Italian Food as a Literary Device in Hemingway’s Fiction

In his fiction, Ernest Hemingway takes readers on unique sumptuous journeys to different countries and makes the sights and sounds of these places visible in front of the readers. With the eyes, ears and palate of an artist, he weaves these travel experiences into the fabric of his fiction. From his early years in Oak Park, Illinois, through the tragedies of Italy, his emergence as a writer in France, the grand celebrations in Spain, the years of fishing in Key West and Cuba and hunting in Africa, descriptions of food and drinks enliven his fiction. His books are filled with episodes about food and drink, sometimes spectacular, and other times intriguing in their mundane presentations. His characters, though alien from their native land, participate in the local cuisine with the knowledge of natives. They feel at home, and so do we as readers in return. Amid their epic odysseys with death and love, they find treasure and foundation in the cuisine of the lands they are adrift.

One of the major settings which influenced Ernest Hemingway tremendously and which has had a great impact on his fiction is Italy. Like many numerous American authors such as Nathanial Hawthorne, Henry James, Margaret Fuller and others, Hemingway fell under Italy’s spell and beauty. Italy was second only to Hemingway’s Upper Michigan in stimulating his lifelong passion for geography and for local expertise. Hemingway knew the particulars of the region of northern Italy very well, and his love extended into the foreign culture itself: the language, food, custom, architecture, paintings, music and literature (Sanderson 131). “They say everyone loves Italy once and that it is well to go through it young,” Hemingway wrote these words in 1931, proclaiming his love of Italy, which became an important setting for his early stories and his two novels: A Farwell to Arms and Across the River and into the Mountains (qtd. in Comley 41).

Italianicity in Hemingway’s fiction is not merely the knowledge of the geography or geopolitics of a nation; it also includes everything that is Italian. Roland Barthes’s concept of Italianicity in his essay “Rhetoric of the image” reveals a Panzani pasta advertisement showing “some packets of pasta, a tin, a sachet, some tomatoes, onions, peppers, a mushroom, all emerging from a half-open string bag, in yellows and greens on a red background” (48). For Barthes, Italianicity is anything that is Italian, from spaghetti to painting. Similarly, Hemingway’s Italianicity and in particular the luxuriance with which most of his Italian stories treat Italian food is worth analyzing as in addition to showing Hemingway’s knowledge and respect for the Italian cuisine, Italian gastronomy becomes part and parcel of the aesthetics of the Modernist text and a literary technique which broadens and deepens the text’s meaning.

In all the stories where the setting is Italian, Hemingway describes the pleasures of expatriate eating in precise detail; he mentions precise names of foods and wines, knows the Italian types of restaurants and the typical courses of an Italian meal, and shows great respect for the people who work in the food business. However, beyond these important reasons to analyze the way Hemingway depicts Italian gastronomy is a more serious consideration of these gastronomic descriptions which reveals that gastronomy, however, is neither accidental nor an end in itself. Hemingway did not endow his heroes with hearty appetites and sturdy protruding stomachs, nor is eating a merely biological behavior. Instead, the essential and necessary instances of eating invest these activities with values, whether psychological, moral or affective. The characters are influenced, changed, nourished or defined by what they eat and are affected by whoever provides their food.

One of the major characteristics of modernist fiction is that conscious aesthetic attention is essential in that the novel is not a copy of an external reality that the author reproduces, but it is worth reading in its own terms, and not as a pointer to something else. Modernist novelists introduced techniques to heighten the discontinuity between the text and everyday reality: distortions of temporal order; limited or unreliable narrators; often with unusual points of view; pastiches, parodies and other rhetorical devices that make the mode of representation as prominent as the things they represent. In short, “the modern artist no longer represents a preexisting reality but presents a new set of relations, a “model”, through which to order the world anew”(Schwartz 102). Thus, the kinds of food depicted in Hemingway’s fiction are transformed into literary devices that the author uses to create an effect independent from simple familiarized mimetic constraint. Food in Hemingway’s fiction, therefore, is aesthesized, formalized, epiphanized, and transformed into a complex Modernist rhetoric or technique.

