Ernest Hemingway's writing style symbolically criticizes capitalism in To Have and Have Not

To Have and Have Not cover: First Edition published by Charles Scribner's Sons, 1937.
To Have and Have Not cover: First Edition published by Charles Scribner's Sons, 1937. | Source

Depression Era Capitalism in To Have and Have Not:

Ernest Hemingway's To Have and Have Not is a novel that illustrates the turbulent life of a Floridian fishing boat captain, Harry Morgan, whose life is a constant struggle between obeying the law and following his own instincts. Lying at the center of the novel is Hemingway's open criticism of the fraudulent, exploitative, depression-era capitalist mentality. Hemingway's criticism is accompanied by his recognition of a need for a fundamental expression of individualism by members of society. In To Have and Have Not, Hemingway's explicit criticism of the thirties capitalist environment, united with his affirmation for a reasonable level of individualism, contributes to an underlying, implicit call for a more culturally and economically cooperative society. A further investigation into Hemingway’s belittling point of view on the exploitative economic behavior of Harry Morgan and his associates, in combination with a limited approval of the individualism manifested through Harry Morgan will reveal his hidden endorsement of an amicable, cooperative type of community.

            Hemingway’s criticism of the exploitative economic free-for-all of the thirties takes many forms in his novel To Have and Have Not. Most of Hemingway’s concerns take place in the relationships found between Harry Morgan and the other characters, the ones who he makes business deals with. Hemingway starts by introducing his frustration with dishonest behavior in the form of Mr. Johnson, one of Harry’s sport fishing charter customers. From the following reflection by Harry Morgan it is easy to see how the exploitative, dishonest behavior of others was contagious in the Depression-era market: “I was broke. I’d lost five hundred and thirty dollars of the charter, and tackle I couldn’t replace for three hundred and fifty more… and the day before I turned down three thousand dollars to land three aliens on the Keys. Anywhere, just to get them out of the country.” Harry’s experience with Mr. Johnson taking advantage of his charter services without paying in full is Hemingway giving us an introduction to the behavior that drives Harry to partake in criminal activity for profit, and in Hemingway’s mind, a detrimental contribution to society.

The next interaction Harry has with this type of criticized behavior is with the “chink”, Mr. Sing. It is important to note that Hemingway affirms Harry acting on his own individualism by killing Mr. Sing. Here Hemingway reveals that during this era, sometimes the best way to combat exploitative behavior is to fight back with violence. Harry’s actions were definitely against the law, but to an extent they were validated because Harry was acting on his own instincts which he believed to be right. Conditioned by the other crooks he had dealt with, Harry Morgan knew not to take even “…about the smoothest-looking thing I’d ever seen” seriously. Harry thought to himself that Mr. Sing was very easy to business with, but he “just couldn’t figure him”. This episode with Mr. Sing is Hemingway portraying a seemingly unnecessary loss of life just because Harry could not afford to trust his intentions for the other Chinese passengers. Harry even recognized that “Maybe he just trusted me”, he just could not risk the potential murder of others if he could help it. In the atmosphere and expectations of the time it is hard to blame Harry; but a friendly, more cooperatively constructed society would have been the better thing.  

Bee-Lips is an interesting character in To Have and Have Not because even though he manages to abstain from having very much direct conflict with Harry, he is in close enough of a relationship that Hemingway allows us to see the way in which his selfish, swindling mindset affects him. Hemingway, continuing his critique, foreshadows Harry’s death with Bee-Lips’, continuing the trend of death predated by criminal activity for profit. It is assumed that a lawyer like Bee-Lips could make plenty of money legitimately contributing to the community by pursuing justice. However, Bee-Lips acted, at least in Albert’s mind: “so crooked himself that he is always more pleased if people aren’t telling the truth.” It was Bee-Lips’ familiarity with the selfish capitalism of the time that caused his cockiness, “expressionless voice”, and ultimately led to the criminal activity that ended his life. Harry Morgan, therefore Hemingway, does not feel any remorse for Bee-Lips’ death. Instead Hemingway chooses to criticize the frequency, the degree to which Bee-Lips acted for his own benefit, not in cooperation with others: “What the hell did he expect?” “That comes from playing at being tough. That comes from being too smart too often.”

Another consequence of dishonest, exploitative behavior explored by the novel is the lack of personal relationships at the expense of one’s business. Hemingway exposes this by spending time explaining the backgrounds of the “haves” on the yachts the night that Harry’s body was transported inside the yacht basin. Interpersonal relationship issues and loneliness are found in the stories behind the “yacht people”; Hemingway may have included this to further the noticeable difference in the type of concerns of those onboard the boats and those who live in Harry’s world. “A sixty-year-old grain broker lay awake worrying about the report… of the activities of the investigators from the Internal Revenue Bureau” and another, “the money on which it was not worthwhile for him to live was one hundred and seventy dollars more a month than the fisherman Albert Tracy had been supporting his family on at the time of his death three days before.” Hemingway’s incorporation of these “privileged” people in his critique of society is certainly understandable because it was their greed that led them to participate in the criminal business activities causing their stress.

