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Alcohol and Desperation
Alcohol and Desperation: An Analysis of the Presence of Alcohol in Ernest Hemingway’s Short Stories Throughout the short stories of Ernest Hemingway, alcohol inevitably lends its company to situations in which desperation already resides. In an examination of his earlier works, such as In Our Time, a comparison to later collections reveals the constant presence of alcohol where hopelessness prevails. The nature of the hopelessness, the desperation, changes from his earlier works to his later pieces, but its source remains the same: potential, or promise of the future causes a great deal of trepidation and lament throughout Hemingway’s pieces. Whether the desperation comes from trepidation or lament depends on the view point from which it is observed, or rather, experienced. In many of the works written early in his career, Hemingway’s characters experience a fear of the future.
The fear does not necessarily stem from commonly expected sources, such as “the unknown,” but rather, it seems to grow from a fear of failure, a fear of being unable to fulfill potential. A number of stories and vignettes from In Our Time reflect these trepidations, and throughout, the presence of alcohol surfaces as a reminder of the desperation felt by the characters as they confront or avoid the circumstances surrounding their fears. It should be clarified, however, that “desperation” here does not insinuate the many nuances that the term conjures, but rather, it describes its simplest meaning of a loss or a lack of hope. For the characters of the early stories, the lack of hope motivates trepidation, while in the later works, the loss of hope creates lament.
The lament experienced by Hemingway’s characters in his later works corresponds to an older perspective by both author and characters. In most cases of desperation, the later characters retrospectively examine their lives and realize that they have not fulfilled their potential. The manner in which they choose to live out their lives becomes paramount in the stories, and alcohol often remains integral to the characters’ lives. In moving from the earlier stories of In Our Time to stories published in later collections, the shift in the attitude of the characters toward potential and promise becomes clear. “Indian Camp” in In Our Time, depicts Nick Adams a small boy, exposed to death for the first time. This story does not describe desperation nor does it include alcohol; rather, it demonstrates the promise held in the possibilities of life in Nick’s final thoughts: “In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die” (Hemingway 95).
Despite the events he witnesses in the camp, Nick’s future seems boundless, as well as endless. Potential has no limits, and the pressures of fulfilling potential are, as yet, unknown to him. This first story in Hemingway’s first published collection serves as a fitting point of departure for the descriptions of desperation that follow; Nick is free from the weight of potential, and judging by his enjoyment of the idyllic setting that surrounds him, it seems that he looks forward to the promise of life. “The Three-Day Blow” offers the reader one of the first opportunities to observe the trepidation and fear of future potential. The story happens to feature Nick Adams, but as other stories are examined, different characters will also exhibit the same desperation. “The Three-Day Blow” directly follows “The End of Something,” save a vignette, and it seems to allude to the break up described therein. As Nick and Bill begin drinking, their talk includes baseball, fishing, the nature of drunks, and eventually Marge.
The discussion of girls and relationships inevitably leads to a foreboding of the future. “‘Once a man’s married he’s absolutely bitched,’ Bill went on. ‘He hasn’t got anything more. Nothing. Not a damn thing. He’s done for…’” (Hemingway 122). Nick quietly agrees with Bill’s sentiments, but he still longs for Marge. The pleasant memory of the past is stalled by the fear of what the future could hold for his relationship with Marge. The alcohol, in this case, serves to numb the collision between the hopeful past and the hopeless future. The effects of the alcohol leave Nick free of his uncomfortable fears for a while: “None of it was important now” (Hemingway 125). After experiencing this heartbreak in his youth, a little alcohol is enough to clear the trepidation from Nick’s mind. “Cross-Country Snow” presents Nick Adams working through a fear of responsibility, again with alcohol in hand. Within the text of the story, it becomes clear that Nick is involved with a girl who will give birth to a baby in the summer.
Nick’s feelings toward this event are illustrated in his desire to forget the life he has in the States and to stay and ski in Europe. Over a bottle of wine, Nick and George discuss the joy of skiing. For Nick, the discussion’s unspoken side describes the monotony of his life at home. Nick’s desire to shed responsibility affords the reader another vantage point from which to observe the fear of failing to fulfill potential: rather than trying and falling short, why not shirk responsibility and submarine any efforts to succeed? In this case, the alcohol facilitates the day-dream quality of Nick and George’s fantasy to turn their backs on responsibility and potential and to ski for the rest of their lives. It intensifies the notion that choosing to ignore their potential would allow them to keep from failing to fulfill it. They begin to believe that they cannot fail at something at which they never tried to succeed. Unfortunately, fulfilling the promise their lives hold is not something that can be consciously chosen; the attempt to succeed at fulfilling that promise begins at birth.
They cannot claim they did not succeed because they did not try (the “I wasn’t really trying” argument); in that case, they do not succeed because they did not try. In this short and seemingly simple story, Hemingway illustrates the magnitude and inescapability of the weight of potential. In Our Time also offers a story in which the struggle of fulfilling potential bridges the gap of age: “My Old Man” shows the passage of desperation from father to son. As the father, an aging jockey, drinks more and more, his son looks on with an innocence that would seem to indicate the perspective of either a boy or a young man. While the father experiences the twilight of his horse-racing career, his son subtly notes his father’s weight gain and his increased drinking. “My old man was drinking more than I’d ever seen him, but he wasn’t riding at all now and besides he said that whiskey kept his weight down. But I noticed he was putting on, all right, just the same” (Hemingway 201).
The excuse of weight loss was clearly meant to hide Joe’s father’s increased use of drinking as a crutch, but Joe astutely and ironically notes that the weight was worsened by the drinking. His father’s loss of hope, resulting from an unsuccessful career, eventually leaves its mark on Joe. After his father’s death, the last lines of the story indicate the depth of Joe’s understanding of his father’s situation: “Seems like when they get started they don’t leave a guy nothing” (Hemingway 205). The unfortunate comprehension of a father’s loss of hope by his son may also indicate a bit more distance between the narrator and the setting of the story. While the story seems to be told from the point of view of a young man (the son), it may originate from a much older son, at an age where he recollects his father’s experience and realizes that it mirrors his own. This seems probable in light of the fact that the narrative voic.............
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