The Complexity of Hemingway’s Suicide
Scholarly discourse concerns itself with finding a single determining factor for Hemingway’s suicide. This paper will argue that his death remains a complex issue that needs to be explored under an interpersonal psychological lens. By considering the various ingredients that drove him to suicide, the scholarship can analyze the secondary complexities and attributes of his suicide to compile a holistic picture of his mental health leading up to his death. Even though there are dozens of theories, this paper will argue that his suicide occurred because of a multitude of layered problems such as electro-shock therapy, depression, drinking, genetics, and combat.
The first component of Hemingway’s suicide is electro-shock therapy, which is the medical procedure that Hemingway received before his suicide. One of the driving research questions for this theory was, "Why did Hemingway decline and deteriorate after his shock therapy and commit suicide?" (Farah). This question drove scholarly research because electro-therapies help solve most major depressive episodes. When asked about his research, Andrew Farah, a forensic psychologist said, "The patients that we treat with electroconvulsive therapy who decline, what we learned from that decline is that they had some undiagnosed organic brain disease that we had yet to see prior. The treatment was the biological stressor that allowed it to manifest" (Farah). Specifically, with the question of Hemingway, this decline in mental and physical health after the electrotherapy treatment suggests that a physical illness developed beneath his depression, bipolar, and alcoholism. The numerous electro-therapy treatments left “him shattered, unable to write, never the same again. Moods became unpredictable, despondent, or paranoid, worsening from week to week. The treatments alleviated his depression for a time but wiped out the author’s ability to create, stripping him of all-purpose in the new year” (Feldman 357). Andrew Farah found that “...he had dementia, but a specific kind of dementia. It was chronic traumatic encephalopathy like we read about with football players or boxers. Now, this was unknown at the time because people had described dementia pugilistica, which is what boxers get... for their ring-induced trauma, chronic trauma” (Farah). Nevertheless, it is also important to note that Hemingway struggled with depressive
episodes, so it does not seem that dementia was the only direct link to his suicide.
Hemingway’s mental health, especially depression, is another strong link correlating with his suicide. Andrew Farah thinks that Hemingway has situational depression, therefore, certain adverse events trigger a depressive episode. Early in Hemingway's letter-writing career, he expresses loneliness, such as exemplified in letter thirty-five:
“lonesome all sorts of things seem to damn up and the balance of it all be thrown off and it attacks the spirit, and it isn’t good for the head either.... and now you are swell and fine and practical in the head (like we both used to be) and I will be again because I am not a depressed rat naturally. And I've sense enough to know when I think all the time I want to die that I’m just a fool because what I think about as wanting to die is just to have oblivion until I can have Pfeiffer. But I know it will be swell and to let you know that I am feeling swell and that the world is grand and that I feel good inside and not just dry like a piece of cuttlefish bone like they feed canaries but really fine I’ll write you, and that means that you just read this letter as by somebody else and know that I’m fine in the head”
This loneliness infiltrates his entire life, and even his writing, until he is unable to do any of the activities he previously enjoyed. Later in Hemingway’s life, the loneliness develops into becoming angry with his depression. This idea is showcased in letter 265: “I was having one of those hellish depressions when you feel you can never write again!” Hemingway wrote a letter to his friend Mike Brown when he was in Havana: “[I am] too dead tired at night to write.” This seems to be from one of his depressive episodes because he is too exhausted to do anything, which is a symptom of depression. Another part of his situational depression episodes seems to come from his awareness that he was aging, and he could creative ideas and write like he used to. This idea is also shown towards the end of his life when Hemingway was “complaining of an inability to write and struggling to cut down and finish his article for Life magazine. Ernest, unable to focus, appeared so perceptibly anti-social and withdrawn that Mary asked George Saviers, her husband’s doctor from Idaho, to come down to Havana. The author’s eyesight was deteriorating quickly, and his weight was dropping at an alarming rate” (Feldman 351). This cognitive decline led to a type of writer’s block, which occurred alongside his depression. In letter 228, feeling inadequate because he cannot provide much money for his family is also linked to his depression. When Hemingway is making a will, he sends this letter to Pauline: “There is no question of my suffering from any lack of money as I know that I could borrow money from Scott, Aichie, or the Murphies — all of whom are wealthy people — or that I could accept money from Pauline whose Uncle Gus seems always wanting to give it to her I need in the meantime the financial pressure to start clean — and the income from those books belongs to you by every light—” Hemingway developed the physical brain condition of dementia, which worsened with mental health issues such as depression. Nevertheless, Hemingway also dealt with alcoholism and the physical and mental effects that also came from substance abuse.
Hemingway is known for being a heavy drinker, so scholarly discourse suggests his symptoms progressed and became unbearable just before his suicide. Hemingway drank to deal with many problems, such as his father’s suicide, suicidal impulses, and depressive mood disorder. AJ Monnier, one of Hemingway's close friends, wrote to say, “My dear Ernie, you must stop drinking alcohol...This is clearly of the most important, and I shall never, never insist too much” (Hemingway). One scholar realizes that “Hemingway could not give up [alcohol] and the physical problems that he took from drinking were overweight, high blood pressure, hearing sounds in his head, and signs of cirrhosis of the liver” (Darikola). Therefore, he was drinking alcohol to temporarily soothe his mental health, resulting in adverse effects on his physical health. Substance abuse not only affected his body, but it also changed his work stamina levels and creativity: “It can be said Hemingway's drinking affected on his works and his body and many times he was told
to quit alcohol, but he did not accept. And when his third wife, Martha, visit him in hospital and saw alcohol bottles near him, it was time that the death knell sounded for his third marriage" (Darzikola). Therefore, drinking led to his life’s deterioration, such as his health, writing, and marriage. This led to even more depression and physical symptoms, which he masked with more drinking. This vicious cycle continued throughout his entire life until his suicide.