Hemingway not only criticizes the corruption and dishonesty present in the United States, he also utilizes the political situation in Cuba as another common thread for many of the unfortunate events that involve Harry Morgan in To Have and Have Not. “There is an absolutely murderous tyranny that extends over every little village in the country… Now they have a military reserve with every kind of crook, bully and informer of the old days… Now we are ruled by rifles, pistols, machine guns, and bayonets.” In the grand scheme of things, greed and power had torn down the integrity of the Cuban government so much that it was causing reciprocal violence by revolutionaries such as the ones encountered in the later stages of To Have and Have Not, certainly making Hemingway’s implied superior cooperative society seem like the better path to take. The inclusion of details about the Cuban society at the time in combination with general knowledge of Depression-era United States culture creates a compelling environment for Harry Morgan. Being totally surrounded by extortion, crime, and suffering, Harry is left with no choice but to take whatever work he could get; this kind of desperate situation only aggravates crime rates and the hope for a better, friendlier society becomes even more clear.

 In conjunction to his criticism of the dishonesty and exploitative actions of some people in that time, Hemingway offers an affirmation of Harry’s form of instinctual individualism only when the result is a greater benefit to society than there would be by conforming to the social norm itself. At this point, we can begin to see that Hemingway is interested in cooperative behavior by individuals that contribute to society is a positive way. The first time that Harry acts upon his individual values instead of observing what society would judge as the best solution, is when he decides to asphyxiate Mr. Sing. Hemingway utilizes Harry’s extreme expression of individualist action to affirm that, when necessary drastic, but honest, measures may be implemented to benefit society even when they may be contrary to standard belief or one’s usual comfort level; this being a key component to a cooperative society. Hemingway’s support of individualism in To Have and Have Not occurs once again when one of the Cuban boys begins to justify the bank robbery by describing the revolution that they are trying to raise funds for. It is notable that the Cuban boy is acting with nearly the same fundamental motivations of justice and desperation that Harry is when Harry kills them. Harry thinks to himself: “They all double-cross each other. They sell each other out. They get what they deserve. The hell with their revolutions.” Here Hemingway proceeds to dismiss not only the two-timing behavior that the Cubans have been running their country with, but he also places Harry in a tough situation that leaves him to choose between pursuing justice for his own community or supporting the disorderly cause of another. Even though the Cubans ultimate goal was to overthrow a corrupt system and progressively improve their own society, Harry makes the decision to follow his own inclination and kill the Cubans in revenge for the death of the lawyer Bee-Lips and his mate Albert; thus Hemingway vouches for Harry’s violent individualistic actions during yet another predicament.

“No matter how a man alone ain’t go no bloody fucking chance.” These were several of the final words spoken by Harry Morgan before he died. I believe Hemingway used these words to serve as the final reinforcement to his implicit call for a collaborative, unified society. These words are so important to the novel because they let us know that Harry has realized he can’t do it all on his own. In other words, there is only so much individualism that can be beneficial. At some point acting on one’s own accord may become detrimental to oneself and others in society. Hemingway exposes that there is very delicate balance in between acting according to oneself and taking it too far; before a person becomes what he criticized so profoundly earlier in the novel, a dishonest, exploitative criminal. The main character coming to the realization that his individual efforts to support himself is not enough is the starting block for visualizing the alternate model of society that Hemingway implies. Throughout the novel, Harry’s interactions with Mr. Johnson, Mr. Sing, Bee-Lips, and the wealthy people aboard the yachts create a solid platform for Hemingway to condemn the ignorance, dishonesty, and exploitation the he believes can not be included in an optimal cooperative society. Hemingway does affirm a reasonable level of individualism expressed in his preferred society structure, as evidenced by Harry getting along so much longer than many of the other truly corrupt characters in To Have and Have Not. I do not believe that Hemingway’s society would be a communist one, but a collaborative community where individuals are free to express themselves and make a living with respect to the rights of others, especially in the way that money is made.

By setting a moral boundary to the good natured, individualistic actions of Harry Morgan, Hemingway sets an example for the acceptable balance between acting out of one’s own values in respect to society. On the other hand, the gradual downfall and deaths of Harry Morgan and several other characters in To Have and Have Not underscore Hemingway’s explicit criticism of a common exploitative, dishonest, depression-era mindset in the United States and Cuba. Whether it was fueled by sheer necessity or pure greed, this type of behavior served as the backbone of the speculators and fraudulent businesses that created the Great Depression and thrived afterwards. Hemingway’s criticism and implied call for change constitutes his social commentary on the conditions of that time. The implicit affirmation found in To Have and Have Not is an alternate model for society; a society that calls for honest, just behavior from its cooperative members who contribute to a greater good.

circa 1954: Ernest Hemingway on safari in Kenya
circa 1954: Ernest Hemingway on safari in Kenya | Source

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Reynold Jay profile image

Reynold Jay 5 years ago from Saginaw, Michigan

What?!?! you wrote this?!?! And that is your photo? If so, you are wise beyond your years, young man. Many people will never have the elquence (in their entire lives)you have reached with this single article.

Let's go one more step. I have written a politcal novel that could interest you. It touches on much that you discuss here and goes in an entirely different direction.

Read about it here:

AND here: ( Michele is a big wheel with Hubbers)

We could work up reviews like Michele did. Write me for a free copy that you can read on your computer. This idea may be more than you wish and skipping all this is entirely fine.

In any event, keep up the superior writing. RJ

jwalkerprice profile image

jwalkerprice 5 years ago from Auburn/Jacksonville Author

I appreciate your kind words despite the sarcasm.

After discovering HubPages only recently, I decided to post some of my better writings from my ongoing college career, such as the literature analyses that are my first couple of hubs.

As to your request for a book review: While I am certain the content of your novel is entertaining, the content of this hub is not along the lines of something I would read for entertainment's sake. Thanks!

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