Sunday, March 5, 2017

Ernest Hemingway Creativity and Mental Health

Dr Ruwan M Jayatunge

The American novelist Ernest Hemingway is considered as the greatest writer of the 20th century. Hemingway explored universal themes such as life, love and death.  His name was a synonym for an approach to life characterized by action, courage, physical prowess, stamina, violence, independence, and above all "grace under pressure (Yalom & Yalom, 1971). Hemingway brought a revolution in style and was a keen observer of the contemporary world and human nature (Dieguez, 2010). With his influential work Ernest Hemingway became the the archetypal American writer. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954.

Hemingway stated that his stories emerged out of lived experiences. According to Dieguez (2010) most of his writings have a quasi-autobiographical quality, which allowed many commentators to draw comparisons between his personality and his art. Hemingway’s life was on constant move and adventure. 
During the World War One Hemingway served as an ambulance driver and wounded in 1918. He witnessed the gruesome realities of combat in the World War One. In addition He worked as a war correspondent during the Spanish civil war. His War experiences inspired him to write his great novel “A Farewell to Arms. His other works “The Sun Also Rises"(1926),   "For Whom the Bell Tolls"(1940) and "The Old Man and the Sea"(1952) became greatest novels of all time.

Throughout his career, Hemingway pinpoints the importance of witnessing and experiencing war on a writer (Robinson, 2010). As described by Putnam (2006) no American writer is more associated with writing about war in the early 20th century than Ernest Hemingway. He experienced it firsthand, wrote dispatches from innumerable front lines, and used war as a backdrop for many of his most memorable works.  In Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “Soldier’s Home he narrates a total alienation experienced by a soldier.

Hemingway's first novel, The Sun Also Rises became an an iconic modernist novel. It was about a lost generation – a group of disillusioned American expatriate writers live a dissolute, hedonistic lifestyle. The Sun Also Rises contained autobiographical elements from Hemingway's own life and it became the testimony of the postwar disillusionment of his generation. The term “Lost Generation” reflects the disillusioned, hopeless attitude the war generated (Zabala, 2007).

A Farewell to Arms was based on his war experiences. In this classic novel Hemingway concludes: “The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”  

Perhaps one of the most interesting descriptions of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was that presented in the short story “Soldiers Home,” which was written by Ernest Hemingway following his return to the United States after serving in the Italian army during World War I (MacNeill , 1995). This short story can be read as an effort to identify, attest to, organize, and communicate the experience of a traumatized soldier which, on the evidence, is what Hemingway himself was (Seiden, & Seiden, 2013). War experiences transformed the great writer.  In later years a number of PTSD related symptoms could be identified from Hemingway.  

Hemingway was fascinated, preoccupied, and obsessed with war, murder, big-game hunting, bullfighting, death, and suicide (Craig, 1995). In 1925, Ernest Hemingway wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald that “the reason you are so sore you missed the war is because the war is the best subject of all. It groups the maximum of material and speeds up the action and brings out all sorts of stuff that normally you have to wait a lifetime to get (Vernon, 2016). According to the Psychiatrist and the Psychoanalyst Lawrence Kubie Hemingway's works contained two types of males, a destructive male and a kind father-figure who symbolically represents the threat of passive homosexuality. The latter figure inspires both love and hate. The main struggle, then, is against both homosexual seduction and fear of father through castration (Craig, 1995).

As described by Martin (2006) Hemingway suffered psychological wounds during his childhood that predated by many years the traumatic experiences he encountered in World Wars I and II and all his subsequent injuries. He hated his mother for wrecking his father’s life. Hemingway's deep and longstanding rage toward his mother may have shaped his conceptualization of his father's suicide so that his father's death became his mother's fault (Martin, 2006). He possessed deep unresolved anger towards his mother.  Lynn (1987) writes that for long years Hemingway carried this anger in his heart. Hemingway's writing can be seen as an adaptive defensive strategy for dealing with painful moods and suicidal impulses. (Martin, 2006). However the defenses were falling apart. Hemingway's anxiety and depression stemmed in large part from his failure to actualize his idealized self (Yalom & Yalom, 1971).

With his adventurous life Hemingway suffered from numerous physical and mental health issues. He had problems with his liver, back, heart and veins. He suffered from eye problems and seems to have developed into a hypochondriac and by 1960, he had developed paranoid delusions of persecution which progressively became more serious (Trent, 1986). Furthermore Sexual dysfunctions that he experienced in the latter stages made him annoyed and dejected. The FBI was hounding him and he could not stay in his Cuban sanctuary for any longer. His alcohol addiction drastically impacted his mental health. Significant evidence exists to support the diagnoses of bipolar disorder, alcohol dependence, traumatic brain injury, and probable borderline and narcissistic personality traits in Ernest Hemingway (Martin, 2006). Towards the end of his life, Hemingway was psychotic, depressed, and paranoid (Craig, 1995). Once he called his life a Kafka nightmare. Ernest Hemingway committed suicide on July 2 1961. This was the man once said; But man is not made for defeat.... A man can be destroyed but not defeated"


Craig, R.J. (1995).Contributions to psychohistory: XXIII. Hemingway "analyzed".Psychol Rep.  ;76(3 Pt 2):1059-79.

Dieguez, S. (2010).'A man can be destroyed but not defeated': Ernest Hemingway's near-death experience and declining health.Front Neurol Neurosci.  27:174-206.

Lynn, K. S. (1987). Hemingway. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Martin, C.D.(2006).Ernest Hemingway: a psychological autopsy of a suicide.Psychiatry.69(4):351-61.

Putnam, T. (2006). Hemingway on War and Its Aftermath. Retrieved from

Seiden, H. M., Seiden, M (2013).Ernest Hemingway's World War I short stories: PTSD, the writer as witness, and the creation of intersubjective community. Psychoanalytic Psychology, Vol 30(1),, 92-101. 

Trent, B.(1986).Hemingway: could his suicide have been prevented?CMAJ.  15;135(8):933-4.

Vernon, A.(2016). Teaching Hemingway and War.Kent State University Press

Yalom, I.D., Yalom, M.(1971). Ernest Hemingway. A psychiatric view. Arch Gen Psychiatry. ;24(6):485-94.


  1. Have you read about a weird guy named Robert Ruark ?

    1. But phony, Hemingway was not, and poseur he was not. He did not shoot lions and leopards because he was searching for the answer to life. He shot lions and leopards because he bloody well liked to hunt and shoot, and killing was the best punctuation mark at the end of the intricate and fascinating process of hunting.

      Robert Ruark


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