Literary Analysis Essay on Natural History of the Dead by Ernest Hemingway

Published: 2021-07-02
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Wesleyan University
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A Natural History of the Dead, authored by Earnest Hemingway, is perhaps one of the greatest short stories that describe the scale of World War I with regard to loss of life. One of the outstanding features of great pieces of literature is the ability to mirror the divinity and social-cultural developments in the society at their time and the modern era, likewise. As one of the greatest short stories A Natural History of the Dead certainly carries flashes of images of the of the society that existed at the time it was authored. The purpose of this paper is to explore the irony and the tension between the spiritual beliefs and the positivist philosophies of the antique (natural) historians as depicted by Hemingway in A Natural History of the Dead. Indeed, the author sets out this subject when he rhetorically poses a question originally asked by Bishop Stanley (Benson 1955).

With a disposition to wonder and adore in like manner, as Bishop Stanley says, can any branch of Natural History be studied without increasing that faith, love and hope which we also, every one of us, need in our journey through the wilderness of life? Let us therefore see what inspiration we may derive from the dead (Benson, 335).

This essay argues that A Natural History of the Dead is an accomplished piece of literature that succeeds in mirroring the society religious beliefs and the tension between positivist philosophies of the antique natural historians. This subject has particularly exemplified the presentation of the experiences and characters by the author, as pure examples delusion.

Human-Spiritual (Philosophy)

It is evident that Earnest Hemingway was raised in a religious background. Based on the story, the human nature is characterized by the approaches oriented towards rationality, Christianity, science, and logic, all of which are elements that represent constituent schools. The main principles of the human nature include the attribution of feeling of oneself as an element that is subject to divinity and eternity. Secondly, life is considered as a service to nature and God. Thirdly, everything that exists under the universe, including the universe itself, has a beginning and the end. Lastly, life is considered as a self-dedication to the pursuit of success and happiness (Camus, 1955).

The me concept is described based on the perimeters of the present time and the current position occupied by an individual. The me concept is perceived as a pivotal part of the Divinity, which is clear beyond doubt. The true me is divine-given and may never be cognitive. The human nature is considered as constituting opposition, such that the religion is sometimes treated as the fuel to fallacies. The human approach to the search of absolute truth is oriented towards individual events and roles of individual, as well as conducting research and analysis beyond oneself. Based on this view, truth is only acceptable as long as it can be tested and verified (Homer, 2001).

In regard to future, the Human philosophy advances the notion that no one can ever be certain about the future. It is only God who has the information about what the future brings. The current Human deeds do not have any impact on the future. The human nature lays emphasis on life, faith, success, and achievement as the core premises of a fulfilling life. Happiness rests upon virtues that inform ones behavior and decisions. The human nature is individualistic in the sense that is asserts human beings exist as a separate entity from the environment. The operation of the human social systems is not governed by environmental limits. The living principles are informed by ethics while the controls over emotions are resolved through analysis (Homer, 2001; Homer, 2001).

Analysis of the Positivist Philosophies of the Antique (Natural) Historians as Set Out in A Natural History of the Dead

As one begins to explore the short story "A Natural History of the Dead," different inferences are exposed through the different situations that the author conveys. Firstly, through Ernest Hemingways experiences in Mungo Park and his commentary, much can be derived from his ideas and views. The short story shifts from being a mere and simple-minded story regarding death and its historical background. The story is reveals how insignificant death is. Death is presented as only as a trivial part in the vastly outsized scope of nature and the entire world. The author provides vivid and satirical examples as to why death represents only a single element in the bigger picture of life. Early on, Hemingway evades the main theme that he is to base on in the rest of the story by portraying smaller cases and experiences. One such case lies in his depiction of dead bodies on the combat zone (Benson, 1975).

He satirically narrates that one of the most startling experiences witnessed on the combat zone is the stippled paperwork in the midst of the dead bodies. He indicates that one does not commit to memory the stench of the combat zone as much as the papers strewn all over the place. Based on this example, the author indicates that albeit a person might pass on, everything that person has interacted with or touch and the rest of life goes on. Another real life example is to ensue in Hemingways mind as her reminisces about the September 11th disaster that saw many soldiers killed. Worse still, the hope of finding their bodies had deemed. Yet, thousands of credentials ascertaining these individuals had lived remain. Employment records, tax returns, and other financial statements were evident, but often, the body of the individual was not. Once again, it demonstrates that death pales in contrast with the vast scope of nature (Benson, 1975).

