Two horseback riders on the beach
If Krebs and Santiago had been contemporaries. Photo by Sasi Kumar.

Hemingway’s Men

Final paper for my college portfolio circa March 2011

Hemingway’s habit of fictionalizing his own life experiences, which James Mellow describes as “more than mere convenience, something deeper and more necessary to his sense of the creative process” (110), makes it possible to conclude certain details about the author’s worldview. In “Soldier’s Home” and The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway presents contrasting examples of masculinity in the characters of Harold Krebs and Santiago. Hemingway uses their differences to define a successful man as one who assumes responsibility, finds his place in the world, and lives with purpose.

An early example of Hemingway crafting his life into fiction is found in “A Very Short Story.” During World War I, Hemingway served as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross. After he was injured and hospitalized in Milan, he met and fell in love with a nurse named Agnes von Kurowsky (Donaldson 99). In 1924, Hemingway published a collection of vignettes called in our time, which included an untitled story about an injured soldier who falls in love with a nurse named Ag. A year later, Hemingway republished the same collection of vignettes as In Our Time and included fourteen additional short stories. The untitled story became “A Very Short Story,” and the nurse’s name was changed to Luz. Hemingway explains the change: “Ag [was] libelous. Short for Agnes” (Donaldson 100). The aptly-titled story is a brief, bitter recollection of falling in and out of love, something Hemingway knew all too well from personal experience.

One of the short stories added to In Our Time is “Solider’s Home,” which like “A Very Short Story,” bears similarity to Hemingway’s life. The protagonist, Harold Krebs, served during World War I and chose to enlist in the Marines straight out of college. Although Krebs’ age is never given, he is not any older than twenty-four upon returning home to Oklahoma. Krebs’ return is both belated and underwhelming. Hemingway writes, “He came back much too late. The men from the town who had been drafted had all been welcomed elaborately on their return” (Time 69). Perhaps the most important detail in the opening paragraph is not that Krebs was denied a hero’s welcome, but that Krebs chose to enlist.

By enlisting, Krebs demonstrates Hemingway’s first measure of a man: a willingness to assume responsibility. He was not drafted, and he did not return home until late 1919. As the son of conservative, God-fearing parents, Krebs rose to the occasion and defended the Allies at the risk of his own life and future. Upon his return, however, the Krebs who left for war is clearly not the same Krebs who arrives back home. As John Roberts notes, “Harold and Krebs are virtually two different people; the distance between them is an index to how extensive a journey the young man has made in only two years” (200). Krebs’ decision to assume responsibility takes him on an extensive journey, one that is necessary for him to change from a boy into a man.

In The Old Man and the Sea, Santiago assumes responsibility for himself and the young boy Manolin. As a poor fisherman with eighty-four days of bad luck, the old man needs to eat. He has enough humility to accept the food offered by the boy but knows that a man should work for his meals. On the subject of borrowing money, Santiago says: “…I try not to borrow. First you borrow. Then you beg” (Sea 19). When Manolin’s father no longer allows Manolin to fish with the old man because of his bad luck, Santiago accepts the decision. He states that obeying one’s father is “quite normal” (14), reinforcing the father’s authority. Later, when Santiago apologizes to Manolin for waking him at an early hour, Manolin replies, “It is what a man must do” (25). The boy clearly sees Santiago as a role model and comprehends that being a man means assuming responsibility―in his case, waking early and obeying his father. Similarly, Santiago comprehends his influence over the boy and chooses to act responsibly: he reinforces the father’s authority and takes to the sea to provide for himself. In a humorous line, Santiago expresses that if Manolin were his son, he would take him out and gamble (15); thankfully, he does not.

