The Hand of the Master

Hemingway at his best is not a maker of metaphors. He resists the notion that anything can overtly be compared to anything else. While his images almost always function on two levels—the literal and the figurative— Hemingway refuses to help his reader bridge the gap between the two realms by in any way suggesting that his language might be two-dimensional. The pervasive sense that an overwhelming symbolic logic lurks just beneath the level of the literal is precisely the sense of the uncanny which Hemingway at once wishes to exploit and deny. From the perspective of rhetorical decorum, the "uncanny" acquires a stylistic as well as a psychological definition, since the tenor of every vehicle is just "that which ought to have remained hidden and secret, and yet comes to light." Once Hemingway begins to take his metaphors as metaphors, his writing collapses the tension between the literal and the figurative which had lent it such an air of suspicious calm. The novels from 1940 on can be read as a debate over the uses of self-consciously metaphoric language. At the heart of this debate is the metaphor of the hand.

The "thing of the hand" haunts For Whom the Bell Tolls, where it refers to reading the future from one's palm. Like most of Hemingway's heroes, Robert Jordan spends his time ""looking into the future in English."" At first he is open to Anselmo's question, ""Can you read in the palm of the hand?""
"No," Robert Jordan said and he dipped another cup of wine.
"But if thou canst I wish thee would read in the palm of my hand and tell me what is going to pass in the next three days."

Anselmo recommends Pilar, she reads the palm, and, correctly forseeing Robert's doom, refuses to speak of what she sees. While its ending has effectively been given away, the novel settles into a debate over whether a man truly carries his fortune in his hand. This debate expands to cover all forms of divination and culminates in Chapter 19. To the question ""Do you believe in the possibility of a man seeing ahead what is to happen to him?"" Robert replies that such forebodings are ""evil visions,"" projections of what one fears, and therefore need not be accepted: ""Seeing bad signs, one, with fear, imagines an end for himself and one thinks that imagining comes by divination."" While Pilar marshals counter examples, she will, under pressure of the attack, finally renounce them: ""In regard to that thing of the hand. That is all gypsy nonsense."" Skepticism has apparently triumphed over superstition.

Fortune-telling is a business of the hand. So is suicide. Once Robert Jordan has rehearsed his family history, it becomes imperative for him to renounce as "crap" the business about "Pilar and the hand." Robert's father, like his author's, has killed himself with a hand gun. In both cases, the gun had been handed on to the son. Robert threw his Smith and Wesson into the deepest lake he could find; Ernest received his in the mail from his mother, along with a moldy chocolate cake, for a keepsake. In disposing of the gun, Robert has a premonition that he will repeat his father's act: "he climbed out on a rock and leaned over and saw his face in the still water, and saw himself holding the gun." It is especially this "evil vision" against which all Robert's resistance to divination is meant to defend. And the novel upholds him in his resolve. Lying wounded at the end, Robert refuses "to do that business that my father did." On the contrary: Robert's last act is to touch "the palm of his hand against the pine needles where he lay." He uses his hand to extend his life. The novel literalizes the metaphor of the hand as fortune in order to reject it.

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