Many of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories and novels involve nature as a powerful influence in the lives of the characters, whether it is as the setting in Across the River and Into the Trees, in a more active role as the prey, such as in The Old Man and the Sea, or both, as depicted in The Snows of Kilimanjaro. The quintessential outdoorsman himself, Hemingway’s early exposure to nature has significantly shaped his perception of the relationship between man and nature. In particular, Hemingway acknowledges the dualism present in nature: it provides sustenance, life, and gifts man with its resources—yet it plagues cities with its illnesses, drowns men in its turbulent seas, and steals the life out of the living. The power of nature is unrivaled, and its ability to give and take life echoes the qualities of a godly being. A closer inspection of The Old Man and the Sea and The Snows of Kilimanjaro reveals that to Hemingway, nature giveth, and nature taketh.
The role of nature as a godly entity is most evident in Hemingway’s characters’ interactions with their environments. In The Old Man and the Sea, the elderly fisherman Santiago’s primary companion while on land is Manolin, his faithful apprentice who holds Santiago in the highest regard despite his ill fortune with fishing. Manolin praises Santiago with words such as, “There are many good fishermen and some great ones. But there is only you.” (The Old Man and the Sea, 25). However, as Santiago ventures out far into the ocean in search of a larger catch, his companion shifts to the ocean and wildlife around him. The relationship with his companion at sea is quite different from that which he experiences on land, and Santiago refers to the ocean as “something that gave or withheld great favours” (The Old Man and the Sea, 33). This thought hints at the godly role that nature plays, giving and taking.
Nature still acts as a godly entity in The Snows of Kilimanjaro to Henry, the protagonist dying from a gangrenous infection in the African wilderness, albeit with a relationship different from that found in The Old Man and the Sea. Henry has taken advantage of nature on an exotic hunting trip, killing wildlife for sport. In a seemingly punitive turn of events, Henry contracts gangrene from a cut, and death approaches him throughout the short story. Even in a literal sense, death approaches in the form of a hyena, as Henry perceived “vile-smelling emptiness and the odd thing was that the hyena slipped lightly along the edge of it” (Kilimanjaro 4). Henry ultimately dies from his infection, perhaps as punishment from nature for his wanton taking of nature’s resources. Nature appears to be more forgiving to Santiago, who fishes for a living, and lives a life of simplicity and gratitude. His respect for nature is obvious, as he speaks with great reverence and love for the ocean, as seen by his thought “…loved green turtles and hawk-bills with their elegance and speed and their great value and he had a friendly contempt for the huge, stupid logger-heads…” (The Old Man and the Sea, 40). In contrast to Henry’s gangrenous infection, Santiago receives the gift of the largest fish he has ever hooked for his long withstanding respect for nature. This form of reward and punishment delegated for devout followers and heretics by a larger entity is reminiscent of nature as a god-like entity.
The exploration of one’s own religion can increase the personal value of their belief system. As Leo Gurko astutely observes, the ocean similarly provides greater resources the further out one explores (Old Man and the Sea, 12). Santiago captures smaller tuna when he is closer to the shore, while he is quite far out at sea when he first hooks the swordfish—analogous to how one may find greater connection to their god(s) after further pursuing the depths of his/her religion, while a weaker relation to religion may yield fewer spiritual rewards. Santiago’s voyage may appear fruitless in terms of fish captured—yet his experience in sympathizing with the ocean and its creatures, and increased respect for nature is the significant spiritual reward.
Nature also consistently challenges man’s resolve in Hemingway’s works, quite similarly to God in biblical literature. In The Old Man and the Sea, Santiago finally manages to reel in the swordfish, when sharks attack his catch. It is possible to argue that the trials of the sea are merely due to the seemingly random, animalistic behavior that maintains the ecosystem. Santiago even mentions in passing that he perceives the sea to do “wild or wicked things” because “she could not help them”, and appears to regard the sea as an external variable that cannot be controlled or predicted, prone to random behavior (The Old Man and the Sea, 33). The old man fights valiantly against the onslaught of sharks, but is unable to protect his catch. And yet, Santiago maintains his faith and trust for the sea, and discusses acquiring “a good killing lance” and plans for a future fishing expedition. Santiago’s resilience following this trial resonates with God challenging Abraham’s dedication by commanding him to sacrifice his son Isaac. Both Santiago and Abraham are challenged in their faith and perseverance respectively, and are able to rise above the trial. An alternate view could consider the herds of sharks as punishment from nature for hunting such a marvelous fish (Burhans, 2). However, it is more likely that the sharks were another test of Santiago’s resolve, as Santiago is rewarded with the ability to truly reflect on the spiritual value of his struggles and his relationship with the sea. He even bears the mast across his shoulders as he climbs back ashore from his expedition, suggesting Santiago to be a Christ-like figure, who has been tested for his faith and perseverance, and rewarded with enlightenment through trials (The Old Man and the Sea, 134). Though the essence of the challenges is quite different, one of determination and the other of faith, nature nonetheless challenges man in a godly manner.
