To Have and Have Not, written by Ernest Hemingway in 1937, tells the story of Harry Morgan, an honest middle aged boat owner chartering swordfishing trips for wealthy clients in Cuba, until one client doesn’t pay and he resorts to smuggling and rum running in order to take home a paycheck.
The theme is right there in the title: the haves and the have nots. And in this story, the ones who have money have the most problems and the ones who don’t have the most sense.
“You called me a halfwit but I’ll see you get a full day’s charter.”
I read this book to determine why it works, to see how he organized scenes within the story, how the B story supports and meshes with the A story, and above all to analyze dialogue. I’m a halfwit when it comes to writing conversations, but Hemingway is known for strong dialogue and this is considered his best when it comes to the way the characters interact.
“You mustn’t mind her. She’s my wife,” the tall tourist said. “Have you two met?”
“Oh, nerts to him and double nerts to meeting him,” said the wife. “How do you do?”
“Not so badly,” said the green-visored man. “How do you do?”
“She does marvelously, the tall one said. “You ought to see her.”
Hemingway often stinks at writing women. I thought so in high school and I still think so now.
I do like the way he writes about them, though.
…two or three of the hardest working married women in town
used to be sporting women
and this was a hard working woman, I tell you that.
He’s definitely stronger at characterizing men, but sometimes everyone talks the same.
“I tell you true.”
“It’s a pretty day all right.”
“Don’t get plugged.”
All fine things to say, if one guy says them. But when three of them are saying it, it feels amateur. Like he couldn’t think of something unique, to give each character his or her own voice. Dang if I didn’t just call Ernest Hemingway an amateur. I’m surprised I wasn’t struck by lightning.
Chapter 21 is the best exchange in the entire book. It’s flat out awe inspiring (with the exception of “hadn’t of” — but I won’t tempt the writing gods again by mentioning it).
“Don’t strut your illiteracy, dear.”
This is what they’re talking about when they talk about Hemingway’s genius. The scene is a realistic, convincingly written argument between Richard Gordon and his wife Helen. She is icy to start, even sarcastic. He’s defensive. He calls her names. She cries. She laughs, but doesn’t mean to. It makes her more determined to leave him. He doesn’t believe her. She has almost a monologue– several long paragraphs where she’s really letting him have it. (Okay, that bit is true to life. I’m pretty sure I out-shout Punk when we argue. So maybe Papa can write the ladies after all.)
Any way, Richard slaps her. Then we see inside his head, see the sadness, the way everything had gone wrong. She sits quietly, apologetic but insisting it is truly over. The final paragraph breaks your heart:
“Good-by,” she said, and he saw her face he always loved so much, that crying never spoiled, and her curly black hair… and he didn’t see the rest of her that he’d loved so much and thought he had pleased, but evidently hadn’t been any good to, that was all below the table, and as he went out the door she was looking at him across the table; and her chin was in her hands; and she was crying.
There’s plenty of good non-dialogue writing, too. Here are a few favorites:
I’ve got to think right all the time. I can’t make a mistake. Not a mistake. Not once. Well, I got something to think about now all right. Something to do and something to think about besides wondering what the hell’s going to happen.
He had abandoned anger, hatred and any dignity as luxuries, now, and had started to plan.
The wake ran into bubbling curves toward where the light, astern now, showed brown, conical and thinly latticed on the horizon.
Nice emotion, good characterization, strong description of setting.
Another thing I liked is the way Hemingway uses ambiguity. His genius lies not just in his economy of words, but in his ability to say so many things simultaneously with those few words. He makes sure we get a full day’s charter in this scene where Harry Morgan is about to kill some revolutionaries who are out to get him. After going below deck to get the gun, take a swallow of rum and remember his fallen mate, he says,
“what I’d give for another one. Well, there isn’t any other one now.”
Is Harry talking about another clip in his gun, another guy on his side, another swig of Bacardi, or his missing arm? We know from what’s gone before that it’s got to be all of the above. Because Hemingway is decidedly not an amateur.