I have always been a fan of Ernest Hemingway, and I have read about half of his work by now. I appreciate his work within minimalism, and the Hemingway Code which stresses grace under fire. A lot of people want to cast Hemingway as a man’s man, while others want to marginalize his work with charges of racism and sexism. Regardless of post-modern interpretations of the text, it is canonical of the time and literary movement. I like his work because he knows how to tell a story in a way that allows the reader to craft their own meaning behind the words. I think what is not written by Hemingway exemplifies what I dislike in other authors. He is not interested in making the reader feel the pain of his characters, or paint a vivid picture of the book’s setting within elaborate description and flowery language. Yet, we do find internal dialogue within the text that is purposeful and well thought out. Also, there is a good amount of external dialogue, but this is very blunt and seemingly impersonal. Too often have I found writers who put hysteria on a page and then call it art. I think Hemingway does the opposite of that by cluing the reader in to the internal struggle of his characters, while mostly focusing on external events that push the plot forward. I have come to expect a level of adventure and social interaction that carry veiled meanings when I read Hemingway. Upon reflection I was not disappointed.

I found my copy of To Have and Have Not at a Barnes and Noble in a self full of nothing but Hemingway’s work. I heard Faulkner made a movie out of the book, but I’m too scared to watch it. I read this out of school, and I don’t think many schools would want to cover this work because they probably like other works by Hemingway more. I have to categorize this book as a guilty pleasure, but I seldom regret the things I like.

One of the things I liked the most about this book was that it was fast-paced and quick to read. Ever since the shootout at the café in the first few pages, I was hooked to see how Harry Morgan’s adventures would turn out. The violence depicted in the shootout was graphic, but I thought it gave some much needed context to the life of crime Morgan was about to set out on. When I reread this book, I found the first two words of the first page to be very symbolic to this end. “YOU KNOW” in all caps felt off-putting at first, but now I think it serves as a disclaimer of sorts. As in “you know” this book is going to be graphic, “you know” this book is going to be controversial, and “you know” you should strap yourself in for the ride. This interpretation now comes from having reread it, but looking back to when I first read this book it still felt like a rollercoaster kicking off.

I read this book and other works by Hemingway and Fitzgerald my sophomore year at community college. I had started college as a business major, but accounting made me want to set all my work on fire. I became so frustrated with the monotony of these studies that I had to explore something of art or beauty to get me out of this self-imposed emotional purgatory. I don’t mind the business culture or the prospects of making money in the 21st century; I just hated how much my classes revolved around soulless numbers. I wanted to replace those numbers with emotions and in that effort I switched majors. To Have and Have Not came to me at a special time in my life because I was breaking the norm of what was expected of me. Harry Morgan is my rogue hero because he could put things together without needing a formal education. In response to the stories of those that have and those that have not, I felt lost to this weird sense of economic determinism. It was not that I worry of being without, sooner than later, but rather that those without have no other choice in making future decisions.

People can vilify Harry Morgan and his actions, but I think what makes Harry Morgan an anti-hero also makes him human. I looked over this story and tried to examine the chain of events that ultimately lead to Harry’s death. In doing so I found a man capable of both good and evil. I don’t think we can cast Morgan as an antihero because of this moral ambiguity. He may have murdered Mr. Sing, but that sacrifice got his family through spring and summer.

To understand the historical context of the book it takes a bit of knowledge concerning the Great Depression. At the time it wouldn’t matter if someone had the drive to work hard because there was no work to be had. Similarly, it wouldn’t have mattered if Harry wanted to make an honest living because he was cheated out of it by Mr. Johnson. Not only was the economy getting worse for charter fishing, but Harry was also without the means to do it. Some Mr. Johnson alright, but how was Harry supposed to know better than to trust him?

There are so many ways to interpret the text, and that is the criteria for me that can make a work of literature good. I think people like to superimpose their own beliefs about the world within analyzing a text, and I don’t necessarily think that is a bad thing. However, a text that wants to impose its beliefs onto the reader is another story. I think that a text of high literary value can be interpreted on multiple levels, from multiple perspectives, and for multiple reasons. With that in mind I think having to question one’s empathy for the main characters should be a morally ambiguous endeavor. I’ve grown tired of stereotypical protagonists and the agency they exert over a work. This is one of the reasons I dislike Superhero stories so much. The main characters start out extra-human, and are expected to do things that are nothing other than unrealistic. It is not that I have disdain for this outlandish hero-villain binary. I have simply grown sick of the binary altogether. It has gotten to the point now that the villain makes the story of that genre for me, and if the villain doesn’t stand a chance then I don’t even bother.

I think To Have and Have Not breaks this binary; not just by having a roguish hero, but by having sociological forces play as villains. This can break down to the economic disparities of the Great Depression, the political revolution in Cuba at the time, or the criminological effects prohibition has on individuals. Harry Morgan is not fighting against the law or a super-mutant bent on world domination, he is fighting to feed his family and simply make a living. It was sad to see Harry consider what was to be done with his house and family once he could no longer be of use to them, but that was the central conflict driving the plot forward.

Alongside the story are also themes of modernism that set the benchmark for literature at the time. These are lostness, shifting points of view, and an irregular story arc. For lostness we not only have the loss of Morgan’s financial well-being, but we also see the loss of his physical well-being. Having lost his boat and his arm in a bad bootlegging run, we see Harry lose his mortality in the attempt of putting his life back on track. The shifting point of view is awkward and leaves audiences questioning their place in reading the book. However, the change in perspective is at the start of a chapter, and this challenges our understandings of 1st person limited and 3rd person omnipotent narratives. The change in perspective is crucial to understanding how the main characters are seen by others, as with Fredrick Harrison and Harry Morgan, or with Richard Gordon and Marie Morgan. Mr. Harrison’s perspective is that of political power at the time, and he sees to it that Harry’s boat is seized, even after Harry goes through all the trouble of dumping his liquor. Richard Gordon looks at Marie with disgust, but Harry looks at her with intimacy, and this serves to question the relational values a man hold in others.

For the irregular story arc we see the fatal wound inflicted to Harry Morgan on page 172, but we aren’t sure of his death until page 256 when Marie sees his body in the hospital. Between these two events Richard Gordon’s narrative lands right in the middle, almost interrupting a story we could have assumed was about Harry. Through placing this external or alternative plot within To Have and Have Not the audience actually experiences two climaxes alongside continual suspense. The first I would place when Harry kills the four Cubans who take him hostage and murdered Albert. The second climax I would put somewhere within the drama conveyed between Richard and his wife once she finally admits to him that there is another man. The second climax comes right after the first, but who would have thought it would have been with the Gordons instead of the Morgans?

I enjoyed the way this book conveyed action without overwhelming it with drama. It is up to the reader to find empathy for the main character, and there are parts central to Harry Morgan’s life where we are completely clueless. Yet, by alienating the audience from Harry’s physical and psychological pain we can see him as a stronger character. Through picking up the minimalist clues Hemingway leaves for us we can speculate our own interpretations of the text. Lastly, with the use of a supplementary story line we can draw parallels and distinctions between the two main characters; one who “has”, and one who “has not.” However, contradiction stems from the overwhelming sense of lostness on the part of all parties involved and makes us question if we can ever truly have something for certain. I like to think of Morgan as having, and then having not, only to for us to realize he had the entire time when compared to Gordon. I don’t know what class distinctions the novel made within criticism, but I think it proved there is something more important than comparing those who have to those who have not.

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