Analysis of Ernest Hemingway’s “Letter of August 18, 1918, to His Parents”

by on July 25th, 2010
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Often the truths one must endeavor are far too grotesque to perceive through normal eyes; at times one cannot stare directly at an object and so one must view it in an eschewed or warped manner as is true with much war literature. Ernest Hemingway shows prime example of this in his Letter of August 18, 1918, to His Parents by means of irony, direct description, and a brief seriousness invoking potential social impacts.

One cannot delve into Hemingway’s piece without first discussing his subject: war. War has always been a subject conceived with mixed objectives and perspectives. In the past, it was often glorified and essentially stayed this way until the 19th and 20th centuries. It would make sense that this would hold true considering the vast majority of soldiers during previous periods tended to be illiterate and uneducated in most subjects with the exception of conflict. Desiderius Erasmus once said, “War is delightful to those who have had no experience of it” (War Quotes / War Quotations. Quotes About War). There seems to be a deep truth within that statement. Those writing about war tended to not be those involved but those sitting by benefiting and profiting via confrontations. One can also consider old lines such as Horace’s “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” which fundamentally means in English “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country” (Garrod 531). Views such as this were often emphasized in the past because one needed to recruit and one also needed to boost morale. But as can be expected, others were extremely anti-war. With reference to most poets, it would make eminent sense that anti-war poetry is more prevalent because poets tend to lean towards a humanitarian view of things that one could easily side with. They focus not on the disconnected outer view, but the internal individualized lives lost. One would surely be willing to side with William Sherman when he said, “War is Hell” (War Quotes / War Quotations. Quotes About War). There is nothing beautiful about losing lives or death before one’s time. Soldiers would see this best.

In Letter of August 18, 1918, to His Parents, Ernest Hemingway employs an expansive implementation of dark irony. He starts off by saying “there isn’t anything funny about this war” yet he continues with a light-hearted sense (Hemingway 1377). The piece is so sarcastic and dark; by no accident one is instantly pushed to think of other 20th century conflicts. Catch-22 comes to mind as does Country Joe and the Fish’s Feel Like I’m Fixing To Die Rag (Next Stop Vietnam), though both works post date by a good fifty years. In the 20th century this dark irony really became prevalent in a large portion of war perspectives. Soldiers would make a joke of the truth. When Hemingway discusses shells he says they “aren’t bad except direct hits. You must take chances on the fragments of the bursts. But when there is a direct hit your pals get spattered all over you. Spattered is literal,” and then he drops the subject (Hemingway 1377). It is the fact that he is willing to bring up the subject, make light of it, and then simply disregard it that gives the text a darker mood. All of his text up till the fifth paragraph seems to maintain this ironic sense. “Maybe I’ll get a hand grenade later” (Hemingway 1377). “Now out of all that mess to only be struck by a trench mortar and a machine gun bullet while advancing toward the rear, as the Irish say, was fairly lucky” (Hemingway 1378). Hemingway is looking death straight in the eye and seeming to just say he does not care anymore; he is desensitized. He writes that his legs “looked like somebody had made current jelly in them and then punched holes to let the pulp out” (Hemingway 1378). What would no doubt cause indescribable pain is being played off as a joke; it is so thoroughly and effectively understated. More than anything this whole situation is ironic because Hemingway is not taking credit for something proudly heroic. The fact that Hemingway chooses not to boast about himself getting nearly hit by a “muzzle-loaded Austrian trench mortar” only to get back up, hoist a badly injured Italian comrade onto his shoulders and run 200 yards to the nearest trench while sustaining an Austrian bullet to the “right foot and knee” says an enormous deal about his character: he shows “remarkable courage” (Moreira). Curiously, Ernest Hemingway never truly takes credit for his deed; it is shrugged off. Irony keeps man afloat in this struggle and it seems to state situation better than reality.

