Humanity Examined Through American Realism By Jessica Brunelle

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Willa Cather
Image result for ernest hemingway
Ernest Hemingway Nobel Prize in Literature 1954

Ernest Hemingway and Willa Cather portray similar themes in their novels. Each author depicts life as they have experienced it. In their novels, both show the brutalities of life in nature and the brotherhood between men. Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea displays themes of man versus nature and man companionship; moreover, Willa Cather’s My Antonia addresses themes of hardships on the prairie and relationships among people.

In Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, he shows a fisherman’s struggle with nature, and the camaraderie between men. Throughout the entire novel, he constantly describes the cruelty of nature. In the beginning of the novel, the reader learns that the old man has not caught a fish in eighty-four days. Since Santiago is a fisherman, he depends upon fish in order to survive financially. Hemingway clearly describes what the sun and sea has done to this old man when he describes him as “… thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck. The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks” (9-10). The reader sees how nature has already taken a toll on him. Later in the novel, man against nature appears again when Santiago sees a Portuguese man-of-war floating in the water. The old man tells the reader that fish are immune to their poisons, but when he touches their filaments “he would have welts and sores on his arms and hands of the sort that poison ivy or poison oak can give”(36). Hemingway emphasizes how harsh nature can be when he compares the man-of-war sores to those that poison ivy and oak give. He continues to make man versus nature clear at the end of the novel when he and the fish are at battle with one another. This is seen when the old man tells the fish, “ ‘Fish,’ the old man said. ‘Fish, you are going to have to die anyway. Do you have to kill me too?’ ” (92). One is going to win this fight or they will both die trying. In this novel, the theme of man versus nature is apparent; however, companionship between men is also evident. Hemingway shows friendship among men in the beginning of the novel when the young boy tries to make the old man feel better about his luck. He says to Santiago, “ ‘But remember how you went eighty-seven days without catching a fish and then we caught big ones everyday for three weeks’ ” (10). This shows the reader that these two characters are close friends. The boy tries to be optimistic for the old man. The author also reinforces the theme of brotherhood and companionship throughout the novel when Santiago repeatedly states that he wishes the boy was with him. He misses and needs the boy. The reader also sees loyalty of men when Manolin takes care of the old man at the end of the novel after he returns home. Both themes of man versus nature and the brotherhood between men are apparent in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea; moreover, these two themes are similar to those expressed in Willa Cather’s My Antonia.

In the later, the hardships of life on the prairie are a major theme. The reader sees the troubles people encounter on the frontier through many of Cather’s characters. One character that the reader sees the prairie having a huge impact on is Mr. Shimerda. Historically there were many immigrants who came to the Midwest. They had a very difficult time because this type of environment was nothing like what they had experienced before. Through her depiction of Mr. Shimerda, the reader sees his frustrations and loneliness due to the lack of knowledge about farming and the desolate land. Mr. Shimerda’s life on the prairie leads to his suicide. He feels useless because of his unfamiliarity of agriculture and he was lonely because he could no longer socialize and play instruments with his friends from the old world. At the end of “The Shimerdas” section, Cather shows how the harsh frontier affects the Shimerdas when Antonia tells Jim, “ ‘If I live here like you, that is different. Things will be easy for you. But they will be hard of us’ ” (108). In “The Hired Girls” chapter, the audience again sees hardships on the prairie through the immigrant daughters. Cather shows what life these girls lead in order to help their fathers keep up the farms when she writes, “The Bohemian and Scandinavian girls could not get jobs as teachers because they had no opportunity to learn the language. Determined to help in the struggle to clear the homestead from debt, they had no alternative but to go into service” (155). These girls were young and had to lead a hard life in order to help the family. The immigrant parents have a difficult time on the frontier because they lack knowledge about farming. This leads to financial problems and causes the older girls to make money in order to save the families’ farms. Cather not only shows hardships on the prairie through her characters but also describes the harsh nature and how it impacts the people. In the beginning of the novel, she describes how brutal nature is on the prairie when she writes, “Beside the frozen pond something happened to the other sledge: Peter saw it plainly. Three big wolves got abreast of the horses, and the horses went crazy. They tried to jump over each other, got tangled up in the harness, and overturned to sledge” (50-51). This is man versus nature at its finest. Cather discusses this theme as well as the similar theme that Hemingway uses, which is the companionship of people. Throughout this novel, Cather shows how personal relationships among people grow over time. The two main characters in this relationship are between Jim and Antonia. At the beginning of the novel, Jim and Antonia are young children who become instant friends. Jim’s grandparents helped the Shimerda family with the burial of Mr. Shimerda and continued to help them out with food when they needed it. Even at the end of the novel when Jim and Antonia are much older, he still comes to visit Antonia and her new family. When people form a genuine friendship, it is hard not to stay in touch with each other. The companionship between Jim and Lena Lingard is also a representative of this theme when Jim and Lina find one another in the city. This is apparent when Lena tells Jim, “ ‘You aren’t sorry I came to see you that time?’ she whispered. ‘It seemed so natural. I used to think I’d like to be your first sweetheart. You were such a funny kid!’ ” (222). Cather expresses how important friendships are when her characters continue to grow together. This is why the novel covers a period of thirty years. Cather like Hemingway displayed similar themes when they wrote these two novels.

In Ernest Hemingway’s and Willa Cather’s novels, they address themes of man versus nature and the companionship among people. Both authors portray a realistic depiction of the life on the sea and the frontier.  Man and nature sometimes work with each other, and at other times, work against one another.  The relationship between people is another important factor in life, in which helps to make life a little bit easier in times of trouble or in times of fun. 

Published by Jessicanilebrunelle

I have always looked at the universe in multiple ways. Experiences with beauty and peacefulness only to be shattered by hatred and ugliness. Why does the world work? How can we look at all the amazing things we have while dealing with the hardships? Many times throughout my life experiences have come full circle with only me to see it. I don’t even believe Existence is aware of these times. It is the most supernatural phenomena I have witnessed.

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