It is also significant to note that Henry is also challenged by nature, as he is afflicted with gangrene on an African safari. Henry is unable to surmount this challenge, and witnesses the wildlife around him stirring to life as his dwindles away. Vultures orbit the campsite, and hyenas lurk in the perimeter—signs from nature foreshadowing his impending doom. Henry’s inability to survive raises the question: Why was Santiago able to withstand the challenge of nature, while Henry was not? The answer lies possibly in the difference in character between the two individuals. The appreciative, revering Santiago is cognizant of nature’s power and gifts, while Henry defiles nature by hunting rare animals for sport. Perhaps Harry is not worthy of nature’s challenge, and was accordingly punished by nature, while Santiago was rewarded for his reverence.
Santiago prays to God for luck on reeling in the enormous fish as he struggles, and is “feeling much better” regarding his circumstance after praying (The Old Man and the Sea, 72). Though Santiago may appear to be a religious individual, the explicit offhand mentions of religion in The Old Man and the Sea implicate nature as the central, overarching power rather than religion. Most notable is Santiago’s offer to “say ten Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys” in the event that he reels in this fish. (The Old Man and the Sea, 71). To Santiago, religion is more of a peripheral existence in life rather than a deep-seated way of life to be abided by strictly (Heroic Impulse, 377). Such prayers are generally said following confession to a priest in Catholicism and are most likely present due to Hemingway’s Catholic upbringing. Perhaps the sea is Santiago’s church, where he comes to confess and absolve his sins. This further implicates nature, specifically the sea, as a sacred religious entity. To Hemingway, nature is a more appropriate entity to confess and pray to, rather than the church. Santiago’s willingness to casually exchange his devotion to God through prayer for luck in reeling in a fish demonstrates the lack of gravity God’s existence holds to him. He even remarks, “Hail Marys are easier to say than Our Fathers” (The Old Man and the Sea, 72). Santiago’s greatest concern in saying prayer is the ease with which they are said—a testament to the minor role of the typical concept of religion.
Henry’s final vision before his death also suggests the greater significance of nature as a religious entity over God. The classic imagery of death is a white light or tunnel, ascending to what is presumably heaven or some sort of afterlife. Instead of ascending towards the light, Harry envisions a beautiful natural landscape, “all he could see, as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro. And then he knew that there was where he was going.” (Kilimanjaro 7) To Henry, heaven was the peak of Kilimanjaro, which mirrors many qualities of heaven: brilliantly white, high, and encompassing. The concept of religion and God are surmounted by the brilliance and pervasiveness of nature in The Old Man and the Sea and The Snows of Kilimanjaro.
In these two works, nature resembles a god-like entity, and is a more focal existence than the typical concept of religion and God. Nature giveth, and nature taketh. Nature challenges the resolve of man, and yields greater depth when explored deeply. Santiago engages nature in conversation, in a one-sided dialogue resembling prayer to a higher power. It is clear that to the characters in Hemingway’s writings, nature is the driving force behind life and death. This in turn raises the question: Why is nature more powerful than God?
Hemingway’s exposure to nature and its sheer power and beauty are likely to have influenced his decision to implement nature as such a powerful force in his literature. Nature’s ability to influence the lives of individuals in drastic ways, and the aforementioned qualities nature possesses may have proved to be a more secular, concrete concept to believe in. Hemingway’s economic writing style suggests an underlying affinity for pragmatism and realism, making nature the more powerful and prevalent force in his works.
Burhams, Charles. The Old Man and the Sea: Hemingway’s Tragic Vision of Man. American Literature. 31. (1960). 446-455. 5 May, 2014.
Gurko, Leo. The Old Man and the Sea. College English. 17. (1955) 11-15. 5 May, 2014.
Gurko, Leo. The Heroic Impulse in “The Old Man and the Sea”. The English Journal. 44 (1995). 377-382. 5 May, 2014.
Hemingway, Ernest. “The Old Man and the Sea”. New York: Charles Schuber’s Sons, 1952. Print.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Xroards Virginia, 2 February, 1998. 5 May, 2014. <http://xroads.virginia.edu/~drbr/heming.html>