Hemingway’s second measure of a man involves finding one’s place in the world, which proves especially difficult for Harold Krebs. Having enlisted straight out of college, Krebs seeks his place amidst the changing, unstable backdrop of World War I. The author of “In Defense of Krebs,” John Roberts, states:

…Krebs’s great trauma comes after the war ends. What disorients him is not the truth of war but the lie of the Midwestern view of war, not the truth of death but the lie of life. Krebs cannot reconcile the two, and in trying he loses even the truth he had had, so he stops trying for a time. (201)

That Krebs “had been a good soldier… made a difference” (Time 72) to him. If he had hated the war and shunned his responsibilities, returning home would have served as an escape. Instead, the idea of a welcoming party becomes a reward, one that may have given Krebs some hope. Upon finding that the town’s “hysteria” (69) for its veterans has already passed, however, Krebs falls into a rut. He receives neither praise for his efforts nor a confirmation of belonging to his old community. “Soldier’s Home” is aptly titled in that it tells the story of a soldier, a man looking for his place in the world and struggling to find it.

Well before Santiago’s story begins, the old man has found his place in the world, and that place is the sea. Santiago considers himself a brother to the fishes, even to the giant marlin he later hooks and kills. He admits with a hint of pride that he is “a strange old man” (Sea 16), and unlike most fishermen, drinks a cup of shark liver oil every day from a drum. His eyes, which are surprisingly keen for his age, have not been weakened by “turtle-ing for years off the Mosquito Coast” (16). Santiago regards the sea as the feminine la mar because he loves her, despite the “wild or wicked things” (28) she does at times. All of her threats—bad luck, sharks, a Portuguese man-of-war—fail to shake the old man’s sense of belonging. For Santiago, the sea is home.

Living with purpose is Hemingway’s third and final measure of a man, but it consists of three important components: love, career, and faith. In respect to love, one of Krebs’ preoccupations is watching the good-looking girls with short hair and round Dutch collars in town (Time 71). Krebs knew many girls during the war, and the language barrier was no barrier at all: “That was the thing about French girls and German girls. There was not all this talking” (72). Repeatedly, Hemingway writes that Krebs does not want to face any consequences. Krebs states that he does not actually need a girl, or love for that matter. In fact, he tells his mother that he does not love anybody (76). While Krebs agrees to visit his younger sister at her baseball game, he clearly wants little to do with romantic relationships.

Although Santiago has only la mar now, he was once married, and his friendship with Manolin is paternalistic in nature. The following items are described as relics from Santiago’s marriage: a color picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, another of the Virgin of Cobre, and a tinted photograph of his wife, kept beneath a shirt on a shelf (Sea 18). The photograph was formerly on the wall, but the sight of it now causes Santiago sadness. One must assume that his wife has died. Still, he has known love once and now shares stories with Manolin about the legendary baseball player Joe DiMaggio. Perhaps to a lesser extent, Santiago has nature and himself to keep him company, as he speaks to both.

In respect to career, John Roberts writes that “[Krebs’] parents―or his mother, at least―are obviously worried by his post-war lassitude. They do not understand what has happened, but they do perceive that he is not the same boy who had gone away to war” (200). Krebs’ attitude about consequences and girls affects all aspects of his life, causing his mother to worry. She asks him one morning at the breakfast table, “Have you decided what you are going to do yet, Harold?” (74). When he answers no, she asks, “Don’t you think it’s about time?” (74). She proceeds to tell him that his father is worried too, adding that the car, which Krebs was formerly never allowed to drive, is now an option–an option to help him meet girls and find work. By the end, Krebs does resolve to “go to Kansas City [to] get a job” (77), but his motivation is to pacify his mother so that his life “[goes] smoothly” (77). He lacks any career goals of his own and does not wish to suffer in the pursuit of them.

Santiago’s career is, by default, more about survival than fulfillment. Although he is a skilled fisherman with many tricks, his string of bad luck has reduced him to accepting food from Manolin (who is happy to share). Thankfully, for the old man, he does find fulfillment in both fishing and the sea, even if it is a daily battle for his food. His resolve is unsinkable, and his spirit, though tired, pushes him to proclaim that he will kill the marlin in all its greatness and glory (Sea 53). Despite his affinity for the fish, which he describes as “more noble and able” (52) than he, Santiago resolves to show it “what a man can do and what a man endures” (53). “Pain does not matter to a man” (65) he says, and reminds himself to suffer accordingly (70).