Hemingway’s sentence structure throughout his letter can be described as to the point; the descriptive aspect is direct and gets to the point. There appears to be little beating around the bush and this strengthens the overall feeling of the work. Instead of drawing out the statement, Hemingway simply states it for what it is in a complete thought and moves on. This is rather curious in contrast to other works on the subject of war. Again, with reference to the past, the simple direct format of Hemingway is rather opposite to the superfluous glorification of writers such as Alfred Lord Tennyson who uses exquisitely proud sounding narrative in The Charge of the Light Brigade (Stedman). The contrast seems to make Hemingway’s letter seem more real. When literature is this direct it makes one trust the author and feel that nothing is being held back. It seems to correlate a bit with Gertrude Stein’s style in that the sentences keep a more minimalist feel. One must apologize for the lack of structure in this paragraph; it is proving difficult and problematic to describe something implemented so well and sensed more so with internal feelings. That is what makes Hemingway’s ability so beautiful; it conjures and works internally.

The aspect of Hemingway’s letter that one personally appreciates the most is his seriousness at the end. One must keep in mind that this letter was sent to his parents and that he did not know that it would be published. The first portion of the letter is, as stated previously, ironic and packed with sarcasm, but the second portion is much more serious. In that first person one gets the impression that Hemingway is, in a sense, trying to ease the subject matter onto his parents so that they might not worry as much about him. In the second portion one sees that he is not fooling about with the subject so much. He gets to the point and describes how his condition is and when he will hopefully be done. This is endearing. One is able to connect on a much deeper level with Hemingway gets to the second portion. The joking irony is forgotten and one is grounded again. One might even go as far to say one is bonded to him. The last bit seems the most honest.

I wouldn’t really be comfortable now unless I had some pain. The Surgeon is going to cut the plaster off in a week now and will allow me on crutches in 10 days. I’ll have to learn to walk again. (Hemingway 1378)

Despite the fact that Hemingway was taken out of the battlefront, he still wants to feel some pain. One would imagine that this is to let him feel like he was there with his fellow soldiers. It would not be fair to escape their fate without some price or pound of flesh being paid. The final lines seals it emotionally and it is placed so well. “I’ll have to learn to walk again” (Hemingway 1378). There is no irony in that, it is what it is and what it is, is heart wrenching. To lose the ability to walk is nearly as bad if not worse than death. Overall the tone change is effective in its purpose.

With writing such as Hemingway’s, society was exposed to war in a much different manner causing alterations in overall perceptions. No longer is the general public given this beautified and romanticized image of something so dreadful and ugly. For a time following the First World War many people were getting a taste of what war was really like especially with such devices as film and photographs. Words were given actual images. One can say that the words written in this period have had a great effect personally. Never before did the idea of being gassed, choking on oxygen, and having one’s eyes bulge for lack of air come to mind before reading WWI poetry. Society, surely, was affected in the same manner and future generations go back to these works for foundation in modern anti-war sentiments. Authors like Hemingway have indeed made their mark and live on.

Within an altered, eschewed perspective of sorrowful subjects Hemingway has indeed shown truth. His uses of irony, directness, and tone change are especially effective and have made his work profound. Without such devices his work would not imprint with half the impact. Ernest Hemingway’s Letter of August 18, 1918, to His Parents captures a feeling previously unfelt and pushes society to take notice. “There isn’t anything funny about this war” (Hemingway 1378).

Works Cited

Baym, Nina, ed. The Norton Anthology: American Literature. 7th ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2007.

Garrod, Heathcote William, ed. The Oxford Book of Latin Verse. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1912; New York:, 2002. 7 Apr 2009

Hemingway, Ernest. “Letter of August 18, 1918, to His Parents” Baym. 1377-1378.

Moreira, Peter. “Hemingway At War.” Military History Vol.26 Issue.1Apr/May 2009 28-35. 7 Apr 2009.

Stedman, Edmund Clarence, ed. A Victorian Anthology, 1837-1895. Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1895;, 2003. 7 Apr 2009

“War Quotes / War Quotations. Quotes About War .” 2009. 7 Apr 2009

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