he has learned the lesson that Hemingway must by then have learned: alone, a man has no chance. This novel then represents the end of the long exile that began with Nick Adams’s separate peace, the end of Hemingway’s ideological separation from the world, a man has no chance alone. More than any other single factor, it was probably the Civil War in Spain that brought Hemingway back to the world of other people.

The Hero in “The Fifth Column”

His next full-length work was a play, called The Fifth Column which praises the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War, with whom he was associated. The play declares Hemingway’s faith in the Loyalist cause. The Hemingway hero, now called simply Philip, is immediately recognizable. He is still afflicted with his memories and with insomnia and horrors in the night. But he is up to the neck in the Loyalist fight, though unknown to his mistress. The most striking thing about him, however, is the distance he has travelled from the hero, so like him in every other way, who decided in A Farewell to Arms that such faiths and causes were “obscene”.

Robert Jordan, the Hero As Well As the Code Hero

For Whom the Bell Tolls develops the same theme as emerged in To Have and Have Not. In that novel we were told that a man had no chance alone. Now we are told that “no man is an island, entire of itself.” For Whom the Bell Tolls deals with three days in the life of the Hemingway hero, now named Robert Jordan, who is fighting as an American volunteer in the Spanish Civil War. He successfully performs his mission of blowing up a bridge, but is wounded in the retreat and is left to die. However, he has come to see the wisdom of such a sacrifice, and the book ends without bitterness. The hero is still the wounded man. But he has learned a lot about how to live and function with his wounds, and he behaves well. He dies, but he has done his job, and the manner of his dying proves that life is worth living and that there are causes worth dying for. The Hemingway hero and the code hero become, in Robert Jordan, one and the same man.

Colonel Richard Cantwell

The hero in the next novel called Across the River and into the Trees, is Colonel Richard Cantwell who has all the old scars, particularly the specific ones he received as Frederic Henry in A Farewell to Arms. Again there is the Hemingway heroine who was represented in A Farewell to Arms by the English nurse, Catherine, and in For Whom the Bell Tolls by the Spanish girl Maria, and who is now represented by the young Italian Countess Renata. (They are, to a large extent, the same girl, though for some reason their nationality keeps changing, as the hero’s never does, and they grow younger as the hero grows older). There are also many signs of the “code” here.

Santiago, the Code Hero at His Best

In The Old Man and the Sea, we see the code hero at his best. He is Santiago who brings us the message that, while a man may grow old and be wholly down on his luck, he can still dare to persist and win a victory by the very manner of his losing. After Santiago has caught a huge marlin, the sharks come and eat it up. But Santiago did catch the marlin, he did fight well, he did all he could and it was a lot, and at the end he is happy. The great thing is not the victory but the struggle.

Physical Wounds of the Code Hero

The Hemingway hero, by whatever name be appears, carries both physical and psychic scars. Hemingway’s basic pre-occupation was how one should live with these scars. The Nick Adams stories depict some of the things that wounded him as a boy and as a youth. The incident in which Nick was wounded by machine-gun fire was crucial. His wound was more than physical; he was wounded emotionally too, and he made what he called “a separate peace.” Likewise the physical wound that made Jake Barnes impotent went deeper than the flesh; he was crippled emotionally also; and the society in which he lived suffered from a moral wound. In A Farewell to Arms Frederic Henry’s physical wound has emotional repercussions; he makes “a separate peace” and opts out of society, only to be wounded further by Catherine’s death in child-birth. Harry Morgan, the one-armed hero of To Have and Have Not has been wounded economically by a sick society; it is only at the moment of his death that the outlawed smuggler understands the impossibility of going it alone outside that society. Robert Jordan (in For Whom the Bell Tolls) salves his wounds, which include his father’s failure of courage to endure, by fighting for society in the Spanish Civil War. Colonel Cantwell, the battle scarred veteran (in Across the River and into the Trees). expiates the wounds of a broken marriage and a dying body in a love-affair which must have an inevitable ending.

All these themes are anticipated in the account of Nick Adams’s wounding by machine-gun fire and it is only by understanding the implications of the psychic wound that we can understand the two parts of “Big Two-Hearted River,” the account of Nick’s fishing trip with which In Our Time closes. It is not just a fishing trip. It is a kind of therapy for a wounded man who has gone to the good place in which to heal his wounds. The account of the fishing trip has an important point. It completes the fragmented biography of Nick Adams which is presented in this volume. Nick has been violated physically, emotionally, and spiritually. He is a wounded man who is trying to keep his life from being complicated; he wants it to go smoothly. He knows that one day he will conquer his neuroses, but it will take time and courage and a supreme effort of will.

According to many people, the Hemingway hero is a tough hard-boiled brute obsessed by an appetite for blood-sports, drink, and women. But that is hardly a correct view. The Hemingway hero is, in fact, deeply sensitive, hard- bitten rather than hard-boiled, and suffering deeply from the painful effects of his experiences. It is only by being tough with himself that he can survive. It is perhaps by dealing in death that he can accept the fact of death. Drink and women can sometimes help him in his loneliness; but they can also hurt him, and women can hurt more than drink.