Ironically, the life skills Earnest Hemingway that the author was taught seem to be the basis of his disillusionment with God and the society at large. After growing up limited to the good side of nature, the charming and sound accounts of the flora and fauna Hemingway is gaped by his first experiences as he witnesses the drowning of injured donkeys, mules, and swelling dead bodies of women workers who had succumbed to a munitions factory explosion. These incidents seem to have exploded the authors religious training. While his religious upbringing constitutes a systematic and codified denial of death and a belief in everlasting, Hemingways encounter in the World War I renders him unable to ignore the reality of death. As evidenced in his expressions, Hemingways Christian-based immortality beliefs are no longer possible after her observes the smell, sounds, and sight of death on the battlefield in Italy. Hemingways Australian experiences sooner than later gives him a lesson that re-aligns his personal mortality. He gains knowledge concerning death, however, it is incompatible with the knowledge he is exposed when still young (Benson, 1975).

Misrepresenting the expository philosophy of early naturalists, the authors lists different aspects of dead individuals in a manner similar to a natural historian would apply in cataloging animals or plant species (Benson, 1995).

Until the dead are buried they change somewhat in appearance each day. The colour change in Caucasian races is from white to yellow, to yellow-green, to black. If left long enough in the heat the flesh comes to resemble coal-tar, especially where it has been broken or torn, and it has quite a visible tar-like iridescence. The dead grow larger each day until sometimes they become quite too big for their uniforms, filling these until they seem blown tight enough to burst. The individual members may increase in girth to an unbelievable extent and faces fill as taut and globular as balloons (Benson, 337).

It is clear that the naturalistic observation of dead bodies does not evoke thoughts similar to those that Hemingway narrates about Mungo Park. The thoughts that are evoked while he is at Mungo Park are embedded in his own image. Nevertheless, he does not point out exactly what is missing from his studying of the dead. He avoids abstract terms such as soul,God, everlasting life, and immortality. He only says that he has not found any evidence that other people claim to have observed in nature (Benson, 1975).

..I'd never seen a natural death, so called, and so I blamed it on the war and like the persevering traveller, Mungo Park, knew that there was something else, that always absent something else, and then I saw one (Benson, 335).

Moreover, Hemingway outlines contemplation among soldiers concerning what actions to take to save one of their own who is injured. Some suggest that the injured soldier should be shot to spare him from suffering from the pain he is feeling. Another suggestion entails giving him a morphine overdose so that he dies slowly. Worse still, the depiction of the scenario of the war and the Generals death and burial in the mountains and the contradictory reporting by writers purporting that the general died in bed sums up this irony (Benson, 1975).

..They had beautiful burying grounds in the mountains, war in the mountains is the most beautiful of all war, and in one of them, at a place called Pocol, they buried a general who was shot through the head by a sniper. This is where those writers are mistaken who write books called Generals Die in Bed, because this general died in a trench dug in snow, high in the mountains, wearing an Alpini hat with an eagle feather in it and a hole in front you couldn't put your little finger in and a hole in back you could put your fist in, if it were a small fist and you wanted to put it there, and much blood in the snow (Benson, 338, 339).

In addition, the author is also critical of the modern eras New Humanism. He asserts that it is irresponsible, particularly because its meaning (literature) has long been removed from realities. Indeed, he stresses on this view by an apology for mentioning opposers of Humanistic ideologiesA Natural History of the Dead. The author further supports this view when he hints at how insignificant literary criticism means to young soldiers who perish in war (Benson, 1975).

..While it is, perhaps, legitimate to deal with these self-designated citizens in a natural history of the dead, even though the designation may mean nothing by the time this work is published, yet it is unfair to the other dead, who were not dead in their youth of choice, who owned no magazines, many of whom had doubtless never even read a review, that one has seen in the hot weather with a half-pint of maggots working where their mouths have been (Benson, 338).

In conclusion, the purpose of this paper was to explore the irony and the tension between the spiritual beliefs and the positivist philosophies of the antique (natural) historians as depicted by Hemingways A Natural History of the Dead. The author employs a more obscene and graphic approach to bring out and evoke the shock in the literary naturalistic aspect of death that even supersedes the Humanistic standards. Furthermore, Hemingway points out the high level of irresponsibility and the divinity of life that are missing in real life, especially in the portrayal of soldiers. Indeed, the author succeeds in exposing the aspects that have deteriorating in the society over time (Benson, 1975).


Beegel, Susan F. (1990). That Always Absent Something Else: A Natural History of the Dead and...

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