It undoubtedly goes without saying that Ernest Hemingway is one of the greatest writers whose words our generation will ever be fortunate enough to read. I will refrain from delving into a deep biography as you could just as easily find his story on the internet, so I will get right into it. Hemingway had a very interesting concept that I discovered the more that I read his stories: Nada. Upon discovering Nada, I was able to finally begin to understand the shrouded mystery that was beheld within his works. Hemingway’s concept of Nada distinctly reflects the philosophical movement of existentialism in the sense that Hemingway believed that the universe was devoid of any intrinsic purpose, order, meaning, and value. Thus, for Hemingway, because the human individual is not orchestrated by an omnipresent being, it is the responsibility of the individual to obtain unique purpose, order, meaning, and value in his or her own life. Nada can be understood as the realization that the universe is indifferent, chaotic, and irrational—that nothing is everywhere. Therefore, the individual is given two essential choices: 1) give up and accept that death is inevitable and everything before death is therefore irrelevant, 2) develop a moral code of conduct which recognizes that while although death is inevitable, the human individual’s ability to give his or her life purpose and meaning is incentive enough to nourish a life embodying grace under pressure. This concept of existentialism and Nada are often recurring themes in Hemingway’s fiction and can be observed specifically in two of my favorite Hemingway pieces “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”
Hemingway develops “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” around both the contrast of lightness and darkness and an old man with the younger people around him. The old man, deaf and drunk, is introduced sitting in the shadows the leaves of a tree made against the electric light of a café maintained by two waiters: one who is young and another who is older, but not old like the drunken old man. Hemingway contrasts these characters to represent three courses of life: birth, life, and death. In the first moments of the story the older waiter reveals that the old man attempted to commit suicide because the old man was in despair—about nothing. Nothing, in this context, undoubtedly alludes to Hemingway’s concept of Nada—that the old man is aware of the nothingness of an irrational and chaotic universe and can no longer bear to continue leading a meaningless life. Later, the young waiter states, “I have confidence. I am all confidence” (Hemingway, 290). Here, Hemingway suggests that because the young waiter is married, unaware, and inexperienced, he has a naïve conception that the universe is inherently meaningful thus influencing his confidence in his purpose and value in life; whereas because the older waiter and the deaf man are unmarried, aware, and experienced they therefore possess the realization that the universe is devoid of all meaning which directly influences their affinity and understanding toward the clean well-lighted café. The young waiter’s confidence drowns out his patience and ability to empathize—traits learned through both time and experience—with the older men.
The older waiter is reluctant to close the café because he sympathizes with the deaf man; he understands that the further progress into life—the closer an individual approaches death—the more the individual becomes aware of the Nada and the absurdity of life. The older waiter understands that there is significance in the fact that the old man, and people like the old man, finds refuge in the clean and well-lighted café. Moreover, the older waiter intends the café remain open to allow the old man a temporary escape from the night, or, the chaotic unknown of an irrational universe. Additionally, this fear of nothingness of the night gives birth to insomnia, which inflicts both the older waiter and the old man. Hemingway also presents the idea of dignity as it relates to his concept of Nada. After being cut-off from drinking, the old man leaves the clean and well-lighted place and the waiter “watched him go down the street, a very old man walking unsteadily but with dignity” (Hemingway, 290). It is understood that in this context the drunken old man possesses the ability to cope with the pressures of the darkness of life with grace and while although the old man attempted to commit suicide, he is still alive, capable of handling himself in a chaotic and irrational universe.
Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” develops around Harry, a writer, and his wife, Helen, who have been stranded while on an African safari. Harry carelessly suffered a scratch from a thorn bush and had not properly applied iodine which subsequently had become infected and gangrene. Harry spends most of his time drinking, insulting his wife, and eventually coming to the realization that while although he had led an adventurous and dynamic life he had wasted his talents through procrastination and—through implication—his preoccupation of the future that drowned his ability to realize the significance of the present moment. Within the story Harry has multiple encounters with Hemingway’s concept of Nada while on the African safari. For example, the story begins with Harry announcing that death is painless, and “[t]hat’s how you know when [dying] starts” (Hemingway, 39). Later, after Harry had admitted to himself that his wife had not been the source of his despair, it had then occurred to him that he was going to die and it “came with a rush; not as a rush of water nor of wind; but of a sudden evil-smelling emptiness” (Hemingway, 47).
Because Hemingway rejected all traditional standards of a higher being that controlled the universe, he allowed his characters, such as Harry, to dictate the manner that they confront their inevitable destiny of Nada. In effect, what had caused Harry’s death was his own carelessness; however, Harry, embedded with Hemingway’s concept of Nada, fell victim to an irrational and hostile universe which caused such an unreasonable wound which further provoked his unreasonable death. Because Hemingway’s universe is irrational and hostile, he develops a code of conduct for himself and his characters to abide by. This code revolves around the concept of Nada and an irrational and chaotic universe in that while although the individual human may not have control of his or her destiny the individual human possesses the ability to control his or her reaction to the confronted Nada.
Hemingway allows Harry an imaginative final flight into heaven, or at least Harry’s paradisiacal version. It is important to note that before the plane had climbed the top of Kilimanjaro that “it had darkened and they were in a storm,” which reflects the concept of darkness that can be observed in “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” (Hemingway, 56). After the darkness comes a heavy—perhaps baptismal—rain, whereupon they had reached the top of Kilimanjaro which was “unbelievably white in the sun” which reflects the concept of lightness which can be observed in “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” (Hemingway, 56). Harry embodies Hemingway’s code in the sense that he accepted Nada so much that he readily confesses that he had become bored of dying; thus maintaining Hemingway’s grace under pressure.
While although “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” are merely two Hemingway pieces which demonstrate his concepts of “Nada” and “grace under pressure,” a major portion of his writings also embody this approach to existence mainly because these methods simply did not dry upon the tip of Hemingway’s pen after he had finished writing; Hemingway personified these ideas into his own waking life. These concepts are uniquely compelling and inspiring in the sense that every human individual conceivably fears death in that it dictates certain actions and reactions and this fear gives birth to a variety of beliefs, particularly ideas concerning a higher power, to quell and give justification to these fears. Hemingway insists that the idea of an inherently rational universe is an illusion—that the human individual must accept the Nada and death; and with the acceptance of Nada comes the ability to nurture experiences and practices that bring purpose, order, meaning, and value in his or her own life. Furthermore, Hemingway contends that the human individual should not be quietly defeated by the realization of a meaningless world; however, seek the ability to redefine his or her life to have meaning to compensate for the nothingness that occurs from existing in an irrational and chaotic universe.