For example, in the short story “In another Country,” the use of gastronomy reveals not only the social customs of the region, but echoes the psychology of the hero and contributes to his characterization in the story. The feeling of alienation and loneliness haunts the story from beginning to end. The title exemplifies these feelings. The narrator feels alienated from the comforts of the familiar. He is an American in Italy and a patient with a serious handicap; he is also a new comer to the Italian language. The bond that links him with the other soldiers whom he identifies with “we” after he starts his narration with the singular pronoun “I” is the dislike and dishonesty or discourtesy of the people in the streets and satisfying their appetites at the Cova, a famous Milanese coffee shop.

Hemingway brings Italy to the fore in this story. The narrator recounts the walks through the streets of Milan to the hospital, the number of bridges that mark the possible routes, the routines of going and coming back. We walk with him the streets of Milan with several wounded soldiers as they make their way to the hospital for treatment, and we feel the cold of autumn and the pleasure of the warmth of a charcoal fire when the narrator pauses to buy roasted chestnuts. The description of this Italian setting is so vivid that we readers are lulled into a complacency and do not realize that the story is really about bravery, courage and death. Although in this Italian setting, there is a sense of loss and alienation, there is also, on the other hand, a sense of a romantic encounter with a very charming setting:

 

We were all at the hospital every afternoon, and there were different ways of walking across the town through the dusk to the hospital. Two of the ways were alongside canals, but they were long. Always, though, you crossed a bridge across a canal to enter a hospital. There was a choice of three bridges. One of them a woman sold roasted chestnuts. It was warm, standing in front of her charcoal fire, and the chestnuts were warm afterward in your pocket (The Complete Short Stories 206).

 

Although the final image in the story is that of the major undergoing treatment for his ruined hand while stoically “looking out the window”, the reader is also mindful of the narrator who has been so carefully observing the code hero reminiscing about the events from a point of view of a person who has outlived them, and those “Italian” passages with their sensuous details offer a counterbalance to the sense of loss and suffering, which echoes Hemingway’s early encounter with Italy: a mixture of contrasts: romance and violence; love and war, close friendship and a complete sense of foreignness; in Italy he plunged into the world of adulthood and learning, feeling separated and freed from the constraints of a Midwestern protestant family and a puritanical mother. Italy meant freedom for this Midwestern lad; a life of discovery, adventure, camaraderie and passion. Italy is the place where this young man will change and develop sexually, emotionally, and intellectually, but as in a typical bildungsroman, Hemingway’s hero has to go through these stages of experience through physical and psychological suffering and pain.

Thus, Italian gastronomical elements in Hemingway serve strategic aesthetic functions. Rather than merely serve to parade the author’s knowledge of the world, the images of Italian food testify that food and eating are the core of our lives and inscribed in our psyches, embedded in our culture and enmeshed with the relation of the self to the world. Hemingway teaches us “gusto”: an enthusiastic enjoyment performed with zest, and he shows this through playing, eating, drinking, or whatever celebrates the human senses, inspiring one how to attain a sense of world citizentry. He achieves all this through creating a modernist text in which gastronomy is transformed through language into the matrix of the modernist text, thus broadening and deepening its meaning. For readers of Hemingway, all these resources are immeasurable and all testify to the spectrum and peculiar character of Hemingway’s works.

[From The Influence of the European Culture on Hemingway’s Fiction by Silvia Ammary. Copyright © Lexington Book. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.]

 

 

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Silvia Ammary has a Ph.D. in American Literature. She did her MA in American drama (the drama of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller) and her PhD in American poetry (the influence of Futurism on the poetry of e.e.Cummings). Ammary has published books on teaching writing and on American literature. Ammary is currently teaching at John Cabot University in Rome, Italy, as an assistant professor of American Literature and writing. She is also the Director ENLUS: English Language for University Studies. Ammary is interested in world literature, American literature and Tesol. She has attended numerous conferences around the world.  

 

 

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