Besides alcoholism, another layer of Hemingway’s suicide is the genetic-based explanation. This involves his predisposition to suicidal tendencies, which can be seen through the numerous suicidal deaths in his immediate family. The male members of Hemingway’s family were biologically strained with genes for suicide; Hemingway’s father committed suicide with a Colt pistol from the Civil War. Letter 759 highlights how he suffered after his father’s suicide: "I remember how I could not let my father s death make any impression on me until I had finished re-write on A Farewell To Arms. Then it moved in properly. I wrote another novel than” (Hemingway). Out of everyone in his family, including his parents and five siblings, every one of them committed suicide except for two people. Even many of his close friends committed suicide, so this event plagued his life. Since he noticed that he was a descendent of suicidal men, he often joked about the event. One occurrence of this joke was in Cuba when he put a shotgun in the roof of his mouth and showed his friends how to pull the trigger with his toes. Hemingway’s home life made him comfortable with suicide because he saw it in so much of his family. This is shown in letter 19 in the selected notes, stating, “Dying is a very simple thing I’ve looked at death, and I know If I had died, it would have been very easy for me. Quite the easiest thing I ever did" (Hemingway). Even though these family genes are present, it still seems that the biological stressors, depressive episodes, and alcoholism enhanced his suicidal tendencies. In addition, to these previously mention contributions, it is also important to note Hemingway's traumatic work with the Red Cross.
Hemingway’s experiences with combat and the PTSD that might have come from this
trauma also led to his suicide. Hemingway served in the Spanish Civil War, World War
I, and World War II. One research article notes, “He collected and sorted body parts
of blown-up soldiers; and during World War II after the Normandy landing, he led a
group of French fighters, for which he was tried under a military court since ‘civilians’
were prohibited from leading uniformed military, and for which he was subsequently
acquitted” (Castro 460). Being involved in these traumatic activities is vital to consider
when dissecting his mental health and PTSD symptoms. Since he saw death first-hand
in the wars, he does not fear it. In letter 461, Hemingway displays his ideas about death:
“This last spell of war eliminated all fear of death or anything else It seemed as though
the world were in such a bad way and certain things so necessary to do that to think
about any personal future was simply very egoistic” (Hemingway). Hemingway’s death
remains essential today for the studies of suicide in aging veterans. The military calls it
“The Hemingway Effect” because scholars want to make sure that the mental health
conditions that Hemingway suffered in silence do not occur to any more people.
Early on the morning of his death, “the author rose as full of intention as on any day of his writing life, drew his favorite shotgun from his storage room in Ketchum, Idaho, and took it to the entrance of his home. Timing his death to occur at precisely 7:00 a.m., he pressed the double barrels to his forehead and ended his own life” (Feldman 358). On this day, the world lost an incredible writer and fearless individual, but readers can still learn from this author even in his death. By raising awareness on the complexities of mental health and the traumatic events that braid together to create a suicidal individual, we can read these letters to better understand the downfalls of hypermasculinity and the importance of creating community.
Castro, Carl Andrew, and Sara Kintzle. “Suicides in the Military: The Post-Modern Combat Veteran and the Hemingway Effect.” Current Psychiatry Reports, vol. 16, no. 8, 2014, doi:10.1007/s11920-014-0460-1.
Darzikola, Shahla S., and Fahimeh Keshmiri. "Reflection of Hemingway and Fitzgerald's Health Problems in their Literary Heritages." Theory and Practice in Language Studies, vol. 6, no. 2, 2016, pp. 325-330. ProQuest, http://search.proquest.com.esearch.ut.edu/scholarly-journals/reflection-hemingway-fitzgeralds-health-problems/docview/1769720173/se-2?accountid=14762, doi:http://dx.doi.org.esearch.ut.edu/10.17507/tpls.0602.13.
Farah, Andrew. “HEMINGWAYS BRAIN.” HEMINGWAYS BRAIN | JFK Library, 2017, www.jfklibrary.org/events-and-awards/forums/past-forums/transcripts/hemingways-brain.
Feldman, Andrew. Ernesto: the Untold Story of Hemingway in Revolutionary Cuba. Melville House, 2019.
Hemingway, Ernest, and Carlos Baker. Ernest Hemingway, Selected Letters, 1917-1961. New York: Scribner, 1981. Print.
Portrait of Hemingway's father, who died by suicide in 1928.
Bust of Hemingway in Key West, photo by Chandler Culotta, 2021.
Hemingway's war uniform in Key West Customs House Museum, photo by Chandler Culotta, 2021.
Ernest Hemingway, who served in World War I in an ambulance unit, was wounded by a mortar in July 1918. Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)