Hemingway’s ‘Hero Code’ in ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ and ‘A Clean Well-lighted Place’

Ernest Hemingway, alongside Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner and John Steinbeck, is a shining beacon of the American literary scene.  He mastered both the novel as well as the short story forms.  The scope of this essay is two of his short stories – Hills Like White Elephants and A Clean Well-Lighted Place.  The two stories are analyzed from the angle of the concept of “Hero Code”, which is a recurrent theme in Hemingway’s works.

The “Hero Code”, is a set of features that typify the hero in Hemingway stories.  A character shown to exhibit this code need not be the lead character in the story, but nevertheless, his presence is quite important.  This hero will have a lot of machismo about him, not in terms of brute force, but in the general attitude he shows.  The Code Hero will be a man of action and will seldom get into philosophical discussions.  He seeks sensual gratification including drinking, eating and women.  He is fiercely loyal to a select group of people whom he strongly identifies with.  This hero is generally disillusioned about construed meanings of life and has come to recognize them for what they are.  In this world view, there is no God and there is no sanctity to life (human or otherwise); existence is constantly threatened by death and hence induces a state of anxiety and restlessness.

In the story A Clean Well-Lighted Place, we can identify the old man, who visits the café regularly as the Code Hero.  He does not have a wife and is taken care of by his niece.  He is frail due to old age, but nonetheless still derives pleasure from the ambience and brandy provided in the café.  While he stays up late in the night and drinks in excess, he is also disciplined in his own way.  For example, when he is prompted to leave the café because it is closing time, without showing any displeasure he systematically counts the glasses he drank and pays for them with a tip included.  Further, while he drinks more than is healthy for his age, he maintains his gait while walking, thereby not losing his dignity.  These are expressions of discipline too, as Hemingway implies.  And the old man certainly exhibits them.  Further, his habit of going home very late in the night is actually a sign of vivacity and life rather than a sign of dejection.  Although the old man is said to have attempted suicide a few days ago, his reprieve from death has helped heighten his sensual appetite, which is why he is back visiting his favorite café and the last one to leave it.  This facet to the old man’s personality, namely his tendency to live life to the fullest, is again, another quality of the Code Hero.

As is typical of Hemingway plots, there is always another character that aspires to live life like the Code Hero.  In the case of A Clean Well Lighted Place, it is the elder waiter who plays that role.  Being middle aged and being able to see the viewpoints of both young and old, his sympathy and admiration for the old customer is quite high. In a poignant ending to the story, he soliloquies as follows, capturing the essence of his philosophy of life (here ‘nada’ stands for ‘nothing’, ‘void’, ‘vapidity’ and a sense of disillusionment with the world)

“What did he fear? It was not a fear or dread, It was a nothing that he knew too well. 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 y pues nada y naday pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is    with thee. He smiled and stood before a bar with a shining steam pressure coffee machine.” (Hemingway, A Clean Well-Lighted Place)

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