In respect to faith, Krebs tells his mother that he is “not in [God’s] Kingdom” (Time 75). Hemingway’s vignette before “Soldier’s Home” tells of a nameless solider who pleads to Jesus for his life: “If you’ll only keep me from getting killed I’ll do anything you say. I believe in you and I’ll tell every one in the world that you are the only one that matters” (67). Whether or not the nameless solider is meant to be Krebs, Hemingway places this vignette so as to affect readings of “Solider’s Home.” The last line of the vignette reads: “The next night back at Mestre he did not tell the girl he went upstairs with at the Villa Rossa about Jesus. And he never told anybody” (67). James Mellow writes, “In the climactic moment, Mrs. Krebs blackmails her guilty son into kneeling down and praying with her, an episode aptly calculated to make the reader—particularly the modern reader—cringe” (123). Krebs’ reluctance to pray with his mother may lead to alienation within his own family, as well as make his reintegration into small-town life that much more difficult.

What faith Santiago has is largely due to his wife’s devotion and the belief that his luck is about to change. He says that he is “not religious” (Sea 52), but adds that he will “say ten Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys [if he] should catch [the marlin], and [he promises] to make a pilgrimage to the Virgin of Cobre if [he] catches [it]” (52). The reference to the Virgin of Cobre evokes the picture that Santiago’s wife owned, which still hangs in Santiago’s shack. The old man also possesses a near-unbreakable faith in the human spirit: “man is not made for defeat… A man can be destroyed but not defeated” (78). While “Hemingway distrusted symbolism” (Mellow 579), critics have noted the following passage for its allusion to Christ’s crucifixion: “‘Ay,’ he said aloud. There is no translation for this word and perhaps it is just a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood” (Sea 81). Allusions aside, Santiago is a simple man with simple beliefs, but those beliefs shape and sustain him.

John Roberts states that “[Krebs] is often seen as a failed apprentice, a Nick Adams who gives up and quits” (199). While it is true that his story ends with little hope for the future, to call him a complete failure is unfair. Hemingway demonstrates that like Santiago, who breaks his string of bad luck and provides a role model for Manolin, Krebs assumes responsibility by choosing to enlist in the Marines. Unlike Santiago, however, Krebs struggles to find his place in the world due to disillusionment, poor timing, and a no-consequences attitude. The final straw for Krebs is the fact that he lives without a purpose: he makes no effort to know a girl, he has no solid plans for a career, and due to the loss of his faith, he may end up alienating the few people that he still cares about–his own family.

Writing in 1925, Mary Plum says, “If we may take [In Our Time] as a criterion of his future work, Mr. Hemingway is likely to become one of the most original vital short story writers in America” (17). Plum could not have known that Hemingway would go on to write The Old Man and the Sea, but her prediction about his contribution is correct. Hemingway’s work is as rich and unique as the man’s own life experiences, which he often used as a basis for his stories. Because of this, Hemingway’s readers have special access to the author’s thoughts. Through the contrasting examples of Krebs and Santiago, Hemingway defines a successful man as one who assumes responsibility, finds his place in the world, and lives with purpose.

Works Cited

Donaldson, Scott. Hemingway’s Neglected Short Fiction: New Perspectives. Ed. Susan F. Beegel. Ann Arbor: UMI Research, 1989. 99-105. Print.

Hemingway, Ernest. The Old Man and the Sea. NY: Scribner, 1996. 1-96. Print.

—. In Our Time. NY: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1970. 69-77. Print.

Mellow, James R. Hemingway: A Life Without Consequences. MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company. 1994. Print.

Plum, Mary. “A New Chicago Writer.” Critical Essays on Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time. Michael S. Reynolds. MA: G.K. Hall & Co., 1983. 17. Print.

Roberts, John J. “In Defense of Krebs.” Critical Essays on Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time. Michael S. Reynolds. MA: G.K. Hall & Co., 1983. 199-202. Print.