Essay, Research Paper: Hemingway Protagonist - Soldier's Home

Literature: Ernest Hemingway

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Various authors, through years of discipline, develop their own style in
creating characters. Ernest Hemingway varied his style by establishing an
indestructible template for pressing characters into molded protagonists. This
"template" protagonist follows a unique set of standards unlike any
other character, produced by any other author. In his literary work
"Soldier's Home", Hemingway creates the character Krebs to abide by
this set of standards. By working within the circumstances presented to him,
Krebs fits the mold of a typical Hemingway protagonist by overcoming his
disillusions through heroic actions. To begin with, Krebs returns home from
World War I to a society that he no longer feels attached to. It can be assumed
that before the war Krebs worked within society since he is depicted in a
college photo along with his similarly-dressed fraternity brothers. When he
enlists into the Marines though, life becomes simplistic; you eat, sleep, and
fight. The problem arises when Krebs tries to return from a simplistic lifestyle
of war, to a much more complicated domestic lifestyle. "Ironically, Krebs
is disillusioned less by the war than by the normal peacetime world which the
war had made him to see too clearly to accept" (Burhans 190). Krebs seeks
refuge from this disillusion by withdrawing from society and engaging himself in
individual activities. A typical day for Krebs consists of going to the library
for a book, which he would read until bored, practicing his clarinet, and
shooting pool in the middle of the day; this is common for a Hemingway
protagonist. Hemingway realizes "that with the disappearance of the
transcendent and the absolute from man's consciousness, the universe becomes
empty of meaning and purpose..." (Burhans 284); a good basis for testing a
protagonist to see whether or not he's heroic . A more specific way that Krebs
withdraws from society is his view of women and love. In a society full of talk,
Krebs would have to engage in conversation and interaction in order to win a
woman's heart. Krebs did not want to go through all of that again. He found it
much easier during the war to become intimate with a French or German girl,
especially considering that there wasn't as much "red tape" in
European relationships. It was just too complicated to adjust himself back to an
American relationship which he deemed full of consequences. In other works by
Hemingway, protagonists are "haunted by a sense of how simple it all was
once, when he could take his Indian girl into the clean-smelling woods, stretch
out beside her on the pine-needles (her brother standing guard), and rise to no
obligations at all" (Fiedler 143). Krebs is much the same way. He
experienced this obligation-free relationship in Europe and was disgusted by the
thought of returning to an obligated relationship in America. Hemingway himself
learned of obligations from four separate marriages; why should any of his
fictional characters escape this dreaded wrath. Another way that Krebs withdraws
from society is the loss of his faith. Before the war Krebs attended a Methodist
college, which reinforces the idea that he was a man of faith. During the war
though, Krebs experiences a change in his beliefs. It can only be imagined what
unholy things he had seen and done in the midst of battle. Once home, he
denounces existing in God's Kingdom to his mother and refuses to pray. Hemingway
felt that it is this "determination to be faithful to one's own experience,
not to fake emotions or pretend to sentiments that are not there" is
brought out in Krebs' character (Howe 233). It is this tone, the importance of
one's inner beliefs over anyone else's, which pushes Hemingway's protagonist
away from society. So how does one become heroic after denouncing so much of
society? If alive today, Hemingway's answer may very well be "grace under
pressure." Customary in Hemingway's literary works, such as Santiago in The
Old Man and the Sea, the protagonist is always fighting a losing battle. Philip
Young, a well-known critic of Hemingway, says it best when he states that in
life "you lose, of course; what counts is how you conduct yourself while
you are being destroyed" (Young 274). A Hemingway hero would take notice of
his ill fate and make the best of it. The motive behind Hemingway's heroic
figures is not glory, or fortune, or the righting of injustice, or the thirst
for experience. They are inspired neither by vanity nor ambition nor a desire to
better the world. They have no thoughts of reaching a state of higher grace or
virtue. Instead, their behavior is a reaction to the moral emptiness of the
universe, an emptiness that they feel compelled to fill by their own special
efforts. (Gurko 229) In "Soldier's Home", Krebs realizes the problems
that he faces; he no longer believes in society, particularly love and faith.
Krebs heroic deed is displayed when he moves on with his life, rather than
bringing it to a screeching halt. At one point, he denounces loving his own
mother. In order to satisfy his mother and avoid friction, Krebs holds back the
nausea and lies, saying that he does love her. Krebs also announces his plans to
move out of town for a job; to get on with his life. No doubt, Krebs displays
"grace under pressure." In the end, the protagonist from
"Soldier's Home", Krebs, proves himself to be a typical product of
Hemingway. Hemingway's mold often required a character to be socially withdrawn,
from women and faith, and to overcome these disillusions by becoming heroic.
Krebs succeeded in this mold by engaging in non-sociable activities, ridiculing
the complexity of relationships with women, and denouncing his Methodist faith.
To top it all off, Krebs can truly be seen as a Hemingway hero by demonstrating
grace under pressure.
Burhans, Clinton S. Jr. "Hemingway and Vonnegut: Diminishing Vision in a
Dying Age." Modern Fiction Studies (1975): 173-191. Rpt. in Contemporary
Literary Criticism. Vol 8. Eds. Dedria Bryfonski, Phyllis Carmel Mendelson.
Detroit: Gale Research Company. 1978. 284-285. Burhans, Clinton S. Jr. "The
Complex Unity of 'In Our Time'." Modern Fiction Studies. 14 (1968).
313-328. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol 30. Ed. Jean C. Stine,
Daniel G. Marowski. Detroit: Gale Research Company. 1984. 188-191. Fiedler,
Leslie. "Men without Women." Love and Death in the American Novel
(1959). Rpt. in Hemingway: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Robert P. Weeks.
Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1962. 86-92. Gurko, Leo. Ernest Hemingway
and the Pursuit of Heroism. (1968). Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism Vol
6. Eds. Carolyn Riley, Phyllis Carmel Mendelson. Detroit: Gale Research Company.
1976. 229. Howe, Irving. A World More Attractive: A View of Modern Literature
and Politics. (1963). 65-70. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism Vol 3. Ed.
Carolyn Riley. Detroit: Gale Research Company. 1975. 232-233. Young, Philip.
"Ernest Hemingway." American Writers Pamphlet No. 1 (1959). Rpt. in
Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol 13. Ed. Dedric Bryfonski. Detroit: Gale
Research Company. 1980. 273-276.
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