My dad sprang into range of the speakerphone, his English-professor gears kicking in, “But it’s an important novel in the development of the Hemingway hero. Hemingway, you see, believed that a man alone hasn’t got a chance.”
Dad was paraphrasing the main message of the book, which is delivered by the hero, Caribbean smuggler Harry Morgan, as he is being taken off a boat, wounded and delirious in the aftermath of a bank robbery and getaway attempt by some Cuban revolutionaries. After drifting for hours, some men find him.
“A man,” Harry Morgan said, looking at them both. “One man alone ain’t got. No man alone now.” He stopped. “No matter how a man alone ain’t got no bloody fucking chance.”
If, like me, your first exposure to Hemingway’s fourth novel (pub. 1937) was the 1944 film by Howard Hawks starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, you’re in for some surprises.
1. There is no love interest. (“You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve?” — that bit never happened.) And 2. Harry Morgan is not Bogart’s cool and seductive Key West captain. The real Harry Morgan is a murderous, racist borderline criminal who gets his arm shot off and hates his kids (but is fairly good to his big mess of a wife). His mood ranges from gruff to brutal.
Faced with the ruthlessness of his surroundings — a Gulf Stream of dishonesty and crookedness — he attempts to thrive by carving out his own place. His relative stability is built on upholding certain law-of-the-trade principles, such as never smuggling people. But he abandons them when economic factors force him to compromise his rules in order to feed his family.
Though many readers will have little sympathy for someone who regards “Chinamen” and black people as subhuman, he is, by very loose standards, a good man faced with impossible odds. And, in his failing, he does learn that men who struggle only to save themselves for the sake of living don’t stand a chance.
Life, for Hemingway’s hero, is cruel, absurd, and meaningless. The only hope you have is to face that absurdity with dignity by living for a cause worth dying for. As the Hemingway character in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris puts it: “…there’s nothing fine and noble about dying in the mud unless you die gracefully. And then it’s not only noble but brave.”
I found myself rooting for Harry Morgan. He was a total bastard, sure, but he was brave.