A Pragmatist

The Hemingway hero is, on the whole, a pragmatist. (Pragmatism has been defined as “the attitude of looking away from first things, principles, supposed necessities, and of looking towards last things, fruits consequences, facts). The function of thoughts for the Hemingway hero is, in the end, to serve as a guide for action. The abstraction has little meaning for him until it is particularized in a specific situation. To be convinced of the truth of a thing, he must have tried it by his own experience. The hero tests “truth” by observing the practical consequences of belief. “Perhaps as you went along,” Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises once reflected, “you did learn something. I did not care what it was all about. 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.”

Must Work out His Own Code

The Hemingway hero tries to learn his own way, to a great extent independently of every other man. He may be regarded as an anti-intellectual and even as a behaviourist anarchist to the extent that he must work out his code for himself, without taking sufficient notice of the accumulated experience of other men. Yet this is true, to a more limited extent, of most people. At their own dramatic level of working matters out in action. Hemingway’s heroes belong among the normal males of our time. “I did not care what it was all about” was Jake Barnes’s way of saying that he had not found any world-view which could account for and contain the facts of the world as he had witnessed them through youth, war, demobilization, frustrated love, and work for the newspapers.

Rules of Living to Be Empirically Learnt

Without reasoning in the abstract, the Hemingway hero is a careful planner on the practical plane. If his planning has been good, the results have a good chance of being good-up to a point. Beyond that point luck takes over, luck being the unpredictable contingency. Even luck, however, may be controlled in a negative way if one takes the further common-sense precaution of following the rules. Knowledge of the rules of living is perhaps the hardest of the lessons man must learn because there is really no short cut to it. The rules have to be learned empirically. Simple, unthinking loyalty to another man’s code of behaviour will not suffice. One must sensibly choose an ethical pattern whose virtues have been pragmatically proved by one’s own experience, including one’s experience of watching the conduct of one’s living companions.

An Element of Psychological Hedonism

Thus rationalism, pragmatism, and empiricism meet and merge in varying degrees in the working philosophy of the Hemingway hero. But there also enters into this philosophy an element of psychological hedonism. Man’s natural tendency is to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Jake Barnes and Brett Ashley (in The Sun Also Rises) evaluate their past actions and seek moral guidance for future conduct by discovering which actions make them feel good and which bad. This is a hedonistic approach. But it is wrong to say that the Hemingway hero is a psychological hedonist and nothing else.

The Hero as a Man of Action and as an Artist

Hemingway’s most revealing statements on the qualities of the hero came in Death in the Afternoon (a book which deals with bull-fighting). Hemingway’s standard of selection falls somewhere between the hero as a man of action and the hero as an artist. The model of the hero as a man of action is the bull-fighter Maera, while the model of the hero as an artist is the Spanish painter, Goya. (Both Maera and Goya were actual persons, not fictitious). The bull-fighter is depicted as “generous, humorous, proud, bitter, foul-mouthed, and a great drinker”. He neither runs after intellectuals nor marries money. He loves to kill bulls and lives with much passion and enjoyment although the last six months of his life are very bitter. He knew he had tuberculosis but took absolutely no care of himself, being fearless of death. A number of these qualities have been translated to fictional form in the person of the professional soldier, Colonel Cantwell. As for Goya, his paintings were the direct outcome of his hard-won empirical convictions. He was a believer in “what he had seen, felt, touched, handled, smelled, enjoyed, drunk, mounted, suffered, spewed-up, lain-with, suspected, observed, loved, hated, lusted, feared, detested, admired, loathed, and destroyed.” This description of Goya’s beliefs summarizes the attitudes of all the fictional heroes from Lieutenant Henry to Colonel Cantwell.

Attitude to Wine, Woman, and Death

The typical Hemingway hero is a virile, sophisticated world traveller, an accomplished sportsman who courts danger with calm self-assurance and pursues beautiful women with zest. Good food, fine wine, and an abundance of liquor are his fare. Like the bullfighters, Hemingway admired so much, the hero lives his life “all the way up.” (So Hemingway did, with energy to spare, for the next twenty years after the publication of A Farewell to Arms. Fixed in the public eye, he became his own hero. There had never before been a celebrated American author whose extra-literary exploits were so rich in adventure).

The Central Character, a Depersonalized Being

Hemingway is, within narrow limits, a stylist who has brought to something like perfection a curt, unemotional, factual style which is an attempt at the objective presentation of experience. A bare, dispassionate reporting of external actions is all that Hemingway as a rule attempts in presenting his characters and incidents. His typical central character, his “I”, may be described generally as a bare consciousness stripped to the human minimum, impassively recording the objective data of experience. He has no contact with ideas, no visible emotions, no hopes for the future, and no memory. He is, as far as it is possible to be so, a de-personalized being.

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