Hemingway and Unfulfilled Longing

‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ – with Ernest Hemingway:

A Farewell to Arms
Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
Hemingway: To die. Alone. In the rain.

For Whom the Bell Tolls
Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
Hemingway: To die doing something heroic…even if it was completely meaningless and accomplished nothing.

The Sun Also Rises
Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
Hemingway: Because he was in love with someone who would never love him back; a fate worse than death.

I recently read each of these books as part of my decision to read more non-fiction literature. Tim Keller at one point suggested that pastors, who generally read a lot of non-fiction, ought to also read quality fiction in order to stimulate their creativity and imagination. Some of my favorites have been Tolkien, Dostoyevsky and Steinbeck.

And then there’s Hemingway…

The Charm of Hemingway

With Hemingway, you don’t get happy endings in which everything wraps up perfectly and people live happily ever after.

With Hemingway, you get a good story, but most of all, you get a lot of introspection and existential questions, which never get resolved.

Perhaps that’s the charm and appeal of Hemingway: he didn’t try to sugarcoat things. He presents life in all of its facets: joy and pain, longing and disappointment. He’s not afraid to leave a dilemma unresolved, or to have a character’s longing go unfulfilled.

Writing About Himself

As I read his stories, I can’t help but feel that Hemingway is writing about himself – and above all, about his inner struggle to find meaning in life apart from God.

He longs to be heroic and adventurous, and indeed he was – both in the stories and in real life. Yet in the end, even he himself questions what the meaning of life is – and he is never able to sufficiently answer the question, not even in a way that satisfies himself.

It’s no surprise that the main characters in Hemingway’s stories are all Americans living abroad – like Hemingway was. But more importantly, they are all atheists – like Hemingway himself. And not just atheists, but conflicted atheists, who realize the problems inherent to atheism…

In A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway’s character faces the tragic loss of his wife and child, and in a moment of desperation he forfeits his atheism and prays to God! I can’t help but believe that this is Ernest himself admitting that deep down inside, when faced with the reality of life, death and eternity, he knew there was a God – even if he didn’t like to admit it and didn’t want to acknowledge Him.

In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway’s character is fighting on the losing side of a war, in which the deaths of all those around him won’t change a single thing except to cause pain and loss. He tries to convince himself that all that matters is living heroically and all that matters is living for something bigger than yourself… except that too is completely meaningless. So life is a struggle, it is pain and strife – intermixed with some pleasure – followed by death.

In The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway’s thesis is that the point of life is to have fun and enjoy yourself – #YOLO, before #YOLO was a thing. The only problem is: what if you fail to attain that which you want, and therefore you do not succeed at enjoying yourself in life? What then is the point of living?

It is as if Hemingway, in each of his books, is desperately trying to convince himself that there is meaning in life apart from God – and constantly failing to do so.

At least he was honest.

And yet his life ended in self-inflicted tragedy, as if it was one of his own stories.

What Hemingway Missed: The Reality to Which All the Longings Point

What Hemingway failed to realize – and tragically so, considering that he asked all the right questions and seemingly came so close – was that all of the disappointment of the unfulfilled longings of this life points to a reality which is outside of this world.

This is the hope of the Christian gospel: that the unfulfilled longings we have now will actually be fulfilled one day. That the reason we are unsatisfied with life in this world is because we were made for perfection, and deep down we instinctually know the way that things ought to be – even though it’s not how they are right now. We long for a world in which there is love without parting. We long for a world of adventure and nobility, where love is reciprocated, a world of righteousness where injustice is no more and where life does not end.

And the promise of the Bible is that such a world is what we were made for; it has been lost, but it will exist again – and by the grace of God we will get to be part of it because of what Jesus did for us.

The knowledge of that gives actual meaning to our present struggles and direction and purpose to our lives here and now – something truly bigger than ourselves, which will result in the fulfillment of our presently unfulfilled longings.

12 thoughts on “Hemingway and Unfulfilled Longing

  1. All of these books are fiction. But they are full of longing to find answers and meaning to a life full of hardship and sadness; which is quite real! Quite real to all of us at one time or another.
    “Apart from God “is the delineating factor. Hemingway discovered before he committed suicide, that there is no meaning “apart from God”. Man was built to think for himself. God allows us to seek and has built us to seek. Thank you Lord for being so patience.

    1. I think it’s that realness that people are drawn to in his writing. He once said that his goal in writing was to simply write down clearly what he felt and saw in the world. He did that well, but I hope that others who read him will see what he missed: that these longings we have point to a reality – and therefore with God, life does have meaning, value and purpose.

  2. I think most fiction could be categorized broadly in this way because meaning the longing to which you refer is such a profound human desire. I watched the “Great American Read” the other night on Public Broadcasting and most of the books there had various understandings of these meanings as a theme.

    1. That’s interesting. One of the things Keller likes to point out is that in the stories we consume in movies, plays and books, we are basically hearing/watching the same few stories over and over, just with different characters and settings – but at the core they are telling the same basic stories, and yet we never tire of them, in fact we pay money to see them, read them and hear them. That’s how strong these longings and desires we have are!

      1. Hmmm…I think someone older than Keller once wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun” 🙂

  3. I would agree with Keller. I found that fiction provides illustrations for some of my favorite sermons, including Shakespeare, Flannery O’Connor, Doestevsky, even Douglas Adams 😉😂

    1. Part of what Keller suggested was that using word pictures is one of the most effective ways of speaking, e.g. “like waves crashing against the rocks” or “our own works are able to save us just as much as a spider web is able to stop of falling boulder.” He said that reading fiction goes a long way in helping to think in these kinds of pictures.

      1. Yeah….I think that is very true….I’m not especially creative by nature and those kinds of word pictures don’t come naturally to me….which is why reading is so helpful

  4. Oddly, I do not know much about Ernest Hemingway, except for what I saw in a film. I am not sure how I skipped him. But if he committed suicide, lived abroad and questioned everything, then I would probably love him. Those jokes about him are true for me too.

    1. I read three of his books in the past year. I thought two were good and one was a waste of time. He’s a good writer, but as I mention in the post, it’s like he gets right up to the point of realization, but then he stops short. Almost like he is unwilling to recognize God because he knows that it would have implications for how he lived his life from that day forward. It’s a tragic end to a life of denying God even though it feels like he really knew deep down that God exists and that he ought to surrender to Him.

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